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 100s, 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 private coach 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, what with all the hills, a maze of twisting alleys, and very 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 farther, so we marched onward. It was 101°.
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 20s to early 80s, 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 was supposed to call when we arrived as he was prepared to pick up the luggage so we didn’t have to carry it.
As we were checking in, I mentioned to the people that we would meet in the lobby at 7 PM to go to dinner. The hotel owner said, “no, 8 PM.” I was confused as to why he was telling me when we were going to dinner. So after the people headed to their rooms to freshen up, I explained that our dinner was at this nearby trattoria at 7 PM. He said, “no, you have dinner at this restaurant.” He then explained that I had booked the group for half board. I had no idea what that meant at the time, but it means dinner is included.
I asked if we could cancel the dinner for tonight and have it tomorrow instead. He explained that the food was already bought and the servers were already scheduled.
So I ran next door to the trattoria where I made the dinner reservation and explained to them my issue and asked if I could move the dinner to the next night. I was told that normally it would not be a problem, but tomorrow there were closed. She said I could instead have lunch today. This meal was the thing I was most excited about in Assisi. So I switched to lunch.
I ran back to the hotel and called everyone’s room and told them we were headed to lunch. I can’t say they were all excited to leave immediately after that march I’d just led them on, but once the wine started flowing, they cheered up.
The restaurant brought each of us a whole plate of mixed appetizers. There were meats, cheeses, a quiche, and some vegetables. Not really familiar with how an Italian pranzo works, the people were thanking me for a lovely lunch, thinking that was it.
Next came out one of my favorite dishes in all my group meals, a spinach and ricotta ravioli with butter and sage sauce. At this point the owner asked if I’d like to sample the local meats. Although I too was getting full, a few glasses of wine after the stressful morning got me excited to try something new. As people finished their pasta, they again started thanking me for a great lunch. Then the meat came out.
When the owner said “sample” I thought she meant some small portion the table would share. Nope. This was a whole plate of local meat for each person. There was wild bore, rabbit, two things I can’t remember, and sadly, if you know me, pidgeon.
The group again thanked me as they finished their large plates of meat. Then the salad came out.
After the salad, people were sure we were done eating lunch. But no, I had also ordered the cheese plate. Several local cheeses served with honey and whatever jams are currently in season. By this point, it’s nearly 4 PM. People have enjoyed a lot of wine and a lot of food. Most had forgotten about the long hot walk, but were ready for a shower and a nap. People started getting up, again thinking we were done. But we were not done. It was time for dessert. A beautiful white chocolate mousse.
They ate it. They loved it. Many said they would not need anything else for the rest of the day.
So I told them we’d be meeting back in the lobby at 8 PM for dinner.
Dinner was a plate of mixed appetizers, spinach and ricotta ravioli with butter and sage sauce, a plate of meat with potatoes, a side of salad, and some random dessert.
Anyway, that’s how I nearly killed my very first pilgrimage group twice in one day. Once by heat and again by gluttony.