My very first group pilgrimage was with my home parish in June of 2005. We were traveling to Rome and Assisi for the Pallium Mass of our new Archbishop, Wilton Gregory.
I’d been to Rome and Assisi many times, and thought I knew my way around. I was wrong.
With temperatures soaring into the 100’s, my group arrived in Assisi. After several exhausting days battling the Roman heat, we were looking forward to some rest and relaxation in this peaceful Umbrian hill town. Just as our bus was about to pull into the parking lot, I told them it would be about a ten minute walk up to our hotel. But, then something strange happened… the bus passed the lot and kept driving up. I asked where he was going and he said he was taking us to the upper lot. I didn’t know there was an upper lot. But, no worries, Assisi is easy to navigate. It’s only full of hills and a maze of twisting alleys with few street signs.
Sure enough, the bus pulled into an ‘upper lot’ and dropped us off. He showed me on the map where we were, and I was happy to see that we were even closer to the hotel than if we’d parked in the lower lot. This driver knew what he was doing! Unfortunately for the group, I did not.
I directed everyone to some escalators, then turned left to enter the city. After a few minutes, we walked past Santa Chiara, the basilica where Saint Clare is buried, and home to one of the best views in Assisi. We stopped briefly to gaze into the valley below and watch steam rise up from the vineyards, it was hot! Then we continued on.
Now, this is where it got tricky. Right here, just outside Santa Chiara, there is a fork in the road. One direction heads up, one down. Since the bus took us up and since the parking lot I was familiar with was down, I assumed we needed to go down just a bit and the hotel would be right there. A quick stealthy glance at the map confirmed this, the hotel was right over there. So, we headed down.
After a few minutes I realized something was amiss. There were no more crowds, and most importantly, no hotel. I consulted the map, but had absolutely no clue where we were. I thought maybe it was just a little further, so we marched onward.
About 15 minutes later, we ended up at the lower parking lot. At least I knew where I was now!
So here was my group, ages ranging from mid 20’s to early 80’s, standing at the bottom of Assisi, in front of the Basilica of Saint Francis. We’d already been walking downhill for about 20 minutes, with our luggage, mind you, in the heat of late June. Now we needed to turn and go back up hill. Thankfully, there was another fork in the road, so I didn’t have to admit my mistake and backtrack up the same road. So up we went.
We arrived at the hotel dripping with sweat and completely exhausted. A few of the older travelers looked like they might be near death, I’m quite sure I did as well. The owner was very confused as he knew where the bus dropped us. He took me outside and showed me Santa Chiara, which was literally right there! He also told me that I should have called when we arrived as he was prepared to pick up the luggage so we didn’t have to carry it.
Later that afternoon, we were scheduled to go to Santa Chiara for Mass. Several people said there was no way they were taking that hike again! I assured them that I knew a shortcut. Sure enough, we walked out of the hotel and got to the church in two minutes. Someone asked why we didn’t just go that way earlier, a lovely lady replied that I took them the scenic route. Everyone laughed and I turned bright red.
The point of this, the moral of the story, if you will, is that a lesson was learned… I no longer get lost.
When I travel now, it doesn’t matter how familiar I am with a place, I take every possibility into consideration. I visit each town before a group arrives. I walk every step the group will walk. Even in Rome, where I now live, I do a quick walk-through of every tour just days before my group arrives.
These are my recon missions. In essence, I am going out and scoping the land before my group arrives. I make sure everything is safe and efficient. Sidewalks can close, a cobble can come loose, shopkeepers get more annoying and desperate, a new gelateria may open – it’s best to know these things before leading a group of 30 people!
So, while it may not always be ideal to learn on the job, it is always important to learn from our mistakes.