Editor's Note: Sorry for the delay: Here's Kevin's wrap-up on the trip to Italy. All photos are courtesy of Kevin Sage.. Check out Lino's show all week for more Italy hijinks from the Vatican!
The head of St. Catherine of Siena, at the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena on day 7. Creepy.
A full day in Assisi, with NO BUS! I can't tell you how great it was to hear we'd have an entire day to just hang out and not be trucked all over a big city. We started the day with a long walk downhill to the Basilica of St. Francis, perched on the edge of the hill with a large courtyard in front of it. A beautiful sight itself, and also offering fantastic views of the valley below, it actually consists of both an upper basilica, and the older, lower basilica, where St. Francis himself is buried. Lino, and many others in our group, were thrilled to find they could get in without pants on. Hey-oh! (They DID have shorts on though, just in case you were scared!) We celebrated Mass with Fr. Rob in one of the chapels of the lower basilica, then visited the tomb of St. Francis. One of the few places in Italy where you can light a real candle, the tomb is also setup with a lot of short pews so you can take time to pray and reflect. It was very moving.
We also visited a room in the lower basilica full of relics of St. Francis. I'm afraid I'm not sure what most of them were since the explanations were all in Italian, but they had his slippers from when he had the stigmata, other garments of his, and several other relics. The lower basilica also features one painting that was painted by a friend of St. Francis, so it is believed to be the most accurate image of him. After that we entered a small courtyard and then upstairs to the upper basilica. For my money, the upper basilica was much less interesting...it had some nice art but didn't have the feel of history and importance of the lower basilica. Still, very beautiful.
Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi on day 6
After the visit, we walked back up the hill to the Basilica of Santa Chiara (St. Clare), just down the street from our hotel. The main sanctuary is nice, but the two must-see's here are the original San Damiano cross that spoke to St. Francis to rebuild the church (located in a side chapel) and the tomb of St. Clare, down below the main altar. There is also a room below the sanctuary containing a large number of St. Clare's relics, including her hair, her tunic, and lots of other items. Very cool. Shockingly, nobody in our group got kicked out of either basilica...we were all very well behaved for once.
After that we were supposed to see the Cathedral of St. Ruffino, but we were running late and it had closed for lunch, so we had free time instead. Luckily, Norvina and I had stumbled onto the Cathedral the day before. The most important thing to see there is the baptismal font where St. Francis and St. Clare were both baptized. Anyway, after St. Clare's, Norvina and I went exploring and wandered down to San Damiano church. It's WAY down the hill, outside the main city, down a little narrow road out in the sun. It was so hot, my cheap watch melted off my arm. Literally. The part of the watch the band hooks to melted off, and the watch fell off my arm. Yikes!
At any rate, San Damiano was very cool. There's a very small church where the original San Damiano cross once hung back when it spoke to St. Francis...now a replica hangs in it's place. We saw a picture of Pope Benedict visiting the church. You can also wander through the living quarters and see where St. Clare sang in the choir, where she slept, where she died, and several other rooms. It was really neat to see, and given the location, the view, and the quiet, it's about as contemplative as you can get. Unfortunately the walk back up the hill was not so great, as it was really hot.
That night we had another group dinner at our hotel overlooking the valley. I guess everyone was hanging out on the second floor balcony beforehand and got a nice group picture, but we missed it because we were out wandering around. Anyway, dinner was great...we sat with Fr. Rob who was hilarious as always, and the lasagna was simply unbelievable, even for Italy. Best joke of the night though goes to Bad-Back Rob, who at one point blurted out to everyone (regarding Lino): "At what point did he realize the listeners are funnier than he is?" Lino replied that Rob isn't allowed on the next pilgrimage!
The crew with our tour leader Mountain on the Ponte Vecchio after dinner on day 8
After a good night's sleep (for some of us...others were enjoying the vino in the main city square), we boarded a bus to leave Assisi and drove to Siena. Although not on the original schedule, Siena was added in since we'd missed Orvieto. Upon arriving in the very hilly City of Siena, we walked straight to the Basilica of St. Catherine of Siena. After viewing her head (yes, her head) we celebrated Mass with Fr. Rob in a small chapel behind her head. We were not supposed to take pictures of her head, but of course, we did. Personally I find the idea of decapitating your saints so you can display their heads a bit morbid, but what do I know?
We also made a quick visit to the city square, where they do horse races around the cobbled square several times a year. After a quick lunch, it was back on the bus and off to Florence, which, to my surprise, was a much shorter drive than expected. During the drive, the crew announced monikers for all of us, some more creative and funny than others. My personal favorites: Bad Back Rob, Black-Out Brad, and Longhorns (hey-oh!) Adam. Also: live versions of Scathegories and Catholic Password!
Upon arriving in Florence, we drove up to Lino's favorite spot: the Piazzale Michelangelo. Those of you who have been listening for a while will recognize this spot as where Lino goes every time he visits Florence, to listen to some Foo Fighters. It's really awesome, because it overlooks the whole city, and is right above the river Arno. Only problem is it's in the blazing sun. Fr. Rob, who was still wearing his collar, was not enjoying the heat. While there, Lino posed with pictures with all of us (individually), free of charge! We also took a group picture...the first one where the entire group was actually present, and Norvina and I got pictures with Fr. Rob, and with Lou and Ryan too. I don't have a copy of the group picture yet, but I'm going to be sure I get one from Lino.
Mountain (our tour leader) explaining the San Damiano cross to the group in front of Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi on day 6
Off-topic: There's no reason to put this paragraph here, except that talking about taking pictures reminded me of it... I think I've talked about everyone on the crew except Lou, so it's his time to shine. First off, his moniker given by the listeners on the "pilgrimage", is Eyelash Lou. Norvina has dubbed him "Faithful Servant" because he's very calm, funny, hard working, and just rolls with all the insanity that is Lino and Maureen (and Fr. Rob). He strikes me as a very humble guy, without the big ego you'd expect from a celebrity - yes Lou, you ARE a celebrity, like it or not! He's also definitely the healthiest eater in the group by far (though the group is not setting real high standards there...) So anyway, just wanted to show Lou some love! In a totally manly way of course.
Back to Florence: Our hotel is right in the middle of things, a couple blocks from the Cathedral. After freshening up, we visited the Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. The church is beautiful, with the outside covered in white and green marble, and it's huge...the fourth-largest in the world. Inside is rather plain (by design, according to our guide), except for the elaborate frescoes inside the enormous dome designed by Brunelleschi. The baptistry immediately across from the Cathedral features two huge doors, covered in gold-leaf relief panels depicting scenes from the bible. Incredible. The inside features elaborate gold-leaf Byzantine mosaics, which are also incredible. Also inside the baptistry is the tomb of one of the anti-Popes, who later became a bishop again, which was kinda weird.
Our last bit of business was to visit the Galleria de Uffizi (an art gallery and former palace) to view various pieces of art by Da Vinci, Raphael, and other famous painters. I'd have to say most of our group was very tired by that point, and the long tour of the gallery was brutal...yet another "three hour tour". I wish I could say I really absorbed all our guide was saying, but that would be very untrue. At any rate, the art was interesting.
Most people crashed that night, as we were all very tired. Lino went to dinner and a chunk of the group (maybe half?) followed him to a local favorite of his. Personally, I was in my room sleeping like a rock by the time they probably started eating.
Norvina Sage (left) with former TCGS producer Ryan Stewart, assistant producer Lou Ruggieri and post author Kevin Sage, husband of Norvina, at the Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking Florence on day 7
We got to sleep in! With no organized activities until 2:15, we had all morning to do what we wanted. Norvina and I just wandered around, over the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge, and around some side streets. Frankly, even afer a solid night of sleep, we were still tired so we took it easy.
At 2:15 we gathered together again and visited the Galleria dell' Accademia just behind our hotel to see Michelangelo's famous statue of David. It's really amazing to see the detail he put into it...anatomically correct (hey-oh!) in every way, down to the veins in his arms, hands, and legs, other than the overly large right hand, which we think somehow symbolizes the power of God that helped him defeat Goliath. Photos are not allowed...but I suspect you'll see some floating around Facebook soon.
Next we visited the Basilica of Santa Croce, where Fr. Rob celebrated Mass in a small chapel to the side of the main altar. It was brutally hot...Lino looked like he was about to pass out when we left the chapel after Mass, and Fr. Rob couldn't see because of the sweat burning his eyes. Seriously, it was really hot. After Mass, we toured the church to see the tombs of some famous Florentines, like Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli.
Finally, after a quick break, we walked together from the hotel, past the Cathedral, past the town square, over the Ponte Vecchio, to a very nice restaurant for our last (sniff, sniff) dinner together before we all head back home. Dinner was great, and the restaurant overlooks the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio, and the edge of the city. It was a beautiful location. The crew (including Ryan and Fr. Rob) took turns giving farewell speeches, some of them actually getting emotional (not bad considering that at the start of the pilgrimage, they were afraid we'd all be nuts)! Lino went last and gave a lengthy farewell. Fr. Rob took the opportunity of the final dinner to do a blessing for Bad Back Rob and his wife Great Equipment Jennifer for their 25th wedding anniversary.
The fans also gave some "thank you" gag gifts to the crew, which I think you'll hear about on the show...the gifts were quite funny. Anyway, with that, we left and wandered back over to the Ponte Vecchio to watch the sunset. It was a surreal way to end the trip.
It's hard to believe it's already over!
Lino giving his farewell speech at dinner on day 8
Sadly, this is likely the last post about our trip together. Unless something really odd happens on the way to the airport tomorrow (sans Lino, Lou, Maureen, and Ryan), there shouldn't be anything more to report. It's been a tremendous amount of fun, and I'm sorry to see it end. As a couple people have said at dinner toasts, although Lino calls this the "worst pilgrimage of all time", it's also been the best trip of all time. I think I can speak for everyone here when I say we'd do it again in a heartbeat. Both the crew and the fans have been great and lots of fun.
I can't wait to see what Lino has to say about all this on-air from Vatican Radio next week!
Hope you've all enjoyed the reports as much as I've enjoyed sharing our experiences with you.
Kevin the Pseudo-Catholic
(or as Lino and crew are now calling me: Not Catholic Kevin)