From that first visit, I felt an affinity with Assisi. I liked its twisty little walkways and alleys, the way everything is built from native pink and white stone, its long views of the Umbrian countryside, its abundance of churches. But some of the things I loved in high school don't quite have the same charm for me now, and I was vaguely nervous when Ethan and I decided to take a day trip there on Friday. Would it still be as pretty as I remembered, and as spiritual? Or would it feel overly-touristed, choked with a plethora of vendors selling Prayer of St. Francis t-shirts, coffee cups, and decorative plaques?
Short answer: the place is still pretty remarkable. Yes, the streets are filled with tourists, though they're also filled
with people who are identifiable as religious. Every few minutes one sees monks in their
brown robes and simple sandals (sometimes carrying backpacks or
wearing polarfleece or talking on their cellphones), nuns in their
The Basilica of St. Francis moved me in ways I hadn't anticipated. Both the lower and the upper basilicas are covered in frescoes -- rich paintings depicting stories from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and from the life of St. Francis -- but they're not otherwise ornamented with precious metals or statuary, which gives them a surprisingly humble feeling for enormous, soaring houses of worship. And the atmosphere at St. Francis' tomb, which lies beneath the two basilicas, felt genuinely prayerful to me. (We sat for a time in quiet contemplation there, along with other pilgrims, listening to sacred music.) Maybe those explain why I still feel like Assisi swept me off my feet.
Or maybe it's because of the bird guy.
On our way from the basilica of St. Francis to the basilica of St. Clare, we stopped to admire a truly stunning view of rooftops and hills. The walkway was filled with pigeons, happy fat birds cooing and wandering the steps in search of a snack.
And then this man appeared. He put his hand out and the pigeons flocked to him, like he was some kind of pigeon whisperer! I couldn't help thinking, in that place and in that moment, of St. Francis' legendary love of animals of all kinds. There's a sweet legend that St. Francis used to pause in his wanderings to speak with the birds. One source records him as having said:
My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you... you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore always seek to praise God...
(Hat tip Wikipedia; I found that quote in the entry on St. Francis, to which I've already linked.) I thought, too, of one of my favorite panels from Neil Gaiman's Sandman -- issue #8, which you can find in Preludes & Nocturnes -- in which Dream and his sister Death are feeding the birds. I love her offhand comment to her baby brother about the habit: "You do that too much, you know what you get? Fat pigeons!"
Dream and Death, feeding the birds.
Anyway, we beamed with delight and made happy noises, and might have walked away, but the older fellow gestured for us to remain. And then he walked over to this little hidden door in one of the stone walls, popped it open, and withdrew a handful of corn. First he poured some into Ethan's hand, and then into mine.
The sensation of pigeons alighting on my hand and arm was incredible -- the weight of them, the beat of their wings, the surprising gentleness of their beaks tapping at my palm!
And then, just like that, the corn was gone and the birds were aloft again. We tried to offer our mysterious benefactor a few euros for his trouble, but he shook his head and we smiled at one another again and then we went on. (We went on, incidentally, to an utterly astonishing meal at a tiny wine bar we found off the main street -- antipasti, wine, gnochetti as light as air, pasta with truffles and cream -- which just added to the day's feeling of unlooked-for blessing.)
Really, it's the unlooked-for blessings that make travel so sweet. That's what feeds the sense of wonder I find travel so good at activating. I love the sense of the miraculous that arises in the spontaneous decision to attend a football game; or a solo daytrip to Lake Trasimeno; or an encounter with a kindly old fellow who makes a habit of gifting random strangers with an experience of feeding the birds.