Saturday, April 29, 2017

Gubbio to Assisi Walk

Three years ago I wrote about a hike along the trails connecting the Umbrian towns of Gubbio and Assisi. These trails are special because they follow the footsteps of Saint Francis, who traversed the forests, hills and valleys separating the two ancient towns many times. Much of the way is still rural and pristine enough that one can imagine sharing the paths and dirt roads with the young Francis, sharing in the natural beauty of Umbria.
On my first hike, a missed trail turn led to a challenging stretch of walking through mud flats of the Chiascio River. While that oozing experience turned out well (apparently Francis, too, made his way through the Chiascio's mud), it was a bit disappointing to miss a section of forest paths before linking back up with the main trails. So, when an opportunity recently arose to again hike from Gubbio to Assisi, there was no turning it down.
I set out at 5:30 a.m. from the Church of the Vittorina, built where Francis tamed the wolf of Gubbio. For those not familiar with this legend, a large wolf had been terrorizing Gubbio for some time, even killing its citizens. Francis, who loved animals, went ouside the city walls to talk with the wolf, in the name of God, and tamed him, laying out an understanding that the people of Gubbio would give the wolf food in exchange for being left in peace. A postscript to this Thirteenth Century legend is that, in 1872, some laborers doing renovation work in the area where the tamed animal supposedly was buried dug up the remains of a large, centuries-old wolf.
It was still dark when I began walking from the Church of the Vittorino.
The first stretch of trail, basically a flat combination of dirt and paved roads through the pleasant town of Ponte d'Assi, led to a few turns and crossings before the roads began to climb, moving through farmland.
A bit of morning fog actually made for nice walking conditions. The path became steeper approaching the high forest ridge, but once over the top the dirt road became even more scenic and tranquil.
A plus of hiking in the Spring is Umbria's wildflowers.
This would be a long post indeed if it included all of the old churches, ancient ruins and historic landmarks between Gubbio and Assisi. I had already walked past a number of such sites. However, one special gem worth visiting, located in the forest far from anything else, is the tiny church of the Madonna delle Ripe.
This is a place where pilgrims may pray. It also appears to be a place where people leave their small written petitions or mementos or keepsakes, as if seeking to keep alive special prayers or memories by leaving something tangible there.
Everything from rosaries to ribbons to crosses to flowers adorn the entry gate. Inside is an altar and a well-preserved segment of a fresco.
After a brief but inspiring stop, I continued along a dirt road at a brisk pace, eventually going past the hermitage of San Pietro in Vigneto, a large stone structure set back from a closed gate, built by Benedictines and dating back to at least the Fourteenth Century. Here the trail descended into dense woods. A small wild boar scampered by. This was where, three years earlier, I had missed a trail marker and ended up down by the Chiascio River. Things went better this time, although the path soon turned steep and narrow as it ascended after a stream crossing. At around 9:40 a.m. I came upon the Church of Caprignone.
This important landmark in Franciscan history was where in 1223, when Francis was still alive, his followers held their first chapter meeting away from Assisi.
This church is actually built over the remains of an earlier church, and nearby are the remains of an even earlier pagan temple. The old wooden door was locked closed, but a large crack near the bottom of the door provided just enough of an opening to take a picture of the interior.
Would sure like a chance to go inside and take a closer look at the fresco work on the right. After a short break, it was more uphill climbing in the direction of the Castle of Biscina. I've mentioned "trails" in the plural, as their are a few different pathways one may follow, with different markings. Here was a place where four ran together and their markings managed to appear on a single rock outcrop.
The Castle of Biscina was a strategically located outpost between Gubbio and Perugia, of critical importance during a Thirteenth Century conflict between those states. On a north-south hike, it is easily viewed from a distance in either direction.
It is an impressive landmark when viewed from afar, less so from up close where, like several other structures along the trail, it is slowly giving way to the elements. Damages from a 1984 earthquake did not help matters. Beyond Biscina, the trail continued to curve around deep ravines, occasionally dropping down before climbing back up. In some steep places steps were constructed to make the trail passable in rainy weather.
This was a particularly beautiful section of the trail, with no shortage of wildflowers.
After a long stretch of forested trail, I crossed onto a section of paved road that led up to the small Church of Sambuco. The date being April 25, Liberation Day in Italy, a large number of extended family members with ties to the hamlet of Sambuco were gathered in and around the church, as they are every year on this date. It was nice to see such a spirited gathering, even as a sermon from within the Church was being broadcast over a loudspeaker. However, with it being midday and with many miles to go, I continued on back into the forest. After a rugged uphill stretch of trail, the views opened back up.
Where the land extends out from the top left of the above picture is the Castle of Biscina, in the middle is the Chiascio River, and to the right is the Eleventh Century Church of Coccorano.
The Church of Coccorano currently is undergoing a long-term renovation, although noticeable progress has been made over the past three years. An adjoining castle did not fare so well, as little remains of it. From here it was back into the forest, then down to a country road with more wildflowers.
Approaching Valfabbrica, the one large town between Gubbio and Assisi, I passed the Church of San Benedetto e Paolino, which was around before the time of Francis, and was likely a stopping point on his travels.
Before reaching the edge of town, a country residence caught my eye, with an excellent entry gate and a nice old car on the driveway.
The Latin "Pax et bonum", or Italian "Pace e bene" or "Peace and goodness" were the words Francis used to greet people. On the gate they are complimented with a dove with an olive branch. The car appears to be a late 1960's or 1970's Citroen, a classy classic automobile. Although, not quite as fine a mode of transportation as walking. In Valfabbrica, at around 2:30 p.m., the sun was warming and it was a bit disappointing to find a fountain not working, as my water bottles were running low.
I passed through this mostly quiet town quickly. "Mostly quiet" because there is a fruit and vegetable vendor who drives about town in a truck, announcing his arrival in various neighborhoods over a loudspeaker. Sort of like an ice cream truck, only healthier.
The next stretch of walking proved a bit challenging. I was now counting on filling a water bottle at a fountain at the foot of a steep trail ascending to a ridge from where Assisi would be visible in the distance. Unfortunately, this fountain also was dry and, being well beyond Valfabbrica, turning back to look for a market was not a good option. So, the next hour was a slow, steep and thirsty trek, leading to the top where, thankfully, a third fountain gave forth a nice flow of cold water.
Assisi was in sight. The last few miles of walking offered some fine views.
The trail was now a well maintained dirt road and would be mostly downhill until the last mile. Assisi's Rocca Maggiore could be seen on a distant hilltop.
By the small old Church of Santa Croce at the foot of the road leading up to Assisi, Irises were growing next to a stone wall.
Here's a view back of the countryside after crossing over the ridge that separates Valfabbrica and Assisi.
And, finally, close to 6:00 p.m., it was time to enter Assisi through one of its gates, Porta San Giacomo.
For those considering this walk, Gubbio to Assisi is typically a two day trek, with hikers often spending the night in Valfabbrica. That's a good option for those seeking to maintain an easy pace with some extra time to explore. Single day hikers are well advised to choose a day with long hours of daylight, when rain has not fallen for a couple of days and is not in the forecast, nor are extremes of heat, cold or wind. In short, pick a day with great weather and start out at the first sign of light. Carry plenty of water and food. You may want to visit    and print out the maps of the various trail sections. They can be very useful in uncertain situations. Also, before starting out, read up on Saint Francis and the events of his life transpiring between Assisi and Gubbio. The walk is best made following in his steps both on foot and in spirit. Ciao.

Friday, April 14, 2017


Traveling from Assisi to Norcia involved walking down to the Santa Maria degli Angeli train station to take a half hour train ride to Spoleto, and from there riding a bus for about an hour up a narrow, winding and scenic road. Norcia sits on a high plain by Sibillini Mountains National Park, a rugged and beautiful part of central Italy.

For many years, travelers to Norcia could look forward to visiting a well preserved Umbrian walled city with much history, perhaps most notably being the home of twin-sibling Saints Benedict and Scholastica, born in the year 480. However, in the summer and autumn of 2016, Norcia was struck by devastating earthquakes, resulting in extensive damage to the town. One need not even pass through one of Norcia's gates to begin to witness the impact of the quakes.
Prior to setting out, I had studied a map to determine, from the bus stop, which gate to enter and how to weave through Norcia's streets to the center of town where the remains of the Basilica of Saint Benedict are located. However, just inside the walls it became clear that the maze of old streets had become a complex entanglement of blockades.
Many streets, including all inside of this gate, were blocked on this day. Typically, signs would indicate a "Zona Rossa" or "Red Zone" with entry prohibited.
Even streets that appeared safe could have buildings in danger of falling. I walked back out onto the perimeter road and hiked up to and through a second gate. There too many streets were blocked. Seeking to find a way to the center of town, I stopped and asked a lady for directions. She pointed the way I was heading, but said one must be very careful because of falling debris. I thanked her and walked a bit further, to where two men were working. As there was a barrier across the road to prevent vehicle traffic, I asked them if I could pass through. Their response was an unequivocal "No."
Having reached a dead end, I started back up to the second gate, only to have the lady with whom I had spoken pull up in a car. After a moment's discussion she indicated that I should hop in and she would take me to where I could reach the main square.
We rode further around the perimeter road, past more scenes of loss, and finally came to a guarded but open gate and a main road leading directly to the main square. I thanked my guide for her help and kindness, got out and started along the street, one of the few places in town that seemed recovered enough for normal activity.
Ahead was a statue of Saint Benedict.
But also a disheartening scene.
While the facade of the Basilica of Saint Benedict remains standing, the church itself was mostly leveled.
The extensive staging may help in preserving the facade, but it is clear that rebuilding the Basilica will take years. Next to the remains of the Basilica is the Palazzo Comunale and bell tower, which also appears in a precipitous state.
As if losing a treasure like the Basilica of Saint Benedict wasn't enough, other churches in town also sustained major damage. Earlier, when going around the perimeter road, my helpful driver had pointed out the Church of San Giovanni, which turned out to be accessible via a few open streets.
Here, too, was a discouraging scene. There was a large hole in a side wall of the Church.
Despite so much devastation, the people of Norcia may pray thankfully, being spared loss of life as occurred in other nearby communities.

On the higher end of town, reconstruction and preservation efforts were underway on the Church of Saint Anthony. Heavy beams were being lifted into place.
The oldest structures in town seemed the hardest hit, likely due to less sturdy construction practices in centuries past. In a town where many residences also are centuries old, parts of homes were destroyed as well. One building that appeared to survive intact was the town theater.
Another interesting observation, while I'm not sure how the earthquakes impacted banks within Norcia's walls, now modular banking facilities have been set up in a parking lot outside of those walls.
I mentioned Norcia being by Sibillini Mountains National Park. There are beautiful views in all directions, and undoubtedly good hiking nearby.
Finally, who were Saints Scholastica and Benedict of Nursia? (Nursia was the Latin name of Norcia) Twins born in the Fifth Century, Benedict is perhaps best known for the Rule of Saint Benedict, guidelines for the monks who followed him and for many future religious orders, while Scholastica established the first Benedictine community for women. Benedict is considered the father of Western monasticism. Some seven centuries after the time of Benedict, his followers would be instrumental in turning over old churches to be repaired by a young man from Assisi named Francis.

As Benedict's legendary status seems to overshadow his sister's holy life, I was pleased to notice the name of the small square where I waited to start my return trip home.
Before leaving Norcia, I was speaking with a local and observed how, despite all of the destruction, it was still a beautiful town. He agreed, but wondered how much it mattered with all that had been lost and how community life had been impacted. Nevertheless, on this day Norcia edged one step forward on the long journey of recovery, and one could sense the faith and hope of its residents, still blessed from above.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


Yesterday I traveled to Norcia and look forward to sharing the visit. However, getting there involved a layover, between train and bus rides, in the small city of Spoleto, the subject of this post. Making the most of the day involved an early walk down to the Santa Maria degli Angeli train station, with the moon shining over Assisi.
At the train station in Spoleto one is greeted by a large sculpture of… I 'm not sure what it is.
However, one may use it to frame a picture of the city all the way up to its ancient Fourteenth Century fortress, Rocca Albornoziana.
I'm pretty sure the person behind the construction of this fortress, Cardinal Albornoz, was the same person behind the reconstruction of Assisi's Rocca Maggiore fortress. The steeple below and to the right of the Rocca is part of Spoleto's Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, one of my two destinations before catching the bus to Norcia. As one approaches the Duomo, the roads and walkways steepen sharply, a problem the people of Spoleto solved by constructing escalators (a relatively new addition to the Duomo's eight century history). One of the lower escalators may be seen just to the left of the wall section below.
Spoleto's history goes back at least a couple of centuries B.C. At one point its citizens fended off an attack by Hannibal. Many centuries later (1155) the city was ravaged by Frederick Barbarossa. Fortunately the Duomo, built between 1175 and 1227, is still standing, a very beautiful church.
It also has an impressive piazza in front.
A piazza that, as this old photo demonstrates, can fill up on occasion.
Inside, the apse area is wonderfully decorated by the famous Renaissance artist Filippo Lippi and his pupils, portraying scenes from the life of Mary.
 Here is another fresco.
Walking up to and around the Rocca Albornoziana led to my second short-visit destination, the Ponte delle Torri, a Thirteenth Century aqueduct that spans a deep canyon.
Not long ago one could stroll across this remarkable structure. However, last year's earthquakes raised safety concerns, resulting in the bridge being closed. There is much else to see in Spoleto; however, with Norcia as a destination on this day, other treasures would have to wait. It was time to head back down to the bus stop.
P.S. Research results: the Spoleto train station sculpture (1962), is called Teodelapio, named after a Lomabard duke. It's called a stabile as opposed to a mobile, probably a good thing in light of its size and weight….