Listening to the Echoes of St. Francis in Poggio Bustone

Rest day, May 22, 2013 — Poggio Bustone
20130522-123012.jpgThe panoramic view from our room as we awoke, window closed

20130522-123107.jpgThe panoramic view an hour later, window open

As I write this post I’m sitting in the shade next to a statue, overlooking the Church of St James above Poggio. It was here and at the cave above that Francis of Assisi would begin to gather the spiritual strength and vision that would propel him from Spain to Jerusalem and many places between, and that would begin his order of brothers and his message of simplicity and trust.

The day began with a cloudy walk to breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant. Poggio Bustone sits midway up a tall peak and seems often to be obscured by the clouds that enfold the mountain.

After breakfast we climbed up to the Convento San Giacomo, where Francis had experienced a genuine sense of forgiveness from God and joy in life. A Methodist would say “his heart was strangely warmed.” It was a key moment in his development and there are small portions of the cloisters that contain parts of the church Francis would have seen and perhaps touched.

As we were walking out of the church we met a Sikh yogi, Capt. Brij Paul Singh of India (formerly a police officer in London at Scotland Yard) and his two Italian guides. Capt. Singh is a gracious man, a disciple of Ravi Shankar, who teaches yoga breathing all around the world.

After our pleasant visit the others in our group headed up to the cave above the church while I waited at the viewpoint below to write, meditate and pray while enjoying the warmth of the sun and the gentle singing of birds.

20130522-160902.jpgFrom left: Andreas, Sebastian, Jacqueline, me

At this point, about halfway through this pilgrimage, I’m starting to feel strong, relaxed and joyful. I’ve started to discover once again this part of me that wants to talk to everyone, to hear their story and to share our joy together. This feature has been noticed by the others in our group. In fact, we’ve assigned ourselves specific roles in our walk.

*Jacqueline — maker of plans and keeper schedules
*Sebastian — cutter of things (mostly fruit and cheese)
*Andreas — singer of songs (often “Liturgical, post-Rock” but sometimes hymns or Hobbit or dwarf songs of Middle Earth) sung in a tenor voice with Swedish/Finnish accent,
*Sandy — Talker of words

I’m sure the words come easily because of the friendliness and openness of these Italians. But I know too that walking in nature for days fills my soul with the fullness that comes only from solitude, and that fullness spills out when I meet others.

So, I’ve learned to speak my version of Italian — it’s Spanish, only louder — and people seem ok in their understanding of it. I’ve become the one who asks directions or prices or times and I feel myself reaching toward a grandmother or a farmer or a tight-jeaned motorcyclist with a smile brimming over with joy.

I know too that being the talker of words comes from my informal role as Dad of this little group. Sebastian is a responsible fireman from Bonn, but he’s still young, just 32. Jacqueline is a youthful 34, and Andreas is just 23. My 55 years gives me senior status and usually the youngsters defer to me in negotiations with the locals.

But I know my heart is full, too, because of the spirit of this place. Francis walked these hills and prayed at these churches and found God among these people and these birds under this beautiful sun. His spirit persists like the echoes of a song, a simple song of joy and love beyond words, ringing quietly in these mountains upward toward heaven, the stars and God. I want to sing his song with my life and live always in that simple, trusting place of warmth and grace and love.

20130522-152429.jpgA plaque at the top of yesterday’s climb — the prayer of St Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”

Lost and Found on the Via San Francesco

May 21,2013 — Piediluco to Poggio Bustone

Last night’s dinner was over-the-top delicious and plentiful, which led us to wonder how much we would owe for the privilege of enjoying it. We’d made a bargain with the hotel/restaurant proprietor yesterday to rent a room, then later agreed to have dinner too, but we realized we’d asked the price for the room but not the dinner. This morning when we headed to reception to settle the bill we learned our per-person total was 70 euros for the rooms, dinner, breakfast wine and snacks in the afternoon, plus a big bottle of water for the road. Not a bad price really, but we realized we should be more careful in the future to get the whole price before confirming.

As we walked outside we were greeted by a cool, dry day with high clouds. We crossed our fingers, hoping the clouds would keep their moisture to themselves so we would have a dry climb up the anticipated 2100 ft (700 meter) elevation gain to Poggio Bustone, an important St. Francis site in the Rieti valley, just across the mountains standing before us.

20130521-210131.jpg“See the town on the mountain up ahead?” “Yes.” “Good. We are climbing there.”
As we turned out of Piediluco, passing the Italian National Crew (rowing) headquarters, we noticed a hill town high up ahead and wondered if it was Labro, our intermediate stop for the day.

Before long something important became obvious: the waymarks were becoming fewer and less noticeable. We had relied on a blue and yellow stripe combination since the very start, but now the blue was gone and an occasional, halfhearted yellow stripe haphazardly appeared. Our theory was that we’d just left the region of Umbria and now were in the region of Lazio, whose waymark caretakers aren’t as diligent as their Umbrian peers. The lack of good waymarks would become important as the day continued.

In spite of the infrequent trail markings we managed to make our way up a gravel road to Labro, about one quarter of today’s elevation gain. Labro is a typically quaint and gorgeous Italian hill town, with centuries-old tile roofed houses stacked atop each other, all of them clinging to steep hillsides and separated by cobbled streets.

Somehow we missed the “centro storico” (old city) with its crenelated walls and ended up walking on a road at mid-city height that spit us out without coffee or croissants at the police station on the edge of town. It was only 10:30 anyway, so we kept climbing up the asphalt road, then turned onto a gravel road next to a cow pasture with two classic, tiny Fiats rusting under a tree. “I want that one,” said a wise Andreas who recognized them as stylish, urban collectors’ items — anywhere but in Italy.

We followed the road as it snaked uphill several kilometers while it started to rain, then arrived at the little town of Morro Reatino, which was blessed with an open cafe. Though at 11:30 we were very ready for pizza we settled for coffee and croissants since pizza would not be served until noon.

During our snack we studied our Lazio guide booklet, which indicated the direction to Poggio Bustone. Less hungry now, we faithfully followed yhe scarce marking and vague guidebook directions in the cold rain. Higher and higher we walked until we reached the top of our climb where we were presented with a confusing intersection.

In one direction was a sign for Faggio Bustone, the “beech tree of St. Francis” where tradition says he prayed and performed a miracle. In another direction were the yellow waymarks, seemingly pointing to Poggio Bustone, our goal for the day, but oddly north of the road we’d taken up — the opposite direction of Poggio. Our map suggested another possibility, that we go to the miraculous beech tree and walk past it to Poggio. The final option was presented by a shepherd, sitting in his old, white Rabbit pickup, who pointed vaguely at the road we’d just come up as the road to Poggio.

20130521-210340.jpgTiny chapel at the Beech Tree of St. Francis
After a discussion of several minutes we opted to follow the map. During an hour of uphill climbing we met several handsome tan colored horses, a half dozen white cows, and two Swiss hikers — coming toward us, in their words: “in the direction of Poggio Bustone.” We now realized we were lost. We tried our cell phones to see if we could find our location on a suitable map. No signal.

By now it was 2:30 and I started to do a calculation in my mind of a) the amount of daylight left, b) the amount of food we had with us, and c) the downward direction of the temperatures.

We stopped to discuss where to go. Straight ahead would take us north. Going back would cost us another hour of time. Finally we opted to head back to the Beech Tree, where we’d seen our last waymark.

Fifty minutes later we were back at the Beech Tree chapel, where our Swiss friends were taking their lunch. While the others in our party shared the little bits of cheese, crumbled bread sticks and cherry tomatoes we had left, I walked down across a large meadow and found a new set of waymarks –red and white stripes — one of which had two welcome words written on it in black marker: “Poggio Bustone.”

We briefly headed back to the confusing intersection, which we still couldn’t sort out, then finally opted to follow the red/white striped waymarks I’d scouted back near the chapel. These waymarks, it turned out, were meticulously painted, leaving no doubts about our direction. Following the markings we picked our way down a steep, slippery trail to a dirt road below. Our direction clearly was now southerly and carefully following the markings we found ourselves after two hours on the outskirts of the scenic town of Poggio Bustone (applause!).

20130521-210443.jpgOur view to below after climbing 2100 ft (700 meters)

None of us were ever scared in the slightest that we might have to overnight in the cold, wet mountains of Lazio, but we all knew we could begin to see the limits of our stamina and the potential dangers ahead. The red/white markers were a huge relief and the kilometers melted away under our tired feet.

As we walked down the gravel road to Poggio Bustone we were startled by a large, white cow who charged out of the bushes ahead of us. We noticed her udder was dry and that she was quite alone in this very remote stretch of mountain territory. Since we’d walked throughout the valley we knew quite well that the nearest herd was at least 2-3 kilometers away, and we felt for her as our presence on the isolated road inadvertently nudged her farther and farther down the valley. Later, as we entered Poggio we saw an old, bleached cow skull and thought about life and death in the remote mountains and about the lone cow somewhere in the hills without her herd.
20130522-092734.jpgIn Sebastian’s words, “In a couple more wrong turns we would have looked like this.”

We’d made a reservation at La Locanda Francescanna in Poggio and were surprised to be greeted by its proprietor as we made our way into town. He’d driven to the end of the road, where the path spills out on the north side of town, perhaps to check up on our well being. It was 5:30, a few hours more than a normal walk should take from Piediluco, and we were late to receive his hospitality.

His employee greeted us kindly at the hotel’s reception desk, then we rested and showered before enjoying an ample dinner at the hotel’s restaurant a few blocks away from the hotel itself. OK, yes. We did get lost getting to the restaurant. But we’re used to that by now!

Package price for overnight, dinner and breakfast? A prearranged 45 euros. We’d learned our lesson about pre-negotiating our price, as I think we also learned not to be caught under-prepared for a hike in the cool, wet mountains of Lazio.