Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Saintly Saints and a Sumptuous Supper

Written 26th March

Breaking news:  we have climbed to the top of the biggest christmas tree in the world... but more on that story later.

So far, the freezing north has been quite pleasant, and sunny!  bodes well for fantastic coastlines and lakes breaks but shhh, let's not jinx it.

An easy drive through the undulating Umbrian countryside -

more rugged and craggy than Tuscany but just as strewn with perched villages - a flakey satnav, some inattention and a missed turning l

ed us into Assisi the back way and coincidently a free parking spot, just minutes from the town, that we would never have found otherwise - excellent.

Assisi is obviously renowned for St Francis, its most (and only!) famous son.  Born the son of a wealthy Perugian cloth merchant and his french wife, he was originally named Giovanni but at some point his name was changed to Francesco to honour his french antecendents.  He was apparently a bit of a lad, and misspent a lot of his youth in drinking and other foolish things before a spell in jail led to some time contemplating in a cave and, after a couple of visions from God, the decision to cast off material things and devote his life in service of God and tending the sick, to the point where he took a lot of his father's cloth and sold it to give the money to the poor - which his father was not very happy about, I mean it is one thing to cast of your own belongings, quite another to cast off someone else's! - and when he was challenged, even went so far as to cast the clothes he was wearing off, in the middle of the Assisi town square to prove he was serious.  And so he carried on, and other blokes joined him, and then a girl from the village called Clare, who subsequently founded a female wing called the Poor Clares (and who is, incidentally and rather bizarrely, the patron saint of television). 

Eventually there were so many of them that he went to the Pope for permission to start a proper Order.  At first the Pope wasn't sure - all his advisors cerainly didn't believe that people would genuinely live in this much abject poverty by choice! - but he had a dream in which he saw the whole Catholic church propped up by Francis so he gave them the go ahead. 

And he did good works ad preached to birds

and recieved the stigmata whilst up on a mountain and eventually died and was made a saint.  The End.  Or not.  This is where the cartoon book in the gift shop stops, the frescos on the wall in the church show him continuing to appear to people and do miracles for at least 6 out of 28 pictures - who's to say

The building that is the Cathedral and Monkery of St Francis is built on the Hill of Paradise but was only started after his beatification, two years after his death - when Francis was alive, the place was called the Hill of Hell and was the site of the town gallows -

and you do have to wonder what a monk who had given up everything and decided upon an simple life, free of the trappings of material wealth would have made of the massive edifice which comprises of not one but two churches, built one on top of the other. 

You have to wonder even more what he would have made of the monkery gift shop selling all manner of gold-leafed tat and especially, given his core message of abstinence focusing on peace and goodwill to all men, the jolly, fat monk tat and crossbows and knives on sale in the town...

The upper church is tall and vaulted with the frescos of his life around the walls. 

The lower church is low and vaulted and even more fresco'd, including a Last Judgement, looking remarkably like one we have seen elsewhere... 

And beneath all that, is the crypt where St Francis is actually buried, which is vaulted and cellar-like but some how just a bit disney-like - in fact we both thought it reminded us of a cellar restaurant in Budapest that we went to a few years ago - don't know quite why, might have been the lighting, might have been the air-con - it wasn't the food or wine! - don't know, just a bit too perfect.

The audio-guide, which we got for the frescos of his life mainly, was a bit perfunctory ("Fresco 15 Francis preaches to the birds and they listen to him.  Fresco 16...") but did spend a long time telling us how we might like to visit the gift shop where we were sure to find something to please everyone or could just send a message of peace and goodwill to someone and feel, just a little, like St Francis while we did it.  There were also lots of monks wandering around, thin, beardy, brown-robed ones in serious contemplation and significantly fatter and jollier, black robed ones doing tours - it seems that some are more dedicated to the abstemonious life than others...

On and out and back through the typical streets in the sunshine which, despite the tat, are rather lovely.

Onwards once more then and to Gubbio, another mediaeval Umbrian town, amd one for which we have a restaurant recomendation from an ex-colleague of Will's, another one for the very first suggestions which came in when our trip was announced.  What with the Vatican and a long drive it has been an expensive week but when an Italian recommends a restaurant in Italy and says it is where he and his family go for a once in a lifetime meal, you just have to check it out.

And it was indeed sumptious.  Tucked at the foot of the historic Consule building and below the massive Piazza, the Taverna del Lupo looked small and cosy from the outside but once inside was a bit daunting at first for unaccustomed van-dwellers.  A mediaeval cellar atmosphere (still more real than the crypt of St Francis...) where, as it wasn't very busy being a thursday night, you felt you needed to whisper in reverent, hushed tones, and a wine list that had an A3 page in small print of red Umbrian wines alone before you even thought about considering apperitifs, whites, pinks, Italian wines, international wines or desert wines!  But we soon settled in and dropped forks with loud clanging noises and chose at random a wine called Assisi-something - well you have to choose somehow, if there had been one specifially from Gubbio or anywhere else we had been, we would have had that! - and the food was simply gorgeous.  We sadly didn't feel we could go the whole hog and splurge on the €60 a head special regional truffle tasting menu but we did have our full four courses in true italian style and a very elegant sufficiancy it was too - although we are definately out of practice at drinking a whole bottle of wine between us in one sitting and it has kind of spoilt the table wine we have in the van... :)

This morning we rose bright and shiney early (or something almost exactly like that...) and headed off through the typical streets

to find the cable car up the hill.  It looked particularly exciting, a metal cage just about big enough for two people to stand upright in as it shuddered up the hill, but it was a bit expensive, so for the good of our health and that of our wallets,

we set off on foot feeling very virtuous, and quite soon, very hot.

Gubbio is mainly at the foot of the hill, St Ubaldo's church at the top and it appears that each year, they string a mass of lights across the hillside to resemble a big christmas tree,

with a massive star at the top. 

The view on the way up was glorious and we felt jolly very smug when we got to the top of the little ruined castle at the top, although the view was somewhat taken up by massive star - no danger of any wise men missing this town!

The church was another shock.  Expecting it to be closed up and dark inside bit instead, the heavy doors opened up to a light airy chapel with soft organ music playing.  But this is fairly normal, no the shock was the 900-year old dead saint lying, Snow-White like in a glass coffin on the altar.  no, not expecing that.  actual dessicated person - creepy.

It seems, from the stained glass windows and what we could make out of the inscriptions, that he was a local man, he did some good stuff then he died, then he did some more good stuff - it seems to be the way here.  Still, keeping him hanging about is a bit much.

So, Typical streets in sunshine: tick. Full blown italian meal: tick.  Hill hike: tick.  Saints: tick, tick!

Onwards and upwards once more.

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