It was December 7th when I arrived in Assisi on the train, from Rome. I would miss the tree lighting at the Spanish Steps that evening, but was making it to Assisi just in time for La Madonna that night!
I caught the little bus at the train station, that takes you up the hill, to Assisi. This time I got off the bus up at the highest stop, so I could roll my suitcase downhill. I'd learned my lesson on the first trip!
The air was crisp and cool, like when you head to the mountains to go skiing. It was afternoon ... maybe around 3 o'clock, and I could see my breath. There was snow on the distant mountains, it was beautiful, and maybe in the low 30s?
I rolled my suitcase and carry-on past residences with little Christmas lights and decorations, until I got to my little hotel. Of course, there were stairs up to the lobby, and I felt kind of ridiculous with my enormous rolling bag, and felt like I needed to explain to everyone that I was going to be gone for quite a long time! And hello, I want to look cute in Italy!
I'd hoped that Anne Robichaud was going to be around. She's an American who's an official guide in Umbria and has lived for decades in Assisi. Anyway, she was out of the country visiting her son, but hooked me up with some folks who would also be in town at that time.
Chris was a writer Anne knew from Australia, who'd been staying in Assisi. Chris and I were going to meet up, along with a couple (Nancy and Ben) from Minnesota. As the text says, we were to meet at 4:45, at a little cafe on the main Piazza, for the La Madonna bonfire. More on that in a minute.
The window in my room was a little high for me to see out, but stepping on the ledge, in front of the heater ... this was the view. That church you see is the Basilica of Santa Chiara.
The man at the hotel, (one of the family members that run it) said it might snow on Sunday (my birthday) but everyone else said that wouldn't happen in December.
I was anxious to go down to Piazza del Commune to see the Christmas Festa booths. Anne had sent an email with a whole itinerary of things that would be happening all weekend long and I was beside myself. So excited.
Any sort of melancholy that I'd had in Rome, (with all the rain and visuals of poor tortured martyrs,) completely evaporated as I'd walked down into Assisi.
Now, I was was so excited I could hardly contain myself! I threw on tights, winter silks long johns, and my warmest lined, wool pants. We were going to be walking up to the top of the hill town, to the Rocca Maggiore, and it can get downright blustery up there!
After bundling up, I headed to the piazza. As I'm writing this, my eyes are welling up. It was magical and Christmasy, and as wonderful as I had remembered it. Even more so.
The Assisians are smart. They put all the fun crafty stuff in a huge tent ... with warm air being blown in, to thaw everyone out! And music was playing ... Christmas music. As in Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby Christmas music!
There were hundreds of handmade ornaments, soaps, knitted scarves, carved wooden kitchen utensils ... all kinds of wonderful goodies!
After doing a big "once around" the tent, I found this ...
Hot mulled wine, People!
Perfetto! I love how the Italians think!
I asked how much and they shook there heads no. It was complementary, you see, but you can give a donation, which I did.
Here I am toasting the town. The light blur, on the right, is the tent.
It was starting to get darker but still not 4:45, so I had some time to do a little more photographing and enjoying of the lights, before meeting up with the gang.
The building to the right of the big bell tower, below, is Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which had been a Roman Temple. You can see the tops of the Roman columns.
I met up with Ben and Nancy, from Minnesota, Chris from Australia, and Edna, a flight attendant from Chicago, originally from South America. Edna had rented an adorable studio just above the piazza, where she stays these days when she has breaks from her job!
Anyway, we all headed up the hill to the Rocca Maggiore.
Every year, men from the forestry service build a huge bon fire up at the top of town, at the castle fortress, to light the way for La Madonna, as she passes over. Apparently, she drops off gifts to good kids, as well. Sounds like kids must have it pretty good, in Assisi, with la Madonna on the 7th, (the night before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception,) Babbo Natale (Santa) showing up on Christmas, and Befana showing up on Epiphany, January 6th!
It's a ways up hill ... as you can see! It also turned out to be quite windy, as I had expected. In fact, I was having trouble holding my camera still enough to take a shot down the hill, toward Santa Chiara, so it's pretty blurry!
The Bonfire just getting going ...
And look! A tent where they were handing out roasted chestnuts and more hot wine!!! Woohooo!!! I sound like a wino but I'm telling you, it was quite chilly (low 20s) and with the wind ... the wine was a lovely hand warmer!
Ben took this of me and by the looks of my cup I was in need of more ... warmth!
Ben and Nancy, below, taken with Ben's camera ...
And here, you see how big the bonfire started to get!
Nancy and I, with Edna in the middle! Thanks for taking this photo Ben!!
The Castle Fortress was knocked down and rebuilt over the years. In fact, the people of Assisi plundered it in 1189 and in 1367, a cardinal had it rebuilt, though there has been some sort of fortification up there since the Romans.
My first trip to Assisi I went in there by myself and went through the low, dark tunnels alone! Hardly anyone was around!
The smoke seemed to enjoy following us around and eventually hot soup beckoned! Below, the shot was taken walking down past my little hotel and down to dinner.
Though Anne (the American tour guide, who lives in Assisi) couldn't be there, she'd asked us by email (before the trip) if we'd all like to have a dinner of warm soup and chestnuts, at Franca's restaurant, La Fontanella, after the Bonfire. Chris couldn't join us, but the rest of us were in!
We were all set! We got there and it was like being in someone's home! During the off season, you just let Franca know ahead of time that you will be coming, and she'll make dinner for you! It was just our little posse, that night.
Edna at La Fontanella ... photo by Ben
Franca's kitties ...
Chestnuts roasting ...
Photo by Ben ...
I think the soup was barley ... I'll have to ask. It was amazing. You can see the toasted bread in it, with parmigiano and amazing drizzled olive oil. Oh my word ... It was the best soup I have ever eaten in my life.
On this night, it is tradition to have new olive oil and new wine. At least, I think that's what the deal was. (We had quite a bit of that new wine, so don't quote me!)
Mmmm potatoes ... I think there must have been lemon on them or something? It was all so warm and yummy and comforting!
Chestnuts and more wine ...
I really don't mean to torture you, but I have to share dessert.
Franca's out of this world Tiramisu ... mmmm
We sat and talked for quite some time, though I can't even tell you what about, but I remember the feeling. It was all wonderful, and such a lovely evening, with these beautiful people.
There will be more photos of La Fontanella to come! And you will see photos of Franca! I got so into the moment that night, the photography fell off.
I had a cooking lesson with Franca, a few days later, as a birthday gift from my sister Penny. Plus, I ate there again with more new friends, the night before I left! So basically, I ate there 3 out of my 6 nights in Assisi.
The next day, after the bonfire, the magic continued. In fact, after arriving that Friday afternoon, the magic went on through the weekend, and my birthday. I mean, it's always wonderful there, but you will see ... all the magic. It really felt like the world, for a time, was sprinkled with fairy dust.
For more about Franca and La Fontanella, click here.
The address is ...
Via Bernardo da Quintavalle 7
06081 Assisi, Italy
Her numbers are on the link.
For more on Anne Robichaud, Umbrian guide extraordinaire, click here.
For more on the La Madonna tradition, click here.
It would seem that the following video has nothing do with Italy but ... It really was Magic there!!! So, it is perfect.
Everything is actually magical
When you see it with your heart
~via Alice Facebook.com/wonderlandsteatray
Blessing and light!
And a whole lot of magic to come!