The Basilica di San Francesco | Assisi
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The Basilica di San Francesco | Assisi

Umbria, Italy

The Firenze way… via Assisi, Caprese Michelangelo & yes, salami…

“Their story, yours and mine – it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take…” ~ William Carlos Williams

This is an excerpt of a 2012 blog post. Read on for more of St Francis of Assisi.

Our criss-cross of an Italian blog journey continues. From exquisite celebrations of love we are now back, to yes, all things Salami. And if you’ve been following us you will know about Marco, possibly named Mario, but at this point we’re giving up. And you will know that we had to change plans a little as he’d invited us for a tasting. Of his entire Norcineria at 10 the morning. With wine. It would be a long day. But we’re up for anything if it’s paired with vino, cheese and YES, truffle GRAPPA at 10am, well, we are so there. He greeted us with his beaming smile and oodles of offerings, so in return we ate it all and took some photos in between. Anyone up for back-lighting some salami? And again, we are so there.

And then it happened… Words were uttered that I NEVER thought would pass our lips. Trace said it first and I concurred… I’m salamied and cheesed out. I don’ think I’ll ever be able to look at another piece of meat in my life. There it was. And it simply couldn’t have been any truer…

In writing this blog I asked Trace to find out if there was a Patron Saint of Salami. Because it seems there’s a Patron Saint of everything else according to her previous research… And here’s what she came up with and skyped me (from the other room…)

I came across a tiny little article about a French celebration honoring Saint Anthony, the patron saint of Charcuterie. Subsequent research failed to result in any extensive information about this at all, save for a few bits here and there about how Saint Anthony often was pictured with a pig. But doing a search for St. Anthony only brings up information about the patron saint of the lost, or in another context, the patron saint of skin disease. Oh great. Another sign.

And with that small digression we now hit the road. Actually if I’m being completely honest I don’t remember how we got to the road, because I had to polish off all the wine and the grappa… Taking one for the team and all…since I don’t drive…

So we were off to explore the world of St Francis. In Assisi. Leaving the ancient walls of Norcia behind, as we left town. The walls surrounding Norcia enclose the entire city for a length of about 2 Km, featuring eight gates and 17 towers (out of the original 20). And a row or two of washing. This construction dates from 2000 years ago, but the present day structures are fruit of rebuilding in the 13th century, and later modifications in the 1700s and 1800s. In ancient times known as “Nursia” – you can see the sign. And of course the present day laundry.

Passing ancient hill towns along the way…

It was a magical drive.

We arrived at Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, an enormous cathedral that contains the small stone chapel where St. Francis accepted his vocation and renounced worldly possessions to live in poverty and purity and is much venerated as the place of St. Francis’ death. This is one of the most sacred places on earth to the Franciscans. We would come back to explore later if there was time and maybe, perhaps encounter a Franciscan of our own…

And high on a distant hill was Assisi. We parked and entered this most amazing, unforgettable little world.

Assisi is famous throughout the world as the native town of Saint Francis, patron saint not only of Italy, but also of animals and the environment. St. Francis has become a symbol for peace and harmony and his life and miracles have made Assisi a pilgrimage destination. Peace and harmony. Two very important things to us. But Assisi is not just a mecca for Catholics, art and architecture lovers from around the world flock to this small city that is overflowing with artistic treasures the likes of which very few cities can boast. In 1997, when an earthquake threatened Assisi’s most important architectural and artistic masterpieces, the world community responded by sending money and restoration workers to save these great treasures. Assisi was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2000. Wandering the streets was mesmerizing, made even better with a gelato or 2.

The Basilica di San Francesco is justifiably famed as Umbria’s single greatest glory, and one of the most overwhelming collections of art outside a gallery anywhere in the world. Frescoes cover almost every available space and span a century of continuous artistic development. The paintings to make a real point of seeing are those by Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti and Giotto. We were so drawn to the lines and shapes of the architecture. And that was just outside.

The Basilica of St. Francis occupies the far western end of Lower Assisi, at the edge of a hill overlooking the spectacular valley below. There are fine views from the spacious Piazza Inferiore di San Francesco. And we fell a little bit in love with those iconic arches.

Detail of the rose window, with traces of golden mosaic work.

Umbria was hit by a strong earthquake in September 1997, damaging several churches in Assisi. The Basilica of St. Francis was the worst hit – four people were killed when part of the ceiling in the upper church collapsed. Frescoes by Cimabue and his followers were destroyed and Giotto’s Life of St. Francis frescoes were damaged. It was the first building in Assisi to be thoroughly restored, thanks to funds from the Vatican, but it remained closed for two years. No ground shaking while we were there, thankfully. We’ve had enough of that for while…

After taking in this amazing view…we continued up the hill and got lost in the maze of cobbled streets…and pondered life and signs…

Trace’s obsession with hilarious pigeon photography was right up there with my endless doors and windows collection, so how we finally arrived at the Piazza del Comune is anyone’s guess. This is the center of the city and is thus the heart of Assisi’s social, cultural and political life. Like the rest of the historic town center, the square is very well-preserved and its buildings have witnessed all the city’s vicissitudes over the centuries. Goodness, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever written vicissitudes (meaning: a change of circumstances or fortune)… And I like it.

The Tower of the People high above us. Built during the last half of the thirteenth century. However, it was built in several stages and the top floor was not completed until 1305. In 1926, the Bell of Lauds was put in. The bell, weighs 4000 kilograms. Made us feel ok about eating all those gelatos… Around about here was a very pleasant vicissitude.

We explored the Forum. The Forum boasts inscriptions, epigraphs, sarcophagi, parts of columns, statues and capital dating to the Roman era. After passing through the entry hall (the Crypt of St. Nicholas), you go down a long corridor leading to what was once the ancient town square, which still preserves the paving and base of a Roman temple (Trace finds/collates/records/remembers all these tidbits…I could never recall it all…). The Palace of the Captain of the People is there too with the Clock Tower. It was built in 1282 and was the headquarters of the Captain of the People, who was the head of the city militia. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, it became the residence of the Podestà, or the Papal Vicar.

And of course most fascinating was the Temple of Minerva. Its elegant façade, with its six channeled columns and Corinthian capitals, is the impressive relic left to Assisi from the Roman era. The temple, which was dedicated to the goddess Minerva, was later transformed into a Christian church (St. Mary over Minerva) and dates to the first century AD In the past, it was also the headquarters of the Captain of the People. It was a cool place for a break from that hot, Italian sun.

The fountain was built by Giovanni Martinucci in 1762. And meant more gelato time for us. It was HOT after all…And we were seriously being tempted by all those incredible “Specialita di Assissi”. Molto delizioso (orsomethinglikethat…)

The Art Gallery was moved to this site on the Main Square in 1933 and highlights of the collection include: the Maestà, the Virgin with Jesus on the Throne, Three Men at Arms, Madonna with Jesus and St. Francis. Ohhhhh, how we love our art. Trying to take so much from it all – the vision, the creativity… and bring it all home with us to our own work. Trace, well actually both of us, before this trip were suffering severe burnout but around about here we started to get back the spark. And not just for pigeons and doors. Ignition. Inspiration was palpable and it was all around us. To just soak in.

And then it was time to make our way down through the ancient streets again to be on our way. St Francis – patron saint of peace and harmony – giving us some peace for the first time in long time. And some very satisfactory gelato experiences.

The streets still showing signs of the major earthquake… and it’s ongoing reconstruction. That was a little too close to home.

And we exited back out through the walled gates…

… to our awaiting Vespas.

Just kidding. This time. We will sign up for one of Max’s Vespa tours one day. I need a little Vespa with a sidecar though. Do they make those? We’ll look into it. And then it was goodby to St Francis of Assisi as we wound our way back down.

At the bottom we made another quick stop at Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli again. The angels really were speaking to us today. Full of love. Full of peace. Full of gelato. And a picture-perfect monk just to the left of frame.

On the road again and this time a drive through the Casentino… This venture was going to take us through some of Tuscany’s least-traveled but most picturesque countryside – the Carsentino and Pratomagno. Two linked enclaves of wild hills, high mountains, remote abbeys and ancient forests.

The area’s scenic highlight is the Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi, a national park that protects the best of the area’s mountains and forests. It was going to be a driving trip for us today though. Time and especially heat were a big factor in deciding to tour by car.

On the drive we took the only road north from Anghiari to make a quick stop at Caprese Michelangelo, the birthplace of the man himself. The cliff-top village is pretty and the sculptor’s former home has a tiny modest museum.

No trumpets allowed according to the sign. Trace, put yours away.

We parked the car outside the 13th century church of St. John the Baptist, where Michelangelo was baptized… as you do.

The view from where we parked just glorious.

The village is roughly 100 km east of Florence. The peace and serenity just perfect. The trees a much welcomed respite from the heat. The National Forest just in the distance, just making everything feel a little cooler. No gelato shops here. Well, none that we could find – so it was up the hill we went. To Michelangelo’s house.

The house of the great artist is a lovely place and it should not be missed if you are in area. It was built on the hill and offers great views over the mountains and villages around.

Built in the XIV century, the house was the residence of the Podesta (Judicial Administrator) of Caprese for a long time. When Michelangelo was born on March 6, 1475, his father was appointed Podesta of the town of Caprese that year. Legend has it that his mother fell off her horse while pregnant and miraculously did not have a miscarriage. You can see the bedroom where the baby Michelangelo came into this world. It was free of any crowds so we enjoyed the house and the fragrant garden at ease.

The museum contains copies of artist’s work. It also houses a pretty interesting collection of sculptures which represents Italian art from 19th and 20th centuries.

Museo Michelangiolesco doesn’t seem to be a very popular touristic attraction. Yet, it is interesting to see where the great artist took his first breath. Could almost be a stop from an Italian Roadside Attraction guide. Just sayin’.

After a little exploring of the village. It was time to hit the road to Firenze. A place we’d been longing to go to for decades. It’s funny in a way – we travel as often as we can. Our love of cultures and iconic cities as strong as our love for places off the beaten path. Trace’s curiosity and love of history, my love of people and art – and just the freedom and perspective that comes from seeing the world. The last 3 or 4 years we let life get us caught up and tangled in a way we hadn’t experienced before. Focusing on our business, on volunteering to those who needed us, health issues and a multitude of stresses that all seemed to hit us at the same time. Finally feeling like our old selves again, and finally getting back to what we love… we knew it was Florence/ Firenze that needed to be high on our list of healing places. We’d been waiting too long. And it was a short drive away. Just up the road.

We left Caprese Michelangelo in the direction of La Verna. It was here that St Francis received the stigmata. Pilgrims flock to this shrine. The mountain setting awesoma and on any other day we would have taken the trail to the summit of Mt Penna. But Florence was calling. We hear you. Seeing the peaks of the Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi in the distance, we were tempted to take some of the minor roads that criss-crossed the area. But upon seeing a sign to Firenze, and having a feeling that the sunset this evening was going to put on a show… we were oh, so, highway bound.

We arrived in Florence. Chalking a few near-misses with various automobiles to Trace unable to stop marveling at all around us. And giving a non-stop commentary at the same time. One of her many charms. Not quite the safest way to navigate those tiny, restricted lanes of Firenze. But amusing and quite a fabulous introduction in hindsight. It was like another world. We belonged.

And then… we couldn’t find our B&B. We had the address. We were standing there. (Trace idling in the streets where we weren’t allowed)… Yes. We were there. The B&B wasn’t. The owner wasn’t answering his phone. And now Softbank here in Japan are very, very pleased with that outcome. Data roaming ON, local network set to go. Billed up to the rafters.

Wait wait. It was here. It was down an alley. It was up an ancient elevator. It was locked. No one was there. Another call. And we finally make contact with Riccardo. He would send his daughter to let us in. Finally. It was worth the wait. It was beautiful. It was a perfect location. We ditched the car at a parking garage that had been organized for us. And started our walk to find Piazzale Michelangelo – that famous square with the magnificent panoramic view of Florence.

It was a race against time. The sun was setting. Rapidly. STAIRS. STAIRS. STAIRS. STAIRS. STAIRS. STAIRS. STAIRS. STAIRS. STAIRS. STAIRS. STAIRS. STAIRS. Endless. Huge concrete blocks. Blinded by sweat and looking ridiculous as we huffed and heaved our way up, passing many also on their way up. And with a migraine coming on. Fab. Where were the escalators of Cortona? It felt like it took an hour – but in reality I think we ran up those stairs in 10 or 15 minutes. The thigh burn, something we’d have to deal with later. When we want a photo, our fitness can be extraordinary, seriously extraordinary. When we have to wake up on a hot (actually, any…) Tokyo morning and visit our trainer in the park, we are the most unfit people in history. (Side note to Nathan… maybe we just need the promise of some iconic shot or incredible light at the end of the Arisagawa stair loop? Could you organize that, please?) But without a little help from Nathan before heading Italy… we would almost have definitely missed the beginning of this series. Some of our most favorite to date…

The panorama embraces the heart of Florence from Forte Belvedere to Santa Croce, across the lungarni and the bridges crossing the Arno, including the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, the Bargello and the octagonal bell tower of the Badia Fiorentina. Beyond the view of the city itself are the hills of Settignano and Fiesole.

It was breathtaking. It was mesmerizing. I think I’ve run out of words. We couldn’t have asked for a more spectacular introduction to Florence. Firenze. On fire. It felt like it was just us and this blazing city. Just the click of the camera and we were at home. We just watched in awe as the city changed from day to night. From orange to blue.

And then turned around behind us to see this.

The full moon rising behind David. Firenze couldn’t have been more magical if it tried. But go on, try if you want. We’re up for it.

With the last streaks of light long gone it was time to head back to Ricardo’s and along the way thank Florence’s Patron Saint – John the Baptist, for such a fabulous welcome. Trace suggested that we honor St John with a great feast. And some wine. And I of course acquiesced wholeheartedly.

Keywords: Italy (5).

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