Monday, May 2, 2016

Gabbiano Vecchio Update and Monte Pietrolungo

Recently I did some exploring along the far side of Monte Subasio in the direction of Spello, starting out along country roads above a thin fog covering the valley.
Within a couple of hours I was deep in the woods, looking to revisit Gabbiano Vecchio. This ghost town has a tiny dilapidated church dedicated to Saint Anthony, home of some beautiful but rapidly deteriorating 17th Century frescos. The unmarked trail into town no longer amounts to much.
Nor does the town itself, after many years of overgrowth.
But the Chiesa di Sant'Antonio is still standing.
Then came a surprise, more good than bad. For years I've been concerned that a lack of maintenance and security for the church are resulting in the deterioration of Sant'Antonio's frescos. The roof is falling in; the entry door disappeared a couple of years ago. Now, someone has taken steps to secure the church with a metal plate.
A good first step. No signs of any repairs, but at least someone has taken notice. Of course, this encouraging finding also meant a trace of disappointment at not getting to view the frescos again. Here's a photo from a 2015 visit.
From Gabbiano Vecchio it was back into the woods in the direction of Monte Pietrolungo, a smaller mountain located in the Spello - Collepino region. I had seen Monte Pietrolungo on maps and had hiked past it on many occasions, but had never seen signposts for a summit trail.
Crossing through the forest, I came across a sign… of peace. Even lesser known paths here can have their Franciscan graffiti.
At one point, my map indicated a lago, or lake. Here it was, humble in size but resting in a tranquil morning setting.
Reaching the road that traverses Mount Subasio, I started downhill, searching for a dirt way that the map indicated went up Monte Pietrolungo. The only realistic option seemed to be this unmarked (other than a sign restricting vehicle access) path, plenty wide with a gentle slope.
I had heard that there was a cross atop Monte Pietrolungo, but wasn't prepared for what would come into view after a comfortable uphill climb.
Though the day was a bit hazy, the views of the Apennines, the valley and towns all the way to Perugia were terrific. Of course, the cross was impressive, as well.
It was time to head back to Assisi. I decided on a different route that involved climbing part way up Subasio and crossing over past Fonte Bregno. On this higher trail it was possible to look back over Monte Pietrolungo. If you have a large enough monitor and look closely, the cross can be seen to the right of center.
From that point it was a long but pleasant stroll back to Assisi, with no shortage of Spring's red poppies along the way.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Gifts and Souvenirs in Assisi

With millions of visitors annually, Assisi has its share of gift and souvenir shops. Most are modest and oriented toward serving pilgrims and tourists, with a few exceptions. Some of the following places and gift ideas, involving acquaintances or vendors from whom I've made purchases, may be included among Assisi's best shopping options.
For special gifts, Ferdinando Tontino has a nice ceramics shop at Via Portica 31.
It's just down the street from the Piazza del Comune in the direction of the Basilica of Saint Francis. Head down the hill to where the road forks and look for his place on the left. 
He has a wide selection of beautiful Deruta ceramics, and also carries works by Assisi artist Claudio Carli. 
A great place to shop, on the Piazza del Comune, across from the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, is Zubboli's Bookstore.
Step inside and check out the range of books and stationery products, including what I consider the best book on Assisi art and history, aptly titled Guide to Assisi History and Art. Also, check out the nice advent calendars in one of the glass display cases. And, here too may be found a wide assortment of maps, including a trail map for hiking Mount Subasio.
Another very nice gift shop, Alice (pronounced ah-lee-chay), is located across from the Chiesa Nuova (New Church) just below the fountain end of the Piazza del Comune.
Here may be found may unique hand-made gifts, including colorful Assisi-oriented artwork and clothing for children.
For more standard souvenir shoppers, a good place to find a range of religious items, from trinkets to books, statues and more, is behind the Basilica of Saint Francis, where there is a fairly large gift shop. 
To get there, one may enter and pass through the upper church, then descend the stairs to the side of the apse, or enter and pass through the lower church, then climb the stairs to the side of the apse. Either way, one will arrive outdoors, turning and looking up at the exterior of the church (above) and, off to the side, will find the gift shop.
In terms of standard souvenir shops along the main road through town, perhaps the one with the widest selection is located just across the road from the fountain in front of the Basilica of Saint Clare.
Whether searching for postcards, sweatshirts, small memorabilia or other gifts, there's a good chance you'll find it here.
Of course, the best gifts Assisi visitors take home are spiritual in nature, and are both free and priceless.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Not the Best Trail

Of the many trails in Subasio National Park, it would be difficult to name a favorite. All are rich in natural beauty with wonderful views. Personally, however, choosing a least favorite trail is not so difficult.
Trail #62 begins at the San Vettorino Bridge below Assisi and follows the Tescio River for about 14 kilometers to the town of Armenzano, on the side of Mount Subasio. It offers some fine views and some rugged terrain for hikers interested in something other than well-worn paths. Or even slightly worn paths.
I've now hiked segments of Trail #62 on three occasions, the first time picking up the trail near the restored Church of Santa Croce below Assisi and turning back after a couple of kilometers when the trail basically petered out in overgrown brush. The second time I followed it from Ponte Marchetto to Armenzano, again passing through rugged terrain before finally approaching the ancient fortress town, where a dog on a chain, a very long chain, ran across a dirt road to sink his teeth into my calf. But the views were nice.
Recently, having noticed a new trail sign along the road, perhaps an indicator of some trail maintenance, I again set out from above the Santa Croce Church in the direction of Armenzano, hoping to make it at least as far as Costa di Trex.
Almost immediately there was a fork in the trail. With intuition saying go left, and the red/white markings clearly indicating the the path to the right, I went right, and proceeded to climb up and up, back in the direction of Assisi. There was a nice view of the Basilica of Saint Francis.
And a fine wide view over the Tescio River valley.
However, eventually it became clear that this was not Trail #62, so it was back down the steep path to the fork, where the other path went for some ways before offering more markings. Soon I arrived at Ponte d'Annibale (Hannibal's Bridge), supposedly where the invader crossed the Tescio in 217 B.C. following the Battle of Lake Trasimeno.
It's an interesting old bridge, still walkable, although apparently it hasn't been resurfaced since about 217 B.C.
And on this day, the view from the bridge of the Tescio River was…. well, let's just say the Tescio wasn't exactly overflowing its banks.
There hasn't been much rain of late. Actually, the Tescio can turn into quite a torrent under heavy rain conditions, with its flow eventually meeting up with the Chiascio River, which leads to the Tevere (Tiber) River, which, of course, flows through Rome. The depth (or lack thereof) of the Tescio on this day would come into play a little further along.
As with my first attempt at Trail #62, the path soon began to fade into the surrounding vegetation.
Still, in most places it was not too difficult to follow, or at least to guess where the next trail marker might be, though there was a significant amount of thorny brush needing to be pushed back to avoid tears. What was interesting was that the trail began to traverse back and forth over the river bed. Not a problem, as long as the bed is dry. Eventually I came to what was once a mill on the river, now a residence. Laundry day.
In such rural settings hikers may anticipate hearing from the family dog. Or in this case, the family dogs, which took to barking loudly but, thankfully, did not present themselves. Not sure how many were announcing my arrival/departure, but a nearby scene provided a hint.
A little ways along some puddles appeared in the Tescio, followed by a small trickle, followed by a modest flow. The pleasant surprise of having water in the river was quickly tempered by a realization that the riverbed trail crossings were likely to continue ahead. Sure enough, they did.
At first, they just involved some rock hopping, a bit of caution to avoid wet feet. Besides, when not in the river, the trail had turned back into a good path.
A good path that eventually was blocked off with barbed wire intended to prevent people from entering the area I had just walked. I carefully worked around this obstacle and turned back to read the sign posted on it.
Which mean, Attention! Animals in the pasture. Closed. Thank you. Which is fine, although I hadn't noticed any animals in the pasture or, for that matter any pasture worth grazing, since shortly after leaving Assisi. Even if there were animals in a pasture, not sure why the trail would need to be closed, unless the animals were of a sort that don't appreciate visitors….
The Tescio was growing prettier and deeper.
Unfortunately, the trail soon took another turn for the worse, with increasing slopes, thorny brush and more rough terrain. I passed a spot where there was a small side trail that looked like it might lead up and out of the river basin. After going a bit farther, seeing the river continue to widen, and able to guess from the surrounding hills that Costa di Trex was nearby, I decided to backtrack and try the side trail.
First, a bit of uphill slope, followed by a gradual climb.
Then finally up out of the brush to some local views near Costa di Trex, and a road leading back to Assisi
So, Trail #62 is a bit of an adventure. Perhaps one day I'll revisit it again, or at least sections I've not yet walked. The Marchetto Ravine, also reachable by another trail, is well worth seeing. However, hikers beware, Trail #62 poses some challenges and dangers, not the least of which would be rising waters during rainy times. And there are plenty of other fine walking options throughout Subasio Park.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Boat in Front of the Basilica of Saint Francis

Currently there's a boat in the courtyard in front of the upper church of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.
Next to the boat there's a modest sign with a message. I'll try to translate and summarize it here.
The boat and hope
A seven meter boat traveled on the Mediterranean Sea for a long time. Its nine passengers arrived safely on the Island of Lampedusa in March of 2014.
In the same days other boats shipwrecked and seven people fleeing Syria drowned in the Aegean Sea, forty-two people fleeing Yemen drowned in the Gulf of Aden and two hundred and fifty-one persons fleeing the Congo drowned in Lake Albert. Refugees, men and women, fleeing war, violence and death. And children, as well, fifty-seven in the Lake drownings alone. Time passes but things haven't changed. The boats continue to transport those who make it to Europe, while hundreds drown and die, including many children.
The photograph of little Aylan lying on the shore of a Turkish beach seemed to have awakened consciences and it seemed that something could truly change. But the child with the red jersey was only one of many. After him they have continued to die by the hundreds in the same water.
Little four year old Sena drowned at the end of November. Her mother spoke her name continuously while looking for reassurances while boarding the boat with nineteen people, as recalled by the few survivors of the shipwreck. They remembered little Sena. Their words accompanied the photo of Turkish soldiers carrying her with the other bodies of victims.
The children continue to die. They have numbered seven hundred of the thirty-six hundred drowning deaths in the Mediterranean since the beginning of this year. And we ourselves live to look at their photographs, confused by the terror that hit home with the Paris massacre.
Fear blinds and pushes for closing the borders, where perhaps some terrorists have passed, but where certainly one finds thousands of victims of the horrors some profess to define as "religious", that slaughter every day and cause thousands of people to flee. And to abandon everything and to accept the notion of a likely death at sea to escape certain death in the country where they were born.
The boat is red with a white strip across it and the deck is blue like the sea and the sky. It had a forty horsepower motor and went swiftly until three miles from the coast of Lampedusa, where it was aided by the Coast Guard.
Now in Assisi it is moored in front of the Sacred Convent of Saint Francis to represent all of the boats that carry the living to Europe and all of the boats lost at sea.
It's a boat without a name on which only nine traveled, but it represents all of the thousands of persons who ask for help and have a need and a right to have international protection.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Visiting the Eremo delle Carceri

The Eremo delle Carceri is in an isolated forest setting part way up Mount Subasio. It's where Francis and his followers used to go for solitude and prayer. Much is available online or in print about the Eremo, so I'll just share a few extra thoughts for those contemplating a visit. While most Eremo pilgrims drive or take a taxi up a country road to get there, many walk. Francis walked. The road from Assisi's Porta Cappuccini is a steady climb of a couple of miles, fairly straight at first, then three switchbacks after the halfway mark. The most direct hiking trail starts at the same gate and involves some steep, loose rock sections. If in doubt, take the road; the views are great. Carry water.
If one sets out late morning on a sunny weekend one may encounter crowds, and will not likely find much solitude. The Eremo is still wonderful to see; just not quite as peaceful when hundreds are present.
I recently took an alternative trail up from the town of Viole.  Met just one other hiker. The trail was steep in places, but was generally a modest climb, even easy along one wide and straight stretch.
There are numerous shrines on or around Mount Subasio.
Approaching the Eremo, it became necessary to hike up a narrower section of trail to get to the road leading to the entrance. On this section was a marker with an arrow pointing to Rome.
Below the arrow, helpful for any disoriented pilgrim walking through the Umbrian woods in search of the Eternal City, appeared the words, "Se la strada no c'e, inventala!" Assuming both wisdom and humor, I think this means, "If the road doesn't exist, make one!"
On to the Eremo.
"Eremo delle Carceri" may be translated as "Hermitage of the Prisons." However, going back to hermits found there even before the time of Francis, Carceri may be better understood to mean small, isolated places. When Francis and his followers arrived, they would branch off into the woods and find their own separate little caves in which to pray and contemplate.
Back in the Thirteenth Century, there was just one modest stone building here. What one finds today is the result of gradual add-ons over several centuries. 
The Eremo is literally built of stone, on stone, as can be seen in this lower section.
Upon entering the Eremo grounds, one passes in silence through an older section of the structure. From there one may follow various forest trails. For example, there's this one, that goes down steep switchbacks to caves named after some of Francis' followers.
I enjoy trail signs with existential messages. The white one above says (in Italian) Trail 150 meters. Grotto of the companions of Saint Francis and finally, senza via di uscita, which is translated on the sign itself as no way out. Perhaps this means the switchbacks you walk down, you must walk back up. Perhaps it means you follow Saint Francis and there is no escaping his goodness.
As for the caves…
Since the adjoining stone walls are dated centuries after Francis, it seems the Franciscan named on each cave may not have been its actual occupant. However, the insides are kept simple and thoughtful as a place of solitude and prayer.
After visiting the grotto, it was time to retrace steps up the steep no way out path.
On another easier path through the Eremo woods one finds a "Tau" altar, with Tau being the Greek letter Francis adopted as a sign of the Cross.
Further along is a nice setting for outdoor services.
Heading back to the Eremo, by the time the sun reaches this hidden hermitage, some of its occupants are ready to warm up.
Here's a "chiesetta" or small church added on a few centuries ago.
When is the Eremo most peaceful and least crowded? Recently I walked up early on a weekday morning and arrived in time for Matins (7:10 a.m.) and Mass (7:30 a.m.) with the four Franciscan brothers and three Poor Clare nuns who call the Eremo home. No other visitors. While the small church in which they hold their services is closed to the day's crowd of tourists, they are very welcoming to those who come to share in their prayers and services. The church itself is built into the side of the mountain; a rock section of which extends into the nave.
Even much of the way down from the Eremo the views are wonderful.
Finally, a favorite 1930's description tying together the Eremo delle Carceri, Saint Francis and the natural beauty of Mount Subasio, by the French philosopher Simone Weil, reads, "Little had I dreamt that such a marvelous place existed. I would have stayed for the rest of my life - if only women were accepted - at the tiny monastery of the Carceri, an hour and fourteen minutes walk up the mountainside from Assisi. No more heavenly and tranquilizing sight exists than Umbria as seen from up there. Saint Francis certainly knew how to choose the most ravishing spots in which to practice poverty: He was far from being an ascetic…."