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AN ASSISI CHRISTMAS
Slow travel in the low season delivers special delights. Spend Christmastide somewhere that still breathes the spirit of the Nativity and you will discover a peace and joy that lingers. BRENTON HOLMES shares something very special from Assisi.
Assisi’s motto is ‘pax et bonum’ - literally ‘peace and the good’. This may seem somewhat surprising given the ferocious history of Italy’s Umbria. The Romans fought Hannibal here, and the feuds between towns and principalities in the centuries that followed were many and bloody. But like most things in Assisi, the motto honours the venerable St Francis, patron saint of Italy, protector of animals and defender of the poor.
St Francis used the words ‘pax et bonum’ to conclude all his letters, and the good people of Assisi have taken them to heart. The phrase is both a benediction and greeting, a conjunction of simple beauty that conveys the benign essence of the town. In Italian, the phrase is rendered ‘pace et bene’. I prefer it this way. A softer, weathered version of the original ‘pax et bonum’, more gently uttered, echoing the worn and ancient stones that are the streets and walls and narrow steps of this simple and beautiful place.
My wife and I have arrived by train, and catch our first glimpse of Assisi, framed perfectly, up high and intact, through our carriage window. Clinging tenaciously to its mountain, it is almost astonishing. The image is suddenly transgressed by the bric-a-brac townscape of Santa Maria degli Angeli as the train slides into this railway station purgatory at the foot of Mount Subasio. All pilgrims must assemble here before the final blessed ascent, by autobus, to Assisi.
The bus driver seems gruff. Perhaps he is condemned to live in Santa Maria. We, of course, are eager to reclaim our erstwhile vision of Assisi, and a bend in the road offers it to us again. And again we are astonished. A foreground of fallow farmlands, attractively chequered, ushers the eye to the broad, grey fringe of olive groves that skirt the city’s walls. Behind and beyond the township lie snow brushed mountains, misted and wooded. And for the first time in days, concessions of blue relieve the monochrome grey of a winter sky.
We lurch to a halt in a piazza somewhere on the high side of the town. The driver turns the engine off, responds unintelligibly to my pidgin-Italian request for directions, and abandons his post. Our fellow passengers, presumably all locals, scurry away and we are all too quickly alone. The feather touch of panic makes the afternoon seem suddenly darker. Words and images throw themselves at us like a randomly cut film – uscita, municipio, sosta vietata, unfamiliar symbols in blue and red. The piazza has numerous exits.
There are phone calls and false starts, the interrogation of maps and the cursing of failing light, but finally we are settled in our apartment. It is on the first floor of a building still in restoration. The north-east corner of Santa Chiara square lies beneath our bedroom window which, by design or good luck, frames the view of the beautiful church that gives the square its name. Our new abode is comfortably warm, generously proportioned, with white walls, sturdy beams and fine linen. And tomorrow is Christmas Eve.
From the sleep of oblivion, we step into a crisp new morning flushed with the anticipation of discovery. Barely twenty metres from our front door, and gaudily bright for such an early hour, the Bar Sensi is already entertaining a handful of customers. The windows display more cakes and pastries than is decent, and within minutes we are enjoying the first of what will become our Assisi morning ritual coffee. Pace et bene!
The distinctive joy of this particular Christmas Eve is the absence of haste. No doubt the inhabitants of Assisi are as seasonally assiduous as any of us in preparing special celebratory meals and showering loved ones with an abundance of gifts. But here this does not seem to manifest itself in a frenzy of last-minute shopping and a rowdy public clamour. The streets are festooned with lights, the shop windows are opulent, and scenes of the Bethlehem nativity occupy every available recess. The streets ebb and flow with pedestrians, and swirl with the exchange of kisses and greetings between friends and strangers. But it is all carried out with a relaxed and cheerful seemliness.
The woman in the tabachi where we have stopped to buy postcards tells us that we must be at San Rufino at 10 o’clock that evening for the ‘spettacolo- very good’. We had noticed some activity in the forecourt of the San Rufino church following our arrival the previous day. It involved a fire truck, some crude carpentry, and a wire rope being stretched from the truck to the large rose window high on the church’s façade. And so at ten o’clock we roused ourselves from our Christmas Eve cosiness to venture into the twisting streets, heavily encumbered by roadworks, that lay between us and San Rufino.
A small crowd had gathered around the edges of the San Rufino square. A spotlight from the fire truck splashed a bright circle of light on the high rose window. Various wooden structures had sprung up – stalls selling an array of tempting goods, a post-and-rail pen holding half a dozen sheep, and upstage a very life-like stable which, on closer inspection, disclosed a very large brown cow, copious hay, and a sweetly rustic manger.
While we wandered about taking in this marvel, the crowd began to swell. But the newcomers were not muffled in the scarves and gloves of an al fresco ‘spettacolo’ audience. Instead there were turbans and robes, doublets and hose, flowing skirts and friars’ habits. Assisi’s inhabitants had metamorphosed into their medieval and renaissance forbears, dispensing an abundance of cheer and mulled wine. The Magi were there, and over by the wall a small host of white and silvered angels sporting huge but exquisite wings tuned their uncooperative violins. The rasp of a reedy shawm and a slightly off-beat tambour drew our attention to a group of minstrels, dressed in sombre motley, having a quick run through their repertoire. An hour had passed, the square was packed and the fifteenth century was in full swing – notwithstanding the American Christmas carols that crackled over the public address system.
A slight commotion at the rose window alerted us to the impending drama. The muzak fell silent. A woman’s voice invited us to ponder and to marvel. We did so as two spotlit firemen at the rose window struggled to despatch the Angel Gabriel, momentarily snagged on the high wire and dangling precariously in his safety harness, black tights straining and white robe dishevelled, fifty metres above the ground. We onlookers were ushered to the perimeter of the square, and with a fanfare from some impressively long but slightly ill-matched trumpets, Gabriel began his descent. Twice he bobbed to a halt, but the apparatus soon obliged, and as the narrator declaimed the Annunciation, Gabriel winged his way to earth. He strode with balletic grace to a beatific Mary and mimed his news with great elan.
The nearby crowd parted and Joseph emerged leading an eager-to-please, soft, brown donkey. Together with Mary they began their fateful steps to Bethlehem, to the inn and rejection, and finally to the stable where a tender Mary laid her baby in the waiting manger. The angels came with their glorious wings and silent violins, the shepherds with their flock. The Magi paid their elegant respects, and the donkey observed it all with a restrained pride. The crowd was entranced, hugging the tender beauty of the story to their hearts and willing it to be true. A cacophony of shawms and drums dismantled our reverie and everyone surged forward, following the Holy Family and their celestial friends into San Rufino church for the celebration of midnight mass.
We have barely surrendered to sleep, it seems, when the bells of Santa Chiara deliver a throaty Christmas morning call to the faithful, prompting reponses from the fraternity of bell towers across the city. With our bedroom windows shut tight and double-glazed against the cold the sound is muffled. A slip of the catch and the unkempt play of bells tumbles into the room on a bracing air. Already there is movement in the street below and the square is lightly peppered with early morning worshippers and the odd reveller yet to make it home. Fortified by scrambled eggs, we wrap in coats and scarves and join the day.
Bar Sensi, we are surprised and pleased to discover, is already dispensing its brews and pastries to the regulars. Christmas morning, it seems, is to be distinguished only marginally from any other morning. Perhaps that is simply the way it is in a town whose rhythm and tone is so pervasively religious. The gap between ordinary and holy days is merely a matter of degree.
Milky coffee and the fruit-logged racciatore has something of the soporific effect of brandied Christmas pudding. But it is the perfect prelude to a stout walk to the higher reaches of the town, followed by a long meander down towards the Basilica di San Francesco, pausing where a stretch of low wall delivers a satisfying view of the Umbrian countryside ebbing away past Santa Maria degli Angeli to the far distant Tuscan hills. We are a long way from home, but it does not feel so.
Taking our cue from the midday bells, we chance our way back to Santa Chiara with much dipping and climbing, turning and retracing through the stone alleys and stairways and sotto passagi that warren their way through Assisi. For Assisi seems not so much to have been built on its mountainside as to have been chiselled directly out of it, as if by some ancient guild of stonemasons blown in from Crete and expert in labyrinth. To wander Assisi is sometimes to feel like one has unwittingly slipped into a drawing by Escher.
Christmas lunch in our apartment is a very Umbrian affair – ravioli and artichoke hearts, panini, a contorno of sliced tomatoes dabbed with white truffle oil, and a bottle of the local red. To be in shape for the obligatory evening stroll around the main square we have no choice but to devote the afternoon to a siesta.
The evening stroll reveals Assisi at its convivial best. In the darkening streets the intimate happiness of couples and families begins to prattle and dance its way towards the Piazza della Commune where the municipal Christmas tree, very large and quite spectacular with its serried ranks of white – never coloured – lights, draws the wide-eyed children giggling into its magic circle. Over near the fountain a canopied stage has been erected. Tomorrow it will host the performance of traditional Italian songs by a touring amateur choir.
The bars and shops that front the piazza have all opened, for celebration as much as for commerce. And everywhere the people mingle and embrace, their faces sweet with the season, relishing the clear bright evening and its good company. The small streets that issue onto the piazza are so many entrances and exits for the endless stream of players in this communal pageant – the lovers and the pilgrims, the nuns who have emerged excited from the minibus, the grey-haired men and their wives in furs, the flirting teenagers defying chaperones and winter’s chill with cigarettes . And everywhere the younger children scuttle in and carry on with unselfconscious delight. One old man stops, leans on his stick to watch them play. He ran there too, more than half a century ago; that Christmas when the soldiers came
© Brenton Holmes
Brenton Holmes lives in Canberra, the national capital of Australia. He writes on social, political and cultural issues – and when the opportunity affords, on the delights of slow travel.
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