Suitably saintly in Assisi

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May 20th 2010
Published: May 25th 2010
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We woke at 6am in preparation for our 7.30am bus trip to Assisi. A powerful espresso at the hotel jump-started us for the windy bus trip through the Umbrian hills to Perugia. After a quick stopover at the Perugia bus depot we continued on to Assisi, arriving in Santa Maria degli Angeli (a small town about 4km from the old Assisi township) at 10am.

Seriously short of underwear, we scouted Santa Maria degli Angeli for a self-service laundry before catching a bus to St Francis’ hometown. We wandered the streets of Assisi with busloads of bored (yet playful) students on enforced school trips, lunched on pizza and red wine and were awestruck by the panoramic views and claustrophobic corridors of the Rocca Maggiore. One of the many things I’ve inherited from my father is an immediate urge to climb to the highest point of any new place I visit, so I couldn’t resist the steep ascent to the Rocca Maggiore. This urge doesn’t always fare well with my fear of heights, so I couldn’t quite make the last three steps of one of the watchtowers, but I still managed to take in the magnificent vista of Assisi and the surrounding Umbrian terrain.

With countless icons, trinkets and Franciscan paraphernalia bought and sold by the hour, the irony of this town operating as a tourism goldmine was palpable. Yet as I walked through the Basilica di San Francesco, I realised many of the visitors were pilgrims. The tears running down the cheek of the woman praying silently and alone in the crypt of St Francis was incredibly moving, magnified in part by the swarms of people milling around her, oblivious to her sorrow. This Basilica was definitely not built for entertainment, and I should not have been a spectator here. But I loved being there with Ren when she placed a candle at St Francis’ crypt in honour of her grandmother. Travel is one of the greatest things to share with those you love.

We caught a bus back to Santa Maria degli Angeli at 6pm, washed our clothes at the laundry we’d scouted in the morning and headed back to the hotel for yet another amazing meal. My broad bean, pecorino and pancetta pasta was fantastic, as was the pork and side dish of potatoes (roasted with garlic and rosemary). After another altar wine and biscotti dessert, it was time to retire in readiness for tomorrow’s wine tasting in Spello.

We woke early, reorganised our hotel room (which resembled a laundry from the slightly damp washing the night before) and ventured out to see the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli before the tourist rush. The Basilica was spectacular, although overbearing in contrast to the small Porziuncola Chapel in the centre of the church. As we sat in the front pew, a Franciscan priest walked up to us, put his hand in his pocket, pulled out two plastic rosaries and handed them to us, smiling. I’ve often wondered if human nature has the capacity to embrace pure altruism, but this act of friendliness and kindness touched our hearts. There was a calmness surrounding the Porziuncola Chapel that I have never before experienced. We sat watching people ignoring the ‘no camera’ signs until it got too much for Ren, so she walked up to a German tourist, tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the ‘no camera’ sign. He shrugged his shoulders and kept taking pictures.

We returned to the hotel, caught a 10 minute train to Spello and walked into the centre of the city to the Enoteca Properzio for a fabulous afternoon of wine tasting (accompanied with fantastic food). We caught the train back to Santa Maria degli Angeli, headed straight to the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli for a second visit and then gathered some food and wine for an evening drink on the terrace of the hotel. With four pizzas and two bottles of red wine, we sat on the terrace with our fellow travellers and shared stories of the most memorable experiences of our journey so far. This had been a fantastic day - it had been both relaxing and rewarding, although we were becoming conscious that our time in Italy was short. We wanted to live here, not as tourists but as locals, and that was fast becoming an unreality. We had an early morning train to Rome, so we retired reasonably early in readiness for the trip. This was a night I didn’t want to end - the wind was warm, the mood was jovial and the food and wine shared between travel friends was great. There are times when you really want time to stand still, and tonight was one of those nights!

Two bus rides south (about two hours) found us in Assisi, home of St Francis. The experience of travelling through Umbria was unceasingly pleasurable. We were constantly surrounded by small villages each more charming than the last, isolated farmhouses, stone towers on hills, silhouettes of hill towns in the distance, and a colourful mix of vines, olive trees, and the reddest of red poppies sprouting from the ground.

When we discovered that our hotel - Hotel Trattoria da Elide was better known for its restaurant than its accommodation, we got a bit worried. But happily, it was a fabulous hotel and easily the best accommodation we have had on this trip. A few of the hotels we’ve stayed in have had fabulous locations but if we had had a cat in the room, we would not have been able to swing it. We could have easily swung three or four cats in this room should we have wished to...and several more in the bathroom, which was actually bigger than our entire room in our Rome and Florence hotels. 😊

Our hotel was in Santa Maria degli Angeli - about 4km from old Assisi, so we caught a bus to old Assisi and set off on our orientation walk with Alvaro. However we only got as far as Piazza Rufino and decided to stop for pizza at a local trattoria. Alvaro left us here but we had an appointed time of 4pm to meet him at the Basilica di San Francesco. So Pete, Susie, Andrew and I wandered through Assisi together. Unsurprisingly, the sights of Assisi are predominantly church orientated...the sprawling but magnificent Basilica di San Francesco, the striking Basilica di Santa Chiara, and the understated but imposing Duomo di San Rufino were the main attractions, but there were many other smaller churches, chapels and grottos that were all as interesting and as important in their own right.

Old Assisi is an enchanting town with rose coloured stone walls (the pink stone comes from nearby Monte Subasio), narrow staircases, and ancient doorways and passageways - just unbelievably beautiful. We were surprised at the high numbers of visitors and pilgrims here given it’s still not high season.

Assisi is a really easy town to navigate and we got to know it quite quickly. After visiting the churches, Andrew pointed to a massive watch tower - part of Rocca Maggiore that overlooks the town, and asked if anyone felt energetic enough for a climb. Dating back to the 12th century, the remnants of this impressive castle and fortress are perched on a walled hilltop overlooking Assisi and the surrounding countryside. Pete was very keen to explore but Susie and I had gelatos to finish and we were also still feeling the pain from the hike in Gubbio; but spurred on by enthusiastic comments from the boys, we all walked up (and up and up) into the hills behind the town and finally reached the fortress; and there was a magnificent view of old Assisi to be enjoyed from the top of this hill. The climb up to the ruins as well as the climb into the watchtowers was a fantastic experience. A fantastic and unexpected highlight was walking into a very very long but small and dark corridor between towers - very Alice in Wonderland. We were having such a good time that we lost track of time and suddenly realised that we only had 12 minutes to walk back to the Basilica di San Francesco for our 4pm appointment (which was about a 20 minute walk away). So we just about sprinted downhill, which seemed to amuse the local children but annoy the local dogs! 😄

The Basilica di San Francesco overlooks the rest of the town from an ironically serene looking hilltop which was once called Colle d’Inferno (Hell Hill) for the gallows here in the 13th century. Alvaro had arranged a guided tour of the Basilica for us, and Michael (an American Franciscan) gave us a very informative tour - covering not only the life of St Francis but also the context of the Basilica and the art history within it. The entire interior of the upper church of the Basilica is covered with that famous 28-part Giotto fresco that encircles the walls. The interior is quite airy and bright with massive stained glass windows and bright blue ceilings. Conversely, going downstairs into the lower church leads you into a small and almost claustrophobic space with its dark colours and lack of light; and the crypt under the lower church is darker again, with the body of St Francis lying directly under the altar of this lower church. The crypt has a beautiful quiet reverence about it. I love the feel of this entire Basilica very much and I lit a candle for Grandma here. However the entire time I was there I kept wondering what St Francis would have made of this massive and extravagant monument in his honour...St Francis who denounced riches and worldly goods, and who cared nothing for pomp and show...and who loved animals and nature. If I was commissioned to design a monument to honour his memory I think I would choose a nature reserve in the hills behind Assisi and build a small chapel that stood in the middle of two shelters - one for the homeless and one for animals.

Later on that evening, we were very happy that Alvaro organised a dinner at our renowned hotel restaurant - Trattoria da Elide. Our pasta of tonnelli (an oval sort of spaghetti) with broad beans, pancetta and percorino was brilliant; and so was the roast beef and pork we had for secondo. I had a semifreddo (not quite frozen ice cream) of Perugian chocolate for dolce, and as always I had no complaints. Surprisingly Andrew also ordered dessert - tezzetti con Vin Santo (biscotti soaked in altar wine) for the second night in a row. Andrew seems to be completely in love with this dessert. I had fully expected that we would leave Italy a few clothes sizes larger than when we arrived, but astonishingly all the walking seems to be counteracting the massive multiple course feasts and desserts...and that can only mean more gelato, tiramisu and panna cotta for me! The other lovely thing about eating at Trattoria da Elide is that after a late dinner, Mick, Jennie, Pete, Susie, Andrew and I could waddle straight up the stairs and into bed!

The next day we awoke early and walked the few metres to Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli, which is a huge church which literally contains the first Franciscan monastery and tiny Porziuncola Chapel within it. I have never seen a church within a church like this before and I could not help but fall in love with this place. However I now have to talk about a pet hate of mine...selfish, mindless tourists who have no respect for the ‘no photo’ and ‘silence’ signs posted around churches. It has been getting on my nerves for three weeks now, and this morning it got the better of me and I helped the Franciscan monks with crowd behaviour control by telling a German tourist off; it didn’t stop him from continuing to take photos but it did make me feel a whole lot better! In future I have vowed to use Claire’s more passive but very clever strategy (Claire travelled with us from Rome to Venice) and try and ruin as many photos in churches as I can by sticking my head into them. 😊

Later that morning we caught a train (10 minutes) to the small medieval town of Spello to visit an enoteca (wine bar) and taste their wines and regional food. Spello is perched on the side of Monte Subasio and apparently has many ancient Roman monuments such as town walls and city gates; but our mission here was enoteca-related and the many Roman monuments took a back seat for the day. Enoteca Properzio has a €30 deal where you can sample five Umbrian wines while snacking on all manner of bruschetta, salads, local cheeses, prosciutto and biscotti which were specifically matched to the white, red and dessert wines. While $45 might sound like a lot to Australians who are spoilt with free wine tastings at our superb wineries, in Umbria wineries rarely open to the public and this is the best and most fun way to get a feeling for a range of Umbrian wines. Much later as we waited at the train station for our train back to Assisi, our faces beamed with that intoxicating mix of utter happiness and a little too much good wine. We were so happy to be right here, right now, and experiencing this.

We went back to Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli later that evening to spend more time in this peaceful and beautiful space. We also very very surprisingly spent time in the church gift shop - who would have thought that we would have ever considered buying Franciscan paraphernalia? We are obviously slightly smitten by St Francis! 😊

On our walks around small towns in Italy, the solitary little old women ambling along the narrow streets with their shopping bags have been catching our eye. They all have short curly grey hair (no blue rinse indignity here), long cardigans, stockinged legs and sensible shoes. We often wondered what their houses were like, whose nonna they were and what they were cooking for dinner that night...we constantly wished that our Italian was good enough to chat to them.

Our last night in Umbria was a very sad one, but we cheered ourselves up with drinks and pizza on the lovely sunny deck of the hotel. If you looked to your right from the deck railing, you could see the dome and bell tower of Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli and thus hear the bells like you were right there in the bell tower with them! We (Mick, Jennie, Pete, Susie and us) had a very lovely night indeed, and because this was our second last night on this part of the trip, it seemed appropriate to recount the trip and nominate highlights and lowlights - but we took so long with the highlights that we never got around to the lowlights. It is hard to leave this gorgeous region and its delicious food.

Before I sign off in Umbria, I want to pass on a not-so-secret secret about the food here - it is soul fulfillingly good! 😄

We are now on our way back to Rome for a few days, and then on to the Campania region…


25th May 2010

I love following your story!
Hi, I've been following your story since I joined a couple weeks ago, and you are my favorite bloggers! My husband and I are leaving in about 48 hours for our first trip to Italy, actually our first trip outside the USA together, it's our 10th anniversary trip and we've been planning it forever it seems. Thanks for bringing Italy alive for me! Enjoy the rest of you trip! Jill
25th May 2010

Re: I love following your story!
Hi Jill - Italy is a magical place and we are sure you will have a wonderful time. Happy anniversary and safe travels. Do you plan on blogging while you travel? If so, email us your link...
31st May 2010

I agree with Gill - You two are brilliant bloggers. Italy really comes to life the way you have captured the parts of the country that are not so well known or advertised in the guide books. I think you guys should write/publish travel books. Which means you will have to travel, travel, travel... On a different note, how did you solve the underwear situation or need I ask? xxx
3rd June 2010

Thanks Rom! But I suppose you will be expecting a present from Italy for saying all these nice things?? Didn't have to resort to re-cycling undies thank god - ew! but was seriously going to buy new ones if our third attempt at washing didn't work out! xx

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