Assissi and Perugia

11. Feb, 2018

Leaving Choggia on Thursday morning my first thoughts were the need for more fuel.   There were plenty of service stations on the way in, but on the way out?  No chance.  I had about 30 miles worth in the tank and we met our first garage after 15 of them.  Pulled in to find it was closed until 2pm.  5 miles later, beginning to panic, we found one open and filled up at €1.41 a litre, cheaper than UK, but much more expensive than the four service stations that followed over the next two miles! 

The next 50 miles or so were across the Po Delta, interesting at first but then increasingly boring, flat straight roads with little or no views or places of interest.  After Ravenna we picked up the motorway and headed towards the Apennines.  The improvement in scenery was dramatic, but the change in the road surface not so.  The signposts on the E45 are to Roma, the road was built by the Romans 2,000 years ago and it may not have been resurfaced since.  Even Leeds City Council would be ashamed of it.  We bumped and rattled along for nearly 200 miles to finally reach our destination shaken but definitely not stirred.  Even Romania and Bulgaria provided better roads than this.

The campsite we were heading for had looked wonderful in the ACSI book and on the internet.  It is an Agriturismo site, which means it's a working farm which also has holiday accommodation.  It's set in woodlands, with a camping area and an old farmhouse converted into holiday apartments, and the owners grow and press their own olive oil and make various sorts of vegetable and fruit preserves.  For us one of the main attractions was a swimming pool complex open from the 1st of May - most campsite pools don't open until June 1st.  However, we arrived hot, bothered and shaken to find it not particularly green (in either sense), the pools apparently not open and the pitching very haphazard.  We found a shady spot under the trees where we unhitched and set up camp, then sat with a beer, wondering whether we should move on next day.
  
In the evening we drove down into the local village, Bevagna, for a wander round and a meal.   What an absolutely wonderful place.  A bit bigger than a village, smaller than a town, it is almost entirely medieval.  Narrow streets, small cafes, traditional shops, nice restaurants and very few tourists.  We had an excellent meal of local pasta with wild boar sauce followed by veal steaks with truffles, washed down with the local Montefalco Rosso.
  
Next morning we considered our options, looking at other sites in the area.  There aren't many - campsites in Italy tend to be grouped around major tourist areas on the coast or by the lakes, with far fewer in the middle of the countryside, or near cities.  None had pools open before June 1 and very few had WiFi.  This site was handiest for Assisi and Perugia.   Enquiries at reception about the pool met with a surprising response. The pool is open!  It turns out that the two pools we could see are not open until high season, but the lower pool, which we hadn't noticed, is up and running.  We walked down there, and yes it was open and ready for use.  That was the clincher.  In fact the reality is this is a perfectly adequate site, it was just not quite as good as we had expected.  No doubt if we had not researched it beforehand we would now be extolling its virtues.

So it was off to Assisi.  Time for some more history and culture!  Like Bevagna, Assisi is mainly medieval, but it is of course much bigger and being so famous it is full of tourists and consequently full of tacky shops.  Being built on the side of a hill it looks quite long and narrow on a map, but as the bottom of the town is several hundred feet below the top of the town the cross streets are almost vertical.  Not good for my knees!
  
At one end of the town is Santa Chiara, a vast, pink and rather plain building housing the tomb of Saint Clare, founder of the "Poor Clares", and the crucifix which allegedly spoke to St Francis. 

In the centre of the town is the Piazza del Commune, a delightful narrow square dominated by the Palazzo dei Priori, opposite which is the Temple of Minerva, a Roman temple which has served as a church, shops and the town hall before being rededicated as the church of "Santa Maria sopra Minerva". 

At the other end of the town is the Basilica of St Francis, consecrated in 1253 by Pope Innocent IV just 27 years after St Francis' death.  It was considered wrong by many people that a church dedicated to someone who had taken vows of poverty and lived a simple life, should be such a massive and ornate construction, in direct contradiction of Francis's aims and beliefs.  Between these three landmarks are twisting medieval streets, alleyways and stairways lined with an amazing array of shops selling every religious artefact, souvenir and gewgaw you could possibly imagine, interspersed with the occasional bar selling slices of pizza and paninis, ice creams and beers.
  
In fact, the tiny, primitive chapel which St Frances himself used can still be seen, on the plain a couple of kilometres from Assisi.  About 14ft square, it is a delicate little building which seats about 12 people.  To protect, preserve and venerate this valuable and historic building, and also another small building where Francis died, in 1565 Pope Pius IV laid the foundation stone of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the seventh largest church in the world, which has been built over the top of them.
 
We sat in the Piazza del Commune with our morning “machiatone” watching the crowds go by.  The centre of Assisi is pedestrianised, which to you and me means no vehicles other than emergencies and early morning deliveries.  To Italians it means that local residents are obliged to spend their days driving around the city centre as much as possible, but without the usual difficulties of having to follow any sort of Highway Code.  There was nearly as much traffic passing through the square as on the M25 on a Friday afternoon!

Contrary to what you might have concluded, I enjoyed Assisi, but not as much perhaps as Lesley, who will no doubt add her own opinions.......

- Yes I will!  Like John I was not impressed with the massive religious and commercial hype that has all but obliterated the original simple message of St Francis, but it was the great fresco cycles that I had come to see.  The Basilica of San Francesco is huge, with an Upper and Lower Church, both of which were decorated with scenes from the life of the saint by the greatest artists of the time, including Giotto (or his assistants), Cimabue, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti. The Upper Church especially was badly damaged in the 1997 earthquake but has been beautifully restored.  As the frescoes are all fairly high up on the walls and ceiling, the result of studying them in any detail is a very stiff neck!  But the overall impression is quite stunning, though it can be difficult to tune out the hubbub of the numerous guided tours, the visiting monks and nuns from many countries, and hundreds of pilgrims.  From time to time a monk bellows “Silenzio!” but no-one takes any notice. 

After leaving the Basilica, it was a refreshing change to visit some of the many other historic churches in Assisi which lack both the major art work and the crowds of visitors, but retain their Romanesque simplicity, such as San Pietro, Santa Maria Maggiore and the Duomo, dedicated to San Rufino.  I was surprised and impressed by how unspoilt the town is, given it’s such a huge tourist magnet.  Italian planning laws must be very strict – there are hardly any modern buildings at all.  Away from the main streets you really could be back in the Middle Ages.   

Back at the campsite, hot and dusty, it was time to try out the swimming pool.  There was no-one else in it – perhaps, like us, they didn’t realise it was open.  In the evening the weather felt definitely cooler and it was delicious to feel a little chilly for once – it’s been at least 30 degrees ever since Caldonazzo.  After our initial disappointment, this campsite has grown on us.  Admittedly, the sanitary arrangements are a little bizarre – the cubicles contain both a toilet and a shower, but very little in the way of hooks or shelves for putting clothes on.  You can’t even put anything on the toilet as it has no seat or lid!  However, there are plenty of other attractions, including a  pleasant setting amid extensive fields and woods, an aviary full of exotic birds including peacocks, and best of all, it’s very quiet.  There are only half a dozen other caravans or motorhomes here, almost all Dutch people.  It would no doubt be a different story in July and August, and while there would be more and better facilities in high season, I don't think we would enjoy it as much.

After a quiet Saturday morning carrying out the usual housekeeping duties we decided to visit nearby Montefalco, another hill top medieval town. It's the centre of the Sagrantino wine making area, one of Italy’s finest red wines, and the streets are lined with wine shops and enoteche (wine bars) instead of the usual cafes. 

We visited the church of San Francesco (yes, him again) which has been converted into an impressive museum and houses some lovely frescos by Perugino and Benozzo Gozzoli,  then we sat in the sun on the main street enjoying an ice cream. There's not much in the way of modern building here, and off the main street are little alleyways ending in views of the surrounding countryside.  As the town is on top of a hill the views are wonderful, and as a result Montefalco is known as "the balcony of Umbria". We find the Umbrian landscape particularly pleasing.  The flat plain with a sprinkling of small hills, dotted with vineyards and olive groves, and the stands of pine and poplar trees, bring all those frescos and paintings to life. 

Today was particularly spectacular as in most directions the sun was out and the view of the surrounding mountains was clear, but to the north west, up the valley towards Assisi, there was a huge black rain cloud moving slowly towards us.  Sure enough by late afternoon it hit us, giving a very necessary soaking to the countryside and a very unnecessary soaking to the washing we had left out back at the camp site.  The evening was warm and dry and you will be pleased to hear that the washing was fine by next morning.

On Sunday we visited Perugia.  We had been told, and had read, that we should park the car at the foot of the town and take the escalators up to the centre.  So as we drove closer and closer to the centre, climbing higher and higher up hairpin bends, we were convinced we had missed the sign for the car park.  We reached the top, prepared to turn round and go back, when we saw the promised signs.  We were not at the top at all!  Having parked in a very welcome covered car park we took not one but four escalators, almost as deep as Bank Station on the London Underground.  The top two go through the foundations and the cellars of the Rocca Paolina, a huge fortress built on the foundations of a previous Etruscan stronghold.  It seemed odd to be looking at 2,000 year old ruins in the basement of a building from an escalator rising up through the middle of them.  At the top of the escalator were passages leading in three directions, with, in typical Italian fashion, no signposting, and also in typical Italian fashion, crowds of people stopping for a chat completely blocking the route.
  
We finally broke out into sunshine in the Piazza Italia where Lesley’s eyes lit up to see a flea market, more like a car boot sale without the cars or the boots.  It was only the thought of a coffee that let me drag her away.  After coffee we walked up the main street, lined with old palazzos and churches, to the main square, the Piazza IV Novembre.   Here are three of the important sights of Perugia.  

The Duomo, which is one of those huge Italian churches with some fine decorated parts, but which mostly looks like unfinished brickwork. Because it sits sideways on to the Piazza the main entrance is at the side.  The frontage is singularly unimpressive, perhaps because the front was at the east end, the altar at the west.  The architect was obviously so confused he forgot to finish it.  Inside there was a service underway, so we were unable to inspect it fully, but the bland outside was more than made up for by an overdone Baroque interior.

In the Piazza by the door of the Duomo is the Fontana Maggiore, a beautiful fountain decorated by Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni. The two tiers of carved bas-reliefs, best seen from the steps of the Duomo or of the Palazzo opposite, represent the arts, sciences, religious tales, Roman myths and historical figures. 

Opposite the side of the Duomo is the Palazzo Dei Priori, an imposing 14th century palace built as an administrative centre, now containing a concert hall and the Umbrian National Gallery.  It was to the latter that Lesley made a beeline, me hobbling on behind.  Eight flights of stairs later, legs wobbling and gasping for breath, we reached the gallery, impressive in its layout and lighting as much as its artwork, which Lesley will now describe.  I hope her drooling does not damage the keyboard.
  
First of all I want to say what a pleasant city Perugia is.  I was expecting it to be hot, crowded and noisy, like Padua. Perhaps because it was a Sunday the weekday hubbub of workers and students on bikes and scooters was absent.  Instead, there were families out for a Sunday stroll, and some tourists, but nowhere near as many as in Assisi.  Also, the weather was warm but not stiflingly hot.  As for the art, the star turn in Perugia is local boy Perugino (his actual surname was Vannucci but he became known by the name of the city he was mainly associated with.)  He isn’t one of the world’s greatest artists, but he trained someone who undoubtedly is, i.e. Raphael.  Perugino’s paintings are tranquil and pretty, very pleasant to look at but with no great emotional depth.  However they are very well displayed, along with earlier works from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, in the impressive medieval surroundings of the Palazzo dei Priori , and unlike some art galleries the exhibits weren’t overwhelming in their scope or number. 

After an enjoyable hour or so of culture we were ready for lunch, and enjoyed a pizza and salad in a shady little street nearby. Then we meandered through Perugia’s narrow, steep medieval streets, ending up at the Arco Etrusco, an ancient gate in the city walls, built by the Etruscans in the 4th century BC and later converted by Augustus into a Roman triumphal arch, commemorating his conquest of the city.  

In search of more Etruscan remains, we returned to the carpark and drove out of the city looking for an Etruscan necropolis known as the Ipogea dei Volumni.  Like so many historic sites in Italy it was quite poorly signposted, but we finally tracked it down.  Obviously nobody else could find it either, as we were the only visitors!  Again like so many historic sites, it was a strange mixture of care and neglect.  The lady in the ticket office gave us a well-thumbed copy of a guide book in Italian and English, but asked us to let her have it back, as it was the only copy!  We descended a steep, dank staircase to an underground tomb belonging to the Volumni family, with some funerary urns still in place.  We then went outside and followed a path through what had once been a tranquil meadow, but was now in the shadow of a motorway overpass and right next to a railway line.  Every few feet there was a tomb, little more than a cave dug out of the rock, with all the grave goods removed to the safety of museums elsewhere.  There was a small museum with a few artefacts and some useful information about the Etruscans, a rather mysterious people who preceded the Romans and had their own language, which has never been fully deciphered.  They were fond of feasting, drinking, music and playing games, the most popular of which seemed to consist of chucking wine at a complicated arrangement of dishes balanced on a pole. Women joined in the fun, which was considered shocking by the Greeks and Romans, but sounds pretty good to me.

After a day of culture, our plan now is to spend tomorrow (Monday) resting and relaxing around the swimming pool, then on Tuesday we are off to Orvieto to admire the splendours of the Duomo.

 

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