Since my last post, Lois and I took a major detour in our tour of southern Italy. After spending a week in a beachside apartment on the beautiful Gargano Penninsula (much of which is a national park) in southern Italy, we veered north to Umbria in the very center of Italy to visit Ben, a friend we had met in Italy in 2009. He and his parents own a home in the tiny hill town of Pissignano,
about fifteen minutes down the road from its more famous neighbor Spoleto and only a few minutes south of the very epitome of a hill town, Trevi. Consequently, my last post on hill towns now needs a bit of supplementation.
We had spent over a week in Ben’s place in 2009, and our return this time felt a bit like a homecoming. We also had an opportunity to visit with Ben’s parents. Ben now works for EF Tours in Italy. His father is a recently retired community college instructor (which sounded suspiciously familiar), and his mother has spent a number of years working in theater in the U.S. There was lovely wine, prosecco, bruschetta, cheese and wonderful conversation that ranged from travel to education and, of course, to politics – Italian and American. We stayed for three days and could not resist visiting some of the charming hill towns in Umbria and Marche (Marche is one of only a few regions in Italy we had never visited). Ben is now a trained sommelier, and took us to do some tastings in two of his favorite wineries in the hill town of Montefalco where we sampled some wonderful Sagrantino. Then we moved on to another gorgeous Umbrian hill town – Spello – where we had lunch on a terrace overlooking the Umbrian countryside.
On the drive back to Ben’s house, we stopped and took a walk through the town of Foligno, an Umbrian town working hard to restore its medieval character.
The following day Lois and I struck out on our own. We just could not resist another visit to Assisi, which is only a half hour from Ben’s house. It is one of my favorite places in all of Italy. Like Bergamo farther north, much of Assisi lies on a broad plane, but on a hill rising above modern Assisi is the ancient town. Its beauty hasn’t faded since our last visit in 2009. Even in the latter part of September the town was still crowded with tourists, but it was always possible for Lois and I to ditch the crowds by wandering up one of the many small alleyways and stairways that wind through this lovely medieval village. The Cathedral of St. Francis in Assisi is one of my favorites in all of Italy. It is perched on a hillside overlooking the plane far below. It is one of the few cathedrals with a large lawn in front, and on that lawn the letters PAX are inscribed in shrubbery, along with the characteristic Franciscan version of the cross, shaped like the Greek letter Tau.
There are actually two interiors in the church, one on the ground floor and another one floor higher. Decorating the walls of the cathedral is a series of frescoes commemorating the highlights of St. Francis’ life. These sorts of fresco series are fairly common in Italy. The remarkable thing about these frescoes, however, is that they were painted by Giotto, a 13th Century friend of Dante’s who advanced the art of painting to such a degree that he is considered to be the artist who was most important in laying the foundations for the Renaissance. Mum’s the word, but although photos are prohibited inside the church, I took this one of the ground floor.
Although St. Francis would frankly have been appalled at the size of the church that was built in his honor, I do think he’d have loved the blue ceiling displaying the heavens above.
St. Francis was “married to the Lady Poverty.” The sort of church he favored is the Porciuncola – which St. Francis built.
This tiny and humble church is now preserved inside the grand and gigantic cathedral of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which dominates the newer and much larger city of Assisi in the valley below the old town. The inconsistency in this is not exactly lost on the Italians. They simply loved St. Francis, and this was the only way to pay appropriate tribute to his stature (he is one of the two patron saints of Italy). Italy embraces paradox, as is evident in the following traffic signs we saw on the road just outside of Pulsano in southern Italy.
Ben had suggested that we drive into the hills beyond Assisi to the town of Gubbio. The drive was absolutely spectacular, winding through the foothills of the Appenines. Gubbio is not on the top of a hill; it is on the slope of a mountain, looking down over the valley. At the base of the town are the walls of a 1st Century Roman amphitheater,
but for the most part Gubbio is a medieval town, although it has not been scrubbed up quite so nicely as Assisi; in that way it feels more medieval.
In its own way, Gubbio is very closely associated with St. Francis – or rather, a friend of St. Francis…..a man-eating wolf. The story goes that this wolf was terrorizing the town of Gubbio in the early 13th Century. When St. Francis was told about this, he ventured out to have a conversation with the wolf in which the two of them arrived at the following peace accord: the wolf would agree to stop eating the residents of the town if the residents of the town would agree to set out some food for the wolf every day. This was agreeable to Gubbio’s residents, and the humans and the wolf lived peaceably ever after. In fact, St. Francis’ followers reported that when the wolf eventually died of old age, St. Francis said that the wolf was buried in consecrated ground.
By the way, a common way of wishing someone good luck in Italian is to say, “in boca dal lupo” – in the mouth of the wolf. There are many other stories about the ability of animals to communicate intelligently with St. Francis and even to worship God. He calls them his brothers and sisters. Theologians debate the significance of stories such as this. Did Francis really believe that creatures can communicate in such a sophisticated manner? Did he believe they have intelligence? Did he believe they have souls? Many theologians are reluctant to draw such conclusions about Francis because this would mean that Francis didn’t accept the traditional interpretation of what it means to say that humans (and only humans) are made in God’s image. For my part, I find it very difficult to read what Francis’ followers wrote about him without coming to the conclusion that he truly believed that animals, and perhaps even some of what we call inanimate nature, had souls. Why this hasn’t impacted the attitude the Church has toward feedlots is something of a mystery to me…..although I suppose it’s no more a mystery than the lack of impact that New Testament cautions about the accumulation of wealth have had on Christianity, including most of the Catholic Church’s Protestant counterparts.
From Gubbio we drove into a region Lois and I had yet to explore – Marche. It is dominated by Italy’s northern Appenines, and wraps around the eastern and northern edges of Umbria. Gino Muzatti, a colleague of mine when I taught at Santa Rosa Junior College (so very long ago), takes American students each summer on a tour of Italy, where they receive intensive instruction in Italian in a town called Urbino, in Marche. Thinking that we might one day participate in this program, we decided to take a look. Dusk was settling in as we drove north through the spectacular mountain terrain. Night had fallen by the time we parked our car, and walked up one of the very steep streets of the hill town of Urbino. The road we climbed was flanked with dignified, palatial Renaissance buildings that were part of an extensive university complex.
The elegant and impressive buildings throughout the town are so consistently high that it is nearly impossible to see the valley below from inside of the town. The town seemed deserted, until we crested the hill and found piazzas and restaurants teeming with college students on a Monday night. They were not doing homework. It almost made me want to be a university student again.
**Sorry, no photos of Urbino…..it was dark.
The next day Lois, our designated driver this month, heroically drove from central Italy all the way down to southern Italy not far south of Bari. Our destination was Castellana Grotte, famous as the location of the most extensive cave complex in all of Western Europe. What was unexpected was that our drive culminated in a harrowing complex of roads that resembled narrow cave tunnels themselves; the one-lane roads were lined by high white stone walls that are quite lovely I’m sure – for geologists, spelunkers, and those who are not suffering from exhaustion or claustrophobia. We eventually made it to our bed and breakfast, a very charming place we’d love to return to. The following day, we took a tour of the cave complex (which will have to be the subject of a separate post), and drove on to the last true hill town we would visit in Italy – Ostuni. Ostuni is in extreme southern Italy, near the Adriatic Sea, just north of Brindisi. It is a place where the landscape of Italy becomes drier and is dominated by white rock and extensive olive orchards. Ostuni is a classic hill town, circular in shape and draped evenly over the hilltop like a skullcap. It is as though Greek islanders had decided to build a town on an Italian hill – which, is not far removed from what actually happened here long ago.
From the town there are sweeping views east across vast olive groves to the Adriatic Sea.
Ostuni is part of the old Magna Grecia, and accordingly the town is dominated by whitewashed buildings.
The streets of the old-town center are paved in white stone and flanked by shops and restaurants.
The façade of the Ostuni Cathedral is unique, the only one that we’ve seen with inverted, rounded gables.
The cathedral faces this lovely arch, and just beyond the arch lies the Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale.
Restaurants in southern Italy generally open for dinner at 8:00 pm, but never earlier than 7:30, at which time Lois and I are generally starving (which is my theory about why Americans so love the food at restaurants in Italy). It is also why we often have an entire restaurant to ourselves as we did at Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale. We walked in famished the moment it opened. Italians are still recovering from their four-course lunches until 9:00 pm or so.
We left the restaurant so uncomfortably stuffed (a common Italian ailment) that dessert was unimaginable. Then we walked down to a lighted fountain rising out of a white tiled piazza and listened to jazz music drifting down from the balcony of a bar.
A gelato shop materialized like magic in front of our eyes, and we were suddenly –and paradoxically — famished once again. Ah…Italia.