Tag Archives: Assisi

Heaven is a Place on Earth

Blue Nun, Spello

Blue Nun, Spello

Italy remains a Catholic country and there are many Italians for whom religion remains part of the daily ritual, whether they live a cloistered life, such as in Spello’s ancient Vallegloria Convent, or by making their own personal spiritual journey. We stepped out of a doorway and found ourselves caught up in a procession, a microphone and loud-hailer leading the chanted prayers, the street brimming with people.

Nuns in the Sun, Spello

Nuns in the Sun, Spello

The nearby town of Assisi, birthplace of Saint Francis, is an important stop on the ancient pilgrim’s route from Tuscany to Rome. Spello is one of the many hill towns visited along the way. Not everybody walks the entire route, but this section with its rolling green hills and proximity to Assisi is particularly popular.

Did I hear something?

Did I hear something?

The Spellani watch the procession in the narrow streets, leaning out of high windows or peeping between the balcony railings. Everybody loves a spectacle.

Well Hidden, Spello

Well Hidden Flower Girls, Spello

It’s time for us to bid farewell once again to Spello. Like lovers we make promises about returning soon. We greet friends for the final time and say arrivederci – until we meet again. We linger in our favourite wine bar, Vinosofia, listening to the legendary Miles Davis, one more Martini for the road, stirred not shaken. If ever heaven was a place on earth, it’s Spello. Taxi’s here. I wipe away a tear….

Lost in Contemplation

Lost in Contemplation

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place: we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”― Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon

Thanks for coming along for the ride. Did you enjoy it?

If You Ever Come Back.

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

I’ve no idea how we missed the bus stop. Almost all of our fellow passengers got off, but for some reason we stayed on. As the bus took a sharp, uphill turn we saw a fleeting glimpse of the Basilica of Saint Francis; we pulled away. Several hairpin bends and delicious views later, we reached the end of the road, literally. There was a sign opposite the bus stop pointing out the pedestrian route to the centre of the town via a Roman tunnel. Into the depths we descended through the Roman remains of Assisi. Suddenly, daylight, big skies, church towers and domes!

Assisi

Assisi Cathedral: Saint Rufino

The Duomo of Saint Rufino is thought to date from the 8th century, although it was rebuilt in the 11th century when it was consecrated as the cathedral of Assisi. It is an enormous structure with a beautiful green dome and evidence of repairs due to age and earthquakes.

Assisi: Church of Saint Clare

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Clare

Although Saint Francis of Assisi is the town’s most celebrated former resident, his contemporary, Saint Clare, is also honoured here. The Basilica of Saint Clare was constructed in the 13th century. It has a pretty, striped facade, using pink stone from Mount Subasio, on whose lower slopes Assisi lies. The church has a large, square bell tower and, from above, wonderful views of the Umbrian countryside.

Assisi

Assisi

Still we descended the steep streets, with picturesque views to right and left.

Assisi

Assisi

Through arches and bridges we saw changing vistas of mountains and trees, crops and clouds.

Assisi

Assisi

Tall medieval buildings seemed to dwarf their Lilliputian residents.

Assisi: Torre del Popolo

Assisi: Torre del Popolo

Approaching the town centre, the 13th century Torre del Popolo towered above the ancient square, the Piazza del Comune. The beautifully situated 16th century fountain in the same square is guarded by 3 rather tame looking lions.

AssisiAssisi: Three Lions Fountain

Assisi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO describes the town as “an outstanding example of a type of architectural ensemble that has significantly influenced the development of art and architecture.” That is quite an accolade, but one that is well deserved, not least because of the Basilica of Saint Francis.

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

In front of the Basilica there is a striking bronze statue by the sculpture and artist Proietti Norberto, a native of nearby Spello. The statue is known as the Return of Saint Francis or the Pilgrim of Peace. The Franciscan movement preaches a universal message of peace and tolerance, a message sadly lacking in our troubled times.

"Return of Saint Francis" by Norberto

“Return of Saint Francis” by Norberto

Looking down into the lower plaza, the panoramic views extend across the Umbrian plain. You might just make out the blue dome of the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli: I have written about this unusual church, containing the cell in which Saint Francis was said to have died and his first chapel, in an earlier post.

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

The plain facade of the Basilica of Saint Francis does not prepare the visitor for its remarkable decorative interior with frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue and Pietro Lorenzetti amongst others. Both the lower and upper churches are crammed with remarkable art.

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

This unique treasure house, somewhat ironically built in honour of a man who cast aside riches and dedicated himself to the poor, is surely worth a visit.

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

On our previous visit we had concentrated largely on the Basilica and found it rather overwhelming and a little distasteful. But we were glad we had returned; through missing our bus stop we had seen a whole new side to Assisi with its winding streets and quiet squares. We also had a chance to enjoy once again the mesmerising religious art of this historic town.

Assisi

Assisi

 

Can’t Buy Me Love

 

Click those heels together and make a wish!

Slippers that keep an eye on you….Click those heels together and head back to Kansas!

“Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.” Marilyn Monroe

It is true to say that money can’t buy you love, but it can get you pretty much everything else. I should tell you right away that I am not a shopper. The consumerism that has gripped so many people in the developed world does nothing for me, but I do still enjoy a bit of window shopping.

Where did you get that hat?

Where did you get that hat?

Where better to window shop than Italy for quality and style? Home of so many fashion labels: Versace, Gucci, Armani, Moschino, Valentino and Prada, to name but a few. But as well as the big names, small businesses – often family affairs – are commonplace, and their attention to detail in materials such as leather, silk and wool is wonderful.

“Fashions fade, style is eternal.” Yves Saint-Laurent

Bags of choice

Bags of choice.

“You can never be overdressed or overeducated” Oscar Wilde

Even in the small Umbrian town of Spello there are a variety of small shops crammed with delights….

Spello La Bottega

Spello La Bottega degli Intrecci

….where a little Italian flair is used to show the goods to best effect….

Leather and ceramics Spello

Leather and ceramics Spello

Further afield, in Umbria’s capital, Perugia, the shops are cosmopolitan, stylish, plentiful.

“Where is the man that can ease a heart like a satin gown? Dorothy Parker

Party? Me?

Party? Me?

I think I was more attracted to the reflection of Perugia Cathedral than the contents of this particular window….

Plastic Fantastic!

Plastic Fantastic!

“Elegance is the only beauty that never fades.” Audrey Hepburn

This was a feast for the eyes. Look – more sparkly shoes….

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Food shopping is more my style. Local cheeses just waiting to be nibbled with a decent glass of wine….

Cheese: yes please!

Cheese: yes please!

Then there is chocolate. Perugia is famous, amongst other things, for its high quality chocolate. No surprise then that shop windows are crammed with sweet delights….

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Even better was the Chocostore in Perugia’s main square….

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….with a view of the beautiful fountain….

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Even the drinks were chocolate-based, including alcoholic beers and cocktails….

Chocolate Heaven, Perugia

Chocolate Heaven, Perugia

The city of Assisi is known for its links to its most famous son, Saint Francis. Here, beside the many churches and the basilica, numerous shops and restaurants exploit the Saint, for example selling Saint Francis cakes which are tagged with a picture of him!

Assisi Bakery

Assisi Bakery

Walk in the steps of Saint Francis: this footwear could only be found in such quantities in Assisi….

Assisi, sandals

Assisi, sandals

Time to head back to Spello where this hill town helmet caught my eye.

Hill Town Helmet!

Hill Town Helmet!

Helmet, designer sunglasses, leather gloves and Vespa scooter….I’m all ready to go touring with the Touring Club Italiano!

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“Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” Coco Chanel

 

A Different Corner

I wrote about our visit to Assisi in an earlier post (Stairway to Heaven). From Assisi, high on its mountain slopes, you can look down onto the flat plain below and see a huge dome, standing out amongst the insignificant buildings that surround it.

View from Assisi: Santa Maria degli Angeli

View from Assisi: Santa Maria degli Angeli

Why was there such an enormous church so close to Assisi? What was its significance? This called for a visit to investigate, so we headed to the small town of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Saint Mary of the Angels) and the church of the same name.

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi

This church revealed a story that had me wondering why so many pilgrims and tourists visit Assisi in their droves, bypassing the place with the strongest links to the life – and death – of Saint Francis. I have a hunch that many of them don’t even know of its existence, based only on speculation and crowd density during our visits: Assisi: thousands of people versus Santa Maria degli Angeli: maybe a hundred.

Saint Francis came from Assisi at a time when the plains below the town were heavily forested. In the forest was a tiny chapel from the 10th or 11th century. This chapel was given to Francis by the Benedictines, and it was here that Francis founded his Order of Friars Minor in 1209. The chapel – known as the Porziuncola – still exists in its original location. And the church was built on top; the chapel is directly under the dome!

The Porziuncola Chapel: Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi.

The Porziuncola Chapel: Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi.

The name Porziuncola means “gift”, and derives from the story that Jesus gave Francis the gift of forgiveness, known as the Pardon of Assisi, at this spot.The exterior frescoes, illustrating the Pardon, are a 15th century addition, but the chapel’s structure has apparently not been significantly modified since the 13th century when Francis and his followers were based there.

Just out of view behind the Porziuncola is a small cell, formerly part of the infirmary of the convent on this site where Francis died in October 1226. It is known as the Capella del Transito (Transit Chapel). Inside the cell are a statue of Francis in white, glazed terracotta by Andrea della Robbia from 1490, and a glass case containing what pertains to be the cord from Francis’ robe with its 3 knots representing the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Santa Maria degli Angeli is the seventh largest Christian church in the world. It was begun in 1569 and was substantially completed in 1667 when the dome was added. Following the devastating earthquake of 1832, the church underwent some remodelling, particularly of the facade.

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi

Even for the non-believers amongst us, this place has a wonderful, spiritual feel to it. Its credentials – birthplace of the Franciscan Order and the place where Francis died – qualify this church for much more attention than it seems to receive.

St Francis of Assisi, attributed to Cimabue

St Francis of Assisi, attributed to Cimabue

Stairway to Heaven

There are several ways to travel from Spello to Assisi. The first, quickest but most boring, is via the main route SS75. Secondly, the local roads that go gently north through some small historic villages. And the road we chose. Right up almost to the summit of the Mountain, some 1290 metres (4230 feet) high. The mountain was (and perhaps still is) regarded as a sacred and mystical place; the beauty and solitude was certainly inspiring. The route follows an ancient cart track, winding steeply upwards with hair-raising hairpin bends (particularly when the driver is situated on the blind side of the car, as was I). The surface degenerated as we ascended, and soon we were driving over a pounded stone track, full of holes and rocks. Luckily we met few other cars (I should have wondered why) so were able to use the width of the road when things got really bad. The track was barely wide enough for 2 vehicles with very few passing places. Fortunately I was able to pull over when a large cattle truck approached from behind; we saw him shortly afterwards disgorging the animals onto the high pastures. We reached the snow line shortly afterwards.

Mini Adventure: Mount Subasio, Italy

Mini Adventure: Mount Subasio, Italy

Where do you take your Mini?

Where do you take your Mini?

When we did get the chance to stop, we were treated to superb views across to the Appenines.

View from Monte Subasio

View from Monte Subasio

Eventually we got our first view of Assisi, tumbling down the lower slopes of the mountain, the rose hue of its stones shimmering through the swirling cloud.

Assisi from Monte Subasio

Assisi from Monte Subasio

Assisi was the birthplace of Saint Francis, and it was here that he set up his religious order, based on the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The town is permeated by monuments and art commemorating the life and works of both Saint Francis and Saint Clare, who also lived and worked in Assisi. It is for this reason that the town remains a place of pilgrimage for many Christians, and is one of the main tourist centres in Italy.

The most significant monument is the Basilica of Saint Francis, constructed shortly after his death in 1226, although much of the internal decoration was added later. The Basilica dominates the town; externally I did not think it was beautiful architecturally, but inside it was visually stunning.

Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi

Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi

The Basilica consists of 2 churches: the upper church was built on top of the lower church and the crypt. All have been damaged to some extent by earthquakes, but the restoration has been well executed. The tomb of Saint Francis is in the crypt, along with those of several of his closest followers.

The lower church is rather dark, but the quality of the wonderfully rich art is superb. Some of the greatest artists of the age, including Giotto, Cimabue and the unidentified Maestro di San Francesco contributed to the frescoes. No photography is allowed, so the following photos are taken from postcards, just to illustrate the extent of the decoration.

Basilica of St Francis, Assisi. Lower church.

Basilica of St Francis, Assisi. Lower church.

Madonna and Child by Pietro Lorenzetti. Lower church, Basilica of St Francis, Assisi

Madonna and Child by Pietro Lorenzetti. Lower church, Basilica of St Francis, Assisi

The upper church is lofty and bright. Its art is more famous (though I am a fan of the lower church art), in particular the episodes from the life of Saint Francis are considered to be amongst the world’s great masterpieces. This fresco cycle was attributed to Giotto and his assistant, but more latterly is thought to be the work of the Maestro di San Francesco. But both Giotto and Cimabue are well represented in the art of the upper church.

Basilica of St Francis, Assisi. Upper church.

Basilica of St Francis, Assisi. Upper church.

Assisi, view from the Basilica

Assisi, view from the Basilica

Leaving the Basilica, we walked to the main square – the Piazza del Comune – which is largely medieval and well preserved. In fact, the Temple of Minerva (1st Century BC) and the Torre del Popolo (13th Century) can be seen in one of the frescoes of the life of Saint Francis!

Piazza del Comune, Assisi. Temple of Minerva and Torre del Popolo

Piazza del Comune, Assisi. Temple of Minerva and Torre del Popolo

The town was crowded with tourists, surprising this early in the year. It was disappointing that many of the restaurants and shops seemed to cater entirely for the tourists, with fast food and cheap religious souveniers everywhere. I have said before that I am not religious, but I love the architecture and art that organised religion has generated over the decades. I still find it distasteful that making money is such a key feature of many religious sites.

We called it a day at that point; it is just too much to take in on a single visit, so we will return to again do battle with the crowds.