Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Part 1: Assisi, Italy - St. Francis

Visiting medieval towns in Europe is something that fascinates me. In Italy, I had the good fortune to return to Rome for the beatification of Blessed Pope John Paul II last May 1, 2011, after which a good friend and I had made plans to continue on to Assisi. As we celebrated the feast day of St. Francis last October 4, I was reminded to look back at my pictures taken during that visit. 

We took a train from Rome and in less than 2 hours, we arrived in Assisi. At the train station, we rode a taxi to start our journey.
A panoramic view of Assisi from the train

Assisi is a medieval town that sits at a higher elevation of 1,300 feet in Umbria, in central Italy,  about 12 miles east of Perugia. It is one of the oldest cities in Italy and said to have had it's Christian roots  dating back to St. Crispolitus, who was a disciple of Peter the Apostle. This is a sacred destination for pilgrims as it is the birthplace of a beloved Catholic saint, Saint Francis - the founder of the Franciscan order. 

Once we got to Assisi, the thoughts of St. Francis as a peacemaker and the man who loved everybody came flooding back. I had read books and watched movies about him, and here I could feel his spirit.

Our first stop was this church.
 Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Degli Angeli in Porziuncola (Papal Basilica of St.  Mary of the Angels in Portiuncula)

Inside this grand Baroque structure, built in 1569-1679, are two smaller structures - a small chapel - the Porziuncola,  that was restored by St. Francis, where he founded his order; and where St. Clare took  her vows for a monastic way of life, on March 28, 1211. The other place   is La Capella del Transito  (the Chapel of the Transit) where St. Francis died on October 3, 1226.

Assisi has also become a site for world peace conferences.
This bronze bas-relief was installed on the façade of the church to commemorate the Assisi Peace Conference, October  27, 1986, which was spearheaded by Pope John Paul II. Members of the different faith traditions are represented here.

This peace effort was launched at the time of the United Nation's declaration of the International Year for Peace, 1986. In his efforts, the pope invited all the religions of the world to take part in this conference, to start a "global movement of prayer for peace." This was the first conference that was ever attended by leaders of the major religions. Though, peace has several components that involves "the commitment from the political, social and economic fields, on the part of governments, international organizations, and civil societies," it is a reality "that is formed in hearts, born from the loftiest human aspirations." There were three elements of peace that were highlighted, although "in different forms in almost all religious traditions: prayer, pilgrimage and fasting."

Pope John Paul II clearly explained the reasons and the implications behind the gathering to pray together, with the religious leaders in the town of Assisi:  "The fact that we have come here does not imply any intention of seeking a religious consensus among ourselves or of negotiating our faith convictions. Neither does it mean that religions can be reconciled at the level of a common commitment in an earthly project which would surpass them all. Nor is it a concession to relativism in religious beliefs." This was a moment of brotherhood - a spiritual sharing among the people of good will, something that typified St. Francis' spirituality.

After September 11, 2001, when violence, hatred and disunity appeared because of religious principles and beliefs, Pope John Paul II, called for another caucus, to bring back the religious leaders to Assisi. The Day of Prayer for Peace in the World came to pass in Assisi, on 24 January 2002. It was to condemn terrorism and, once again, to reiterate the role of religion in "fostering an atmosphere of peace, justice and brotherhood in the world"...and "to bring Christians and Muslims together to proclaim to the world that religion must never be a reason for conflict, hatred and violence."

Back on the road, in the taxi we had commissioned for the ride up to the town of Assisi...
we had a view of the Franciscan basilica and the friary, on the drive up.
This was our home sweet home on Via Galeazzo Alessi, 10--6081 Assisi - St. Anthony's Guest House, under the management of the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement. At 45 € a night for a single room, that was a deal!

Without wasting another minute,  we were out the door as soon as we settled our bags in our rooms. On foot, it was so easy to find every place we wanted to visit. Down and up the winding roads and in and out of shrines, everything we saw was just like eye candy. 
Entry into some private homes
On a street to go to a busier section of town...
in search of whatever we could find. To the left was a setup for the forthcoming celebration of the  Calendimaggio Festival.
 Santa Maria sopra Minerva

This Baroque church is sandwiched between other structures. The classic façade is original,  for when it was the Temple of Minerva, dating back to the time of Christ.
A sampling of the Baroque ornamentation in the church

Continuing on our walk, we passed the... 
Musei di Assisi
It was just as interesting to peek at pedestrian pathways, such as this one.

In September 1997, two catastrophic earthquakes hit central Italy and Assisi sustained some serious damage. Looking around for signs of what had befallen this place, we could tell from the type, the color and texture of the stones which parts of the city were damaged. 

It's an all-Italian sight, all around, except for the tourists.
Ingredients for the Mediterranean gourmet cook

Hand-painted ceramic pieces from Deruta, Italy
Stone mosaics
An arch entry way branching off to another road

One of the places that was heavily damaged was the Basilica di San Francesco. Upon inspection, there was falling rubble that practically wiped out the frescoes by Bencivieni de Pepo Cimabue. City officials embarked on a reconstruction project of the damaged church. By November of the same year, the basilica was reopened to the public after the structure was installed with a  stretch-and-snap-back wiring system that was to protect it from future tremors. It was finally completed in November 1999, at an estimated cost of 50 million dollars.
It was understandable that this rebuild-Assisi project was given priority. Assisi relies on it's tourism industry. The local officials wanted to reopen their gates to the pilgrims and tourists, as soon as possible. Much to the disappointment of the local people who were left unaided and still living in temporary quarters after their places were condemned and declared uninhabitable, they were angry and complained about how they remained without permanent houses while the church had been finished. 

It is not possible to get lost here. All roads lead to the Basilica di San Francesco.

The story of Francis is that of a radical conversion. The legendary story begins with Francis not wanting to come out until a pilgrim came to tell his mother that he was going to be born in a "stable of straw." 

He was born into a family with great means. His parents were prosperous. His mother - Lady Pica, was of noble lineage, and his father - Pietro, was from a family of merchants and weavers. He grew up learning about his father's business. As he   assisted him, he learned the trade and was turning out to be a very good businessman. He also grew up learning worldly ways and was considered a most eligible bachelor. 

In the time of his youth, Europe was recovering from the fall of the Roman empire; the crusades were trying to recover the holy places from the moslems;  the church was in turmoil; political corruption was rampant; knighthood and chivalry were in fashion; there were wars going on here and there. When Assisi was at war with Perugia, Francis joined the forces to defend his hometown. He was taken prisoner. It was after his release that changes began to happen. He heard the call from God and he responded. He changed his ambition from being a crusader to being a man of peace, by loving everyone as Christ did. From a man of means he became a beggar, giving up everything - including his inheritance. He began to spend more time in prayer. In the Church of San Damiano, an old shrine that was now in ruins, he heard a voice: "Francis, do you see that my house is in ruins? Go and return it for me." Thus, began his new life, with full dependence on God's provisions. By his example, he led others to God. He put the church hierarchy on edge when they realize that here was a man who had taken the gospel and literally lived it, with no further interpretations.

Several movies have been made about his life.  Among them was one made by Roberto Rosellini in 1950, then, a romanticized version made by Franco Zeffirelli and released by Paramount Pictures in 1972 "Brother Sun, Sister Moon." There are still others, and one that depicted his humanity more was by Liliana Cavani in "Francesco - Francis of Assisi," with Mickey Rourke playing the lead role.
A side entrance to the Basilica di San Francesco
This is the main attraction in Assisi, her "crowning glory." It is a destination for pilgrims and art lovers.
In the movie St. Francis of Assisi (a Perseus Production, a Cinesmascope Picture released through  20th Century Studio in 1961) many more scenes painted by Giotto, such as these, were photographed and used in the introduction of the movie.

This is one of several altars in the basilica, on the ground level.

I was able to hear mass in the crypt, that was being said for a Spanish delegation.

Right above the altar is where St. Francis is entombed.
One of many messages St. Francis received, while in prayer
Frescoes were every where, and this is right by one of the side entrances into the upper part of the church.
An exit leading to the courtyard
The Gift Shop/Religious Store

A panoramic view of the city belowAssisi
The courtyards 
A message of peace on the church grounds

Heading down on another course...
Once a final resting place
Looking back at the basilica

Steps to get in and out of dwellings

The evening has come

And soon it will be time to go.

My visit to Assisi brought the spirit of St. Francis to mind. Inspired by this man who preached the gospel by example - for his was a life so simple, in poverty of worldly goods, in search of a spirituality beyond what the world could offer, made me think about my priorities in life.  

To commemorate the 25th year since the first peace conference was held, Pope Benedict XVI will have a rendezvous with the religious leaders, to move forward and face the challenges in fostering world peace. Set for October 27, 2011, in this same place, coming from different parts of the world - representing various major, world religions, as well as known figures in the scientific and art circles, are the "Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace," as eloquently described by the theme of this conference. Let us, each, be a traveling companion to the pilgrims heading to Assisi, in prayer, in thoughts, in deeds and by fasting.

Part 2: An Adventurous Day in Avalon, Catalina Island - Going on the Zipline Eco Tour

We had been preparing for this day - with two adventurous activities scheduled, we were psyching ourselves that we could do these. The first on the agenda was the Zipline Eco Tour. My friend - Jaye,  and I, both, have a fear of heights. But, I was daring myself to do this, and I had to encourage Jaye to join me to do it, too.

The requirements to take this tour were to want to have an adventurous experience and to wear tight-fitting clothes and closed shoes that would not fall to the ground. I brought  my gym clothes and athletic shoes. Somehow, Jaye forgot her socks and shoes. But that was not a problem - she bought a pair of socks and she was able to rent the shoes.

We had to figure out how to get there. We were assured by the hotel's front-desk personnel that it was about a twenty-five minute walk via the Descanso Beach Cove. Since we had not been there, we left much earlier and gave ourselves some extra time to get lost and to do more sightseeing.

Starting off on Crescent St., we headed to to our destination. We were passing more shops and places to eat. I was keeping my eyes open for unique things, along the way.
I was so impressed that even the seagulls here can follow the directions!
It's a sundae and sweets bar! Noted. We were going back soon for some ice cream on hand-made waffle cones and "chocolate con churros."
What a catchy name - Afishinados - featuring all "original American fish art"...
and as you can see, everything looks fishy!
The sign reads "SORRY WE ARE OPEN." That made us laugh.
At this point, we had to veer to the right... 
to go towards the direction of the Casino Building, which is not a real casino.
The Yatch Club
The retaining wall on this walkway is decorated with tiles in the original Catalina patterns and tile murals depicting scenes from the years gone by.
The Casino Building is across from the Boat Landing on Avalon Bay

Unfortunately, we were not able to take the Casino Walking Tour, as this was being prepared as the venue for the Jazz Trax Festival's last weekend. In the Casino walking tour, you will see the Art Deco murals, a 1929 pipe organ, the Avalon theater (the only movie theater in town), and the Casino Ballroom.
We got to Descanso Cove well ahead of time, which begins from the Casino Point Dive Park...
up to where the mountain juts out into the bay.
In just another 50 steps or more, we found this place. We met our two guides - Charles and Denny. First thing we had to do was to tie our hair back, then don our helmets. After, we put on our harnesses and walked over with the metal contraptions, to watch the demonstration.
Denny gave us an overview of the Zipline Eco Tour - we were going to travel a distance of about three quarters of a mile, over five ziplines laid out over three hundred feet  above the canyons, at a speed of, approximately, 45 miles per hour, in about one and a half hours. Then, a demonstration of the different positions and signals were shown to us.
After the leap off from the platform, go into the basic zip line body position (sitting position)...
then into the cannonball position, with arms straight and legs crossed and pulled up towards the elbows. This is to gain speed on the ziplines.
Charles explained the landing procedure - how to read his signals to slow down, then to prepare for the final approach at the landing.
 Should there be a fast approach, there is a block of wood that would go on the wire to slowdown the zipliner; or, a sack to grab just in case one suddenly stops ziplining in the middle of the course, to be pulled into the landing platform.
It was time. We were a group of four and we were bussed up to the Zipline Eco Tour gates, at the highest point of the zipline course. At this point,  there was no turning back.
 Denny was going to be our pitcher and Charles was to be our catcher. Charles went down first to await us at the first landing.

With our hearts pounding, we were relieved that the only man in our group volunteered to go first. He just took that first step into the air, literally walking into thin air and took off. Watching him helped us to recall the steps we had to do.
Jaye took that leap of faith...
and there she went! 

I was the last one to go as I was the one taking most of the pictures. I had to put my camera inside my jacket as I prepared to zip down the wires. I started with good, positive thoughts  and prayed. Then, I took that step. All went so perfectly well.  

After our first zipline, we thought it was a piece of cake. With four stations still to get to, we all got confident and had no more fears after that initial cable ride. 

We asked about the origins of ziplining. Our guides noted that Walt Disney used this means of travel in some of his Disney stories. They also told us a story about how it could have started in Costa Rica. 

Once back in the mainland, I researched about it and discovered that a historical timeline cannot be pinpointed. It was a means of getting to inaccessible places among high mountain dwellers, like in the Himalayas. It is still used as people movers and as a delivery system for rations and materials in populations where moving about and transporting goods can be difficult, due to rugged and mountainous terrains, and water ways.

Perhaps, it came about  from the technics and means used by climbers in the late 19th and 20th centuries in the Tirolean Alps, who used "pitons, rapelling, tension traverses, aid climbing, stirrups, pendulums, and the Tirolian traverse" that were "developed by the Bavarians, Tirolian and south Tirolian climbers," to have efficient movement between "rock pillars and cliffs."

The cable-and-pulley system found some strategic uses in industries and in World War II. In the 1970s,  "canopy tours" were born out of this cable system among graduate students who were researching the world beneath the forest canopy . The forest canopy is formed by the meeting of the tops of very tall trees that blocks almost 95% of the light. It is like the roof over a  forest area, creating a habitat for the plants, the birds, mammals and other creatures in diverse sizes, colors, and shapes. This is critical to the well being of the forest. 

The forest's ecosystem is quite unique, with several microclimates that sustain the different organisms under the forest canopy. Thus, this makes for a very interesting research site for graduate students in the fields of botany, zoology, entomology, and ecology. It was in the 1970s when it became the scene for these scientific-research in Costa Rica. The students figured out how to set up their means to traverse under the forest canopy with ease and without much disruption to the environment below. Employing the Tyrolean traverse, the researchers could go from tree to tree, and make their observations without having to go down to the forest  floor.

Soon, someone thought of how fun this activity could be, similar to the canopy tours, and that's when it became commercial. With little to do with scientific exploration, ziplining is now an adventurous, exhilarating trip, flying down the cables from platform to platform (I call them stations) on the mountain slopes. It has been made safe and secure for the daring, fun-seeking people, with the use of durable materials in a studied design, adapted to the local setting. 

Back to our tour...
With regards to landing, our other group mate was a petite lady. Her light weight exempted her from doing the slow-down, star fish position (stand-up position), prior to landing. She stayed in the cannonball position from take off to landing.

Charles signaled us to slow down by spreading his arms wide open, and then the zipliner pulled the handles towards his chest and assumed the star fish position. Once slowed down, the catcher, who is Charles, gave another signal to assume the cannonball position for landing.
St. Catherine's Lace

Though we had no forest canopy above us, we sort of had a chance to explore the ecosystem here in Avalon. In between ziplining, we looked around the surroundings in each station. Our tour guides showed us some of the flora and fauna indigenous to Catalina Island. 

We found this flowering, mounding bush: St. Catherine's Lace. The clusters of off-white flowers bloom in late spring and turn to brown in the summer - beautifully contrasting the grayish-white, felt-like leaves. Scientifically called "eriogonum giganteum," this plant grows six to eight feet tall and wide. It thrives even in this rocky, desert-like setting and near the coast.

Here, my gear was being engaged onto the cables, for my third zipline. For my connecting-to-the-cables metal contraption to reach the wires, I had to tiptoe.  We were given instructions and a demonstration on how to zipline sidewards, to see the view.

I was able to maneuver and assume a sitting position with my legs stretched out, to side zip down the wires...

to catch this view of Descanso Cove.
That lasted for a few seconds. By the time I reached this dense section with the very tall trees, that was my cue to get back into the cannonball position.

Lemonade Berry Fruits

Another plant we saw up in the hills was a Lemonade Berry bush-tree. Charles took a branch so we could taste the fruits. To taste, we used our finger tip and rubbed the sticky residue on the red fruits - we discerned a very strong and sour flavor. The fruits from this plant, "rhus integrifolia," were used by the native Indians who once inhabited Catalina, to make a refreshing drink. 

This is the souvenir I have from Catalina Island. I bought a small potted plant and brought it back to the mainland. I will be relocating it to a planter, instead of planting it on the ground, to control the growth. I hope it survives the lowland conditions.
We also saw this dug out in the ground - the home of the Catalina Beechey Ground Squirrel.

The ecosystem in Catalina Island has been affected, negatively, by human activities. The   overgrazing and the bringing in of non-native species have contributed to the soil erosion and affected the soil compaction on the slopes. Mining, film making, and landscaping have all added, too, to the deterioration of the island in the last decades. To counter this, the Catalina Island Conservancy (CIC) is at the helm of reversing the trend, to restore the island to a healthier state. CIC takes charge in protecting the rare and endangered species through their various programs. It's a balancing act to do this, especially, with the arrival of an estimated million visitors a year. 

We did it! We were brave and we conquered our fear of heights. Our tour guides were very professional and  highly entertaining. They graciously gave us high passing marks. This experience was truly exhilarating. I am looking to zipline anywhere I go now.
 As our adrenaline levels started to go down, we retraced our steps to go back to town, but taking a detour to go through the Casino Point Dive Park walkway, on the side of the Casino facing the bay.

We noticed someone painting Descanso Cove. He reminded me of how Claude Monet painted - in the outdoors, on location.

Passed the Casino building and before the Yacth Club is a floating gas station, to service the boats. For land vehicles, we found out that the gas cost was over $6.00 per gallon. We wondered how much the fuel for the boats were.

As soon as we were back on Crescent St., we were figuring out what to have for lunch. We thought we deserved to indulge and have a hearty meal.

We also window shopped and checkout some souvenir shops.

At El Galleon, we sat down and ordered our hearty meal: French Onion Soup, Clam Chowder, Caesar's Salad, and Barbecued Pork Ribs - Texas Style. I think we ordered too much! We didn't have room for dessert.

We had our second adventurous tour, after lunch: the East End Tour - this was a tour on rugged terrain, in an open-air Hummer that brought us to the highest points on the island, to see spectacular views of the canyons, the coastline, and the animals that inhabit this place. We'll tell you all about that, too. 


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