This past Sunday, I went to worship at Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo, here in Cetona. What a wonderful, uplifting service! Not being Roman Catholic or Italian, much of the mass was a mystery to me (although various phrases like Padre e Figlio e Spirito Santo and mia colpa, mia colpa, mia grandissima colpa and Credo in un solo Dio, Padre onnipotente, creatore del cielo e della terra are pretty self evident!) But my lack of familiarity with the language and liturgy didn't matter one iota. I felt welcome, even though nobody greeted me...actually, in this place, I felt more welcome than if someone had specifically greeted me, if that makes sense. A few nods of the head in my direction felt like ok, you belong here, no need to make a fuss about it. And the music, oh how uplifting it was!! The joyful noise of the small praise band filled me with joy too! Especially when they sang a tune familiar to me (Seek ye first the kingdom of God) and I was able to add my voice to the alleluia chorus.
I was unexpectedly touched by the passing of the peace as well. I have never truly understood the intent of this practice. That is, I know what is about intellectually but , for me, with any spiritual practice, I need to feel the Spirit move before I can gain understanding...and I had never felt that with the passing of the peace, until now. At home, it is usually treated as a social occasion, a meet and greet kind of affair...or else a responsive "peace be with you" - "and also with you" routine that strikes me as forced and awkward.
But here in Italy, I have discovered that everyone simply says "pace" (pronounced PAH-chay, Italian for peace) with deep intention, there is no conversation involved. An old man, elegant with the grace and beauty that comes with age, turned to me, smiled the kindest smile in the history of smiles, looked in my eyes and said pace with his voice, his heart, his soul...and then turned to someone else to offer the same. How could my own soul not respond to such a gift and share it in return? I was indeed flooded with the peace of God...now I understand what this act of passing the peace is all about! I give thanks for encountering the Christ in this wonderful man, who opened my heart to a new understanding of a very old spiritual practice.
After this awesome worship experience, I walked back to our house to rejoin Mom, and we set out for an afternoon of driving around Val d'Orcia. We stopped into Abbazia di Spineto, an old abbey which has been converted into a conference centre - now this is a place to hold a retreat!! And they seemed to have lots of horses, or perhaps they rent out their fields. It was a beautiful spot.
We then carried on our way, moving south toward Radicofani. This is an old town perched way up the mountains...780 meters above sea level. Radicofani will forever be memorable to me as my only really bad driving moment of the trip! I was driving along a street and, for no apparent reason, suddenly we came upon a barricade and the street was temporarily blocked off. No problem, I thought, I'll just turn around in this little road to the left, so I pulled in a ways, intending to back up and onto the street. Big mistake. The little road to the left was such a steep incline that our little car quite literally could not back out of it. Ok...I'll just drive down into this other driveway, turn around, and then drive out. Except the street was such a steep incline that our little car could not start away in first gear either (and mom can attest that it was not that I cannot drive a standard on a hill! I've started away on some doozies over here, but in this case, I just couldn't get the car do more than lurch a couple inches before it stalled out.) Ok...so now I am facing uphill, unable to go forward, no choice but to back down this incredible narrow and steep street, with motorcycles parked inches away on the right, and cars parked inches away on the left. But I managed it somehow, and came to a fairly level dead end side street, where I stopped and collected myself. I was having a slight panic attack, thinking oh shit, I've got this rental car and Mom stuck down a little hell hole of a road in a remote hill town in southern Tuscany...and I'll never get them back out!! After a couple minutes, I decided the only thing to do was to get a run on out of this level side street, gun it up the hill straight out onto to the road at the top, and pray for no oncoming traffic. (Seriously...I was not stopping for anyone!) As evidenced by the fact that I am writing this entry, we obviously made it out alive! lol But then I was in no mood to visit Radicofani's amazing looking fortress...I just wanted to get out of this place, so back on the road we went. Mom remained relatively unphased during this fiasco, having figured that if I was unable to get the car out, we'd enlist the help of some local men to push, pull or otherwise extract us from our predicament!
Leaving Radicofani, we turned back north toward Contignano. The road we took ran along the top of the mountain ridge and was breathtaking, stunning, windswept, remote...awesome...awe-some. Photos do not begin to do it justice. My soul soared on this mountaintop. And we also encountered sheep, very peculiar sheep with tails...we'd never seen the like! Of course, even without the tails, we would have been entranced by a random herd of sheep wandering the mountain road with no shepherd or farms in sight!
Atop the highest section of the ridge was a knoll where the power lines ran...naturally I had to climb up! It was spectacular, the wind was warm and strong, the grasses a gorgeous golden shade, the landscape below contained such variety of colour and texture. I texted Valerie to say I was high on a mountaintop! Reluctantly coming down from the mountain, we drove up to Abbazia di Sant'Antimo, a 12th century (former Benedictine) abbey renowned for its Gregorian chant.
Alas, hearing the chant was not in the cards for us. We did not feel like hanging around for a couple hours, so thought perhaps we'd go and get a bite to eat, then return for the next service, 6:30 vespers. Finding a restaurant open at 5 pm in semi-rural Italy is considerably easier said than done! Twas a task that proved impossible for us, so we abandoned that plan and carried on our way. We thought Montalcino might be a good place to stop for supper. It is very picturesque from a distance...
But left a sour taste in our mouths. We pulled into one of the little pay parking lots and walked over to the ticket machine to get a receipt to put in the dashboard. We were away from the car for a brief couple minutes and only went about 15 feet away...but when we returned to put this receipt on our dash, there was a parking violation ticket for 39 euro on our windshield and not a soul in sight! It was like the parking police were waiting to swoop in as soon as someone left a car unattended for two seconds and then vanish whence they came. Truly it was bizarre. (We haven't paid it yet...Alessandra, owner of our rental house, said she will check into it when she returns to Cetona on Friday, including calling Montalcino for more information. But I suspect we will end up paying, just to avoid the exorbitant processing fees to be incurred if we don't - because we are driving a rental car, and the rental agency will charge us if the ticket ends up going to them for payment.) I advise anyone who visits Montalcino to be very wary of leaving the car unattended for even a couple minutes. And did I mention that we ourselves will never be returning to Montalcino? Once was enough, we have no wish to repeat such a distasteful experience!
And so our tourist dollars were spent instead in the lovely spa town of Bagno Vignoni. We had a very tasty meal at La Terrazza restaurant, overlooking this town "square" of water. Mom had a melt-in-the-mouth piece of beef on a bed of greens, while I had the veal slices with roasted potatoes. Pricey, but yummy!!
After our meal, we headed home. It would have been nice to have strolled around a little, but it was getting late and we were an hour away from home in a strange land, driving on strange (and curvy!) roads, so we thought best to get on our way as soon as we'd eaten. Actually took close to an hour and a half to get home. I discovered night time driving on the steep winding roads requires a great deal more concentration and energy than driving them by day! Those hairpin corners loom suddenly out of the dark, even though there is an excellent system of reflective markers. Also, the signs are really hard to read in the dark! So everytime we encountered a signpost, I had to slow down and peer at the signs to see which way to go. Ok, so I could have turned on the GPS, but where's the challenge in that?? (I actually find the GPS rather annoying, much prefer to navigate on my own, although is comforting to know we have a back up plan in case of emergency.) Plus this way I get to feel really impressed with my driving skills!! lol
By the way, next entry will be our visit to Cortona (which, I just realized, happened the day before the above adventures, but apparently I have lost all track of time over here in this ageless paradise!