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 http://www.brigolante.com. 

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.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Venice in Winter

Traveling to Assisi this year included a five night stay in Venice, beginning in late February. A winter visit to Venice has its benefits, including far fewer crowds and no mosquitos. And the challenges brought on by cold winds and rain were offset by the beauty of a rare snowfall on Saint Mark's Square.
Here, between the Square and the Grand Canal, topped with a cap of snow, is the Winged Lion of Saint Mark, the symbol of Venice.
The platforms seen on the ground are lined up to create walkways when Saint Mark's Square floods. Foot traffic slows considerably when the water deepens in parts of the Square.
Nearby is the famous Bridge of Sighs, written about by Lord Byron some two centuries ago.

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand;
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand        
Around me, and a dying glory smiles
O’er the far times when many a subject land
Looked to the wing├ęd’s Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!

 Of course, many people snapping photos of the Bridge of Sighs may not be aware that they are standing on the Bridge of Straw (Ponte di Paglia), a much older bridge and the location, in centuries past, of straw deliveries to Venice.
Here's a picture taken near Saint Mark's Basilica at night.
And some gondolas tied up for the evening.
And, for those sweet of tooth, San Marco in chocolate.
A research project took me to the north part of Venice, far from any busy walkway, in search of an image of La Beata Contessa Tagliapietra, of whom I have written elsewhere on this blog. After a few missed turns, the 14th Century Church of the Madonna dell'Orto (Madonna of the Garden) came into view.
The Church houses several beautiful works by Tintoretto, a 16th Century Venetian Renaissance artist, who is buried there.
As the Church name indicates, it is also home to the 14th Century statue of the Madonna dell'Orto, by Giovanni de Santi, a statue to which some have attributed miracles.
In seeking the image of the Blessed Contessa Tagliapietra, I inquired of the attendant at the entrance of the Church. She was not familiar with the name. Undaunted, I enjoyed the Tintorettos and the impressive Madonna dell'Orto before discovering, on a nearby wall, the image of the blessed Venetian.
In front of the Church was a typical Venetian campo with atypical snow.
Finally, a few random Venetian scenes. A gondola.
Masks, popular a few weeks earlier during Carnevale.
A favorite campo.
And a morning fog.
On to Assisi. Ciao.

Friday, February 23, 2018

2018 Italy Travel and Books

With Spring less than a month away, I'll soon be back in Italy, arriving in Venice on February 28 for a five night stay, then heading to Assisi for about five weeks. As usual, there will be plenty to see and do, and I hope to be posting photos and stories. Any Assisi visitors are welcome to contact me through this site. I'll be glad to answer questions or perhaps show you around town.

On the writing side, I have a new enovel out, Angelico's Thief, available at the Amazon kindle bookstore. It's subtitled A Catholic Cliffhanger, and takes readers to such interesting places as…Venice and Assisi.

For those interested in travel books with spiritual perspectives, Masses in Assisi is a journal of city life, liturgies and walks in the birthplace of Saints Francis and Clare. It's available as a book from Lulu, or an ebook from Amazon.

La pace sia con te.

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   http://www.caigubbio.it/francescano/GPS/francescano_gps.html    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.