Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Assisi, peaceful & quiet, just like St Francis

We awaken this morning to the sounds of a domestic in the street behind our hotel in Perugia. Breakfast is good and the staff attending to us are warm, welcoming and awake! By the time we have breakfast and hit the road it is almost 10 am. I am pretty sure that I can get us to Assisi without Kate and turn south and we travel down off the ridge in heavy traffic on a winding road. We're on the motorway before I realise that we are travelling in the wrong direction and so I program Kate. Hmm, Assisi is not south of Perugia, it is east! So off the motorway I turn and straight into the waiting arms of the local Polizia. They wave us over presumably to do some check or another but as they reach the car and realise that we speak English they just wave us on. Thank goodness.

And even though this road is the next major road off the motorway, at this point it is quite literally little more than a goat track. Anyway I digress. After consulting the map (Earth Google) the other day while we were doing a little planning, Helen and I noticed that we were not very far from Assisi. The Catholic in us piqued our interest well and truly as we both vividly remember the pious and gentle look of St Francis of Assisi from our days of school, and so today en-route to Pompei, we are going to call in and have a look.

We are getting into that scenery that is very Tuscan now - hilly country with long lines of pencil pines on the ridges and clumps in the valleys between the stately Lebanese Cedar trees that frame the ochre coloured buildings of the area. All in all, there is a depth to the scenery that speaks of ages of old, of time immemorial. And on the ridges we see fortified buildings of stone that seem to suggest that this has been a very busy route over the millenia, with conflict from time to time. Of course Michael (our resident historian) tells us of the peoples who has passed by these ways and clashed, shaping the country and its customs.

We see Assisi from afar long before we can get anywhere near it. There is only one motorway exit that will take us up into the hills of the Apennine ranges where the city sits respledent above the surrounding lowlands and the Spoleto plain. Off the highway we go and travel through the town of Bastria Umbra that is down on the flat area beneath the old city of Assisi. This is a bustling and quite affluent area if the architecture of the homes is anything to go by. And from here we climb the switchbacks into Assisi which in turn teases us with views of the amazing arcaded buttresses of the Sacro Convento of Assisi before turning all shy and hiding her face once again!

The parking is all located below the town and there have been large parking stations cut into the rock of the hills so as to provide the necessary infrastructure for the hundreds of thousands of visitors without destroying the visual charm of the place. It provides a secure place out of the burning sun which is nice now as the sun still has a good deal of heat during the day. That is all well and good, but the downside is that from here it is all up. Up hill and up steps! Not good for me. And to add insult to my injury, the council is working to replace much of the underground drainage and there is some of the roads and pavements all dug up. We clamber up temporary steps that have been formed with large pieces of rock and ramps of timber that seem to balance precariously over open pits. All fun (not)! On our way up into the town we pass buildings with amazing frescoes painted into their arches, small fountains where the populations of long past would have obtained their drinking water and steps leading up and down into the inner sanctums of daily life here.

Once we get up into the town proper we are greeted with the sights of a town ages old. It has been very well maintained and does not look at all tired, but rather looks ordered and tidy. The town has a quiet air about it despite the large number of tourists and pilgrims that are converging around the outside of the Basilica di Santa Chiara (Basilica of Saint Clare), the first of the monuments that we see. But as luck would have it, they have just closed the doors for the lunchtime break and it will not re-open until 3 pm. Gosh, it makes it hard to maximise your time as a tourist sometimes. But even from the outside this church is very beautiful set looking into a large walled square that looks out over the Spoleto plain. There is a group of Friars posing for photos with what looks to be visiting family members.

So with our breath caught, we realise that we are a tad peckish and head up towards the main piazza in the town to seek some food. Michael had dashed up here before looking for the loo and reports that it is beaustiful. We continue up into the town and pass lots of shops selling local handicrafts and religious iconography and shops of local Italian foods including pastrys and other sweet delicacies. I stop at a linen shop that has the most exquisite hand crafted items including childrens clothing that is smocked and stitched as well as ladies night attire and the more commonly available table linen. Gosh, oh for a fortune, I could have gone completely mad here! I end up just buying one placemat sized piece of hand worked Assisi embroidery as a souvenir of our visit here as well as my usual purchase of the book on the town.

We sit in the square admiring the history all around us as we gaze upon a church that is housed in what appears to be an early Roman temple that is next to a high and much later tower. Indeed after lunch we get a chance to go inside and find that this is the well preserved facade of the Temple of Minerva that later in 1539 was consecrated as a church and dedicated to the Virgin as 'Santa Maria spora Minerva'. Inside it is a quiet and dignified space with an ornate baroque altar but also with a simplicity that seems to echo the simpleness of the place that is truly Assisi. We light candles at the altar dedicated to St Francis (there is one in each of the churches here it seems) before making our way outside again into the sunshine.

The staff at the Tourist Office have told Michael that the Sacro Convento, the site of the Franciscan Order with its numerous basilica and those wonderful colonnades will not be open again until after 3 pm, so we head out to do the only thing we can - a drive by! Sacro Convento is the Franciscan Friary that is connected to the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi. It is the mother church for the Franciscan order and one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Italy. On the way though, we call in at one of the other local churches the Chiesa Nuova (New Church) where the Father of St Francis was said to spend time. And when we get down the road near the monastic complex, we find that our view is impeded - by more blasted roadworks - Italy and indeed all of Europe is full of them at the moment.

We still have a 4 hour drive to Pompei and so can't wait for the churches to re-open and we head off back to the motorway. Its a long drive and normally I would prefer to do this type of trip off the motorways, but as it is late, this is the fastest way to get there. The land around is a real patchwork with some fields ploughed and other still under maturing crops that are a rich green in colour. And we glimpse tantalising views of small towns perched high on ridges above the barriers of the motorways from time to time.

We pass through the Apennine Mountains as we travel further south towards Naples. I am surprised at the ruggedness of them. I don't know why, but I had expected them to be more of a rolling hills type of landscape, but nothing could be further from the reality we are passing. They are rugged, with lots of cloud wisps forming and we can see up in to valleys and occasionally even what appears to be gorges. I can't say where I got my expectations from because I had not done any research on this part of the trip before we set out. Just goes to show you how wrong you can be!

And before we know it we are travelling on the motorway through the outskirts of Naples. Now, Merv had warned Helen not to go into Naples, saying that there was a higher element of danger here. So when we are greeted by a city that looks dirty and unloved, it seems to confirm his advice. But this is a large port city with all the infrastructure that goes with it, including a large population. And in an industry that demands either a high level of automation or a large workforce, it can only be expected that there will be many people that are more likely than not lower paid, living in close proximity. Nevertheless, it is grubby and certainly does give the impression that no one gives two hoots for the appearance that is created. Not only is there the ever present graffiti (and lots of it), but the level of rubbish is mind-blowing for those of us used to having a regular waste and recycling collection.

There are some nicer areas that seem to be closer to the older city area. I would love to be able to get off this motorway and explore the area a little more, but know that our time is too limited to allow me this luxury. This city must have some very interesting stories to tell I imagine! By the time we exit off the motorway and turn into the residential areas of Pompei which is located quite literally on the outskirts of Naples, Helen's apprehensions have quietened. And when we finally get to the tree-lined street where the Hotel Piccolo Sogno is just a block from the Cathedral and only a few more from one of the three entrances to the ruins, we are again all excited. Bring on tomorrow when we will have a real chance to explore.

We are tired tonight and take the recommendation of the hotel staff and armed with a 10% discount card head down to the Pizza Pasta Restaurant at the end of the street where we have fantastic meals before heading back to our room and bed!

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