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Finding Magic: Narni and the Convento del Sacro Speco

The late afternoon view from the Convento del Sacro Spreco

The thing about magic is that when you go looking for it, it doesn’t show. And then, when you’ve let your guard down, it sneaks up on you in the most unexpected places.

I went to Narni expecting magic. Perhaps even needing it a little bit. I had long heard the story of Narni being the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ mythical, magical land of Narnia—though, admittedly, the author never visited this dramatically positioned hill town himself. Overlooking the Nera River to the north (where the remains of the monumental Roman Ponte d’Augusto, so picturesque that a rendering of it by impressionist Corot now hangs in the Louvre, still make passersby draw breath) and the craggy peaks of the Valnerina to the west, Narni held the promise of bringing to life the enchantment and adventure that I so loved from Lewis’ epic, and that I had recently rediscovered in reading the novels to my sons.

The view of the Nera River valley, ca 1826.

Narni was lovely. It was. It has a fine historic center, a fetching pinacoteca with a Ghirlandaio and a Gozzoli, either of which worth the ticket price, and Narni Sotteranea, perhaps one of the most remarkable underground tours in Umbria. Plus, it had lots of lion imagery and a homegrown Lucy (the mummified saintly remains creepily displayed in the Duomo) and lush, striking countryside very much reminiscent of Lewis’ novels. But for some reason, it just didn’t click.

Perhaps part of that is the fault of Narni Scalo, a disheartening post-war industrial sprawl, complete with electro-carbon plant, which has gradually filled the valley below Narni itself (take a gander at Corot’s 1826 Le pont de Narni for an idea of paradise lost) and is the first sight to meet visitors. Perhaps part of that is the fault of my own inflated expectations for this unassuming, though attractive, town. Regardless, I left somewhat deflated and at a bit of a loss.

The cloister of the Franciscan convent in the fading light.

And then, magic. Instead of turning north towards home, I headed south on a whim in search of the Convento del Sacro Speco, a Franciscan site about 20 kilometers outside of Narni. I’m not sure why…I’m generally more of an art and architecture (with heavy doses of food and wine) kind of traveller, not a religion and spirituality sort of traveller, but this secluded sanctuary—founded in 1213 by Saint Francis but rebuilt in the 1400s—somehow compelled me, along with the legend of an ailing Francis once being soothed by an angel playing violin music here. The Saint often used a nearby cave to pray in solitude, and many of the friars who live here now do so according to the saint’s First Rule of silence and contemplation.

Parts of the sanctuary are closed to the public.

Not the friar–strongly resembling Disney’s badgeresque Tuck–who met me at the gate, and, taking my face in both hands, looked me kindly in the eyes and asked, “Daughter, why are you here? What are you looking for?” Which gave me pause, because I wasn’t quite sure of the answer myself. I stammered something inane about wanting to take a walk around the grounds, and he stepped back with a smile, easing my discomfort with a welcoming, “Stay as long as you like. This is your home.”

I didn’t stay as long as I would have liked. It was late afternoon and the sun was already low over the forested hills, but I slowly wandered through the miniature stone convent, with its tiny chapel and creche-like cloister. I paused for awhile in the inner courtyard to drink in the stunning view, from the village of Calvi perched on the mountains to the south, across the plain with its handkerchief-sized fields, woods, and stone farmhouses, to Narni to the north (and rued the fact that my camera doesn’t have a panoramic setting).

Climbing the path through the oak forest to the oratory at the top of the hill, the silence was broken only by songbirds and the sound of my own footsteps through the dry leaves. Through the glass doors of the oratory, the simple, rough chapel inside was evocative of the spirit of the Saint and so much more authentic than many of the more visited Franciscan sites in Umbria. I sat for a few minutes at the mouth of Francis’ cave—now sheltering an altar used for outdoor celebrations—and felt myself meld into the woods around, the darkening sky, the crisp evening air, the softly rustling leaves. My reverie was broken by the sound of the bells from the sanctuary below, calling visitors to Mass and me back to reality. As others headed towards the chapel, I made for the gate knowing that my spirit had been filled already and I had found, in this casual side-trip, what I had been seeking. Just a little bit of magic.

 

To visit the convent, set your navigator on the village of S. Urbano and follow the signs.

Opening hours are 9:30 – 20:00

Masses are Mon-Sat 11:00 ; Sunday and holidays 11:00 and 18:00

4 Comments

  1. Francesco Caridi |

    I cannot begin to tell you how much I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your visit to Narni and to the Sacro Speco of S. Fracnesco.

    Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Francesco. I was born in Toronto Canada but my family is italian. On my mother’s side they’re from Rome and Umbria. Narni to be exact. My maternal grandmother took to Narni every summer from the age of four. So when my class mates whent to summer camp, I went to Narni.
    I know the people that found the Narni Underground and once I helped out with translating a tour for some British tourists. Both Roberto Nini and the British tourists were eternaly grateful.
    I also find the Speco a magical place….there’s something there…I can smell in it the air and feel it around. Something simple that allows us to let go of modern life’s heaviness.
    Anyway, sorry for my long windedness.
    Thank you for sharing your memories of Narni and the Speco

    Reply
    • Rebecca |

      Thanks so much for this comment, Francesco! Unfortunately, I recently made some changes to my blog and have lost all the photos…there used to be some very pretty shots, but it will take me awhile to reload them all. You actually reminded me about the Speco…I’ve never been back, but now I will try to make it again this summer! Thanks again!

      Reply
      • Francesco Caridi |

        Rebecca, I am planning a trip to visit my family again this fall for a few reasons. One I plan to in Umbria for my Onomastico on October 4th 🙂
        In Narni they have a walk from the church of S. Francesco to The Speco. I’ve never done it but I hear it leaves around midnite so as to arrive for a sunrise mass outside. All I can invison in my head is Cat Steven singing “Morning Has Broken” lol
        My mom is there now, so I’ve asked to get me more information on the walk.
        I am also for sure planning a trip to Assisi. Everytime I’ve gone to Assisi, it’s only been for a day…And now that I have stumbled across your web page, I am strongly considering staying over for a night.

        Reply

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