Monday, April 9, 2018

A Few More Assisi Scenes

Before heading back to California I have a few more Assisi pictures to share, including miscellaneous scenes from town and around Mount Subasio. First is a Good Friday morning procession through Assisi, which begins at the Cathedral of San Rufino and ends at the Basilica of Saint Francis.
With Easter came many flowers. Here's a glimpse of the yard of an apparently avid gardener.
Perhaps a good caption for the next picture, taken by the Basilica of Saint Clare, would be, "Since you may not take your soccer ball into church, be sure to leave it with someone you can trust!"
Here's a section of trail on Mount Subasio, a beautiful place to walk.
And a view of the fog from along the far side of the mountain.
There's a small town on the far side of Subasio called San Giovanni, in the region of Spello. It's a nice and peaceful town, and has a fine looking schoolhouse.
It's hard to pass San Giovanni without taking a picture of its bicycle cave. What's a bicycle cave? Well, it's a cave with bicycles. Perhaps for people who like to recycle cycles....
Thank you for reading. Enjoy the posts and don't hesitate to contact me with any questions. La pace sia con te! Ciao.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Snow on Mount Subasio - Part II

A break in the weather provided an opportunity to head back up Mount Subasio, with better conditions than those described in the previous post. Near the summit there was still plenty of snow, but slightly warmer temperatures and substantially less wind.
At one point a couple of horses were munching along the side of the trail. As I approached, they decided to saunter off in the opposite direction which, of course, was the way I was heading. So, the three of us ambled along for quite a while, with them glancing back from time to time to check if I had abandoned my quest.
Finally, it dawned on one, then the other, to step off the trail and allow me to pass. Soon it was time to head up above the tree line.
After a long stretch of steady climbing, the views opened up.
Including several Apennine peaks.
The sun had cleared parts of the high country trails, but there was still plenty of snow to traverse.
I crossed over to a couple of Mount Subasio's mortari, well-known Karst sinkholes. Basically, these depressions were formed long ago due to certain geologic conditions allowing water and sediment to drain off below the surface. Here's a view approaching Mortaiolo, or "Little Mortaro".
Moving closer, one encounters a hole 70 meters wide and 60 meters deep.
Before the advent of refrigeration, snow was packed at the bottom of the mortari to form ice for use during warmer seasons. Nearby is Mortaro Grande, about 260 meters wide and 55 meters deep.
The day was unfolding beautifully. Far away, on the Greek Island of Santorini, one may view a remarkable composition of white buildings against the blue sea and sky. Here, nature provides comparably wonderful colors on its own.
Not far from the mortari stands a sculpture entitled "Frate Vento" or "Brother Wind" by artist Fiorenzo Bacci. It's a fine reminder of Subasio's natural beauty, Franciscan spirit and ample weather.
Still higher, the summit area offered more Apennine views.
While underfoot, Spring was working to break through the ice and snow.
After visiting the summit, I headed down in the direction of the old dirt road that runs along the upper part of the mountain. Had anyone managed to traverse it in recent times? The answer came quickly.
Nearby was a single set of cross country ski tracks, but no vehicle tracks. The drifts were about three feet high, with much of the road still covered in a foot or more of snow.
Later, at a lower elevation, there were signs of an upward bound vehicle having gotten stuck and spun deeply into the mud, before been rescued by a tow truck.
To the west were nice views of Umbrian hills and lower elevation hiking opportunities.
Near Colle San Rufino, some cattle were enjoying the fine weather, showing hardly any interest in a passing hiker.
Further down, Spring was fully awakening.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Snow on Mount Subasio - Part I

According to the calendar, Spring has arrived in Assisi. However, Winter is having trouble letting go. A couple of days ago the rains started letting up, only to be replaced by cold temperatures and strong winds. At times, the clouds would break and one could glimpse the top of Mount Subasio, which appeared rather more like a Nepal peak than a gentle Apennine. When the visibility improved, the higher reaches of the mountain were still coated in white.
So, it was time to trek up there and check matters out. In March, on any given day the top of Subasio can be sunny and pleasant, excellent hiking weather. The next day can be stormy, fogged in, freezing and unwelcoming. Hikers should check forecasts and dress accordingly, keeping in mind how conditions can change rapidly. The road near the Eremo delle Carceri provided a view of a snow dusted Colle San Rufino.
There were a few other hikers out on the lower part of the mountain, and one grazing bovine, interested primarily in the roadside dining opportunities.
About a mile further up the ground had a light snow cover, as did the trees, making for a pretty setting.
Interestingly, the snow only took to one side of the trees, probably the result of strong winds, moist flakes and fast dropping temperatures.
Soon the wide, rolling upper part of Subasio was in view.
From this point on conditions worsened, with a raw cold and near constant wind gusts. In some places underfoot was caked with ice and snow. Plus, clouds were gathering in a not-terribly-threatening but not-very-encouraging manner. 
The views toward the summit called for continuing upward. 
However, with a freezing temperature and wind gusts above 40 miles per hour, it was time to turn back. When conditions deteriorate and clouds suddenly swallow up the visibility, the top of Subasio is not a particularly safe place to be. 
Once beyond the ice, I began a rapid descent, but not before taking in a view of Colle San Rufino, where some of this region's earliest settlers lived.
Further down was the Eremo delle Carceri.
Here's a closer picture of where Francis and his followers would retreat to the forest to pray, as his followers do to this day.
And finally, on the lower road, Assisi is back in view.
Being on Subasio in March can mean weather extremes, both good and bad. For hikers interested in going to the top, April and May offer more opportunities. During dryer weather, Subasio has many wonderful trails, some with few visitors. It's a fine place to seek and find tranquility, as Francis discovered eight centuries ago.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Rainy Day in Assisi

What to do in Assisi on a rainy day?
The past few weeks in Italy have been marked by rain, rain and more rain. For Assisi visitors, this can limit opportunities to hike on Mount Subasio, to explore the surrounding Umbrian countryside, to leisurely stroll back streets or to enjoy an outdoor cappuccino on the Piazza del Comune. This post is for potentially deluged visitors seeking mostly dry ways to spend a day. Here are some options.
  • Visit the Basilica of Saint Francis  -  There's an incredible amount to take in here, starting with Giotto's frescos in the upper church. In the lower church are depictions of Francis and Clare mentioned in my last post, as well as a small room off the back with items from the time of Francis. Anyone spending more than a few days in Assisi might want to pick up a copy of the Guide to Assisi History and Art (available in English in Assisi bookstores) for an opportunity to appreciate, in depth, the art of the Basilica and other locations. Below the lower church is the crypt of Saint Francis, a special place to spend quiet time. Finally, behind the basilica, part way up from the lower to the upper church, is a gift store with a wide selection of items. 
  • Spend time browsing in shops on or near the Piazza del Comune  -  A couple worth visiting are Zubboli, which carries a wide selection of books and paper goods (check out the Advent calendars), and Alice (pronounced ah-lee-chay), which offers nice hand-painted shirts and other handicrafts.
  • Enjoy a cappuccino at Bar Sensi or a pizza at I Monaci  -  Bar Sensi is a fine spot to enjoy a morning cappuccino, located part way between the Basilica of Saint Clare and the Piazza del Comune. For an early afternoon or evening wood-fired pizza, visit I Monaci, located about one third of the way down from the Piazza del Comune on the way to the Basilica of Saint Francis, part way down a flight of stairs off the small Piazzetta Verdi.
  • Visit the museum at the Cathedral of San Rufino  -  Besides housing the baptismal font of Saints Francis and Clare, Assisi's Cathedral has much art and a beautiful side chapel reserved for prayer. However, it also houses a special museum in ancient rooms below the church, containing frescos, paintings, precious objects, even part of a third century sarcophagus. It's a very interesting place to visit rain or shine. There's a 3 euro entry fee for the museum, which is entered by descending steps towards the back of the church.
  • Take in the frescos at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, or the quiet at the Church of Santo Stefano. A nice thing about Assisi's local churches is that (at appropriate times) cameras are allowed. Definitely bring a camera if you visit the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, as it contains several beautiful frescos, some partial and some recovered and restored after a 1997 earthquake. A quarter mile away, weaving uphill through alleys to the west, is the Church of Santo Stefano, a good place for quiet contemplation. Santo Stefano dates back to before the birth of Saint Francis.
As you enjoy the above, keep an eye on the sky. The sun has a way of breaking through suddenly in Assisi.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Best Things to Do in Assisi

There are many commercial and private Things to Do in Assisi lists available, covering popular landmarks, tours, restaurants, etc. One website providing well-informed and interesting details is 

Assisi has so much history, art, architecture, good dining and natural beauty that one could easily dedicate much time to any of those topics. However, this post is for visitors, inspired by the lives of Saint Francis and Saint Clare, seeking to share in Assisi's spiritual life. 

In the early morning, a handful of locals and visitors make their way to the Basilica of Saint Clare for a 7:15 a.m. Mass. The Mass is celebrated in the Chapel of San Giorgio under the original San Damiano Cross, through which a young Francis was asked to "rebuild My house." In a cloistered wing of the chapel, Poor Clares participate in the readings and music. To find the chapel, just go through the Basilica main entrance and turn to the right.
Still earlier, on the other end of town, the doors of the Basilica of Saint Francis open and one may visit his crypt with few, if any, other visitors about. Occasionally, early morning Masses are celebrated in the close confines of the crypt, but usually those present simply engage in quiet prayer. Upstairs from the crypt, in the lower church of the Basilica, a 7:15 a.m. weekday Mass is celebrated. About twenty priests file in and sit along the sides of the altar. Following Mass one may go to the right transept and find Cimabue's likeness of Saint Francis, along with Martini's of Saint Clare, beautiful and well-known images. The lower church may be entered through the doors on the far right of the picture below.
A third early morning alternative, for those inclined to vigorous walking, is a hike up to the Eremo delle Carceri on Mount Subasio. If you pass through Assisi's Porta Cappuccini by 6:00 a.m. and walk at a fair pace, you should reach the Eremo in plenty of time for the 7:30 a.m. Mass. The Eremo is where Francis and his followers used to go for quiet prayer and contemplation, as one may still do today. Upon arrival, walk through the gate, along the path and down into the stone building. On the right is an entrance to a small church, literally built into the mountainside. The seven or so Franciscans who live there are warm and welcoming, but silence is the norm. Following Mass you may enjoy continuing through the ancient building into the forest, hopefully experiencing a tranquility shared by early Franciscans. Even later in the day, when more visitors arrive, it's a special place to walk and pray. 
Back in Assisi, by mid-morning tour groups appear and the main road through town is filled with activity. It's a good time to visit a few other special places, like the Cathedral of San Rufino, where one finds the baptismal font of Saints Francis and Clare, and where the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is reserved for prayer.
Another special, often quiet place is the Church of Santo Stefano, built a couple of decades before Saint Francis was born. The facade of the Church is fairly unchanged; one sees the same simple church Francis would have seen.
The interior is a good place to imagine life in Assisi eight centuries ago. On Sundays one can join local parishioners here for a 9:00 a.m. Mass as, I suppose, people have been doing since the time of Francis and Clare.
Early afternoon, when the basilicas are crowded and the main road through town is busy with food and souvenir seekers, is a good time to move up or down to quieter side streets. Via Santa Croce offers a pleasant walk across the upper part of town with excellent views.
Almost any side street or alley off the main road will lead to a quieter walk.
Later in the afternoon (4:30 p.m. winter; 5:30 p.m. summer) there is a Mass in the Basilica of Saint Clare in the Chapel of Saint Agnes, sister of Saint Clare. One may share in this small, often crowded service with locals who pray the Rosary before the start of Mass.
Other nice walks include passing through Porta Nuova and strolling a half mile through an olive grove down to San Damiano. There, at certain hours, one may visit where Francis repaired his first church and where Clare and her followers lived in poverty. And, higher up on a sunny day, the hiking trails on Mount Subasio are seldom crowded and offer a glimpse of the natural world Francis and Clare, in her youth, knew well.
Back in town, in the early evening, one can head to the small piazza of the Church of Santa Margherita to sit and watch the sun set. The Church has been ministered to by Franciscans for over 700 years. The piazza offers fine views of the Basilica of Saint Francis and the surrounding Umbrian countryside.
Briefly, some additional information that may be helpful. Pick up a free map of town at the information office, located at the opposite end of the Piazza del Comune from the fountain. A place to stay: Saint Anthony's Guest House. A place to eat: I Monaci. A place to buy religious gifts: The Basilica of Saint Francis gift shop, located just behind the lower/upper churches. Where to find Saints Francis and Clare: in your heart, although throughout Assisi it's easy to sense their presence.