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Footloose in Umbria

Travel through Italy's fascinating Umbria region, home of the Spoleto festival and more.

At the train station in Perugia, I knew for certain I had entered another world. The day before, I had been in Florence, wading towards great art through a sea of guidebook-wielding Americans; now, as I turned from the counter with my ticket, a choral group waiting for a train suddenly broke into song, and their clear tones filled the airy station. I was in Umbria now, Italy's green heart, a region of medieval hilltowns and secluded valleys, where the atmosphere is quiet, and every point of the compass beckons the explorer onward. I had arranged an itinerary that would allow me to experience the area's unique character to its fullest: I would stay in monasteries, and I would spend a lot of time on foot.

From Perugia I took a train to Foligno, and then a bus to Bevagna, a small town that in many ways feels like it just dropped in from the 1400s. It is partly the Roman walls integrated into several town buildings, partly the predominance of stone construction and the lack of trees along the streets, and partly, I suppose, the simple intimacy of a small town. The women of Bevagna still do their laundry in the local stream on shaded marble surfaces that slope down into the waters of the Clitunno River. Shortly after I arrived, an F-14 streaked through the sky, and I thought nothing of it; after I had been in Bevagna for a few hours, and had begun to absorb the atmosphere, another F-14 thundered overhead, and it was shocking, like an apparition from another planet. I was staying at the Monastery of Santa Maria del Monte. My reception was somber, and my quarters spartan; it was only later that I found my way to the Monastery's elegant courtyard.

I was in Bevagna for the Mercato delle Gaite festival (held in late June), in which the four quarters of the town compete to see which can most precisely recreate various medieval crafts. The town is quiet during the day, but as evening approaches people in medieval costume start to appear; then the booths serving medieval dishes open, the music starts, and the whole town opens up like a flower. There is no map or schedule of events, and even the town residents are vague about what happens when or where. The only thing to do is go exploring on foot, and as a result, everything you find is a discovery. There are demonstrations of glass blowing, candle making, blacksmithing, basket weaving, perfume making; grinding grain with a millstone, copper working, rope making, paper making, and silk making. The silk demonstration was particularly impressive. Every stage was included: live baby and adult silkworms, silkworms eating, silkworms spinning silk, and the silk capsules. The capsules are put in warm water and touched with a comb to get a thread; seven or eight of these threads are put together and pulled simultaneously, and the capsules dance in the water as they surrender their precious fiber. There was a full-size operational replica of a 13th century wooden machine that winds silk thread onto 144 spools simultaneously; it puts up a delightful whirring sound. And of course we also saw how silk was dyed, and how it was woven into fabric on looms. Everything was presented with great enthusiasm and pride, and as a result the displays were better than those in any museum could possibly be.

The next day I walked five miles on roads lined with grape vines and sunflowers to the town of Montefalco, which is perched on a hilltop and is called "The Balcony of Umbria" for its views out over the Tapino and Clitunno plains. Signs also boast that it is the Citta di Vini and the Citta d' Olio, the City of Wine and the City of Olive Oil. Those titles are a lot to live up to, but Montefalco holds its own. I tried the Sagrantino Passito, a local red wine, and it is wonderfully rich, much like a port. In the town museum, formerly the Church of San Francesco, I admired the striking frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli illustrating the life of St. Francis; they are crisp, expressive, and very well-composed. I actually preferred them to the frescoes illustrating the Saint's life in Saint Francis' Basilica in Assisi.

The map one gets of Montefalco is not very good, and while trying to work my way towards the Church of St. Fortunato, about half a mile out of town, I joined an Australian couple heading in the same direction. We found St. Fortunato and rang the buzzer; some indecipherable words emanated from the speaker, and then nothing. We waited a solid five minutes, and then the motorized (!) gates parted, and a Friar appeared; he was from Sri Lanka, and spoke excellent English. And so the Friar from Sri Lanka gave some Australians and an American an intimate tour of the Rose Chapel, with its glorious 1512 frescoes by Gozzoli, on a warm day outside a hilltown in Umbria.

Back in Bevagna, I visited the site of the town's ancient Roman baths, and admired the whimsical 2nd century mosaics of lobsters, octopi, and sea monsters. That evening at the festival, I fell in with four amiable and wild -- a combination not at all impossible in Italy -- Italian fellows, and spent the night talking with them and watching them flirt relentlessly with every woman in sight. Their flirtations were always respectful and playful (I really feel that the Italians are slandered in this regard), but I can understand why some Italian women seem to carry a jaded expression.

In Foligno, my next stop, I stayed for three days with the Frati Francescani Minori at the Convent of San Bartolomeo, about a mile out of town. The convent was founded in 1415, and is quite large, with 40 rooms and extensive grounds; it is run by just three Brothers, and I was the only guest. My simple room had a high vaulted ceiling and a view over the garden and olive orchard; it was very, very quiet at night. I was treated like a member of the family, and Brother Niccola in particular was very patient with my many questions about his trip to Albania, the history of the Convent and other buildings in the area, about St. Francis, about Italian dialects, and about the making of olive oil. My stay at the convent was a delight, and it's hard to recall meeting anyone as happy as those three Brothers. The afternoon of my arrival I went walking on the slopes of the nearby Monte Serrone, and stopped at the massive Abbey of Sassovivo.Dating from the early 11th century, it has beautiful arched medieval cloisters built by Pietro de Maria in 1229. As I came back down the hill, the peals of the Abbey's bells echoed after me.

The next morning, Brother Niccola had business to conduct in Assisi, and he kindly gave me a ride to the lower part of town near the train station and the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. This basilica encloses within its walls the Porziuncola Chapel, where St. Francis founded the Order of the Friars Minor, as well as the Chapel of the Transitus, the spot where St. Francis died. From the Basilica I walked up towards the historic center, the massive arched substructure of the Basilica of St. Francis looming ever larger and higher before me. I was fortunate enough to visit the Basilica before the horrifying damage from the late September and early October 1997 earthquakes; the lower Basilica may reopen in early 1998, but the upper Basilica will likely be closed through the year 1999. But the Basilica is by no means the only reason to visit the town: for me the highlight of Assisi was not in Assisi, but a 2.5 mile walk out the Porta Cappuccini and up Mount Subasio to the Eremo dei Carceri, or Prison Hermitage (so called because some of the meditation chambers are as small as prison cells), where St. Francis frequently retired to meditate and pray. The spot is magical, it is naturally holy. It nestles in a gentle notch in the hillside, surrounded by a lush forest of ilex trees that rustles in the breeze, and the views of the valley just seem to roll in from below. There is a network of shady, level meditation paths radiating out from the Hermitage across the hills, some reaching caves and other meditation spots used by St. Francis and his companions. The magic of the Eremo seems impossible to capture on film; it is not a mere scene, but an experience.

The next day I took the train to the ancient town of Spello. Spello has a remarkable number of shops featuring local foods: olive oils, dried mushrooms, wines, and, particularly, black truffles, which are a specialty of Umbria. I tasted a cheese with truffles that was fantastic, and bought some as a gift for my hosts at the Convent; there is also pizza with truffles, and restaurants offer meals featuring truffles in every course. Spello is blessed with a real treasure which alone merits a visit to the town: the Baglioni Chapel in the Church of S. Maria Maggiore, with its frescoes by Pinturricchio. As is often the case in Italy, the entrance to the Church is free, but you must pay in order to light up the good art, in this case 1000 lire (60 cents) for a few minutes of light. It would have been a bargain at five times the price; I have never experienced so powerful a lesson in the value of seeing art firsthand. The frescoes look great in photographs, but photographs do not begin to do justice to their sharpness, their sumptuousness, their vivacity, and their sheer over-the-top brilliance.

The evening before I left, Niccola gave me a detailed tour of the Convent, including the library, the fresco cycle adorning the beflowered cloisters, and the Church, with its replica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built in 1616, and one of only a handful of such replicas in Italy. And then Niccola showed me the oldest part of the structure, the narrow brick cellar that winds deep into the ground, part of a fortress that occupied the site long before the Convent.

Next I moved on from the Convent in Foligno to Spoleto, where I stayed at the Istituto Bambin Gesú at the southern end of town, within easy walking distance of the castle (La Rocca, "The Rock," a former papal fortress) and the Cathedral. The Istituto is run by friendly, hardworking Sisters, boasts a delightful courtyard, and has clean, comfortable rooms. After I had settled in I went straight to the great 260-foot-tall aqueduct that reaches from Spoleto across the Tressino river valley to the holy mountain of Monteluco. In the 14th century the aqueduct was converted into a walking bridge, called the Ponte delle Torri, and I crossed it, and hiked up the shady trails of Monteluco to the Sanctuary of Saint Francis, founded in 1218. The seven cells St. Francis built for himself and his companions are penitentially tiny: the doors are only five feet high, the ceilings a bit over six feet, and the floors perhaps seven and a half feet square.

There is an appealing sacred grove beside the monastery, which was in fact held in reverence even in pagan times: it was protected by a special law, the "Lex Spoletina," the text of which was found engraved in Latin on two stone tablets, which are on display in the Archeological Museum in Spoleto. Below the sacred grove there are trails through the woods to a cave that once sheltered St. Antonio of Padua, and some wonderful views down on Spoleto. On the way back down Monteluco, I took the road so that I could stop at the church of San Giuliano. The church sits alone on a ridge, poking up from among the trees; alone except, quite curiously, for the pizza restaurant directly adjoining. I asked the fellow at the restaurant for the key to the church, he gave it to me, and that was it: I was alone in a 12th century church whose walls treasure some very faint 6th century frescoes. I descended through darkness, dust, and cobwebs into the dank crypt, the only light available knifing in through tiny slit windows; this was a unique, Indiana Jones type adventure. The views of Spoleto from the driveway leading in to San Giuliano and the pizza restaurant are unbeatable, and for the rest of my stay in Spoleto, every time I looked over towards Monteluco, the lonely bell-tower of San Giuliano, with its curious, asymmetrically placed window, beckoned powerfully from across the Tessino valley.

That afternoon there was a free open-air concert in the Cathedral Square in Spoleto (Strauss waltzes, etc.), and afterwards I stumbled upon a great little restaurant just west of the Cathedral. The proprietors had gone to some trouble to find the best local olive oils, the best local wines, the best local truffles, and so on; these wonderful ingredients are not only used in all their dishes, but they are also available for sale, and all the prices are very reasonable. I had wild boar in Sagrantino sauce (the port-like wine from Montefalco), porcini mushrooms in delicious olive oil, and some red table wine from Montefalco, delicious and an amazing bargain at about $1.50 a glass. After dinner I got some gelato and went for an evening stroll amid the fireflies and couples hand-in-hand around the back side of the castle, ending up by the aqueduct, Ponte delle Torri, which is brilliantly lit at night. The annual Festival of the Two Worlds, featuring music, art, and film, was taking place in Spoleto, and the town was swirling with members of the beautiful set.

Breakfast at the Istituto Bambin Gesú includes a dark, incredibly thick fruit drink of unknown but delicious origin; fortified with a generous helping of this juice, I set out to see Spoleto. I visited the Archeological Museum, with its interesting exhibit on the Lex Spoletina; the Arch of Drusus, erected in AD 23, which marked the entrance to the forum in Spello's Roman days; the Pinacoteca or Art Museum; and the Cathedral, with its delightful square, mosaiced facade, and frescoes by Fra Filippo Lippi. I then visited the remains of a Roman house, thought by some to have belonged to the Emperor Vespasian's mother, and the eccentric Romanesque Church of Saint Peter, whose reliefs feature farmers, peacocks, and fighting animals. That evening I strolled the town and perused the menus of several restaurants, but soon found myself back at the same place as the night before, where I had insalata caprese (just tomatoes, thick slices of fresh mozzarella, olive oil, and basil, but so good!) and lamb with truffles, another great meal. I then hurried off to that evening's concert: a performance by the South African musical and dance group Amamapondo, performed in Spoleto's Roman Amphitheater. The show featured several unusual and intriguing traditional African instruments, and the crowd thrilled with the performers' energy and enthusiasm. The next morning I boarded the train to Rome, wishing I'd had time to see more of the Festival's concerts -- and more of the hilltowns of Umbria.

Logistics To call Italy dial the international access code, 011, then the country code for Italy, 39, and then the number, omitting the leading zero on the numbers below, which is for use within Italy.

Monastero de Santa Maria del Monte
Corso Giacomo Matteotti 11
06031 Bevagna
tel (0742) 360135

Convento de San Bartolomeo
Via Paoluccio Trinci
06034 Foligno
tel/fax (0742) 357771

Istituto Bambin Gesú
Via S. Angelo 4 (Monterone)
06049 Spoleto
tel (0743) 40232 or (0743) 43442

All of the monasteries I stayed at supply keys so that guests can come and go as they please. The nuns at the Monastero de Santa Maria del Monte do not open their doors from 1:30 to 4:00 in the afternoon, so time your arrival accordingly. If you can stay at the Convento di San Bartolomeo during the week, you are more likely to be able to enjoy it in solitude; the Convent is some distance out of town, so consider the option of having dinner as well as breakfast included. For information on the Mercato delle Gaite festival in Bevagna, which was held June 20-29 in 1997, call (0742) 361847, fax (0742) 361667, or visit http://www.tecnonet.it/bevagna. The festival includes an extravagant medieval banquet one night (advance reservations required, call the number above). For information on the Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto, held June 25 to July 13 in 1997, call (0743) 220311, fax (0743) 46241, see http://italy1.com/spoleto/festival.html, or email turismo@mail.caribuisness.it. You'll want to make your room and ticket reservations for the Festival of the Two Worlds well in advance -- tickets often sell out by March.

Assisi celebrates the Calendimaggio, a festival of Spring, on the first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of May with an explosion of medieval costumes, banners, chivalric songs, flowers, and contests between the two quarters of the town. Assisi also celebrates the Festa del Voto, commemorating St. Clare's intimidation of the army of Frederick II, on June 21 and 22: in the evening the whole town is lit up with torches, at dawn church bells ring to mark the hour of the intimidation, and then there is a costumed procession to the church of San Damiano, while trumpeters play and ancient hymn of Assisi on long silver horns. And the Pardon of Assisi, July 31 to August 1, involves a procession of religious pilgrims from the heights of the Eremo dei Carceri, past all the Franciscan monuments in Assisi, and down to the Porziuncola inside Santa Maria degli Angeli. Assisi also has a Holy Week celebration, and festivals in honor of St. Rufino (August 11), St. Clare (August 12), and St. Francis (October 3-4). For information call (075) 812534, or fax (075) 813727.

The town of Spello celebrates Corpus Christi Day with an infiorata, which involves covering almost a mile of street with "paintings" made of flower petals. In 1997 this festival was held on June 1st; arrive early, since at noon a procession passes over these perfumed creations; better yet, visit the night before also, to enjoy the preparations. For information call (0742) 651408, or see http://www.assind.krenet.it/eventi/infiora/welc_ing.htm.

And the small hilltown of Collemancio a few miles from Bevagna has a wine festival (June 25 to July 6 in 1997); for information try the tourist office in Bevagna, tel(0742) 361847, fax (0742) 361667.

Chet Van Duzer, author of Duality and Structure in the Iliad and Odyssey (Lang, 1996), is currently researching an article on Renaissance cartography, and casting about for excuses to do some more exploring in Italy.


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