Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Graduation Gift -- Italy (Part V) Assisi and Umbria

For this, my 100th post I am returning to the trip we made with my daughter to Italy, in 1984, just after she graduated from high school at age 17. It's so long since I posted about this trip I feel quite embarrassed. If you need to catch up you can find the first post here, second here, third here and fourth here.

Carlo, our Bolognese friend, told us that we shouldn't go to Assisi, because it was too commercialized. He was quite adamant about it, definitely not Assisi. Instead we should go to Spoleto, where he had spent part of his National Service training, long ago, but obviously he still had great memories of it. Well sorry Carlo, but we were definitely interested in visiting some of the hill towns of Umbria and we thought we might stay at Assisi, as a base. So off we went in our car.

Assisi is a walled city which has changed little since the Middle Ages. It is set on the slopes of Monte Subasio and, as you drive along the road towards it, it is a splendid sight indeed. The first thing you see is the huge monastery stretching out alongside the hill. When you arrive at the foot of the city you find a huge parking lot for the buses which bring the hordes of tourists each day to visit the birthplace of Assisi's most famous son, San Francesco or St Francis. The streets of the town are narrow and not car friendly however we had arranged to stay at the Hotel Giotto, not far from the two storeyed Basilica di San Francesco, and fortunately with a small parking lot as you can see.

Our room was overlooking this splendid view and we settled in to visit this lovely old town. There are few hotels in Assisi and most of the tourists who visit are day tourists. However, to our hotel, every evening, different tour groups came to spend the night. The women all rushed out to check out the shops, which remained open until 9pm. The men all rushed to the bar to have a drink, for it was surely rather hot. They ate late in the dining room and after a really early breakfast they were gone again. Most of the day tourists clustered around the Basilica di San Francesco at the entrance to the town, and the rest of the town went on peacefully with daily life. Of course we visited all the sites in the town, and took our car to visit some of the surrounding hill towns, like Gubbio, Perugia, Cortona and Orvieto, a little farther afield.

Then we thought we should go to Spoleto to satisfy Carlo. However we had not realized that it was the time of Spoleto's most famous music, opera and dance festival, the Festival of Two Worlds, held annually and which gathers together musicians and artists from all over the world. We could only find a room in a Motel Agip, outside of Spoleto.

The crowds in the town were horrific, we had no tickets for any event, so after one night we asked the hotel desk clerk to telephone to the Hotel Giotto in Assisi and ask if we could return. Thankfully they had a room and we returned there and were given a beautiful room with a balcony this time, overlooking the wonderful view. I think the desk clerk at the Hotel Giotto was delighted that we had loved Assisi enough to return and for the next four days he left us in our very special room and accommodated the one-night-only tourists around us, pretending that we were part of the different tour groups to justify us having this special room. Or so he told me.

So what makes Assisi so special? Well of course the wonderful location on the side of the hill and some very special old buildings are part of it. The Basilica consists of a lower church built in 1228 to 1230 and an upper church built between 1230 to 1253. Some of the most important frescoes in Italy are contained in this basilica, especially the ones depicting the life of St Francis by Giotto in the upper church and many others including some by Cimabue. In the crypt, below the lower church is the tomb of St Francis, only discovered in 1818, but now open to everyone, with displays of articles used by St Francis. Sadly the basilica was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1997 and remained closed until 1999. However we were there in 1984 so only the passing of time and perhaps earlier tremors had aged the basilica.

One of the highlights of our visit was to attend mass there. All the Italian masses were held in the upper church but there was an English mass in the lower church. When my daughter and I arrived (my husband is not Catholic), we found there were ten Franciscan priests on the altar and six people in the congregation. We six all huddled together in the front row, as if intimidated by this large church. Some of the mass was sung, with the priests singing some parts and we six singing the responses. The acoustics in the church were unbelievable and we sounded like a choir of angels echoing in that huge space.

Another church we liked in Assisi was the church of Santa Chiara, St Clare who was an ardent follower of St Francis. The beautiful church, with its lovely view of the countryside, was constructed in 1257 from pink and white marble quarried from Mount Subasio. It was built over the older church of San Giorgio where St Francis was buried until the construction of the basilica. In the crypt are the remains of the body of St Clara, displayed in a glass case, and when the church is open there is always a nun sitting reading quietly by the body. This absolutely fascinated my then 17 yr old daughter. In Vancouver, we attended a very ecumenical catholic church. Our priest, a professor and intellectual himself, was chosen to minister to the University community and the congregation rented the use of an Anglican church on campus. We alternated services on Sunday, two of each denomination. So we had none of the usual trappings of a catholic church and she had never been exposed statues of saints everywhere and candles lit in holders before statues in side chapels. She was mesmerized by St Clara, with her nun attendant. We talked about this the other day and she laughed. She said that she had heard that the body is mostly held together by plastic now.

So we spent these few extra days in Assisi, a place that we really liked and watched the tourists come by the busload and depart again. We explored the little streets and the wonderful stores, filled with pottery and linens embroidered in the special Assisi style. I bought a lot of beautiful Italian paper goods from a stationery store, some of which I still have to this day. We ate in the different little trattorie around the town and all in all enjoyed this place to its fullest.

Next time I post on about this trip it will be about our return to Rome, after 23 years.

23 comments:

Lee said...

It sounds like Carlo had things about face when he advised you not to go to Assisi as it was too commercial. From your story, jmb, Spoleto sounds the more commercial of the two. Wonderful descriptions...thanks for sharing your memories...I'm learning a lot from your Italian journey. :)

Voyager said...

Beautiful. Now I want to go. How often have you been back?
V.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Fabulous post, jmb. I've never been to Assisi but have always wanted to go there. You were, indeed , fortunate with your hotel there. Lovely photos. I can well imagine your daughter being fascinated by the trappings of Catholicism in Italy. You describe it very well. I want to go there even more now! Auguri from Sicily.

Mary said...

Hi JMB - enjoyed reading about Assisi - we have been to Italy 6 times, usually a weeks tour then a weeks stay, so have been to most parts including Sicily for a wek a couple of years ago. First time we went was after my hubby had major heart surgery 9 years ago. He'd never flown before, (fear!) but after he survived the op, he was ready to try anything, so off we went! We're off again in July, Venice and Lake Garda. I enjoyed Assisi, but not the climb up to the top of the hill on a blistering hot day (however, the ice cream at the cafe was very welcome)

jmb said...

Hi Lee,
Well we did hit Spoleto in the midst of their famous festival, which of course I did not know about, so it was to be expected. Still we loved Assisi.
regards
jmb

jmb said...

Hi Voyager,
I haven't been back to Assisi but I've been to Italy about 10 times over a 46 year period.
regards
jmb

jmb said...

Hi WCLC,
I would recommend Assisi any day, but stay a while, don't do the one day thing. There is nothing like Italy for people kissing statues and rubbing tombs, etc. Totally foreign for my daughter.
Auguri a te
jmb

ipanema said...

I love the pottery! It's beautiful. Thanks for sharing this. :)

jmb said...

Hi Mary,

You are so close to Italy. I envy you. I love Sicily especially because it reminds me of Australia with all the eucalypts and tropical flowers. I've been to Venice 4 or 5 times and done all around Lago di Garda twice. A beautiful spot although I like Lago di Como even more.

Have a great trip. I wrote a post on Venice and if you click on where it says first post here, in this post it will take you there.
regards
jmb

jmb said...

Hi ipanema,

The pottery of every town in the Umbria region is very distinctive so it is interesting to look at it in each town.
regards
jmb

james higham said...

Another fascinating account, interwoven with Carlo's warnings and the photos to set the account against. This is blogging at its best.

Sienna said...

What a beautiful journey, I am so fond of Italy...that is so sad the earthquake, we were there just before...I heard there were people killed.

The architecture is amazing....I just go all gooey thinking about the place. Italy is divine.

(I understand your daughter being foreign to the statue kissing)....in St P's Basilica did you see St Peter's toes all worn away!
I found that a little incredible the first time I saw it. :)

Pam

Janice Thomson said...

Once again I have enjoyed a view of Italy through your eyes. Assisi looks beautiful; it is hard to imagine going to a place so steeped in history and not coming away a changed person. I would love to see the frescoes of Giotto. Wonderful post Jmb.

lady macleod said...

Lovely. I think that part of the world is charming. I enjoyed your photographs, especially that last one. thank you for sharing with us.

jmb said...

Thank you for your kind words James, and especially by your plug for this post over at nourishing obscurity. I just about fell off my chair when I saw the photo, which was the top post when I looked.

jmb said...

Hi sienna, you are out and about again. Italy is without doubt my favourite place, I never get enough of the history and the wonderful people.
regards
jmb

jmb said...

Hi Janice,
You would love the art treasures. I am humbled by the history associated with everything. Coming from a very young country as we both do, we don't get that feel for history until you go somewhere really, really old. Well I don't and I am truly moved by it.
regards
jmb

jmb said...

Thanks Lady M, it's my pleasure to talk about this place that is so special to me. Thanks for listening.
regards
jmb

Gledwood said...

Wow - looks like a lovely place. I've never been to Italy but I have Spain. I found it lovely. One of these days I'm threatening to fly off somewhere like that and never come back!!

Josie said...

JMB, those photographs are just gorgeous. I could feel the warmth of the country, just looking at them. What kind of trees are those in the foreground? I clicked on it to enlarge it, but I wasn't able to see. Are they olive trees?

Beautiful!

Josie

jmb said...

Hi gledwood,
I've never been to Spain! You should write about that for us. Wouldn't that be wonderful to just go wherever you wanted? Free as a bird.
regards
jmb

jmb said...

Hi Josie,
Thanks Josie, I thought it was a wonderful area around Assisi. Of course, I haven't a clue what the trees are.
regards
jmb

GEWELS said...

I ADORE Assisi- I could not disagree with Carlo more.

Cortona is another of my favorite towns in Tuscany.
Actually, one is more picturesque than the next.

I have not been in almost 15 years...yes, time to go back.