Saturday, March 29, 2008

Milan - 2nd Day (3/02/08)

Breakfast at La Villa Ciardi was an elaborate affair. Cereal and juice, magnificent pasteries, great expresso and cappuccino, even Cafe Americano and tea for the caffeine sensitive traveler and to our surprise, cheese and cold cuts.

Afterwards, we had a few minutes to walk around the hotel grounds to see the beautiful surroundings. The up-close and clear view of the Dolomites, the most distinctive and beautiful mountains in northern Italy, was breath taking.

While a sound night's sleep and such good nourishment helped us prepare physically for the bus trip to Milan, we couldn’t ever be prepared emotionally for the events of this special day. Giancarlo, our friendly bus driver for the next five days, did a great job in getting us into Milan. Driving on the autostrade (turnpike) with speeding Italian drivers was a challenging experience for us. Fr. Joe bravely riding shotgun, with Sue and Kelly seated behind Giancarlo, can all attest to Giancarlo's skill!

Castello Sforzesco was our drop off site. Built in the 14th century and damaged during World War II, the castle now houses several musems and serves as a hub for many outdoor activities in the city.

From the castle we walked to the Basilica di Sant Ambrogio, an ancient and beautiful structure that we had time to explore. The Church of St. Ambrose holds the bone relics of St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan who, as we learn in the Confessions, was a central figure in the life of Augustine. At first, Augustine was only interested in Ambrose as an accomplished speaker. Eventually, the words Ambrose speaks - those from Holy Scripture - penetrate Augustine's heart and lead not only to his conversion but reception into the Church.

Next we headed for the center of Milan. Walking along the back streets of this interesting city of shops and ancient buildings with everyone speaking Italian, Fr. Joe continued to guide and advise at every turn. Finally, we came out onto the Via Dante street – in the distance to our left was the castle and to our right at the end of Via Orefici was the giant Duomo of Milan. There were so many colorful shops and outdoor restaurants down both wide avenues. But the focus of our eyes was the giant cathedral with its spires, one of the largest Gothic churches in the world. We felt so small compared to this enormous cathedral.

When it was time to enter the cathedral, Fr. Joe secured tickets that allowed the group to see where Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose. Some of us expected that we would be going somewhere behind the main altar to see a typical baptisimal font - a large, round vessel on a pedestal. So it came as a surprise that we were going to go down into the lower level of the church. As we descended the steps we were overwhelmed by the sense of silence, reverence, and amazement: before us was the original large walk-in pool-size baptismal for total emersion.

Fr. Joe led us in a beautiful prayer service. Three brief scripture readings were followed by recommitment to our baptismal promises. As we shared the sign of peace, each person was truly moved. Here we were at the site where Augustine was baptized. We sensed a spiritual union with him through our own baptismal renewal. Who would have thought that we would ever have this unique opportunity for prayer and refelction?

When we returned upstairs to the main part of the 14th century church, we carried with us an experience that we will never forget. We attended the Sunday Liturgy at the cathedral (in Italian). In addition, the Mass was celebrated in the Ambrosian rite. Fr. Joe had alerted us to watch for subtle differences that many of us were able to observe, even though the liturgy was not in our native language. We saw and heard the great diversity of the universal church to which we belong.

Following the Mass, we had free time: Beth and a few brave souls went to the top of the Duomo for an amazing view of the city, others went walking through the glass-ceiling, dome-covered Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping mall, and others just enjoyed walking around this exciting city. After another wonderful Italian meal at the outdoor restaurants, we joined our tired fellow pilgrims on the way back to the castle. All present and accounted for, we boarded the bus for the hotel.

We had a short while to rest up at the hotel before our evening with the Alpini group, who were hosting us for an Italian dinner. We had met two members of the Alpini group, Mario and Giuseppe, the day before at the Augustinian Center at Cassago Brianza. We met at their lodge (similar to our VFW lodges) only to be greeted with such warm hospitality that by the end of the evening we felt that we had known these folks forever. While we ate a wonderful meal with a prosciutto appetizer, risotto with sausages, and a beef platter, we spoke at length with and were especially impressed by two young Alpini, Roberto and Paolo, who used the occasion to practice their English.

After Grappa and Limoncello, one of the highlights of the evening was Giuseppe's presentation of a birthday cake for St. Augustine. Called St. Monica’s cake, it was made from a recipe, that they swear, “has been handed down through the ages.” As it turned out, the Society had actually held a contest to create an "authentic" cake from the times of Augustine and Monica. She must have been an excellent baker!

Fr. Joe entertained us with his guitar, and there was singing all around, as the Alpinis regaled us with Italian folk songs.

After the Alpini entertained us with their songs, the night ended with an invitation from our guests to express our solidarity with each other by singing our national anthems. It was an unanticipated moment to reflect on a more recent historical past - we singing the American anthem and the Alpini singing the Italian. The emotion of this heartfelt tribute caught us by surprise.

Our wonderful evening came to a close with presentations of small gifts - inadequate expressions of what had been given and received that night - then hugs and goodnights to people who gave us such a special memory. We were all mentally and physically exhausted on the way back to La Villa Ciardi, silently recalling our special day in Milan and our new friends.

Thanks to pilgrims Joe and Susanne for providing this record of the second day of our pilgrimage, and to all who have shared photographs for this entry.

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