It is difficult to put into words the magnitude and scale of Assisi in terms of religious and political history over the centuries. When you first arrive here, the antiquity of the region and the buildings are overwhelming, especially to those of us whose countries do not offer any historical landmarks beyond the 16th century. The closest I have come in terms of historical span by comparison, is India or shall we say, South Asia in general.

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Sta Maria delle Rose ©MTHerzog

First stop of the day was an unusual Marian art installation in Santa Maria delle Rose (Our Lady of the Rose), a former church that has been converted into a museum. There is only one theme, Mary, and the work is of a single artist: Guido Dettoni. The exhibit is essentially a variation of a single piece, a sculpture of Mary done in such a way that the angle at which you look at it summaries her entire life: kneeling, carrying water, pregnant, carrying her child, and as dove of piece.  There are 33 wooden carvings, representing the age of Christ, and each one is carved from a different type of wood from around the world. The light of Holy Spirit, and placing Mary as the Alpha and Omega in life are all incorporated in this stunning collection, if you can even call it that. It was one of those moments where I was torn between staring and photographing, so I sat on a bench and did both, lost in a trance of my own until Champagne fell off the bench, complete with backpack and all and created a ruckus.

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Basilica di San Francesco lower portals

Leaving Sta. Maria delle Rose and following a charming walk through alleys and staircases leading the Basilica di San Francesco gave me time to shift gears. Based on the photos I had seen, I knew what awaited me, but nothing prepares you for the first view of the basilica. My initial instinct was to point the camera in different directions and start shooting, instead, Champagne and I chose a quiet corner along the side of the main church and watched the people. There is a security control upon entering the complex, and the soldiers who inspected my bags were highly amused at the cat and her unusual pack. They even tapped on it to find out the material and I assured them it was not bulletproof.

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Upper church of the Basilica ©MTHerzog

Like most other major religious landmarks around the world, it is difficult to pray in peace inside such a place, all I have to do is think of Notre Dame and Sacre Coer in Paris or Santa Croce in Florence. There are so many people exploring the place like a museum rather than treating it as a place of prayer that the solemnity is lost. I tried my best, however, and still spent some prayer time before approaching the Franciscan monk for a personal blessing, request masses, and the special Franciscan blessing for Champagne, since Saint Francis is the patron saint of animals. The monk (who was either Vietnamese or Thai) smiled broadly when I placed the cat on his table, and flipped through his prayer book quickly to find the animal blessing. She was a bit surprised to be suddenly sprinkled with water, and snorted in response.

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Abbey of San Pietro (St. Peter) ©MTHerzog

Whatever time I couldn’t find for solemn prayer at the Basilica I definitely found in the Abbey of San Pietro. This monastery has been in Assisi since 970 AD and is home to a small benedictine community of Cassinese monks. There are no milling crowds to distract or tour guides explaining the frescoes on the walls, it is pure and simple prayer time.

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The Ascension ©MTHerzog

Outside on the church grounds of San Pietro there is modern sculpture that jars the senses with its abstract form. Unlike the old stones of the abbey, this metal wave is called The Ascension (Himmelfahrt) and could be referred to more as a slide than anything else.