The Assisi experience

Tuesday 15th April 2008, Assisi
Ian managed to navigate us successfully around the tangled strands of spaghetti leading onto the motorway from Bologna heading in the direction of Florence. It has rained all day, most of the traffic has been heavy lorries and the motorway was filled with potholes. We have however now learned to understand the strange signing on Italian motorways. When it says only two lanes continue to Florence, Rome or wherever, and the third one goes off to Milan, it doesn't actually mean that and it isn't necessary to move out from the safety of the nearside lane into the jaws of a thundering articulated lorry. In Italy, a road-sign showing two lanes actually means three! Once you know that it all becomes manageable. By lunch-time we had skirted Florence which we visited in 2005, and were heading towards Rome. It really is so much easier on the motorways than the main roads. We stopped for lunch at a service area and did a couple of guided tours of Modestine for the charming, curious Italians who abandoned their Ferraris to gather round muttering "Bella bella" over Modestine's rainsoaked, muddy interior.

Leaving the Rome motorway to head towards Perugia we passed beside the green Lago di Trasimeno. It looked so pretty nestling amongst the hills of the Tuscan countryside we turned off and followed pleasant roads through green fields and vineyards to the little town of Passignano on the northern shore of the lake from where boats make trips out to a nearby island. The village was devoid of visitors as we explored its ancient backstreets and steep steps in the rain. From above we had lovely, misty views out over the waters of the lake.

Lake Trasimeno from above Passignano

We rejoined the main road to skirt Perugia, eventually turning off again to follow pretty country roads through olive groves to Assisi. We have done Lourdes and Compostella so there was no way we were going to miss out on the Assisi experience! Friends Lesley and David are currently touring Europe in their Romahome, Erik, and spent several weeks camping here recently when Erik managed to need an urgent repair and the part was not available locally! They recommended us a site high on the hillside above the picturesque old town. As we approached we could see the mountains beyond, their summits topped with snow while the sky loomed dark with rain. The campsite is indeed very peaceful and pleasant, set in woodland overlooking the valley. We have found a spot with wide views down across the town and the countryside far beyond. After the tension and ugliness of the past few days the calm here is like ointment on a wound.

View from Modestine's window on the campsite above Assisi

Having settled Modestine we walked down the hillside in the rain to the gateway into the ancient town which is twinned with Bethlehem and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today we did little more than explore the top end of the town, just a twenty minute walk from our campsite. Further investigation will wait until tomorrow when hopefully the rain will have ceased. The town's claim to fame is based on the 13th century figure of St. Francis, after whom the Franciscan order is named. He is generally considered as the patron saint of animals and his intercession is sought for their wellbeing. St. Clare, friend of St. Francis, is also from Assisi. She founded the religious order of poor Clares and is also venerated here. The font in which both she and St. Francis were christened can be seen in the cathedral of St. Rufino, patron saint of Assisi.

Town walls, Assisi

Cathedral, Assisi

Roman temple to Minerva fronting one of the town's many churches, Assisi

Lion fountain in the main square, Assisi

Returning to Modestine we discovered there is a small, rural restaurant attached to the campsite with red check tablecloths, wooden benches, cosy corners and a wood fire over which all meals are cooked as you wait with a carafe of the local red wine. What better way to spend a cold wet evening? We have now returned to Modestine for the night. Below us in the valley the lights of the town are twinkling through the darkness and while outside the air is wet and chill, inside we are warm and comfortable with our tiny heater. Ian has just discovered his computer mouse is malfunctioning. We will try to buy another one tomorrow but meanwhile he has packed it into our rucksack to take with us to the basilica. Who knows, perhaps St. Francis will be able to help cure his poor little mouse!

Wednesday 16th April 2008, Assisi
Today has been rather good. We took the mouse round the basilica with us but it's still sick. No more than we expected really. The weather has been perfect for sight-seeing and we have spent the entire day around the picturesque but almost too perfect town of Assisi. Everywhere has been so perfectly restored following the earthquake damage of 1997 that it no longer looks old, though in fact it was back in the thirteenth century that St. Francis died here.

Our favourite little church, St. Mary Major, Assisi

Today we have undergone the 21st century religious experience. Almost the whole day has been spent before altars, shines, icons, religious artefacts such as jewel encrusted chalices, gold reliquaries of the saints, ivory carvings of Madonnas and huge frescoes painted by Cimabue and Giotto. We started with the basilica of St. Francis, a massive complex with naves at two levels, crowded with school children interested more in the souvenir shop than the tomb of the saint. St. Francis died in 1226 and by 1228 he had been canonised by the Pope. Soon afterwards work began on building the basilica to house his mortal remains which lie in the crypt below the main aisle of the lower church. The walls throughout are painted with huge and beautiful frescoes depicting the lives of Christ and St. Francis. Many are the work of Giotto, painter of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Unfortunately some have suffered damage during the earthquake, ironically one being a fresco depicting an earthquake!

Basilica of St. Francis, Upper level, Assisi

Basilica of St. Francis, Lower level, Assisi

Basilica of St. Francis seen from the castle above Assisi

Birthplace of St. Francis, Assisi

Next we made our way to the church of St. Clare. She was a younger contemporary of St. Francis and under his guidance set up a religious order for women which, like the Franciscans, renounced worldly wealth and advocated a life of poverty. St. Clare is buried in the crypt. The exterior is of beautiful pink stone though inside the church is rather austere.

Basilica of St. Clare, Assisi

Almost every building in the town is either a church, a restaurant or a souvenir shop selling religious kitsch. There is only so much one can take of all this so we escaped up onto the hills above the city with stupendous views down onto the various basilicas and the surrounding countryside. Up here stands the defensive castle that dominates the skyline and from which lead the ancient walls that completely surround the city.

General view of Assisi

Castle above the town, Assisi

Assisi seen from the castle

Now for a brief explanation concerning stigmata. It occurs to me that many of the things about Catholicism that, although not necessarily believing, I have taken for granted, may not be easily understood by readers of these accounts. Certain persons, usually of a strong religious fervour, are known to have been afflicted with stigmata. This is a painful marking on the body that corresponds with the wounds received by Christ, either on the hands, feet and side, or from the crown of thorns on the head, or across the back from the carrying of the cross and from the flagellation suffered. St. Francis was the first recorded person to receive this mixed blessing. In a moment of religious fervour he was visited by a seraphim (an angel with six wings). The angel departed leaving him marked with the wounds of Christ which he carried for the rest of his life. He apparently made every effort to hide these from people and it was only after his death it became common knowledge. In the basilica today we saw a piece of dead skin which apparently he used to cover one of his stigmata! There have been more than 300 people recorded with stigmata and over fifty have been canonised. One such, an Italian priest who died in the 1960s, Padre Pio, known to have carried wounds on his hands and feet until his death, has since been reported as purchasing acid to keep the wounds suppurating!

There were definitely many Italian people in front of the tombs of Saints Francis and Clare who were deeply moved to be there. There were many more for whom it was a nice day out and for the tourists, like us, it was the thing to do when visiting Italy. In the souvenir shops we discovered everything from St. Francis key-rings and egg cups to jigsaw puzzles – "I’ve got a corner of blue sky and a stigmata but one of the wing is missing from my seraphim and this bit of crucifix only fits in upside down!"

By six pm we were ready to walk back up the hill to our campsite, where after a glass of wine we crossed to the little restaurant for polenta and sausage in pasta sauce with parmesan cheese.

Thursday 17th April 2008, Assisi
Ian discovered that further up the road above Assisi from our camping place is a series of caves which were used by St. Francis and his followers as a place of retreat from the world so they could concentrate on prayer. Thinking the walk would be a healthy activity we left Modestine and set off along the steep, twisting road as it wound up through cypress trees and olive groves. There were new vistas at every turn, out across the plain or down onto Assisi. The one kilometre turned out to be at least three, and we were soon very hot despite the chill in the air. We were the only people daft enough to walk. Most stay down in the town. It turned out to be worth the climb though as we wandered along wet woodland paths to the Carceri hermitage established by St. Benedetto in the 15th century, long after the death of St. Francis. The cells are now established within the walls of the old monastery and we were able to climb down into St. Francis's own place of prayer in a tiny subterranean grotto with narrow doors. The walls were covered in faded and damaged frescoes.

A warm welcome from some of St. Francis's creatures on the walk to the hermitage, Assisi

Hermitage, Assisi

The return walk was so much easier and the views quite splendid. We were as cold coming down as we had been hot going up! We were very glad to warm up in Modestine with hot coffee before packing up and moving down onto the plain in search of the more recent part of Assisi with its buses, railway station and supermarket. On the way we called off at the Convent of St Damien where St Francis received his call and St Clare put the Saracens to flight. We also hoped to see the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels built in the 16th century to shelter pilgrims to Assisi. Within the church is the Porziuncola or Little Portion where St Francis consecrated St Clare and beside it is the site of the hospital where he died in 1226. Unfortunately the Italian three hour lunch break intervened so we bought pizza slices and ate them on the church steps instead.

Convent of St. Damion, Assisi

Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, Assisi

Our friends Peter and Kate, whom we visited in Charmouth on our way to the ferry port – was it really only just over two weeks ago! – have a secret hideaway in this area. So secret we don't know where it is, other than somewhere in the blue hills above the little town of Spello. They have always spoken with such warmth about the area we determined to discover Spello for ourselves. They did not exaggerate.

Spello is a hillside town of about 7,000 people dating back to Roman times. It makes much of its Roman heritage but really there is not much to see. It lies, like Assisi, on the hillside surrounded by city walls, just a few kilometres along the plain. Parking below the Venus gate we climbed steeply up the narrow streets of brick and cobbles that twisted between the buildings in a series of steps, passing under old archways to emerge into the heart of the town. The streets are so beautiful, lined with pots and tubs of flowers, aspidistras and shaped holly, olive and pine trees. Cats walked alone and several dogs welcomed us with wagging tails rather than the growls and barks expected from them by their owners! The little shops all sold local produce – jars of truffles, packets of pasta, dried mushrooms, local wine and of course bottles of the olive oil for which the region is famous. There were also shops selling various kinds of dried sausages, including one that made us only too glad Modestine is female!

Donkey's bollocks! Spello

Venus gate, Spello

Typical street, Spello

Arched street, Spello

We said it was pretty. Spello

Another view - for Peter and Kate, Spello

This one's for us, Spello

Spello seems to have no summit. We wandered the pretty streets, admiring the brown stone walls, the dark shutters of the houses, the huge, worm-eaten cellar doors that had long ago lost their last vestiges of varnish and the heavy pink and yellow tiles of the broad roofs that stretched across the hillside below us. Always we climbed upwards until eventually we emerged onto a small cobbled square with a pump where the elderly ladies of Spello had gathered to chat on a bench beneath a tree. Nearby was an old Carmelite convent while below us on the plain we could see the remains of a Roman amphitheatre.

Roman amphitheatre, Spello

Meeting place, Spello

Turning down one of the tiny side alleys we wound our way between potted plants that made every corner look like something from an Italian art book, back to the main village square and the beautiful church of St Mary Major. Rebuilt in the early 16th century it has in the Baglioni Chapel a series of wonderful frescos by Pinturiccio painted in 1501. The colours are vivid and the narrative full of detail. On the left is the annunciation, in the centre the nativity, with the shepherds adoring the young Christ child while the wise men wait their turn in the background. To the right is the young Christ at the temple and on the ceiling are the sibyls who were often seen in medieval times as classical versions of the prophets.

Main door of St. Mary Major, Spello

We spent so long exploring this charming little town that we decided rather than going on, we would return to Assisi and our isolated, wooded corner of this very pleasant campsite. So we have one more night of lying in bed with the curtain drawn back, watching the lights of Assisi twinkling on the hillside and the ribbon of light marking the road on the plain far below us.

Friday 18th April 2008, Assisi
This morning it was pouring with rain again. Instead of moving on we decided to drive down to the station on the plain and take the train to Perugia to see the splendours of this capital city of Umbria. The trip was not altogether a success. First we had to wait nearly an hour for the train and long before that the few attractions of Assisi railway station in the rain had been exhausted. When it arrived the train was so covered in graffiti on the outside that it was almost impossible to see out and the few stations en route were not prepossessing. Arriving at Perugia we were greeted by torrential rain and enthusiastic Mormons on a mission as we exited the station. Common sense should have told us that the town would be miles from the station but with the only map on display having been used for target practice and so quite illegible, we set off optimistically uphill on foot. With hindsight we should have found where the buses ran from and where to purchase a ticket. It was an exhausting climb that twisted up the hillside, for much of the way without even a pavement, our way blocked by parked cars with heavy traffic splashing us as it passed. An hour later we finally struggled into the town to find ourselves in some sort of underground city with shops and exhibition areas in a vast ancient crypt below the town.

Italy gave the word Graffiti to the world. Typical railway carriage

General view of Perugia

Really we were disappointed with Perugia. We had expected to have to rush to see everything before our 6.30 train home but apart from the main square with its enormous but unfinished gothic cathedral with its baroque façade, and the stunningly beautiful Prior's palace, there was not an enormous amount to see. There is a huge Etruscan gateway and the remains of the Etruscan city walls. There is a beautiful fountain dating from 1278 covered in bas reliefs depicting scenes from the seasons, Genesis, Aesop's fables, the origins of Rome and the signs of the zodiac. Above the entrance to the Prior's palace stand the emblems of the city, a lion and a griffin, holding between them the chains of Siena captured in battle in 1358. Inside, the walls and ceiling are covered in 14th century frescoes. Nearby is the national gallery for Umbrian and Tuscan art. We did not visit this but understand it contains works by Pintoricchio - some of his works we saw yesterday in Spello, and Perugino – teacher of Raphael. By the time we arrived many of the buildings were closed for the Italian three hour lunch break. They only open again at 3.30pm! This includes all the churches, the cathedral and the galleries!

Prior's palace and fountain, Perugia

Etruscan gateway, Perugia

Statue of Perugino, Perugia

Around the centre are literally hundreds of restaurants, bars and fast food outlets. Italian food really is not very special, the main difference in price being accounted for by the ambiance. The entire nation appears to live entirely on pizza, paninnis, dry white rolls filled with parma ham and cheese, or, at a price in a restaurant, pasta in various sauces. In Umbria the local speciality is torte di testo. Basically it is two pieces of dry unleven bread with ham and uninteresting cheese inside served hot. It's an experience once but overpriced for what is basically a hard and boring toasted cheese sandwich. We have given up wasting money sitting down to eat and wander the streets in the rain with a slice of pizza. It staves off hunger until we can cook ourselves something more palatable and less pricey in Modestine.

Perugia certainly has history, culture and beauty. Its charms would have been better appreciated had we not had to make such an effort to get there and had we not already been spoilt with the beauties of other great Italian cities, such as Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Bologna, Milan, Venice, Verona and Vicenza. Maybe too, we have seen just a bit too much Italian fine art recently. Eventually one crucifixion or nativity merges with another and the distinction between the painters of the Florentine school and those of Umbria are too fine to be properly appreciated by us!

We had hoped to find a replacement computer mouse but the very few ordinary shops we did discover, down near the station, were closed most of the afternoon. We became so frustrated with Perugia, and finding we had started to wander downhill from the centre, we decided to cut our losses and take the earliest train possible back to Assisi.

Here we found the sun was out and the Porziuncola, in the basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, that we had found closed on Wednesday, was now open again for the evening. It is even more imposing from inside. The little chapel where St. Clare was consecrated by St. Francis as the bride of Christ, and cell where St. Francis died in 1226 are still standing, complete with frescoes. The massive basilica has been built around them.
Real doves have adopted this statue of St. Francis, St. Mary of the Angels, Assisi

Back up on our campsite it was at last warm enough to sit outside with a glass of wine before supper. Tomorrow we really will be moving on from here towards Ancona.

We have just received the following Limerick from a former NHS work colleague David,

In Assisi, the home of St Frances
The animals all took their chances
To feed from the hands
Of the saint where he stands
Unawed by the crowd's curious glances

This has started a new enthusiasm for us. So far we have produced the following offerings,

Assisi is pretty and quaint,
The home of Francesco, the saint.
Our desiderata -
To see his stigmata
In frescos that Giotto did paint.

As we struggled on up to Perugia
Our wonder got hugia and hugia
That all those steep hills
Did not stifle the skills
To create all that art to delugia.

Is this trend catching? Other offerings happily received.