Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Biscina, the Church of Caprignone and a dog named Zanna

In a Walking from Gubbio to Assisi post last year, I wrote about missing a trail marker and having to slog through the mudflats of the Chiascio River. As it turns out, my unintended route may well have been the actual path Saint Francis followed when walking between the two towns.
However, deviating from the main trail meant missing two landmarks, the old castle of Biscina and the Church of Caprignano. This year, pushing the bounds of what constitutes a good day hike, I set out from Assisi at 5:00 a.m. on an out and back trek to explore those two sites. After a few hours of walking and having crossed over the Chiascio near the town of Valfabbrica, the castle of Biscina could be seen in the distance.
I had been walking mostly roads to make good time, but now it was onto some nice trails.
Before actually reaching Biscina, it was clear that the 12th Century castle had seen better days.
As wonderful as the area was for hiking, the overgrown ruins of Biscina weren't much to see.
The castle appeared more idyllic from afar.
Now it was on to the Church of Caprignano, set deep in the woods, but eventually coming into view, as seen in the lower left below.
About half way between Biscina and Caprignano, I passed between a country home and its garden, where an elderly woman was working. A barking black dog, of average size, came running toward me, behaving concerned but not angry, yet not fully at ease. The woman called her, and she retreated again before romping in my direction a few more times. I continued on down the hill toward Caprignano.
The Church of Caprignano is an important Franciscan site. Built near an ancient pagan temple and over the ruins of an 11th Century church, it is supposedly where, in 1223, when Francis was still alive, the Franciscans held their first chapter meeting away from from Assisi.
There are some art treasures within; however, no one was about this day to unlock the doors.
Still, it was a beautiful, quiet location, a good place for a break before starting the long trek back.
On the trail again, there are places where Franciscan routes overlap, and one may also see the Franciscan Tau sign.
The trail was decorated with many interesting signs of Spring.
It wasn't until just after passing the garden where I had encountered the dog that I noticed this sign, written in Italian, English and French.
As the print is not very clear, it says, If you are doing the "Saint Francis Walk" you will see me! I'm the "Saint Francis' wolf" and I really love barking! I'm afraid of walking sticks, so I can be agitated. But if you call me ZANNA, you will see, I will become immediately calm! Maybe I will come with you for a few minutes, but then I will go home! - Zanna -   The "Saint Francis' wolf" would be the one of Gubbio, a town several miles away where, according to legend, Francis tamed a large and dangerous wolf. So, should you ever walk between Biscina and the Church of Caprignano, be sure to greet Zanna by her name and to enjoy her company.
As it was still around midday, I ventured off onto other trails for the long trek home. Eventually reaching Valfabbrica, tired and thirsty, I hoped to refill my water bottle at a fountain there, but the fountain was closed, as was the local market. However, about a mile beyond town, sitting on the side of the trail was a flowing fountain!
A little blessing while walking in the footsteps of Saint Francis. A good drink certainly helped in tackling the steep uphill climb from Valfabbrica.
Finally, Assisi came into sight.
I arrived back home a little before 7:00 p.m., having walked about 36 miles, tired but inspired as usual by the beautiful Umbrian countryside. So, that's the story behind the long title of this post.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Walking Up to the Eremo delle Carceri

Many Assisi visitors inquire about the Eremo delle Carceri, the hermitage on Mount Subasio where Francis and his early followers went seeking solitude and to pray. Eight centuries later it is still a place of prayer, surrounded by a wonderful, forested area where one can walk peaceful trails. However, visitors often ask just how much effort it takes to get up there.
One can take a taxi from town. Or one can hike a steep, rocky trail, slippery when wet, that actually comes out above the Eremo before going back down. However, for a first time visitor, in reasonably good shape, a walk up the road may be the best way to go. (There is no evidence of a young Francis ever having taken a taxi.)
If one starts out at Assisi's Porta Cappuccini gate (a bit of an uphill walk itself), and walks at a moderate pace, it takes takes about an hour to reach the Eremo. Best to start early morning, when it is still quiet and the road is empty, especially during times when hundreds of visitors may show up later in the day. And be sure to bring water. The views from the road are wonderful.
Well, at least they improve as the fog lifts.
The road is steadily uphill. A little past halfway, it enters into a sharp "s" curve. There are a total of three "s" curves, the last one being fairly close to the entrance gate. Here's what the Eremo delle Carceri and its surrounding forest look like from above.
People from around the world visit the Eremo. However, if you happen to be Catholic, for a special visit leave Assisi around 6:00 a.m. and take your time. When you arrive at the entry gate, continue along the dirt path and down the narrow walkway into the hermitage. Be silent. No pictures. On your right is the corridor entrance to a small church. Inside you may find the friars and nuns who live at the Eremo saying morning prayers and preparing for a 7:30 Mass. Notice the Subasio rock jutting into the side of the church. Enjoy participating in the service where you will be made to feel welcomed. After Mass, you can explore the Eremo forest or head further up Mount Subasio by road or trails.
In short, if you have a chance, the Eremo delle Carceri is an invigorating walk and a wonderful place to visit.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Where to Eat in Assisi

Assisi has many good dining options. Here are a few suggestions for visitors with limited time looking for a good place to eat.
For a full dinner -La Rocca. The price is right and the food terrific. Try the Cappellacci al Pomodoro. To get there, head up to the San Rufino Cathedral, then continue up Via Porta Perlici (the street with shops and restaurants) until you pass under an arch and you'll find it on your left.
For a terrific pizza - I Monaci. Their wood-fired Pizza Margherita is excellent with a glass of wine. About half way between the Basilica of Saint Clare and the Basilica of Saint Francis along the main walkway keep an eye out for Piazzetta Verdi by the Teatro Metastasio. Descend part way down the steps from the Piazzetta and you'll find a small entryway, with plenty of room inside.
For a tasty one-course meal - Pizzeria Otello. This is a bar with wooden benches, but the meals are good and the cover charge is included in the price. It's just across from the Chiesa Nuova (New Church) just off the Piazza del Comune.
For a slice or two of pizza - Pizzeria da Andrea. Head up to the San Rufino Cathedral and look for the corner shop with a sign reading "Pizza al Taglio", or pizza by the slice. You may find yourself waiting in line with the locals.
Guess you shouldn't be left with just pictures of Assisi's stone buildings. Here's a glimpse of an I Monaci Pizza Margherita.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Girolamo Marinelli and the Lost Art of Gabbiano Vecchio

While Italy has its share of economic, political and social concerns, it faces an additional challenge of importance to the international community. It is home to much of the world's great art, and the cost of preserving, restoring and even identifying all of its treasures is prohibitively expensive. What is being saved is priceless, as is some of what is being lost, as those responsible for Italy's treasures are forced to prioritize and do their best with limited resources.
This post is about some frescos in rural Umbrian that will soon disappear, and the artist who may have painted them. I've posted in the past about the ghost town of Gabbiano Vecchio, found in an area of dense forest growth on Mount Subasio. One of its few remaining structures is the tiny Church of Saint Anthony, with the year 1255 on its cupola. The church is dilapidated. It's roof is literally falling in.
Other than the obvious condition of the church, and a bit of the history of the settlement, I know little with certainty about Gabbiano Vecchio, but have a theory regarding its frescos, likely the work of a 17th Century artist.
While these frescos may be considered good rather than great art, they probably served their intended purpose well of inspiring devotion among church visitors at a time when literacy was limited and education was aided through words and pictures.
Recently I saw for the first time, in the small restored Church of Santa Croce, by the Tescio River below Assisi, on the opposite side of Mount Subasio, a work that looked familiar. It is called the Crucifixion with Saint Helen and Saint Catherine and it is attributed to a 17th Century artist name Girolamo Marinelli.
There are other works by Marinelli in Assisi, including one behind the altar in the Chapel of Saint Agnes in the Basilica of Saint Clare. The Marinelli work below, apparently restored, can be seen on the main walkway between Assisi's two basilicas.
If you haven't already observed some of the many similarities between the Gabbiano Vecchio frescos and the latter two works, look more closely at the angels in the clouds.
Did Marinelli paint the Gabbiano Vecchio frescos? Perhaps a definite answer lies in an old manuscript buried away in the archives of Assisi, Spello or some other Umbrian town. By the time it is found, the frescos in the Chiesa di Sant'Antonio in Gabbiano Vecchio likely will be beyond repair, perhaps in a pile of rubble.
Even if authorities could identify them with certainty today, they would probably end up on a long list of treasures waiting to be restored, not close enough to the top to be saved in time. It's unfortunate, as when observed up close, they are quite beautiful.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Quiet Hike on Subasio

Many Assisi visitors are introduced to Mount Subasio by paying a visit to the Eremo delle Carceri or walking segments of trails close to town. Others set out, when the weather allows, for a hike to the summit. Lesser known trails lead to remoter and quieter parts of the mountain. A clear April morning with mild temperatures and low winds provided a chance to explore forests, trails, and old dirt roads on the far side of Subasio, above the towns of Armenzano and San Giovanni.
After an early visit to the tranquil Eremo, it was on up to the Stazzi area before leaving the dirt road that leads to the summit for a lesser path that followed the tree line before dropping a bit into the forest.
One never knows what one may see when walking on Subasio. For example, in a remote area one may come across picnic tables, not of a recent vintage.
Or wildflowers, very new to the scene.
Or wonderful views, weather permitting.
After following a higher route for a couple of hours, it was time to drop to a lower elevation to pick up a passable dirt road heading back in the direction of Stazzi and the Eremo. Soon Armenzano came into view in the distance.
The wildflowers have been late this year, but plenty were decorating the sides of this road.
Here, above the hamlet of Costa di Trex, was an area of taller trees.
Some interesting ruins, perhaps dating back centuries.
And another bunch of wildflowers.
For those who enjoy solitude, this was a near perfect walk. I encountered but one other walker on the way up to the Eremo, then no hikers for about six hours until close to arriving back in Assisi. Passed by some workers clearing brush, but that was about it. As for vehicle traffic, none from Assisi's Porta Cappuccini up to the Eremo, none between the Eremo and Stassi, and none on any of Subasio's old dirt roads and trails. There's something to be said for starting out early and heading off the well trod paths.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Hiking Above Spello

Mount Subasio rises gradually from Spello. Beyond the farms and orchards come dense forests, steep ravines and rugged terrain. A good place to explore.
I set out from Assisi early on a Friday morning, just as people were arriving at the San Rufino Cathedral for a service.
After walking a few miles of country and dirt roads along the side of Subasio, it was time to go deeper into the forest.
Being a cold and windy morning, it was good to have the sun going to work. Also good to come upon an ancient fountain landmark, Fonte Sermattei.
In the dense forest nearby, one can follow a narrow path to the abandoned town of Gabbiano Vecchio.
This town, inhabited until about a century ago, but only left to the elements in more recent times, has a small church, Sant'Antonio, with the year 1255 on the cupola. In the church are frescos that may date back to the 17th century.
Unfortunately, in the past few years the church has deteriorated significantly. The roof is falling in, the entrance door has disappeared and little is left of the interior. And the frescos are eroding.
Is this art worth saving? Certainly it was important to those who lived in this settlement in centuries past.
And to those devoted to Saint Anthony. On viewing, one certainly may find it inspiring, one measure of the value of art.
From Gabbiano Vecchio, it was off to find a good trail to Spello. While crossing into higher country, a cold wind picked up, defying the morning sun's efforts. At least the trail, once found, was well marked and easy to follow.
After crossing over a high point of the hills, Spello came into sight.
The trail wound downwards, offering good views in several directions. However, approaching Spello, rather than stopping for a visit, this was a day for hiking. Turning onto a dirt road passing above the town, it was time to look for a different path back to Gabbiano Vecchio. At first, it was as easy as taking whichever route led uphill. Even as matters grew ruttier, the views remained great.
Once in the forest though, with no trail markings, no signs and occasional forks in the road, some guessing came into play. Regardless of the uncertainty, it was a fine place to be walking.
At one point the dirt road turned to mud, but soon it began to descend in the direction of Subasio. Finally, the Church of Sant'Antonio could be seen in the distance.
From here, it was easy going, with time to appreciate the signs of Spring.
And to enjoy the walk back to Assisi.