Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Week 27: Venice & Citta di`Castello

The featured photo this week is from Venice, though the better half of the week was enjoyed with friends living in Umbria. The picture was taken on the Grande Canal and shows activity around the Realto Bridge.

Our three days in Venice were colored more darkly by the fact that it often rained during our stay -- which may have contributed to my developing a near-continuous headache and aching body plus an accompanying fever and sore throat. Kris did not sleep well partly because I did not -- but we both went out each day anyway to see such sights as we could. After all, how often do most folks have a chance to see such a magical city?

Ca D`Orfeo Residencia is a three bedroom flat on the second floor of a medieval building with windows overlooking one of the 45 canals branching off of the Grande Canal which snakes its way through the islands that make up the old city. Our room was the smallest (and least expensive), with a private bath (much used) and a small kitchen that was shared with the other rooms. As even this arrangement cost about $110/night (expensive by our budget standards), it may come as no surprise that we used the kitchen a lot (eating out maybe once a day, making use of groceries to cook breakfast and prepare coffee or snacks). While it would be tiresome for us to continue to harp on how expensive Italy is, this is not only by comparison with India: the ibuprophen tablets for my headache here cost over $1 per tablet, while the same medication in the U.S. can be found as cheaply as 4 cents (or 2 cents in India).

No matter the prices, Venice is magical. No land vehicles were to be seen anywhere in the old city -- just boats of kinds and purposes. Walking was the main mode over cobblestone streets that would make even wheelchairs difficult. Picturesque buildings divided by pathways sometimes only 3 feet wide often made walking single file necessary! Though not every building was well maintained, all would have historical status if it in Portland -- with few having less than an age of 400 years! Locals greeting one another with a kiss on each cheek, dogs walking their masters who usually (not always) picked up after them, and tourists from all over the world all leave a lasting impression also....

Like other tourists, we went to the Piazza San Marco and nearby Doge`s Palace as our primary must-see place. The Basilica of St. Mark was the seat of religious authority for centuries in the city, while the Doge (not DOG, but leader with most of the political power) presided with other government officials and judges in a Palace that is far more impressive inside than out. Fabulously ornate rooms are found in what seems an endless array of gilded ceilings and huge paintings depicting its rulers and their history of great sea victories over the Ottoman Turkish Empire and religious scenes in which they are in the company of Christ and the saints. Thankfully we were able to secure a wheelchair for Kris as even my strong legs began to tire with all of the walking and gawking! After this, perhaps due to poor sleep, we both confessed to being ``arted out`` and were reluctant to visit more galleries that are to be found throughout the city. During one of my ``sick days``, we spent most of our time just touring about the Grande Canal (while also circumventing the entire of the old city) by water bus.

Following a pleasant 4-hour train ride from Venice, we were greeted at the Arezzo station by my college friend Alvaro Tacchini (who then drove us the 45 minutes to his home town of Citta di` Castello). He had made arrangements for us to stay in the old downtown area, in a remodeled convent dating from the 13th century, The Residencia Antica Canonica building is still owned by the Catholic Church but is leased/managed by one of Alvaro`s many friends: Elisa Mambrini. She welcomed us warmly and we were able to rest in comfort in an inexpensive suite complete with bedroom, bathroom, and a large living/dining area that included a kitchen (with granite countertops)! Kris and I continued to be treated like royalty in the evening when Alvaro and his wife Alba returned to take us out to a fancy (by my standards) restaurant.

During the next three days, Alvaro`s sister Brunella and her husband Bruno hosted us to a lunch and a dinner at their apartment – with so many courses of food that even the additional family members and friends who were invited could not consume it all. Most conversations were in English (for our benefit) with Alvaro and Bruno translating for those who could not easily follow. It was in this apartment where, 39 years ago, I had been similarly feasted by Alvaro`s mother and father. Fond memories of those days were shared, and many new conversations covered topics ranging from the Congo (where David, Alvaro`s son has worked with children threatened by violence) to the Middle East (where Bruno has traveled extensively), to midwifery (practiced in Australia by the girlfriend of an Australian young man who is friend to David), to food, to World Cup Soccer, and, or course, always back to food!

As he had in Assisi ten days ago, Alvaro drove Kris and I around the surrounding countryside, having arranged (so he claimed) for perfect blue skies with scattered fluffy clouds. For two daytrips he showed us his beloved Upper Valley of the Tiber River which is half in the territory of Umbria, and half in Tuscany. From Citta di`Castello (at the center of the area) we traveled short distances to beautiful medieval towns and sites frequented by St. Francis but rarely seen by people who are casually visiting Italy. The breathtaking vistas to be seen from Monta S. Maria Tiberina, alone, were enough to convince Kris and I that those who only visit Florence (one hour to the north) are missing out on a natural beauty beyond anything the masters could paint or sculpt. It was like living in the 13th century and experiencing some of the environment which had inspired the artwork! Fortresses on so many hilltops each making claim to competing territories; towers within cities advertising the wealthy status of families in power struggles with one another; grand Cathedrals and isolated hermitages reflecting both the power of the Church and the extreme spirituality of many of its revered saints. All of this set among forested hillsides and an expansive valley where carefully cultivated fields, even today, remain colorfully dominant.

The biggest among a great many WOW moments with Alvaro came when, on a whim, he took us to the Hermitage frequented by St. Francis at Montecasale. There a priest (who had lived there for 70 years!) allowed us to wander throughout the humble sanctuary, to stone cells with stark wooden beds (and log pillows) had served as places of rest and prayer for St. Anthony, and St. Bonaventure! The thin blankets used by these early Franciscans were still in the 6x8 foot rooms where they had slept! In another prayer area was enshrined two skulls – remnants of two of the three murderous thieves who St. Francis had inspired to become monks! Francis had left Rufino in charge of the hermitage while he was away, and Rufino had refused food and drink to these 3 known murderers. Upon returning, Francis had scolded Rufino and sent him to find and apologize to these men – and to give them the bread and wine Francis had begged for that day. The men`s hearts were so touched by this act of love and humility that their lives were transformed. Francis was always eager to forgive and so to give any person an open opportunity to live a new life. Like Buddha had taught 600 years before Jesus: Hate cannot destroy hate, only love can destroy hate. Unconditional Love.

These lessons will be fresh in our minds next week as Kris and I depart for Palestine.

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