The only thing I knew about our hotel was that it was near the Basilica of Santa Chiara.
We had been awake for twenty-four hours, lugging suitcases and traversing continents. I had caused us to miss one train in Rome due to my insecurity about my language skills, thinking that I better talk to a live agent rather than using the ticket machine. What is it about my first few hours in the old country that every time, without fail, I doubt my ability to speak Italian?
We’d gotten kicked out of first class, we’d almost missed the train stop, and we had waited at the bottom of Assisi’s hill for twenty minutes for the bus. Robert had, despite the language barrier, made a series of best friends at the train station.
While he was inside exhibiting his congenital chumminess, I examined the bus map. I knew which stop was nearest the basilica. I was ready. We boarded the bus and I double-checked with the driver, my stomach turning over with language-nervousness: La fermata undici e la piu vicino a Santa Chiara, si? Si, I was told.
We disembarked at number eleven and were left standing at the side of a road with little to guide us. I was tired of being in charge, tired of speaking Italian, tired of pulling my amazingly fuschia luggage, tired of being embarrassed. Robert looked at me with no pity. I like to play the role of polyglot and seasoned world traveler. This one was on me.
I dashed across the road that wound it’s way up Mount Subasio to a gas stations where some paesani were sitting outside. Dov’e Hotel Sole? I begged, hoping that my pathetic countenance would excuse my abrupt question. Up and to the right, they told me, through three gates.
At the first turning of the windy road we saw the first gate. We passed. Then a second. To our left we saw Santa Chiara, which I remembered vaguely from the obligatory six hours I had spent in Assisi on a previous Italian tour. A third gate. The hotel.
All throughout our trip that grand, imposing basilica was our lodestar. No matter how far up the mountain we hiked, from the road we could see its pinnacle and guide ourselves back to where we were hoping to be. Though Francis often gets top billing in Assisi, for us Chiara was the headliner.
One afternoon, in between rehearsals, I set off in search of the post office, which I found far on the other side of town, down the hill from St. Francis’ basilica. I walked the long way back, traversing the side of the mountain and saving the ascent for the end.
I passed a few of the church’s that no one notices in this town dominated by its most famous son. St Peter’s with a stunning nativity, Santa Maria Maggiore with its oddly expressive religious art. I passed through the residential area you reach by ascending the escalator from the sorely needed parking garage in this popular town that tries so hard to seem medieval.
As I got closer to the Piazza Santa Chiara I started the steep uphill climb, and I looked up to see that I was on via Sant’Agnese. My heart broke for this overlooked little sister, consigned to a narrow alleyway leading into her big sister’s grand Piazza.
Yesterday was the feast of St Agnes of Assisi, and I am regretful that I am late in giving her some recognition. Always in her sister’s shadow, though I’m sure she’s over it, she deserves to be remembered. And so I shall.
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