Adventures in Italy: Day 8 Assisi, Chianciano

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April 10th 2017
Published: April 10th 2017
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Italy, Day 8, Tuesday, October 11 Assisi in Umbria.

Our destination today is Assisi in Umbria. Umbria is the only region in Italy with neither a coastline nor a border with other countries, but it has beautiful lakes, rivers, mountains and iconic green valleys. It also has numerous earthquakes. An earthquake was in Umbria in August of this year that caused more damage but the last big one was 10 years ago. Note: in editing this blog I will note that a 6.5 earthquake devastated Norica in southeastern Umbria on October 30, soon after we left for home.

Many agriturismos have popped up throughout Tuscany and Umbria in the past 20 years, likely influencing the farm to table movement that started in Umbria. Black celery, (a specialty of Trevi), red onions and seasonal truffles are top sellers in their markets. In fact Umbria is the 2nd largest truffle producer in the world. The summer truffle season is nearly over and now they are on the cusp of the black truffle season which is the pride of Umbria. In Umbria it costs 7-8 Euro for a small truffle to shave onto your pasta versus 100-200 dollars for the same thing in the US. I have become addicted to black truffle sauced pastas. It might just be cheaper for me to move to Italy!

Most Italians eat food that is in season and porcini mushroom season is happening now which means most restaurants feature meats, pastas and stews loaded with porcini mushrooms. The soil composition is mostly clay here and red grapes love clay soil, and I love red wine! We road by the Lamborghini Winery on our Mercedes bus but sadly did not stop for a tasting. We passed through Perugia where Bacci chocolate is made. Each year in the beginning of October Perugia hosts the largest chocolate festival in the world. Guess what? We didn’t stop here either. But Bacci of Perugia is now owned by Nestle so that took the edge off a bit. Perugia is also a major university town, (Italian is the 5th most studied language in the world and especially featured at the University for Foreigners in Perugia). It is not surprising therefore that Perugia has been taken over by the mafia selling illegal narcotics because there are so many potential student buyers. Sadly Perugia has become best known for Amanda Knox’s unfortunate connection in her roommate’s murder.

On the road to Assisi we could just make out the medieval village of Isola Maggiore, an island on Lake Trasimeno that attracts many tourists because of its unique lace making tradition. In the early 1900s a group of Irish women taught the local women who lived on the large island how to make Irish Stitch Lace. The lace is of such good quality that these women have become famous for their intricate needlework. Ben informed us that a tunnel was recently blasted through the mountain gaining faster access to the beach and ocean. As a result these lakes and islands have become less popular tourist destinations.

The Provence of Umbria is known as the region of saints and therefore imparts a strong religious feel throughout the region. There are more ornate churches in Umbria than the rest of Italy because of the church’s powerful influence on the people's states. But church attendance is down in the north of Italy possibly, we are told, because there is a pagan influence underlying the culture in the north. In addition, there are few priests left in Italy and few active monasteries, so for whatever reason, people tend to go to church only for high holy days here. Conversely in the south, families will go into debt to provide impressive weddings or first communions (a first communion is the second most expensive event similar to a Bar Mitzvah) for their children.

As our bus approached the summit of Assisi, climbing a long and winding road, Ben informed us that because the Basilica of St Francis and the town of Assisi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, UNESCO spent millions restoring all of Assisi’s buildings for earthquake protection. You can see some of the damages from past earthquakes as some frescos had fallen off the walls in the church and even part of the church roof collapsed. Repairs to the roof were made and metal poles inserted throughout the basilica and buildings in town to prevent any more destruction from future earthquakes, although now, to protect the antiquity, restoration is no longer allowed, just cleaning.

Assisi, is the home of St Francis, Italy’s patron saint, (1181-1226). He was the founder of the Franciscan Order, the men’s Order of Friars Minor and the women’s Order of Saint Claire and is one of the most venerated religious figures in history. Francis was born into a wealthy family, (as a young man he was nicknamed the little French man because his father was a wealthy bourgeois French merchant). He was not unfamiliar with wine, fine food and wild celebrations but in 1202, after Francis joined the army to fight Perugia, Assisi’s nemesis, he was captured and imprisoned and held for ransom. It was here that he heard the voice of God telling him to repair the Christian Church and his life was changed forever. He then shunned his family’s wealth and power choosing to live with the poor in poverty.

Francis was a lay man who founded a lay movement to live among people and preach the gospel. To be Franciscan was to imitate the sacrifice of Christ. He believed that nature itself was the mirror of God and called all creatures his brothers and sisters. St Francis may be best known as the Patron Saint of Animals because of his great love for animals and the environment. Francis, who wrote in the language of the people, brought God among the people by using allegory to spread the word of God such as his famous Sermon to the Birds. He may also be well remembered for his beautiful Canicle of the Sun (also known as Praise of the Creatures).

St Francis was considered the second Christ in part because he imitated Christ better than anyone, in fact stigmata appeared on his hands and feet just before he died. We saw many Frescoes and paintings of St Francis depicting him as a monk with a stigmata. When St Francis died of tuberculosis he was blind and was made a saint right after his death

The plain, undecorated outside of the Basilica of St Francis belies its beautifully frescoed interior. The Basilica was built in 1228 and finished in 1253. Cardinals, bishops and clergy financed construction of the church by selling indulgences, still in practice today. The upper, and most decorated part of the church, was used for pilgrims and below, where St Francis is buried, was used by priests. The holiest place in the church is where St Francis is buried. This place seemed to emanate a palpable energy.

According to Isabella, our guide, Giotto di Bondone, who was considered the precursor to Michelangelo, painted 28 frescoes of the Legend of St Francis. Instead of using tempera paint, he revolutionized painting by doing fresh and fast fresco with no lead. Isabella was upset that some guides used laser pointers to locate points of interest, she said lasers do more damage than flesh.

Characteristic of the Franciscan order, in 2015 the church accepted a Khachkar, a typical Armenian stone cross in honor of humanity and in memory the Armenian atrocities. At the top of the expansive lawn outside the church is another Armenian cross shaped in shrubs to remember the horrible suffering of the Armenian people.

We left the church a little bit in awe of the masterpieces and history within those hallowed walls but the ancient and picturesque town of Assisi awaited our exploration. Walking in Assisi is a bit of a challenge as it is rough and steep but we pursued undaunted, with much to explore. Around the church and town we met several Franciscan monks, identified by their brown frocks with a rope belt, (until 1973 monks had to wear a tonsure on their heads) not to be confused with the Capuchin friars who wear a brown tunic with a hood.

As in much of this region, the Etruscans and Romans left traces of their history here. The pagan Temple of Minerva is in the Piazza del Comune and under the square are the remains of the forum, in fact Hannibal had a large battle in nearby Lake Trasimene. I did not make it to the piazza but saw the tower from a distance as I ducked into the Panini Torta al Testo shop with a boars head that said come in! How could I resist someone selling cheeses, wines and black truffle sauce?

After shopping we had lunch in the Hotel Windsor Savoy, sadly not a highlight. We had an overcooked lasagna, an unremarkable vegetable soup, roast chicken breast with French fries and a chocolate profiterole. Far from great. It was raining when we left for the hour plus ride back to Chianciano. Before we left the hotel our little foursome decided to buy a cheese and prosciutto sandwich to split later at our hotel. We soon found that, too, was unremarkable.

On the ride back our guide Ben had another 'discovery' nearby. It began to sprinkle when we stopped at the Sacre Tugurio Church or Santa Maria di Rivotorto (destroyed in an earthquake in 1853 and rebuilt in 1926) where the Franciscan order was said to have begun. Inside the church is the Santuario di Rivotorto, a Sacred Hovel, the first of two houses where St Francis and his ‘brothers’ found shelter around 1208. Rivotorto, meaning crooked stream, takes its name from the stream at the base of Mount Subasio that runs near the left side of this church and hovel comes from the word Tugurio. The Sacre Tugurio Church was built around St Francis' original tiny stone hovel in order to preserve the humble cottage. This simple stone cottage, that housed about 12 followers, symbolizes the spiritual poverty embraced by St Francis. The large church, dimly lit with limited daylight pouring through the stained glass windows above the altar, allows one to focus less on the large church but more on the humble beginnings of St Francis. The fact that this simple, tiny stone ‘hovel’ is located inside this much newer church, by contrast, shows the simple and poor ways in which Francis and his early friars lived.

The return trip to Chianciano took about an hour and a half. As we worked our way back in the rain Ben played soft Italian music and reminded us that despite the rain we could enjoy the muted colors of a Tuscan fall. Soft yellows, golds, and browns colored the fields and rolling farmlands. Occasional bursts of orange or red berries punctuated the roadside while the woodland trees remained dark and green.

When we returned to Chianciano it was cold and raining. Dave was not well having seen a Doctor last week for an eye infection (100 euro) and since his Rx of cortisone did not work we wanted to see an ophthalmologist for a second opinion. We saw Dr Enrica Gori in her office at 6:30pm. She lanced an infected stye and gave an Rx for antibiotic cream, (another 100 euro). While we were at the pharmacy we picked up some medicine for Dave’s cold as he was in misery and getting worse. Listening to the coughing and sneezing on the bus, I was surprised there wasn’t a line at the pharmacy!


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