Italy V – A walk in the country

I wasn’t sure what I would make of Assisi. I remembered the stories of St Francis from my childhood days – I think it might have been a Ladybird book of saints. But I didn’t know much about the city and I’d forgotten most of what I’d read about the saint other than he was the patron saint of animals. From the information our tour rep gave us, he was the son of a wealthy business man in Assisi around 1190, and after a vision, he renounced worldly goods and founded the Franciscan order, as well as the Order of Poor Clares, for women. He developed the Stigmata (marks similar to the wounds of Christ on the cross) and he died in 1226. A church was built on the spot where he died. But the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, the massive church built on two levels, sits high above it on Monte Subasio.

We entered the city walls and immediately started to climb the hill, making our way first to the Basilica. Inside, it was cool and dark and magnificent. There weren’t too many people there and we had a chance to admire the relics and d├ęcor. I was a little disappointed to see the candles for people to light in memory of a loved on were plastic, with little electric light bulbs on them. A sign proclaimed ‘candle will burn when a donation is made’ which was above a coin slot. It was like a slot machine in a seaside arcade. Fortunately, the rest of the Basilica was magnificent and more than made up for that quirky aberration. We went through the lower church and made our way down to the tomb of St Francis. This was in a small and dark chamber in which a simple stone tomb was surrounded by steps and the trappings of religious worship. On the step, a man knelt with his forehead on the stone and for some reason, this affected me quite deeply. In the background, the gentle sounds of chanting echoed through as a service was being held in the church above.

From the Basilica, we made our way up the main cobbled street, spiralling its way up the side of the hill. We were approached by what i can only describe as a typical Franciscan monk, dressed in rough robe held at the waste by rope, and he started to talk to us in Italian. I explained we weren’t Italian (“Inglese”) and he spoke in fair English that he represented a village for disadvantaged children and was collecting donations. He’d written a book, and with good humour, he said ‘I am one of the better writers. Shakespeare, Dante, then me, well maybe Oscar Wilde, Byron then me 5th”. I gave him a donation, but as the book was in Italian, I didn’t buy a copy.

As we went further up the hill, we stopped of to visit a museum dedicated to the Franciscan missionary programme in South America. It was full of exhibits brought back at the turn of the 20th Century – arrows, spears and the paraphernalia of everyday life in the jungles of Brazil and Peru, amongst others.

We were leaving the crowds behind now and the buildings seemed to be getting older. Beautifully coloured flowers adorned the outside of homes. Little side alleys and lanes appeared randomly. Em spotted an old car in a covered alley way. I was beginning to get fascinated in the old doors and how their designs differed and there were plenty ot see in this street. Then we reached a small square in which the Roman Temple to Minerva stands, along with several street cafes. We were going to stop for a snack there, but a bunch of French school kids had started to sing and it wasn’t as peaceful as we would have liked. So we continued on through the piazza and further up the hill. We decided to turn off toward the castle at the top of the hill but about half way up the steps, we spotted a small cafe behind high walls on a terrace.

Through the gate we found an idyllic little cafe with gorgeous views out over the Umbrian countryside, flatter and with larger field systems than Tuscany. We were just in time to shelter from a short but heavy rain shower which did nothing to dampen our spirits. We say sipping coffee and snacking and just enjoying the day and the countryside. In the distance, on rough clay tiled roofs, we watched a cat slowly make its way up to the ridge and survey its territory before making its way to a covered chimney pot to shelter from the sun. All the while, swallows flitted and swooped around the nearby bell tower.

Then it was time to head back down to the coach. Reluctantly we left the little terrace and its lemon trees and made our way at a leisurely pace down the cobbled street. This time we called inot some of the shops on the way. At one, we bought a truffle, interested to find out what all the fuss was about. We were presented by a small, hard, black ‘thing’ which we had no idea how to eat. In the end, we managed to break a bit of and we ground a little of the inside off with our teeth. We’d been warned that it would taste earthy, but it tasted of walnut to me. It was packed away in the bag and we continued on our way.

All too soon we were back at the coach park and reluctantly we climbed aboard ready to head back to Chianciano. But this time we were not heading for the hotel, but for the old town on the hill some two miles away. We had the opportunity to be dropped off in the old town and to make our way back to the hotel on foot. We walked among little back streets on the edge of the hillside before finding a little cafe, empty of tourists (apart from us) where we sat and had a cold Italian beer. The wind was quite strong, with enough force to blow the empty glasses along the table. But it was lovely just to sit and let the world go by at its own pace.

Reluctantly we set off for the hotel, following the vague guidance given to us by the tour rep. We kept to the main road and followed signs for Piazza Italia and eventually found our way to familiar ground. The hotel, and in particular the shower, was a welcome sight after the walk in the sun.

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