This article was reproduced by permission of its author, Giuseppe Bambini, and was originally published in the now defunct quarterly magazine AssisiMia, edited by Francesco Mancinelli.
The following journey lets one observe the medieval walls of the town, with interesting and unusual views. It is advisable to wear comfortable clothing and shoes suitable for a country hike and bring a camera: it will definitely be used. There are no problems of direction and it is sufficient to follow the description and have a map of the town. The entire journey—at an even pace and without any hurry—takes about 4 hours. However, the journey can be shortened at several points.
The eight town gates along the journey were all built in the second half on the 13th centry, because the municipality’s Council “Consiglio del Comune e della Magistratura” decreed to build them in 1260. And now, have a nice walk around the walls.
ROUTE: From Piazza Matteotti, locally called Piazza Nova, go uphill along Via Santuario delle Carceri. As soon as you go through the gate Porta Cappuccini turn left onto a dirt track that goes uphill—lined with two rows of cypress tress—that line the external perimeter of the Rocca Minore (14th century) or Rocchicciola. Once you reach the castle’s keep, leave the dirt track and take the evident path downhill, which has a beautiful panorama of the fortress Rocca Maggiore.
The dirt road runs along the walls and, after passing some awful huts, leads to the Porta Perlici gate. Soon after going through the arch, turn right along Via Porta Perlici.
After walking for about 200m, right at the beginning of a parking area on the right, take a downhill dirt road on the right that initially runs along a metallic green fence. Soon after the path forks, do not take the path that descends to the asphalt road underneath but take the road on the left that rises towards the town walls. At the next fork, go straight on.
Below runs the gully of the Tescio Torrent with the Tardioli Mill and a tower in ruins. If it’s on a sunny afternoon, the Rocca Maggiore’s profile cuts across the slopes of the Col Caprile.
A ramp with a steep ascent takes you back behind the walls. By looking ahead past a thick strip of broom and asparagus you can see the Rocca Maggiore’s polygonal tower. Destroyed in civil battles and wars with Perugia—that gave birth to the Local Town Council of Assisi1198-1202—it was rebuilt in the 14th century. The cemetery is below. By taking a few short steps to the left you reach a square area in front of the fortress.
Continue along an obvious path downhill that leads into an olive grove near a private farmhouse. Veering right leads you down onto the dirt track below, hence to the left of the farmhouse. It is polite to ask permission to walk through the property. Once you take the dirt road that runs along the walls and after passing a gate (that must be shut after passing through) you descend amidst olive trees in the direction of the Basilica of St. Francis. You skirt the new car park; a short flight of descending steps leads to Porta San Giacomo, which has a solitary cypress tree growing on it.
Porta San Giacomo
If you cannot walk thorugh the private property an alternative route is possible. From the direct road near the house veer right and descend towards the cememtery; veer left and walk along a lovely cypress tree lined drive and then you reach Porta San Giacomo.
Without going through under the arch veer right onto an asphalt road that goes downhill towards the Tescio valley. After a few hundred meters, right in front of a dirt road that goes uphill on the right in correspondence to a break in the guardrail, take the grassy field left that within a short distance leads to a characteristic bridge on the Tescio.
Take care when crossing the road as there are no side protection rails!
After this point to Ponte San Vetturino there are two possibilities:
the most obvious and least intersting route (for beginners): Cross the bridge and soon after you reach an asphalt road that you walk along veering left until you reach Ponte San Vetturino. Views of the bastions of the Convent of Saint Francis.
an unusual route but the most interesting (for experts): Just before crossing the bridge, take the dirt road to the left that descends to the torrent’s bank. At this point, keep to the left bank of the Tescio river. Without a definite route—at times near the bank, at times further away—but without any problems along the route you can follow the current until reaching Ponte San Vetturino.
After walking about 20 meters towards the town parallel to a crossroad with a shrine, take the asphoalt road on the left. At the next crossroads, go straight on along an uphill dirt track—locally called the Piaggia—that runs along the wall of the external part of the convent of Saint Francis. Towards the right olive groves, farmhouses, and the unmistakeable mass of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
After going through the Portella di San Francesco, veer right downhill along Via Frate Elia, then walk veering left uphill on Via Apollinare, skirting the walls of the Benendictine abbey of San Pietro.
After a few hundred meters take a large flight of steps on the right that skirts the walls of the Monastero of San Giuseppe. After walking through Porta Sementone you come to the busy n. 147 road that you take veering left uphill: keep on the footpath!
After having walked about 300 meters, leave the 147 to take a narrow asphalt road uphill on the left. Go through Porta Moiano continuing uphill, then veer right onto a descending flight of steps. Continue along a dirt track passing the historic public fountains long in disrepair.
The bell tower of the church of Santa Maria maggiore, the Rocca Maggiore, and the Torre de Piazza dominate from behind. The dirt road—Via delle Fonti di Moiano, locally called Strada dei Cavallacci—keeps for quite a way on the top of the walls, and becomes asphalt and continues running along the walls. Once having reached Porta Nova, without going under the arch cross the road and continue uphill along Via della Selva. At the end of the street there are two small columns: and here our route around the town walls ends.
At this point a rest is necessary—rest along the parapet—to admire the great panorama overlooking the Umbrian valley and Assisi: to the forefront the abbey and the church of Santa Chiara.
Cross the road, enter the town park. Cross the road again and you return to Piazza Matteotti.Quest’articolo è riprodotto qua con il permesso dell’autore, Giuseppe Bambini, ed è stato pubblicato originariamente nella rivista ormai fuori stampa AssisiMia, di Francesco Mancinelli, editore.
L’itinerario proposto consente di osservare le mura medievali della città, con scorci interessanti e inusuali. Consigliato abbigliamento comodo e scarpe adeguate a una gita in campagna, portate la macchina fotografica: verrà sicuramente usata. Non ci sono problemi di orientamento, è sufficiente seguire la descrizione e avere in mano la nostra rivista Assisi Mia: la pagina centrale con la pianta della città sarà utile per verificare in ogni momento l’itinerario descritto. Per l’intero giro – con passo comodo e senza fretta – occorrono circa 4 ore, l’itinerario può comunque essere accorciato in vari punti. Le otto porte cittadine toccate lungo il percorso, risalgono tutte alla seconda metà del XIII sec, essendo stata deliberata la loro costruzione dal Consiglio del Comune e dalla Magistratura nel 1260. Ed ora, buona passeggiata intorno alle mura.
ITINERARIO : Da Piazza Matteotti, localmente detta Piazza Nova, si percorre in salita Via Santuario delle Carceri. Appena sottopassata Porta Cappuccini si piega a sin su sterrata in salita – ombreggiata da due file di cipressi – che fiancheggia il perimetro esterno della Rocca Minore (XIV sec), o Rocchicciola. Giunti al cassero si lascia la sterrata e si imbocca un evidente sentiero in discesa, con bel panorama sulla Rocca Maggiore. Lo stradello costeggia le mura e, superate alcune brutte baracche, conduce a Porta Perlici. Appena sottopassato l’arco piegare a ds lungo Via Porta Perlici. Percorsi circa 200 m, proprio all’inizio di un parcheggio sulla ds, si imbocca a ds uno stradello in discesa che inizialmente costeggia una recinzione metallica verde. Poco dopo il sentiero si biforca, trascurare quello che scende alla sottostante strada asfaltata e seguire quello di sin che sale verso le mura. Alla successiva biforcazione proseguire diritto. In basso la gola del Torrente Tescio con il Molino Tardioli e una torre di avvistamento ormai diruta. Se la passeggiata si svolge durante un pomeriggio soleggiato, il profilo della Rocca Maggiore si staglia contro le pendici di Col Caprile. Una rampa in ripida salita riporta a ridosso delle mura. Con percorso aereo e panoramico si supera una fitta fascia di ginestre (e asparagi), giungendo alla base della torre poligonale della Rocca Maggiore. Distrutta nelle lotte civili e nella guerra antiperugina – che portarono alla nascita del comune di Assisi (1198-1202 – fu ricostruita nel XIV sec. In basso il cimitero cittadino. Tramite breve scalinata a sin si può salire al piazzale antistante la rocca. Si continua su evidente sentiero in discesa che entra in un oliveto in prossimità di un casale privato. Piegando a ds si scende alla sterrata sottostante, quindi a sin al casolare: è consigliabile chiedere il permesso di passare. Ripreso il viottolo che costeggia le mura e superato un cancelletto (che va richiuso dopo il passaggio), si scende fra gli olivi in direzione del campanile della Basilica di S. Francesco. Si rasenta il nuovo parcheggio; una breve scalinata in discesa conduce a Porta San Giacomo, sulla cui cima vigile un solitario cipresso. Se l’accesso alla casa privata non è consentito, è necessaria una piccola variante: dalla sterrata in vicinanza della casa prendere verso ds scendendo al cimitero cittadino; percorrendo verso sin un bel vialetto ombreggiato da cipressi si giunge a Porta S. Giacomo. Senza sottopassare l’arco piegare a ds su strada asfaltata che scende verso la valle del Tescio. Percorsi alcuni centinaia di m, proprio di fronte a uno stradello che sale sulla ds e in corrispondenza di una interruzione del guard-rail, imboccare sulla sin una pista erbosa che conduce in breve a un caratteristico ponticello sul Tescio. Attenzione nell’attraversamento perché privo di protezioni laterali! Da questo punto fino a Ponte San Vetturino vi sono due possibilità: 1- itinerario più scontato e meno interessante (consigliato ai meno esperti) Si traversa il ponticello giungendo poco dopo sulla strada asfaltata che si percorre verso sin fino a Ponte S. Vetturino; particolari vedute sui bastioni del Convento di S. Francesco 2- itinerario inconsueto ma più interessante (consigliato ai più esperti) Appena prima di traversare il ponticello si imbocca a sin lo stradello che scende al greto del torrente. A questo punto si mantiene la sponda orografica sin del Tescio. Senza percorso obbligato – a volte in vicinanza del greto, a volte un po’ distante – ma senza particolari problemi di percorrenza, si segue la corrente fino a Ponte S. Vetturino. Percorsi poche decine di metri verso la città, in corrispondenza di un bivio con edicola, imboccare a sin una strada asfaltata. Al bivio immediatamente successivo si prosegue diritto lungo una sterrata in salita – localmente detta la Piaggia – che costeggia le mura del perimetro esterno del Convento di S. Francesco Verso ds oliveti, casolari e l’inconfondibile mole della Basilica di S. Maria degli Angeli. Sottopassata la Portella di San Francesco si sbuca su strada asfaltata, che si percorre verso sin in salita (siamo di nuovo in città). Appena sottopassata Porta San Francesco (con le ante in legno), piegare verso ds in discesa lungo Via Frate Elia, quindi si percorre verso sin in salita Via S. Apollinare, fiancheggiando le mura dell’abbazia benedettina di San Pietro. Dopo alcune centinaia di m si imbocca a ds una larga scalinata in discesa che fiancheggia le imponenti mura del Monastero di S. Giuseppe. Sottopassata Porta Sementone si sbuca sulla SS 147 che si percorre verso sin in salita: tenersi sul marciapiede! Percorsi circa 300 m si lascia la SS 147 per imboccare a sin una stretta strada asfaltata in salita. Si sottopassa Porta Moiano continuando in salita, quindi si piega a ds su scalinata in discesa. Si prosegue su sterrata lasciando sulla ds i vecchi lavatoi pubblici, da tempo in colpevole stato di abbandono e decadenza. All’indietro domina il campanile della Chiesa di S. Maria Maggiore, la Rocca Maggiore e la Torre Civica (Torre de Piazza). La sterrata – Via delle Fonti di Moiano, localmente detta Strada dei Cavallacci – si mantiene per un bel tratto sulla parte sommitale delle mura, come si può facilmente notare affacciandosi verso il basso, quindi diventa asfaltata e prosegue costeggiando le mura. Giunti a Porta Nova, senza sottopassare l’arco si traversa la strada continuando diritto in salita lungo Via della Selva. Al termine della via si trovano due colonnette; qui termina il nostro percorso intorno alle mura cittadine. A questo punto è d’obbligo una sosta – appoggiandosi al parapetto – per ammirare il grandioso panorama sulla Valle Umbra e su Assisi: in primo piano l’abside e il campanile della Chiesa di S. Chiara. Si traversa la strada, si entra nel piccolo parco cittadino che si supera verso sin. Traversata la strada asfaltata si torna di nuovo a Piazza Matteotti.
When I heard that there was an olive tree somewhere in Umbria purported to be 1,700 hundred years old—the oldest olive tree in the region, in fact—I knew what I was looking at. I was looking at a quest. I had to find it.
Is a quest really a quest when there's an explanatory plaque?
As it turns out, the tree—near Trevi in a little hamlet called Bovara—isn’t that hard to locate. Legend has it that the martyr Emiliano, the first bishop of Trevi, was tied to the tree and decapitated in the year 304…Emiliano became a saint, and the tree seems to have become immortal.
Still looking good at 1,700 years old
Despite late freezes which have killed off generations of trees in the surrounding grove over the centuries, l’Olivo di Santo Emiliano continues to flourish and produce fruit which the nearby Benedictine abbey uses to make their extra virgin oil.
The tree bears its catalogue number on the trunk
The trunk has become twisted and gnarled, the bark black with age, and the catalogue number painted on its side (the tree is listed in the regional register of protected flora) seems somehow insulting. But still some majesty—the kind that only something which has witnessed almost two millenia can claim—remains.
Yes, a quest is a quest if you feel like you come away with something ennobling.
Here’s whatcha wanna do, whatcha wanna do is this:
Go to Santa Maria degli Angeli and find the post office (about two blocks from the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli on Via Los Angeles heading in the direction of Bastia Umbra). Right next to the post office there is a parking lot, primarily for tour buses. And in that parking lot there are a couple of kiosks. Head to the one that says “Porchetta”. Get yourself a nice towering sandwich filled with thick slices of whole roasted pig spiced with fennel and pepper—an Umbrian specialty. Make sure you order it not too “grasso” and not too “magro”…a nice mix of lean meat and rich crackling.
Go to the fruit and vegetable kiosk next door, and choose some fruit. Anything marked “nostrali” is grown locally, so try some Umbrian cherries, apricots, figs…depending on the season.
Finally, head across the street to Lollini pasticceria and pick out some amazing pastries for dessert. You can also get drinks here.
Now, head up the hill towards Assisi and follow the ring road as it curves around the historic center of town (never going into town) and meets up with the provincial road marked SP 444 (this road eventually goes to a town called Gualdo Tadino, so follow those signs). When you get to the top of Assisi, the road leads you under a city gate called Porta Perlici so narrow that only one car can fit through at a time. Once you pass under this city gate you will suddenly find yourself in the mountains…continue about half a kilometer, then follow the road marked Costa di Trex which climbs sharply towards the right.
La Chiesa di Santo Stefano at Costa di Trex
Follow this climbing mountain road for about 5 kilometers…there are some amazing views, so don’t miss them. After about 5 km you will come to the Santo Stefano church on the left. Leave your car along the shoulder of the road and set up your picnic on one of the two tables in the field above the church.
"Trex" stands for "tre chiese" or three churches which once stood on this slope of Mount Subasio. Santo Stefano is the remaining one.
The good news about walking and hiking in Umbria is that even if you get lost, you are bound to have such breathtakingly beautiful scenery to distract you that it won’t matter that much.
Who cares about the map when you are looking at this?
The bad news about walking and hiking in Umbria is that it is damned easy to get lost.
Some Guidelines for Walking and Hiking in Umbria
Umbria is a fabulous area to explore by foot, yet at the same time can sometimes be not that hiker-friendly. The region has been late to the game in organizing well marked-trails and accessible information regarding itineraries and routes, which is a shame since the undulating landscape, tiny stone hilltop hamlets, and abandoned country churches and fortresses lend themselves to some remarkable hikes.
Here is some general logistical information for walkers interested in discovering this captivating region. For specific hikes, please refer back to the Walking and Hiking in Umbria blog category, where I will be reproducing some itineraries and adding some of my own.
Guides for Walking and Hiking in Umbria
The offerings in English for printed guides discussing itineraries in Umbria are disappointing. Probably the best to date is Walking and Eating in Tuscany and Umbria by Lasdun and Davis, which has 26 walks in Tuscany and…um…a whopping 3 in Umbria. That said, the three they do list for Umbria are all pretty walks with clear information and recommendations for local restaurants.
Walking and Eating in Tuscany and, oh, right, Umbria
A second choice is Sunflower Book’s Umbria and the Marche (Landscapes) by Georg Henke. With its 8 driving itineraries, 37 walks, and two regions, this guide is kind of all over the place. It does, however, focus on the Valnerina and Monti Sibillini–two of the most breathtaking areas in Umbria if not all of Italy– and contains large-scale (1:50,000) topo walking maps and transport timetables for all the walks. Sunflower offers a free on-line update service.
Sunflower Books took a stab at it…but why can no one manage to publish a mono-regional guide?!?
There is also a more local–though exhaustive–printed guide which follows a medieval trail through the olive groves between Spoleto and Assisi with English text, maps, and photos: The Olive Grove Path (Il Sentiero degli Ulivi) by Enzo Cori and Fabrizio Cicio.
Alternatively, I can’t speak highly enough of Bill Thayer’s Website. Bill has walked about 2,000 km all over Umbria during his numerous travels here, and has documented his walks with diary entries and photos. In my opinion, there is no better resource for walking in Umbria than his juggernaut of a website.
In Italian, there are two very good walking guides:
A Piedi in Umbria by Stefano Ardito has over 100 itineraries and covers the region well. Unfortunately, the guide is very text-heavy with few maps and no photos, so your Italian has to be pretty good to get any use out of it.
Lots of info, but hard to follow if your Italian isn’t up to snuff.
L’Umbria per Strade e Sentieri by Giuseppe Bambini, on the other hand, is chock full of maps, photos, and easily decipherable bullet lists for each walk–even if your Italian is shaky it’s a great resource. The routes described are largely loops, so you can drive to your starting point, follow the walk, and end up back at your car. If this sounds too good to be true, it is. The guide was printed by a small local press, Editrice Minerva Assisi, and is almost impossible to find outside of the Zubboli bookshop in the main piazza in Assisi.
Charts, maps, graphics and simple language…even if your Italian isn’t fluent this can be helpful
Maps for Walking and Hiking in Umbria
Trail markings in Umbria are maintained by a sketchily organized conglomerate of volunteer groups, like the Italian Alpine Club, and local government agencies so tend to be spotty, at best. A good map is essential.
The two series of trail maps I like best are the Kompass maps (1:50,000 scale) and the C.A.I or Club Alpino Italiano maps (1:25,000 scale), which show trails, unpaved and paved roads. Both of these are readily available at bookstores or larger souvenir shops which carry guidebooks in Italy.
Walking and Hiking Trails in Umbria
Trail markings in Italy look like this:
Or, if you’re really lucky, this:
So, generally, two red stripes with a white stripe in the middle and the trail number. Painted on anything.
Trails in Italy look like this:
Or, if you’re really lucky, this:
As I said, chances are you are going to get lost at least once during your hike, so try to be philosophical about it. Remember, a truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery while on a detour. (Or at least not bicker with whomever was in charge of the map.)
Three quick cautionary words before you head off. Hunting is a popular and widely practiced sport in Umbria, so be aware when hiking in hunting season (September through January) and outside of the regional and national parks, where hunting is prohibited. Umbria is also home to quite a few sheep, and their guard dogs can be aggressive while on the clock–give them a wide berth. Finally, be careful walking through high grass or climbing loose rocks…there are vipers in the area which generally flee at the sound of approaching humans but are not too pleased to be accidentally tread upon.
It had been awhile since I had been to the main galleries in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, and I had forgotton how beautifully done the 2006 restoration was. I was back this past weekend, and fell in love all over again.
Even if 14th-16th century religious art isn’t your thing (the bulk of the collection is concentrated around that period) the building itself is worth an amble through.
Putty colored walls, soft lighting, a warren of oddly shaped rooms and corridors, exposed original stone and brick architectural details…simply stunning, and strangely soothing at the same time.
My favorite room: the clocktower! Stand inside behind the enormous working clock four stories above the Corso and listen to the ticking which has marked the time in Perugia for more than 100 years.
The clocktower is now used as the museum's multimedia center.
It pains me to admit it, but the times, they are a-changin’, even here in Umbria.
When I arrived here in 1993, this is how you did your grocery shopping: You left your house early in the morning with a net bag, and first you headed to the outdoor market in the piazza where you picked up your greens, fruit, flowers, and the local gossip. Then you headed to the butcher’s for your meat, and the local gossip. Then the fish shop for your fish, and a side of gossip. Then the cheese shop, the fresh pasta shop, and the bakery…where you caught up on the gossip. Then, for your very last stop, you dropped by the little local family-owned store for sundries like toilet paper and raisins and any gossip you may have overlooked. And, if you were lucky, you got home by noon.
What the produce section once looked like.
Now you go to the Ipercoop superstore along the highway and in half an hour buy all of the above. And get your gossip off Facebook.
When I arrived here in 1993, this is how you saw a movie: You went to downtown Perugia (our provincial capital, aka The City), where the four movie houses were. You started at one end of the Corso and checked out the posters outside the Cinema Modernissimo but decided to have an aperitivo and a chat instead. Afterwards you headed to the Cinema Turreno to see what was showing there and before the show stopped into the Pizzeria Mediterranea for a quick margherita. Then, since you missed the beginning of the show, you ambled down the street to the 18th century Teatro Pavone where, on the nights they didn’t have a concert or play scheduled, they might show a movie. And on the way you popped into Pasticceria Sandri for a pastry, thus missing the starting time there as well. So you ended up at the Lilli, where you grabbed a quick espresso from the bar next door and settled in to watch whatever was on that night. And halfway through the movie you felt raindrops hitting your face and looked up in surprise, forgetting that they had that really cool 1940’s retractable roof which they would open on summer nights.
What the cinema once looked like.
Now you go to the Warner Village Multiplex along the highway, where they have 10 different movies going on pretty much every hour all day and night, and you eat popcorn and drink Coke.
In light of all this modernization, the opportunity to see how things used to be done seem more rare with every passing year. Another example is the corredo, or traditional trousseau, which was a collection of high quality household linen–including table linens, towels, bed linens, and quilts–which a young woman would assemble in her youth and as a bride would use as the cornerstone of her new household. The contents of what we in the midwest once called a “hope chest” were generally high-end handwoven cloth, expensive and acquired with care and patience over many years. Now, of course, the couple registers at a department store or, even more often, lives together for years before marrying and thus has already collected all the household linen they may need.
The demand for this type of superior quality cloth has declined in step with the decline of the traditional corredo, which is both a shame and what makes Brozzetti Laboratorio di Tesseratura a Mano (or weaving workshop) in Perugia so unique and so worth a visit.
Tucked away in the heart of Perugia.
The workshop is housed in a 13th century church.
Just some of the beautiful pieces coming off the antique looms.
Housed in the oldest Franciscan church in Perugia, la Chiesa di San Francesco delle Donne (1212), this artelier was founded in 1912 by the formidable Giuditta Brozzetti. One of the first modern female entrepenuers in Umbria, Brozzetti criss-crossed the region copying and conserving traditional motifs taken from decorations found on Etruscan tombs and pottery, details from medieval and renaissance cloth, and iconography from works of religious art from little known churches spread out across the region. Many of her original handmade sketches are remain on display, and these geometric and stylized designs are still incorporated into the workshop’s pieces.
The detail in the woven patterns is fascinating.
Today the Brozzetti family is in its fourth generation of craftswomen, who continue producing hand-woven fine jacquard cotton, linen, silk, and wool cloth on antique wooden manual looms, many dating from the 19th century.
One of the antique wooden looms still used by the weavers.
A visit their workshop is simply captivating…the loud click-clack of the looms working, the gentle light filtering through the enormous apse window, the stylized patterns of griffons, pomegranates, and twisting vines in all imaginable shades of color.
Marta, last of the Brozzetti family, working the loom.
In this a-changin’ world, it’s a rare gift sometimes to be able to peek through the window of time and get a glimpse and what we have, tragically, lost.
Photographs of Brozzetti Laboratorio di Tesseratura a Mano were used with permission by Marit Alanen: photographer, artist, writer, and traveller. “You drink too much, you cuss too much, and you have questionable morals…You’re everything I ever wanted in a friend.”
There are a few fundamental truths which, once you become a parent, crystallize and form the primary touchstones of your existence. For example, sacks of oranges and cattle prods are all fine and dandy, but if you want real torture try walking barefoot across a cotto floor strewn with Legos. And, given a choice between twenty minutes of sex or twenty minutes of dead sleep, sleep wins hands down. Finally, you believe in God. Or, you don’t. Either way, it’s time to decide because preschoolers don’t deal well with ethical grey areas.
About six months ago, I drove past a huge basilica in the valley below Assisi, and my five year old piped up from the back seat, “Mamma, what’s that?” Now, it is probably not such a good thing that my son doesn’t recognize a church in Assisi, which is probably one of the places in which there is the greatest church per capita density on the planet. “It’s a church,” I told him.
“What do you do there?” he asked.
“Well, you pray.”
“Uh, well, that’s when you talk to God”
And there it was. The $64,000 question. One of the few questions to which I have no answer that I can’t simply respond, “I’m not sure, but I bet Babbo knows.” Because, quite frankly, my husband isn’t that sure either.
I grew up in a deeply religious family, though of the flower children, guitar plucking, socially liberal kind. Though I don’t consider myself psychologically scarred by all that, by the time I left home for college I was, let’s say, religion-ed out. So, after a brief stint over at the Unitarians to detox, I settled into a benign sort of agnosticism. Though I considered myself a practician of the basic judeo-christian ethic which forms the foundation of most western religions, I would only actually show up at Mass once or twice a year to please Grandma.
When I moved to Italy after college, I thought my ambivalence regarding actively practicing a religion would be a problem, but I quickly found that, instead, there are quite a few Italians who are casual Catholics here in Umbria. And that no one really cared about whether or not I went to Mass, uh, religiously.
Italy, and especially a rural area like Umbria, is undoubtably Catholic. Italian civic culture is steeped in Catholicism, and in many ways there is no way of seeing where the religious culture ends and the secular begins. Most holidays in Italy are Catholic feast days, the local parish is very much the fulcrum of social participation in the countryside, and the passage from childhood to adulthood is still generally measured in sacraments: Christening, first holy Communion, Confirmation, nuptial Mass, and funeral Mass. Almost all public spaces sport crosses on the walls, even in some businesses where it seems out of place at best, like the local bank.
It is refreshing, in comparison to how in your face religious practice has become in the States, to live in a place where it is not an issue at all. Part of that is, of course, because something like 98% of the population of Umbria is Catholic, so no one really feels the need to wear their religion on their sleeve. But even among my few friends here who are active church goers and fervent believers, I have never felt uncomfortable, or judged, or pressured by their belief. Italians, and, more specifically, Umbrians, tend to be quite pragmatic about their religiosity. They are often Catholic and communist, both divorce and abortion have been legalized through popular referendum, and they are reluctant proselytizers.
In the years since I’ve moved, I have steadily and quietly shed any dogma which may have lingered in my moral paradigm but also feel like my life here has given me the opportunity to tap into a different spirituality…based on the tennets of secular humanism, no doubt, but still giving my life reference points which have led me to find my own sense of god, even if it’s not God. Contact with and respect for the natural world. A feeling of belonging to a comunity. The importance of family and friends, and prioritizing the time you spend cultivating those relationships. Recognizing the wonderous beauty in art and architecture. The joy of eating good food in the context of its history and culture. The value of slowing down and finding time for quietness.
The late David Foster Wallace said this:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” and the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” ….
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water.’ It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.”
And this is what I have found here in Umbria. Perhaps not the God of churches and rites, but instead moments of grace and awareness where all of a sudden I am yanked out of my automatic pilot working and parenting and surviving mode and become aware of an instant in time, a fleeting quotidian miracle, and am reminded “This is water.” And there I see god.
About 15 years ago, just a few months after moving from Chicago to a tiny hamlet in the Umbrian countryside outside of Assisi, I was lying in bed at about 2 am in that state of semi-consciousness between sleep and lucidity, when I heard what was unmistakeably the sound of footsteps, and lots of them, on our gravel drive. I immediately found myself wide awake and focused on the sound, growing louder and closer, as it was punctuated by the muffled crash of a flowerpot being stumbled over, a whispered oath, and some quiet laughter. I heard another stumble and a quick, low, discordant wail.
I elbowed my Italian husband. Hard. “Honey,” I hissed, “There are burglars outside!” He was instantly awake and jumped out of bed, throwing his pants on fireman-style. “How do you know?” he hissed back. “Because I can hear them walking on the drive. They keep tripping over flowerpots. And I think they’re carrying a dying cat with them.”
At which point he froze, with one pant-leg on and one off, in a hunched over flamingo position, and considered me. Because I have been known to make use of–ahem–comic embellishment in the past. And suddenly I could see his eyes clear with a dawning realization, as he slowly straightened up and said, “Oh, it’s the first of May tomorrow.”
“What, you get burglarized on a schedule?!?” I replied, incredulous.
Of course we weren’t about to be robbed, but instead serenaded by a group of locals who were carrying out the ancient tradition of Cantamaggio, or “singing in” the first of May, which symbolically marks the end of the long winter and beginning of spring with song and drink. And more drink. And then, a little drink.
The maggiaioli under a full moon
With origins which can be traced back to cultures predating the Roman empire in an area covering what is now the central Italian regions, during the final night of April groups of folk singers with accordians, guitars, wooden recorders, and various simple percussion instruments, including tambourines and triangles, wind their way through the streets of town and from one farmhouse to the next in the countryside singing traditional folk songs.
A maggiaiolo with his organetto
The simple yet cheerful rythmic songs are sung—generally alternating between a solo voice and a chorus–in Italian, though usually in a strong, at times almost impenetrable, dialect. The lyrics ostensibly touch on themes of nature and the seasons, primarily spring, but are laced with double entendres and baudy wordplay…in fact, after the serenade is finished the singers, with much raucous laughter, invite their wakened audience to return to bed and “seed May”.
Out of context, the Cantamaggio may appear as simply charming and theatrical, but this ancient folk tradition reflects one of the primary threads which weaves itself through rural culture and tradition in Umbria: the rewards reaped for generosity and altruism and, on the flip side, the misfortune brought on by avarice and selfishness.
The songs of the “maggaiaoli” were once—and to a certain degree, continue to be—believed to have quasi-magical powers, invoking fertility charms on the fields and livestock depending upon how generous the serendaded families were in offering the musicians food and drink. This reciprocity represents a theme which is one of the primary cornerstones of peasant life: giving in order to receive, from eating less wheat today in order to plant more seed tomorrow to helping out family members in the present in order to call on their aid in future times of need.
Keeping the beat with a "cempene" or tambourine
So before you return to your bed, it is good form to pass around wine to toast the musicians and the change of season. The “maggiaioli” are then sent off with fresh eggs and salame for their breakfast when the night’s festivities are completed and May has been, once again, “sung in”.
P.S. You can read about the Cantamaggio in Tuscany here.
Last month my dear friend, colleague, and fidus Achates Letizia–proprietor of Alla Madonna del Piatto Country Inn and Cooking School–asked me to guest star in one of her cooking videos which she periodically posts on her blog.
Despite having about the same on-camera charisma as Al Gore, I had a grand time fooling around in Letizia’s fabulous kitchen and we spent the morning cracking each other up (and Letizia spent a month editing out all the cracking up to come up with a half-way professional five minutes)!
Enjoy. Oh, and by the way, the old adage about the camera adding 10 pounds is totally not true. It adds 25.
Listen, to have any street cred at all, a hobby has to generate that frisson of excitement that only comes with the knowledge that you may end up either dead or seriously maimed. (Though, if you are a bumbling idiot like I am, pretty much any banal activity can end up, if not mortal, at the very least resulting in a trip to the emergency room. See, for example, soap making.) Luckily one of the most popular pastimes in the Umbrian countryside, despite its innocuous sound, involves enough flirting with danger to justify that certain John Wayne swagger.
Take a walk on the wild side. Wild asparagus, that is.
Around mid-march, when the winter rains have pretty much petered out and the first warm spring sun shows promise, you begin to see cars parked along the country roads as the Umbrians turn out en masse to hunt wild asparagus. “Hunt” may seem a little melodramatic to describe what amounts to tromping through the woods picking shoots, but once you’ve been you realize that these wily little woodland cousins to domestic asparagus are not that easy to spot.
See one here?
How ‘bout here, smartypants?
I told you. Over the years, I’ve become pretty good at rousting them out and after an hour in the woods am able to return home with my head held high and a trophy bundle. If you have the time and patience (and stake out your territory early in the day…during peak asparagus season the woods get pretty picked over by the end of the morning and you often see folks climbing back into their cars at lunchtime loading ten or more bundles of the prized wild vegetable in their trunks) you can end up picking enough in one day to put up for the rest of the year.
Note the gloves. Keep reading.
These thin stalks pack a lot of punch with their sharp flavour, so are better used as a condiment than a side dish. Try them with egg pasta like tagliatelle, in a frittata, or as a risotto. They can also be quickly blanched and frozen so you can enjoy them even when they’re no longer in season (which finishes around the end of May).
Asparagus hunter defying death and scraped knees.
But what about the mortal danger part? you may be wondering. As you’re foraging along in the woods through bushes and high grass, and stooping down to stick your hands under fallen leaves and the prickly aspargus plants to snap off your prize, you may run into this guy:
Yikes. Gives me the heebies even in .jpeg
Vipers, or adders, whose venom can be fatal (or, if it’s your lucky day, can just lead to kidney damage), are native to the area around Assisi, and when the sun starts to warm the hillsides they begin to come out of hibernation. Generally, it’s a good idea to wear boots and gloves when you are out hunting your asparagus, and you can also use walking sticks to flush out any unwanted reptile friends before sticking your hands in scrub. I haven’t yet had a brush with anything more startling than a lizard (There are hilarious Park Service signs on Mount Subasio with tips to help you identify a viper, including a description of the shape of its pupils. Like I’m going to hang out long enough to get a good gander at any snake’s pupils, viper or not.) and I hope I never do, as I would probably hang up my asparagus hunting hat forever.
Sure, I want to have some street cred, but I’d like to live long enough to eat it, too.