It’s at this point that I have to confess that I did not research Assisi at all.
Of course I know something of St Francis of Assisi, but our motivation for coming here was to visit Francesca and see her farmhouse transformation first hand. I lived in one many years back when I had a working holiday job outside of Florence, and I have loved them ever since. Solid stone walls, shuttered windows, huge airy rooms, simple brick or tiled floors – what’s not to love?
As it turns out, Le Ginestre is now for sale or rent (at the right price), so it is just as well we did not wait any longer.
You would have thought that after our long travel here, that our first morning would have been a sleep-in day, but we are in the hub of a place of miracles, and Waddy will think it a miracle indeed when he learns that I am now waking around 6am or so. He knows my predisposition for sleeping in, and has been threatening to fix that by tipping a glass of cold water on me if I try it when we are on the road together. So there will be no need for that I hope. Problem solved naturally – I just need to live in the northern hemisphere.
So after a morning catching up with Francesca, our first two days were spent exploring Assisi itself.
It is not my intention to explain every frescoe of every church we enter, as I would be stepping well out of my area of expertise, but I will say that there are many churches and cathedrals here in Assisi, and many pilgrims who come knowing exactly what it is that they are looking at, and why they have come to this particular place. What I will say is that the honour for the first church of our visit goes to the basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli (Saint Maria of the Angels). Inside the main church there is a much much older simple church called Porziuncola. This church is highly significant to St Francis, if I understand correctly, restoring this church was something that led to a rift between he and his father and caused him to take up a vow of poverty. It is a significant place of pilgrimage.
Down a lane way from the church there is a little bar where we ate our first Italian meal – in this case we chose a light lunch snack called a piadine. A pita type bread stuffed with ham and cheese and toasted crisply. A bit like a Mexican quesadilla. It was okay, nothing too unusual for us, but what it did do was make us aware of another specialty of the region, a flat bread called Testa Di Torta. Cake head? No, Francesca explained “testa” is the pan in which it is cooked, I think it might be a cast iron griddle pan. The bread itself has no yeast, bicarbonate of soda is optional, and once cooked it is a firm textured flat bread, often served with a filling. For our taste it would be better used for soaking up juices of a casseroled meal, otherwise we find it a little dry.
Well, enough of food for a moment – what of the sightseeing impressions.
The first thing that struck us was the colour, the glorious symmetry of stone and wood in pastels of creams and pinks. How everything compliments each other, and the absence of rubbish and graffiti. How well maintained most things appear, and the pride of dressing up your windows and courtyards with bright flower pots. The size and the age of Assisi proper, tumbling across the hill face, churches and piazzas mingling easily with private dwellings. Imagine visiting your doctor in an ancient building with an arched timber door – like stepping through into another time.
We took a local bus to the top of the hill, and meandered down through the town, twisting up and down cobble-stoned streets and alleyways, with the rain holding off for us all the while. I had my little notebook at the ready, and I feel this post has been serious for far too long, so first I must share what I saw in a delicatessen (alimentari) shop front.
Great knobs of salami hanging at the front entrance with a sign “coioni di mulo”.
They make salami out of mules testicles? – what the heck?
I turned around and saw another display of salami hanging down, this one labelled “palle de nonno.” Oh! Okay! I get it, it’s a joke for the tourists. For the record “grandfather’s testicles” were very nobbly..
What was not a joke was the sign for “Magro de suino” – which I understand is swine, or pig’s, fat. I didn’t find out what recipe calls for that, maybe it is used in homemade salami.
We reached the central square as a church bell was chiming three rings, a quarter to the hour (or three quarters since the last hour). In the background modern pop music was blaring from a bar. The old and the new rubbing shoulders.
A female policewoman was directing traffic. We have seen some splendid uniforms in Italy. It seems every public employee gets one, and we all know of Italy’s reputation for sartorial elegance. But the women of this region are petite and über slim, and this one was one of the tiniest. Her black jacket over blue trousers seemed too big for her, or perhaps it was the huge white dome shaped hard hat that dwarfed her. I would have liked to take a photo, but I didn’t want to get arrested on my first day here. She was doing a serious job. Just picture a London bobby, only the hat is white, and the person wearing it is a young woman with a long blonde pony tail.
The Town Hall reminded me of the Ducal? Venice. It was cement rendered with a flat front and turreted outer walls. Just beyond it, I pulled up short.
I was looking at a church fronted by six massive Grecian or Roman columns. I struggled to remember how to tell the difference, something to do with the shape and embellishment at the top. But of course, we are in Italy, so these had to be Roman. It was my first reminder that parts of Assisi must be built over Roman ruins, and my first introduction to how much of that remains in the Umbria region. What a cretin I am. I really should do more homework on this type of thing.
This church has been built over the remains of the Roman Temple of Minerva and dates back more than 2000 years. It is incredible that buildings such as this have survived the earthquakes in the region, and indeed, when we later went to the massive Basilica Di San Francesco, we could see areas where frescoes had fallen off the wall during the most recent earthquake in 1997.
As we meandered on, I noticed tourists coming up in the opposite direction looking under strain. Assisi – and many other towns in this region – are steep, and cobbled. No wonder the girls are so petite. It was a great tip to take the bus to the top and walk downhill.. Just as we reached another bus stop at the bottom of the town, we heard the rumble of thunder. Here comes the rain again!
You cannot imagine so much water can fall in one go – and to think they were in drought last year.
Every cloud has a silver lining though, and in this case it caused us to run for a ristorante back near the first church we had visited the day before. Tourists can get the occasional rude service in Italy, and we had already had a couple of experiences, but I am not going to dwell on that. The welcome we had from the Casa Norcia restaurant was outstanding, and they even gave us a free sampler of their prosciutto and bread while we waited for our meals. We kept it simple, since it was only lunch. Bill had a plate of mixed pork grill, the sausage in particular was spicy and flavoursome, and I had slices of chicken breast with a tasty soy-sauce like sauce drizzled over. We were after green vegetables, as we were already on carbohydrate overload – but the waiter apologised they had run out! We had zucchini and eggplant grilled with a cheese topping instead. Half of the restaurant had hanging salamis and hams for sale. We intended to take a photo but the battery went dead just after I played around taking some photos of Bill. We may go back another time.
The cashier was interested to hear we were Australian and launched into an animated discussion about what she had heard of Australia being mostly desert and unoccupied. I wanted to ask her to slow down, but I couldn’t remember the word. I always think of “piano” as being softly, rather than slowly. So I had no choice but to listen faster, and was surprised to find myself having a fluent conversation. Her accent was crystal clear to my ears, but there is a local Umbrian dialect that I can barely understand.
And my accent is not getting any better.
Garrulous Gwendoline, events of Thursday and Friday 30 and 31st May 2013
ps – now I can get the photos in, the next lesson is to get them in the right place!