Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
Browsing category: Off the beaten path in Umbria, Rebecca's Ruminations, Things to do and see in Umbria
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Art in the Olive Groves: Madonna delle Lacrime

I brake for Renaissance portals. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

I brake for Renaissance portals. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

There was a family who lived down the block from me when I was growing up that had a passel of kids. I don’t recall how many, but definitely in the low double-digits. We would play together, and they were always just slightly unkempt…mismatched socks, hair needing a trim, ratty toys. The predictable signs of harried parents short on time and money. That said, I also remember how loved those kids were. Despite there being so many of them, I never got the sense that they were any less treasured than those of us with just a sibling or two who always had clean pants and extra milk money in our pockets.

This is kind of how it is with art in Italy. There’s just so damn much of it here that there aren’t the time and resources to take painstaking care of it all. That said, you do get a sense that Italy loves its treasures—despite much-discussed cases of mismanagement and graft—no less than any other country, even if it presents them with much less pomp and circumstance.

The sanctuary of Madonna delle Lacrime holds a surprise inside...

The sanctuary of Madonna delle Lacrime holds a surprise inside…

The lovely sanctuary of the Madonna delle Lacrime right outside of the center of Trevi is a perfect example of this. I stopped by mostly by chance, drawn to the pretty 15<sup>th</sup> century facade and elaborately carved Renaissance portal (by Giovanni di Giampietro di Venezia, I later learned) looming over the winding road which leads from the valley below Trevi up through the sprawling olive groves which surround it.

I stepped into the silent church, its lone visitor, and quickly skimmed the historical information near the door, recounting how the sanctuary had been constructed on the spot where, in 1485, an image of the Virgin (now forming the altarpiece) miraculously shed tears.

A detail from the elaborate stonework decorating the facade.

A detail from the elaborate stonework decorating the facade.

As I circled the church to take a look at the chapels and artwork, my echoing footsteps suddenly stopped in front of a large Adoration of the Magi fresco. Wait one darn minute. Could that really be? Right here, in this empty church in the middle of an olive grove with not even a caretaker keeping a watchful eye?!?

No way! Yes way.

No way! Yes way.

Yep, it was a magnificent Perugino, painted in 1521 and unmistakeable in its fairytale colors, Umbrian landscape background, and—most movingly—breathtakingly fine portraits. I stood for a minute in silent admiration until I was startled by the door of the church banging shut behind me. A slight woman in her eighties, weighed down by a number of shopping bags and a lethal-looking black handbag quickly shuffled past me, set down her load, and kneeled in front of the Perugino.

I backed quietly away, leaving this priceless treasure to those who love it best.

I love this silly picture of the Virgin's foot. It's rendered so haphazardly one just has to wonder if it was quitting time.

I love this silly picture of the Virgin’s foot. It’s rendered so haphazardly one just has to wonder if it was quitting time.

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A Day at the Office: Cheesemakers of Cascia

Just another day in the office for Francesco Rossi, sheep and goat herder and cheesemaker (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Just another day in the office for Francesco Rossi, sheep and goat herder and cheesemaker (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

I find it surprising—and somewhat heartening—that in this age where everyone seems to aspire to some sort of white-collar service sector desk job (those, of course, who don’t aspire to starring on a cable reality show), there are still people who make a conscious choice to get their hands (and boots) dirty.

Follow this sign (and the bleating of hundreds of sheep) to the good cheese. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Follow this sign (and the bleating of hundreds of sheep) to the good cheese. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Enter Rita Rossi and her brother Francesco from tiny Colforcella outside of Cascia, who found themselves the unexpected owners of three orphan lambs about ten years back. As they couldn’t keep up with the rest of the herd, a passing shepherd left them in their care along with cursory instructions as to how to raise them. Rita quickly found her passion, and involved Francesco in expanding their herd and adding goats. From their hilltop farm, they now raise about 150 sheep and half as many goats…taking them from their warm shed each morning to graze in the surrounding sloping fields of the Valnerina.

Try making small talk around the water cooler with this guy every day. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Try making small talk around the water cooler with this guy every day. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

From books and neighbors, the Rossis taught themselves the art of cheesemaking, quickly turning out products of such fine quality that they count some of the best restaurants in Umbria among their clients.  Demand is so high for their tangy and pungent wheels that they no longer sell aged cheese, as they can’t keep them around long enough to properly age them. They offer a variety of soft, fresh goat cheese and sheep cheese ranging from two days to a month old…some of which are flavored with the saffron threads they harvest from their field of crocuses (croci?).

Rita Rossi separates out saffron threads from her crocus field. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Rita Rossi separates out saffron threads from her crocus field. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

My visit to the Rossi farm, accompanied by a chef friend who had sung me their praises, only underlined the singularity of these brother-and-sister team’s choice of work: theirs is no showcase estate, but a real working farm complete with lots of hounds and lots of mud. That said, the bleating sheep coming up the lane against the background of the autumn colored woods, the field of tiny violet crocuses with their bright orange stigmas, and the serene smile lighting up Rita’s face as she shyly talks about her life are undeniably bucolic.

The view from your office ain't that bad, if you don't mind a little mud on your boots.

The view from your office ain’t that bad, if you don’t mind a little mud on your boots.

Our visit ended with a quick sampling of some of their cheeses: a strong soft goat caprino, a spreadable fresh sheep, and a semi-aged (about a month) casciotta (true to her word, the aging room was virtually empty…these wheels go like hotcakes). They were straightforward and left a clean taste in your mouth, with none of the insipid flavors or chemical aftertaste that comes with so many commercial cheeses made from milk from larger farms.

Made in the morning, by afternoon these cheeses are sold out. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Made in the morning, by afternoon these cheeses are sold out. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

 

 Before slicing into a wheel of casciotta, Rita rinses the rind of brine and mold (the good kind of mold).

Before slicing into a wheel of casciotta, Rita rinses the rind of brine and mold (the good kind of mold).

Like the Rossi family, these cheeses had nothing fancy about them; simple, honest, and matter-of-factly excellent. Here’s to going back to the land, and from that land making something heavenly.

To taste some of these cheeses yourself, contact Rita through their website to arrange a visit or ask where their products are sold locally. You won’t be disappointed!

A huge thanks to chef Jennifer McIlvaine of Life…Italian Style for introducing me to the Rossi farm and snapping these wonderful pictures.

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Assisi for Kids

I realize it’s been Itinerary Central over here for the past few weeks, but I’ve had these blog posts simmering in the pot for awhile now and am finally catching up with my editorial backlog. (That’s what we real writers call our half finished Word files. Editorial backlog.)

I happen to think that Umbria is a great destination for kids, for a number of reasons. And Assisi is a fun town for families to visit, with the help of a few caveats to keep in mind and pointers to guide your way.

Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi

Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi

 

Some Caveats

There’s some bad news: Assisi (like almost all of Umbria’s towns) is a hill town. Which means there’s a bit of climbing to get between virtually any two points on your map…which can be trying for kids who are not great walkers, but definitely a chore for everyone on the hottest days of the summer.

Try to time your visit according to the season (avoiding long, steep stretches during the hottest hours of the day) and rally your flagging troops with promises of snacks and play time (suggestions for both below). Also, everyone should wear comfortable clothes and shoes (Folks, can we not tour our children around all day in beach flip flops or crocs?) that are also suitable for visiting the Basilica, if that’s on the itinerary.

Assisi is, strangely, largely open to traffic (aside from a number warrens of tiny picturesque alleyways, too narrow to fit cars through), so you’ll have to keep sharp for passing cars along most of the main streets. Even the central Piazza del Comune is criss-crossed by cars through the day, so for better (and greener) play places, see below.

Before You Come

A bit of preparation will go a long way toward helping your kids get the most out of a visit to Assisi, including–most importantly–a quick lesson on the life and person of Saint Francis. His compelling story (Involving some of Disney’s key plot points: spoiled, war-mongering offspring rebels against family to chart own destiny. Personal growth and historical greatness ensue.) is one that most kids find fascinating, and his love of animals, message of peace, and lack of a gory martyrdom make him a relatively innocuous and universal role model.

There are a number of excellent biographies of Saint Francis geared toward children (Including one authored by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Yeah, that one.), and parents can choose one which emphasizes different aspects of his life (the religious, the natural, the peaceful) depending upon their interests and tastes.

There is also a fun app called Gumshoe Tours Assisi  specifically for kids visiting Assisi. Full of games like I Spy, treasure hunts, and puzzles, the app gets kids interested in some of the town’s most famous monuments by integrating games and learning. Definitely worth downloading (the download is free, but there are in-app fees to unlock…see comments below).

Also, take a look at my Assisi itineraries (one, two, and three day) for a good general overview, tips like water fountains and shady spots, and more places to eat and shop.

Monuments

The Basilica of Saint Francis

The Giotto frescoes in the Basilica’s upper church work exactly like religious art was supposed to back in the day: telling a story in comic book form to an overwhelmingly illiterate congregation.  If your kids have had an introduction to Francis’ life (you ordered a book, right?), they’ll enjoy recognizing many of the most salient events retold in the famous frescoed panels. Also, be aware that the friars are insistent about maintaining silence within the church, so it’s preferable to go over the fresco cycle before entering (using a guide book or app) rather than incur the wrath of the prowling brothers by hissing explanations inside the church.

The Temple of Minerva

This intact Roman temple facade in Assisi’s main Piazza del Comune is sure to interest older kids who have started studying Roman history (or younger ones who have watched Tom and Jerry cartoons). Not much to see on the inside, but the Corinthian columns and covered portico are a great backdrop for family photos.

The Basilica of Saint Clare

Flying buttresses!! What more need be said? Also, two fountains (one to the side of the church under the buttresses), a sprawling piazza with no cars (except around the local elementary school 1:00 p.m. pick up time), and a row of shady benches overlooking the valley. This is a good stop to make.

The Rocca Maggiore

This is the de facto playground for much of Assisi’s youth (residents get in for free), as its real stone towers, tunnels, ramparts, and parapets are a million times more fun than any tire-and-timber castle at the neighborhood park. Kids need to be careful of the worn stone steps that can be slippery, and the dark tunnel running under the length of the outer wall to the far tower can either be electrifying or terrifying, depending. But, all told, this is a great place for kids to take a break from the solemn church atmosphere and run off some steam. Also, there’s a grassy outer courtyard with a small refreshment stand (there’s no admission to the outer courtyard) where everyone can get a cold drink and relax for a bit.

L’Eremo delle Carceri

This Medieval hermitage halfway up the side of Mount Subasio is a good mix of culture and nature for everyone. The pretty stone monastery has a quirky, windy route through its chapel, rooms, and passages and the tiny doorways and stone slabs where the friars slept are a fascinating look at both how small folks were back then and how humbly the first Franciscans lived. On the far side of the monastery, the woods have a number of paths and trails through the surrounding area leading to little shrines and caves where Francis and his brothers would retreat to pray. A warning: these woods are a pilgrimage destination and visitors are expected to be quiet and respectful…so if you are looking for a place for a loud family game of hide-and-seek, this is not it.

 St. Francis’ wood

This is the perfect place for a little break after touring the Basilica. Literally steps from the entrance to the upper church, the Bosco di San Francesco is a recently reclaimed woodland with a gorgeous trail downhill to the valley floor at the bottom. Wherein lies the only problem: if you walk all the way down (it’s a couple of kilometers), you have to make the trek back up. That said, there is a bubbling brook flanked by a pretty (and flat) trail, occasional benches, and lots of woods for exploring at the bottom. A good compromise is simply starting there (there is a free parking lot at the bottom visitor’s center), and exploring the flat bit at the bottom and a bit of trail uphill.

La Porziuncola

This is fun because it’s a church in a church. The grandiose Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli hides the tiny Porziuncola chapel inside, which was the center of Francis’ second community of friars (the first is about 2 kilometers away in Rivotorto, where another grandiose church contains a tiny stone hut where Francis once lived and prayed).

Play places

Assisi is sadly bereft of great playgrounds. In years past, kids would play ball in the church piazzas, but they have been gradually paved over and declared off-limits for play over the past generation. There is a rather desolate, tiny play area with swings and a climbing structure outside the Porta Nuova city gate, which is okay in a pinch. Otherwise, the town park (called Regina Margherita on maps, but known to everyone locally as the Pincio) has just had a grand reopening after decades of neglect and abandon. There are no play structures, but the park itself is very green and pretty and a great place to run around or picnic.

Otherwise, the Bosco di San Francesco (see above) is good for running around (if you don’t pass through the bottom visitor center but instead cross the road and take the trail along the stream you won’t need to pay the entrance donation), the Rocca is perfect for the more adventurous (the outer courtyard is open to the public; to enter the castle itself you need to purchase a ticket), or, for calmer kids, the Eremo is good for stretching the legs in shady woods.

Of course, the mother of all outdoor play is on the top of Mount Subasio, where the vast grassy plain offers kilometers of traffic-free running around.

Shopping

Laboratorio Artistico Alice

Address: Piazza Chiesa Nuova (right beneath Piazza del Comune)
I can’t talk up the kids’ t-shirts Alice hand-paints enough…sunflowers, doggies, dinosaurs, poppies, whimsical scenes of Assisi.  If you give her a couple of days (and she’s not too busy), she’ll even personalize the back with your choice of name painted in a rainbow of colors.  A one-of-a-kind gift.  Aside from her handpainted tshirts, Alice has jewelry, photo albums, paintings and prints.  All in her lovely, whimsical style.

Franchi

Address: Via Portica, 15/A
This shop is bursting with wooden toys and decorations…Pinocchio in all sizes and colors, mobiles, wall clocks, rocking horses.  Toys from another era yet somehow ageless.

Food

Ok, yes. In a perfect world, we would feed our children three square meals and two healthy snacks a day, travel or no travel. Yeah, well. Guess what. This ain’t a perfect world. Here’s where you can score some pizza and ice cream.

Pizza

Ristorante I Monaci

This  popular local favorite for pizza on Via Scallette, 10 is usually hopping with those looking for a simple meal at a fair price. They serve pasta and meat as well.

Pizza by the slice

The tiny pizza shop “Da Andrea” on the corner right across the street from the Church of San Rufino (there is a small wooden bench next to the door) has the best slices in Assisi.

Ice cream

There is, sadly, no great ice cream in Assisi. But there is convenient ice cream…i.e. Caffè San Francesco. After your visit to the Basilica, it’s time to give your brain and feet a rest at this landmark local cafè across the street. Try to grab the secret hidden table behind all the flowerpots on the corner for the best view in town, or enjoy the old-world style marble and scarlet decor inside.

Pastry shop

Bar Pasticcieria Sensi is about halfway down Corso Mazzini between the main piazza and Santa Chiara. Though not as showy as many other pastry shops around town, this is where the locals all flock to satisfy their sweet-tooth. They also have not great (but convenient) ice cream.

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Easter Events and Food in Umbria

 

Easter comes exceptionally late in 2014, which means it’s a great year to take off for the week and head to Umbria where spring is in full swing.

If you are planning an Easter visit, I wrote a few tips about what to expect regarding events and food related to this important holiday for About.com’s GoItaly this week.

Good Friday and Easter in UmbriaGood Friday Processions, Easter Food, and Pasquetta

 

torta di pasqua

 

Want more information on what to pig out on during your Easter break in Umbria? Say no more.

Food for the Soul: Torta di Pasqua

 

 What’s the funnest part of Easter in Umbria? Read on.

Falling Off the Wagon: Easter Eggs, Italian Style

 

Have any more tips for visiting Umbria at Eastertime? Leave a comment below!

 

 

 

 

 

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Art Day Trips from Umbria to Le Marche

Umbria is surprisingly dense with masterpieces of art and architecture, given its small size and relatively modest history (no Medici art patronage during the Renaissance here, as Umbria was part of the vast and stoic Papal State until the 1800s). It’s easy to spend a week or two criss-crossing this region taking in the churches, abbeys, monasteries, and civic museums without ever having to cross her borders to fill your days.

Madonna_di_Senigallia

That said, the neighboring Le Marche has its own share of culture, much of it in quiet civic museums and echoing churches (though there are a few monumental exceptions). If you’re curious to head east during your stay in Umbria for the day and see what treasures this nearby region has to offer, take a look at this overview I wrote recently:

Le Marche’s Hidden Art

 

You can easily combine your day trip with a drive through the gorgeous Sibilline National Park, or a few hours at the beach along Le Marche’s Adriatic coast. But be sure to make it back to Umbria…we don’t want you to become too enthusiastic about our friendly neighbors!

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Assisi’s Basilica di San Francesco and Franciscan Sites in Umbria

The rock star popularity of newly-minted Pope Francis (in March of 2013) has led to a surge in interest in his namesakes’ life and an explosion in the number of visitors to Franciscan sites in Assisi–primarily the Basilica of Saint Francis–and across Umbria.

The Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi, Umbria, Italy

Though I love the Basilica for its sheer artistic and architectural heft, there are a number of sites scattered around Umbria where Francis lived and prayed that have the quieter, more contemplative vibe that marked the saint’s approach to spirituality and nature.

Whether you are drawn to the historical or the spiritual aspects of Francis’ life, there are a number of Franciscan sites which are both fascinating and poignant monuments to this Umbrian saint’s life and work. Take a look at my two articles below for an overview of Assisi’s Basilica and a Franciscan itinerary across Umbria. Pax et bonum.

A Quick Guide to the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi

 

Franciscan Sites in Umbria

 

 

 

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Shopping in Assisi and Perugia

It may look like I’ve abandoned you all, whiling away my days on the divan whilst imbibing on wine and chocolates.

Oh, yee of little faith. I’ve been here this whole time, just not here here.

I’ve been doing a bit of writing about Umbria and Italy for a number of other travel publications and sites, and as some of these articles may be of interest to folks planning a stay in Umbria or at Brigolante, I’m going to catch you up over the next few weeks.

I’ll begin with shopping.

 

Photo by G. Dall Orto

Photo by G. Dall Orto

I wrote a Shopping Guide for Assisi post many moons ago, but some of the information there has changed in the meantime. So, recently I put together two new posts listing some of my favorite haunts to drop coin in Assisi and Perugia. You can read them here:

Shopping in Assisi

 

Shopping in Perugia

 

If you have any other favorite shops or suggestions, please leave a comment below!

 

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The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Arrone

In the long and proud tradition of two steps forward/one step back, one step forward/two steps back, and general non-linear progression, I am skipping from the Cs (I have Citerna in the works…great things to say about Citerna, folks) back to the As. Arrone is the first town on the list of The Most Beautiful Villages in Umbria and logically where I should have begun my quest to visit them all, but instead I got sidetracked by the Bs and then Citerna kind of fell in my lap, but here I am back at the beginning.  As it turns out, I was so enamored with the Nera River Valley–home to Arrone–that I have a feeling I will soon be skipping to the last village on the list (Vallo di Nera) just for an excuse to go back again.

These rocky slopes have captivated travellers for centuries.

Know’st thou the mountain, and its cloudy bridge?
The mule can scarcely find the misty ridge;
In caverns dwells the dragon’s olden brood,
The frowning crag obstructs the raging flood.
Know’st thou it well?

(– J. W. Goethe, Mignon)

I dare you not to be charmed by Arrone.  And I know you.  You are going to take the dare.

The hilltop hamlet of Arrone, with the fortress portion known as La Terra and the more recent lower portion known as Santa Maria.

And you’re going to have a sinking feeling as you come out of the long tunnel behind Spoleto which leads you from the gentle rolling hills of northern and central Umbria to the wild and rugged scenery in the Nera River Park.  You are going to suffer some serious self-doubt as you snake through the dramatic Valnerina along highway SS209 which skirts the crystalline Nera river and runs under steep mountainsides where tiny creche-looking stone villages perch precariously.  It is an area both stunningly beautiful and foreboding, where the weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, where the isolated hamlets and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that centuries ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable peaks held out against conversion to Christianity for long after the rest of the region, where dragons and witches lurked in caves, and where—just to make the area a bit more hostile—each tiny town was locked in perennial warfare with the next one over.

You'll know you're here when you're here.

You may have a flash of hope and begin to feel cocky as you near Arrone, whose medieval central fortress on the peak of her rocky outcrop is ringed with buildings from the 1960s and1970s, a period which is to Italian architecture what the 1980s was to American fashion.  But then you will park your car, grab a quick espresso at the Bar di Piazza alongside every retired guy in town, spend a moment watching the locals drive by and wave to each other, try to make out the faded lettering on the political posters plastered on the door of the Italian Free Hunting Union across the street (I’ll help you out.  They say:  Free Hunting is Our Reason to Live.  They don’t mess around in Arrone.), and you will feel yourself beginning to weaken.  You’ll step across the piazza and poke your nose into the church of Santa Maria, whose unadorned facade belies the lovely frescoes inside–some from Caravaggio’s school– and know that you are in big trouble.

No rush for morning coffee in Arrone.

And then you’ll start to climb the steep, winding road that leads from the lower—and more recent—portion of the historic center of town to the walled castle portion above, stopping often to catch both your breath and the view of the surrounding mountains.  You will step through the arched gate of the castle, and know that your goose is cooked.  You’ll be charmed.

The views only get more dramatic the higher you climb.

There is not one commercial establishment in the castle portion of Arrone.  No stores, restaurants, bars, or Starbucks.  There are simply tiny, winding pedestrian alleyways that end in quirky courtyards, dramatic views over the Valnerina from every parapet, a main street Via del Vicinato which ends under the civic clock tower, a tiny Gothic Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista (if you’re lucky, the door will be open and you can take a look at the lovely votive frescoes inside, commissioned by Arrone’s noble families over the centuries), octogonal stone bell tower (try to be there at noon when the bells are rung and the lone resident dog barks in time.  He lives for the noon bells.  You can tell.), and residents.

Arrone's main street which leads to the civic tower.

Yes, residents.  I was amazed to find homes lived in, gardens tended, stoops swept, and heartening signs of renovation.  At a time when tiny mountain villages are as endangered as the Panda, this incredibly inconvenient hamlet above a tiny town in an isolated river valley in the far corner of Umbria is surviving.  Plucky folk.

Here's to Giovanni and Natalina, living a life in Arrone

It doesn’t take long to explore Arrone, but don’t leave this beautiful area just yet.  Directly beneath the town, there is a pretty little park along this placid stretch of the Nera River, which is a perfect place to relax or set off on a rafting excursion.  If you love to drive (I love to drive), you can continue past Arrone to Polino (Arrone’s historic arch-enemy.  They were feisty back in the day.), where the view over the mountains is even more breathtaking, and up to the peak of Colle Bertone for a pretty walk or picnic.  Beware of asking for restaurant recommendations from gathered groups of locals in the Bar di Piazza, lest long debates, convoluted directions, cellphone verifications that cousins’ trattorias are actually open for lunch, and conflicting last words delay you so long that you miss lunch.  Take my word for it.

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Postcards from Umbria: San Pietro in Valle

Tucked away on the slopes of Mount Solenne in the Valnerina lies one of the best kept secrets in the region:  San Pietro in Valle.  This former Benedictine abbey—now a four star historical residence—was established in 710 on the site of a Syrian hermitage (One fun curiosity: among the stone fragments mounted on the interior walls, look for the bass relief of a monk with Asian facial features.  Legend holds that this is a rendering of one of the two Syrians who founded the original hermitage in the 6th century.) and was home to abbots for the next 800 years.

The outside of the abbey is breathtaking; the church and cloister are surrounded by thickly wooded fields and look out over the steep river gorge and the gradually receding mountain peaks along the horizon.

Directly across the valley from the abbey sits the walled fortress town of Umbriano, completely abandoned since 1950.  Founded in 890 to defend the abbey from advancing Saracens, popular tradition holds it to be the first city of Umbria.

Though locals hold that the citadel of Umbriano was the first Umbrian town, in truth it lies across the river from the ancient Umbrian territory, in the land once ruled by the Sabines. But it’s a good story, and a fascinating ghost town to explore.

Guided tours take visitors through the interior of the church, covered in frescoes from the 12th and 13th century (note the portrait of the Three Wise Men, one of whom apparently had second thoughts), and filled with stone work including an Etruscan altar, an 8th century Lombard high altar, and a Roman sarcophagus holding the remains of Duke Faraoldo II of Spoleto, the abbey’s founder.

The frescoes inside the church have recently been restored and are a fine example of the leap from Byzantine to the more natural Umbrian school.

My favorite detail:  the original altar (now to the left of the central Lombard altar), with its semi-circular corridor which passes behind the tiny nave.  Symbolizing the purification of the spirit, it begins with the wide opening level with the floor, and gradually rises to end in a tiny doorway a step above floor-level at the other end.  I’m not sure if my spirit was actually purified, but having to squeeze my bulk through the final aperture sure made me ponder how often I commit the cardinal sin of gluttony.

One of my favorite corners of Umbria is the dramatic and wild Valnerina, where craggy mountain peaks loom, tiny creche-like hamlets perch precariously on cliffs, and the serene Nera River meanders its way through the valley.

The abbey is open to visitors October through March Saturday and Sunday only (10-12:30/2:30-4) and April though September every day (10-1/3-6).  The church is not well lit, so be sure to choose a sunny day to visit otherwise you will not be able to see the frescoes well.

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Umbria’s Dragons

I’ll admit it.  I tend to wax lyrical about the Valnerina.  The dramatic valley–where the crystalline Nera river runs under steep rocky slopes, upon which tiny creche-like stone villages perch precariously–lends itself to waxing.  The scenery in this largely unsung regional park is wild and rugged, stunningly beautiful yet foreboding. The weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, and the isolated villages and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that millenia ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable craggy peaks held out against conversion to Christianity long after the rest of the region.

A spring storm in the Valnerina near Meggiano, Umbria, Italy

I was waxing thus to an Umbrian friend awhile ago—a fellow passionate aficionado of the Valnerina–and telling him how I love the juxtaposition of the bucolic scenery with an unsettling underlying darkness (a David Lynch-esque feel, if you will), and he nodded knowingly and said, “And, of course, there’s that business about the dragon.”  I nearly spit out my drink.  What?!?  What dragon?

It turns out–as so often happens–I am practically the last person in Umbria to find out about the dragon.  Everyone knows the story of Mauro and his son Felice, two Syrian pilgrims who arrived in the Naarte region (from the ancient Nare or Naarco River, from which the modern Nera derives) roughly six centuries after Christ’s death to proselytize to the recalcitrant locals.  As fate would have it, they were having a bit of trouble with a nearby dragon and, in what must have seemed like a serendipitous means of killing two birds with one stone, called on Mauro to prove his faith by taking care of business.  No one knew precisely where the beast lived (his toxic breath kept them from getting too close), so Mauro set off at dawn with a reed walking stick and mason’s hammer to search the monster out.  When he reached the general area where the locals had indicated the dragon might be found, the holy man stuck his stick in the ground for safe-keeping while he set about building a stone hut for shelter.  The stick immediately sent out roots and shoots, and Mauro took it as a sign that God was covering his back in this dragon thing.  He returned to his masonry work and after a short time caught the unmistakeable sulfuric odor of dragon-breath…if you’ve ever woken beside someone who dined on aglio, olio, peperoncino the night before, you know what I’m talking about.

San Mauro (and/or San Felice) slays the dragon from the facade of the church of San Felice di Narco

Though he feared his end was near, Mauro took his mason’s hammer and somehow managed to skirt the flames, avoid the sulfur, and overcome the height difference (accounts speak of a good 27 meters of dragon) to bonk the monster on the head.  While the unconscious beast lay motionless on the ground, Mauro used his hammer to detach large pieces of rock from the cliff above, which continued falling on the dragon until it died (apparently of blood loss, as the river ran with dragon’s blood for three days and three nights).  This begs the question as to why Mauro didn’t simply finish the job with the hammer rather than go to all the trouble to detach stones from the cliffside, but the ways of saints and screenwriters of horror movies are a mystery to mere mortals.  Regardless, the locals needed no further proof of Mauro’s holiness and his God’s bad ass-edness, so they promptly converted.  Mauro and Felice lived out their lives in prayer and service (Felice died in 535 AD and Mauro in 555 AD) in the Valnerina.

The lovely Romanesque San Felice di Narco

Some of the details of the story remain unclear.  There may or may not have been an angel involved.  The dragon may have actually been slain (dragons never seem to be killed, only slain) by Felice.  There is a nurse who pops up now and then and seems to have died of fever with Felice.  But the legend holds, and the area still bears testimony of it on the facade of the lovely Romansque Church of San Felice di Narco near Castel San Felice.  If you look carefully at the freize under the intricately carved rose window, you will see a detail of depicting the slaying of the dragon (not to scale, please note) and inside the crypt the sarcophagus of the Saints Mauro and Felice.  The nearby town of Sant’Anatolia and Church of Sant’Anatolia also pay homage to the two saints by adopting their surname.

Sant'Anatolia di Narco in the Valnerina

I was talking about this dragon story to another local friend in that cynical, sardonic tone that we hipsters use when discussing Self Help Gurus, the Easter Bunny, and Compassionate Conservativism, when he said, “Yes, and there’s that dragon bone in Città di Castello, of course.”  More drink spitting ensued.

I discovered that the Valnerina wasn’t the only area in Umbria known for harboring fire-breathing winged reptiles.  In the pretty upper Tiber Valley, a rolling countryside in the north of the region bordering on Tuscany, yet another dragon was slain (see?) by a travelling Christian missionary, Crescenziano (a Roman patrician known as Crescentino in Latin texts).  Having given up his worldly goods to the poor, Crescenziano arrived in the area on horseback and was immediately put to task by the local pagans in dispatching their troublesome dragon.  He killed the beast, converted the inhabitants, and was promptly martyred by the Romans for his trouble.

The iconography of San Crescenziano almost always depicts him on horseback in the act of killing the dragon.

Traces of this legend appear in a small bass-relief in the tiny country church of Pieve de’ Saddi, near Pietralunga (built on the spot where Crescenziano was martyred), and the coat of arms of Urbino’s cathedral—both of which depict Crescenziano on horseback impaling the dragon with a long spear.  More convincing than this, however, is the 2.6 meter dragon rib bone, long conserved in the church of Pieve de’ Saddi until being moved to the cathedral in Città di Castello, where it is still stored, and a second rib bone, measuring 2.2 meters, kept in another tiny country church near Pieve de’ Saddi, San Pietro di Carpini.  Scientists, skeptics, and spoilsports speak of the vast expanse of water which covered the area during the late Miocene and early Pliocene eras (That’s roughly 23-5 million years ago.  I googled it.) which was home to vast numbers of water and land animals, some quite large, of which numerous remains have been found by paleontologists over the years.

The church at Pieve de' Saddi marking the spot where San Crescenziano was martyred.

Academics, historians, and spoilsports also speak of the symbolism and allegory attached to the role of the dragon in myths.  Both Umbrian legends originate from areas where there is a waterway—once interspersed with standing pools of fetid water harboring disease– and the work of draining and reclaiming the land for agriculture and ridding the area of disease may be symbolized by the slaying of a toxic, deadly monster.  Man’s triumph over the wildness of nature, so to speak.  The dragon was also historically used to symbolize paganism, and the Christian slaying the beast protrays this innovative religion’s advance.

Leonardo da Vinci's famous rendering of a dragon battling a lion.

Whale bones.  Malaria.  Swamp reclamation.  Religious wars.  Sure, it all fits, but what fun is that?  I’ll take the fairy tale version, and continue to wax lyrical about the Valnerina (and all of Umbria) and her dragon.