Personal “Pluses” On Bicycling Verdant Umbria: Saint Francis of Assisi
ExperiencePlus! Traveler Shares Her Tale From Tour
ExperiencePlus! rider Viola Canales has been on a number of tours with ExperiencePlus! In this article she shares her story of finding unexpected surprises, or pluses, while on tour.
The biggest “Plus” of my first cycling tour with ExperiencePlus! (from León to Santiago de Compostela along the Camino) were the arrows marking each day’s route. Why? Because the first cycling tour I ever took—with another company—had me biking back-and-forth across the Spanish-French border, totally lost, until I was finally able to decipher the ten-page document of directions.
At the big picture level, the “Plus” in ExperiencePlus! tours, I think, is the same for every group—excellent tour leaders; thoughtfully planned itineraries that incorporate the wonders of food, culture, and arts; and engaging, challenging biking. But I bet the “Plus” is also different for each individual in the group. One person in our group in Umbria, for example, quipped that the “Plus” for him was the amount of wine he could drink with dinner.
One of my personal favorite “Pluses” on the Camino trip was staying at a hotel in Santiago de Compostela that had once been a Franciscan monastery. After doing the Venice to Pisa tour a year later, where one of the biggest “Pluses” was watching my partner try out her Italian in the many little, charming villages along the way, I was excited to combine the spirit of my two previous tours by taking the Biking Verdant Umbria trip, since it included a stop in Assisi, the town associated with my personal favorite saint—Saint Francis.
Growing up Catholic in South Texas (just a few miles from the Mexican border), in a family that had emigrated from Spain even before there was a Texas or Mexico, I was exposed to saints and their stories from a very early age. My father and his mother, for instance, were named Antonio and Cecilia just because they had been born on the feast day of these particular saints—a custom that persists to this very day.
But why did Saint Francis become my favorite saint early on, even though I wasn’t born on his feast day of October 4th? Because he’s the patron saint of animals and I, like many kids, always had a herd of pets—at one time I must’ve worked him extra hard by asking him to watch over my pet cow, rabbit, dog, and cat, in addition to an assortment of fish that liked nothing more than eating each other.
Saint Francis’s popularity was also vastly enhanced in my estimation by his association to my favorite holiday—Christmas! While decorating my Christmas tree and arranging pieces of the nativity scene underneath it, I was reminded that St. Francis had inspired the idea of the nativity scene by staging it live centuries ago and using real animals so the townspeople could personally see and thus experience the miracle of Christmas.
My fondness for Saint Francis only intensified when I moved to California. I live in Stanford, which lies between San Francisco and Santa Clara—whose names come from the missions founded in the 1700’s by the Franciscan priest and friar Junípero Serra.
I knew that taking the Biking Verdant Umbria tour would give me the opportunity to visit St. Francis’s tomb in Assisi, and was certain that this would be the “Plus” of the trip for me. I will always remember getting to stand and pray in front of Saint Francis’s tomb, and arranging with the priest sitting nearby to have a Mass said on behalf of my ailing eighty-six year-old mother who has always been devoted to him . . . and has a bird feeder statue of him to prove it!
But there were several wonderful and unexpected “Pluses” for me as I explored Assisi:
Antidote to the vitriol of the current U.S. presidential election campaign:
A marvelous, arresting fresco painted by Giotto in the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi shows St. Francis bringing peace to the town of Arezzo by casting out the demons that had plagued its citizens, keeping them at each other’s throats for far too long. Yes, I thought, this is exactly what America needs at this very moment—Peace! What a refreshing delight it was taking a much needed break from the incessant soul-crushing ugliness of the campaign at home by cycling through the verdant Umbrian countryside. Plus this fresco from the 1200’s—one of a host of amazing images that cover every inch of this basilica where Saint Francis is buried—helps us see that what we feel as an urgent, pivotal time has happened to others many centuries ago.
Being vs. Doing: Hiking up Mount Subasio to the Hermitage of St. Francis:
For the tour’s second day in Assisi, part of our group took the option of walking up to the Hermitage of Saint Francis, while the remainder challenged themselves by biking around Mount Subasio. Though hiking to the hermitage was quite a steep challenge, it was also a big personal “Plus” for me to connect to St. Francis in his other role: the patron saint of the ecology and natural environment. The place is utterly beautiful. And peaceful. And quite a marvel of nature with a forest of soaring, sun-dappled trees, colorful song birds, and thriving, blooming plants. Sure, there are several historical building structures there as well. But what is most astonishing are the small natural stone caves where St. Francis and several of his closest followers retreated to pray and refresh their spirits.
A statue of St. Francis lying on the ground with his hands folded behind his head, gazing up at the sky with a joyous expression on his face, symbolizes his great gift for simply being and living in the moment—much like the birds, and trees, and flowers. What a stark contrast, I thought, to the fast-paced view of living successfully that consists of checking items off on an ever expanding to-do-list, while a loud clock keeps ticking, insisting that we go faster and faster.
Detour to St. Francis’s Spiritual Home—his little piece of Heaven on Earth:
Though not on the official route to the tour’s next destination after Assisi, the tour leaders went the extra mile—literally!—by putting down arrows for those wishing to visit the site where St. Francis actually started his Order, accepted Clare as his follower, and died: Portiuncula, a town right outside Assisi. The small Portiuncula Chapel, which St. Francis helped rebuild with his own hands and where he started his Order, plus the site where he spent his last days and died are now housed inside the magnificent Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, which also encompasses the area that St. Francis considered sacred, his little piece of Heaven on Earth.
Inside the walls of the tiny chapel marking the spot where St. Francis died are paintings of several Franciscan saints, including one of Saint Juniper, who was one of Saint Francis’s original followers, the same one who inspired Junípero Serra—the founder of the first nine missions along the coast of California—to take his name. And in 2015, Pope Francis—the very first pope who chose to be named after Saint Francis (one of Italy’s two patron saints)—canonized Junípero Serra, who is now recognized as California’s patron saint.
Several times during our trip, we crossed the Via Francigena, another great route of the pilgrims. For some people, a pilgrimage is about following a path well-trod by others. Even here at home, some people do the California Mission Walk along the coast, stopping at the twenty-one missions founded by either Junípero Serra or one of his followers. But many others take their own pilgrimages, following their own routes. Either way, St. Francis and a journey through Umbria can inspire us to live life in a more peaceful way—a big “Plus” for us all!
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(P.S. To celebrate St. Francis’s feast day on October 4th I baked his favorite almond cookies using a recipe attributed to Saint Clare. And perhaps come November 1st—All Saints’ Day—I’ll bake another batch to honor not only him, but all his followers as well.)