Only about two weeks before leaving, I invited Dolores Frank to drop everything for a while, and come meet me in Spello. I pushed her a bit, finally convinced her and helped her to book her ticket, and then left for Italy myself only days before she was arriving right behind me.
I got to Spello, spent a day shopping for groceries and preparing a few quick things so that we’d be able to spend our days on photography, not at the supermercato. I packed in cheeses, prosciutto, fruits and vegetables and rolls, and pulled bottles of wine down from the high racks—all ready for some “happy hour” time with wine glasses. A quick batch of breadsticks followed, and then I was ready to head for Florence and be sitting at the airport when her flight arrived.
I took the train into Florence, and then the shuttle bus to the airport, arriving nearly an hour early, but with my trusty new Kindle loaded with a good book, and fully charged. After 30 minutes of sitting on the floor, one of the EIGHT chairs finally opened up, and I got a seat. I was keeping an eye on the electronic arrivals board when Dolores walked up to me, accusing me of “sleeping on the job,” since I’d missed her coming out of the baggage claim area. Instead, I pointed out that the arrivals board had her plane still IN the air, not “landed.” Oh, well! I missed the shot I’d been waiting for, of her groggy but happy arrival.
We were soon back on the shuttle bus to the train station, and onto the train back to Spello, where Leonardo met us at the station and drove us both up the hill. We spent a little time moving Dolores in, and then went for a walk to discover a bit of Spello before we popped a cork and relaxed with a glass of Umbrian wine—a local Sangiovese I wanted her to try.
After a good night of sleep, we had a quiet day meeting neighbors, spending time exploring side streets in Spello, and then finally we decided to go out for some night photography together. We were both trying out “string tripods,” to increase the stability of our shots in low light with small cameras. It was a low-stress exercise, and we had a great night snooping down side streets, and trying to get some interesting photos.
The next day was Good Friday—and we hopped on the train with our cameras, and headed one stop away for Assisi. Our first visit was to Santa Maria degli Angeli, in the valley below the basilica in Assisi, where a huge church was built to surround the small rustic church that was the church of St. Francis in his lifetime. He died nearby, in a small hut that is also preserved inside the church, and it was a quick walk from the train station to the church. I pointed out to Dolores that the gilded figure of Santa Maria on the peak of the façade was added in 1930, but was left tilting after the earthquake of 1997. When the figure was brought down to the ground to repair the bent mounting, many people were surprised at the more than thirty-foot height—always imagining that Mary was more like the size of a real person. The immense church makes her seem small, by comparison, when she is not.
From there, we started up the hill toward Assisi, and the upper and lower churches of the Basilica of St. Francis. A brick pathway now connects the Basilica with Santa Maria degli Angeli below, with the names of donors from all over the world incised into the red bricks along the path. It was close to a two-mile walk, and all uphill, but we managed to arrive just before the rains began, and were soon safely inside. First, we toured the lower church, and then I took Dolores up to the “superiore” church, where the Giotto frescoes telling the story of the life of Saint Francis surround the sanctuary. When we came out, the sky was still very dark, it was clear that there was rain in the valley below and we had just missed a downpour, so Dolores just hailed a cab and we were soon back to Spello. (Turned out to be Bruno, the same driver I rode with in 2005 when I first visited the Basilica, and needed a ride back down to the train station to head back to Cortona, where I was staying for the night. He told us the history of many of the places we passed, as I was translating like mad for Dolores, and he took the back scenic roads, through fields filled with red poppies. We certainly got HER money’s worth for our ride with Bruno!)
As we were leaving the Upper Church, Dolores suddenly realized that she was no longer carrying her tripod. We both began frantically to search for it, but we had just been in both churches, and there were hundreds of people there on that special day, and a big procession was leaving the Lower Church just before we did. I helped Dolores to ask the guards if it had been turned in to them, and we ran back over to the places where we had sat down, or slowed down–and finally Dolores was giving up, talking herself into not letting the loss of her tripod ruin her trip. Just then, I saw it, leaning where we had stopped to get some literature as we were leaving the Lower Church. It was a very costly carbon tripod, but it was a “Good Friday miracle of St. Francis” that no one had touched it or taken it, and we found it right where she had left it and forgotten to pick it up. That was a highlight of our day–finding it safely where she had accidentally left it.
After a welcome dinner and a glass of wine back at the house, we relaxed until it was time to go down to Santa Maria Maggiore, in the center of Spello, where the annual “Venerdi Santo” (Good Friday) procession began at 9 p.m. People were already gathering when we arrived, and I took Dolores into the church to show her the illuminated cross that Paola had painted for the procession a few years ago. It was on a stand in the church, but wasn’t being used, so I asked the caretaker of the church why it was remaining behind. “Slick streets after a rain, and the cross is very heavy,” he replied, so the cross was on display only, to ensure that it didn’t get dropped in the procession, and that no one would be hurt by falling while carrying it on the slippery cobblestones.
The procession began to form outside the church, and descended to the first stations of the cross downhill, then returned to the origin and began the trip uphill, stopping at each church or chapel for a prayer. At each station were two huge paintings created by local artists, depicting that station of the procession of Christ bearing his cross. The crowd began to build to several hundred people, and Dolores and I tried to stay in front of the procession. Unfortunately, I fell behind the crowd, but Dolores was confident in finding her way back to the house alone, and knew that I was somewhere in the crowd and on my way.
Once again, just like last year, I found an American couple following the procession (last year, Steve and Denise Haerr, from Temecula, CA). They were from Florida, on an anniversary celebration and missing their two-year-old daughter, but I began to explain the procession to them as we walked along. I found a printed souvenir program for them, in one of the smaller churches (the main church was all out of them), and then we walked uphill together, behind the procession. When we reached the top of the hill, I invited them to join Dolores and me for a glass of sweet, bubbly moscato, along with some cookies. They accepted, and came to sit with us for about an hour, where we grilled them about their trip, their little daughter, and their Italian experience.
For Dolores, Good Friday was absolutely packed with new and memorable experiences, and she was really excited to be making photos again, and experiencing Spello’s traditional procession for this special religious holiday. It was a nice addition to find this young couple, too, and share in their excitement to be in Italy—matched equally by Dolores after a very full day of great photo opportunities in Assisi and Spello.