They say that there are certain places on earth which somehow speak to the spirit. The molecules there vibrate at a certain frequency, or the auras become more defined, or the souls of those who have left their bodies on that spot continue to abide.
I’m not sure what I think about this (one area which is considered intensely spiritual is Assisi, but since I live here and spend my days distracted by electric bills and dentist appointments and work deadlines, I might not be tuned in enough to pick up on all the molecular vibration going on), but it is true that Umbria has produced an inordinate number of saints in its long history, many of whom passed at least part of their life in spiritual contemplation as hermits.
The Sant’Eutizio Abbey in the lush Val Castoriana as seen from the hiking path above.
The lush Nera River Valley (known as the Valnerina, and hands down one of my favorite areas of this region) is a veritable saint and hermit factory. This breathtaking area, with its winding river gorge lined on both sides with towering, craggy mountain slopes, has churned out an impressive number of holy figures over the past millenium and continues to host—in a manner almost inconceivably anacronistic—about ten monastic hermits today.
I recently spent a day hiking in the hills above the tiny town of Preci on the Campiano river (one of the tributaries of the Nera which has carved out a branch of the Valnerina: the pastoral Val Castoriana), where I was able to revisit the origins of a thousand years of hermitic life.
The Benedictine abbey of Sant’Eutizio–or, to be more precise, the caves in the rock wall above the abbey itself–mark the beginning of this long and rich history. Here I wandered through what remains of the living quarters of Saint Eutizio, disciple of Saint Spes (Latin for “hope”), one of the first wave of converts to Christianity who chose the cliffs above the Val Castoriana (known locally as the “Sponga” for the rock’s sponge-like texture) to search for God in solitude.
The pretty rose window in the church’s simple Romanesque facade.
The mountains attracted a number of disciples of Spes over the following decades, who followed in his contemplatory footsteps and formed a vast, loose spiritual community (Benedict from the nearby town of Norcia was also inspired by Spes’ asceticism, leading him to found a small community with an oratory on this spot). Legend holds that Spes, who had spent forty years in complete blindness, regained his sight shortly before his death and spent his final days visiting and ministering to his disciples in the surrounding woods and caves.
After Spes’ death, his disciple Eutizio was appointed abbot of the fledgling Benedictine community but maintained a hermitic lifestyle by carving out a home in these rock caves (now accessible through the abbey courtyard). Eutizio was widely loved and revered for his spiritual integrity, and the valley was soon populated with both religious and lay followers who became the founders of many of the hamlets which still dot these hillsides today (don’t miss delightful Campi, by the way…especially the church portico at sunset).
Eutizio was buried under the primitive Benedictine oratory upon his death in 540, and it took another 500 years for the monastic community to slowly transform itself from hermitic to cenobitic, gradually moving out of solitary caves and huts and organizing around the abbey, built in the 1200s on the spot where the Saints Spes and Eutizio were buried centuries before.
The bell tower rests on the craggy cliffs above the church.
The Abbazia di Sant’Eutizio’s simple stone Romanesque church and rustic cloister remains one of the prettiest spots to visit in the upper Valnerina. The remains of the saints are kept in the carved marble urn behind the church’s altar, and the delicate rose window in the spare facade and ornate 17th century belltower on the rough cliff above make for some beautiful pictures.
Sant’Eutizio continues to be a central figure in local spiritual lore, and his mantle is said to have rain-producing properties. As the monk told me when I visited, during times of drought the mantle is displayed in a religious procession. If rain doesn’t come within a week, it’s taken out again. And again. And—miracle!—sooner or later it always rains.
The ivy-covered, silent courtyard. Where just a little vibration may be felt.
And maybe the miracle of molecular vibration is like the miracle of rain. It’s not so much about the laws of physics as it is about the the depth of faith and the gift of patience. Sooner or later, with a little of both, something is bound to resonate.
These photos were taken by friend and hiking partner-in-crime Armando Lanoce, whom I thank for his generous use of them.
On Tuesday, I began the tale of an outing with a new friend to a new place making new discoveries. It was a day so chock full all of the above that I couldn’t fit it into one blog post, so I’m going to pick up where we left off…
After climbing back down the trail from the Eremo di Santa Maria Giacobbe to Pale, we crossed the village and started up the opposite slope of Monte Serrone towards the historic Abbazia di Sassovivo. The climb was tough and the weather was taking a turn for the worse, but by this point we had put our trust in Paolo—he hadn’t let us down yet.
We were right to press on, as Sassovivo proved to be worth the climb (though it can also be reached by car, for those who are not inclined to hike…). Its air of otherwordly calm belies a grand history. This isolated complex, surrounded by acres of ancient holm oak wood, was once one of the most important and powerful Benedictine abbeys in central Italy, with a jurisdiction extending from Rome to the Marches. Founded by Benedictine hermits in 1070—on the site of a Longobard fortress, which in turn was erected on the site of an ancient Umbrian shrine– less than a century later the Abbey controlled a wide swath of central Italy, including almost 100 monasteries, around 40 churches, and seven hospitals.
Closed in part during the 1700s, the abbey’s holdings became property of the state in 1860 and was slowly abandoned until after the Second World War. It was restored between the 1970s and 1990s, and is now both an active monastic community and, fortunately for us, open to the public.
The monastery’s crown jewel is undoubtably its Romanesque cloister, encircled by arcades supported by delicate double columns, some fetchingly spiral-carved, and pretty mosaic detailing. Visitors can also see the monastery itself, with its Medieval frescoes and original dormitories, the outdoor loggia with fresco fragments from the 15th century, and the trails through the surrounding woods. We did all of that, and then were treated to the news that Paolo’s wife, Anna Lisa, was coming to pick us up. I think I may have fallen a little in love with Paolo right then.
I had a sandwich burning a hole in my backpack, but every time we mentioned a lunch stop, Paolo insisted we press on. By this time, it was early afternoon and we were all getting a little tetchy from sore feet and hunger; our trusty guide announced that we were all invited back to their olive mill to sample some bruschetta made with their own oil. How could we refuse?
And thus began the perfect end to an amazing day. Just as “una spaghettata” in Italian rarely means a meal of mere pasta, Paolo’s invitation for “una bruschetta” turned out to be a wonderful spread of fava paté, grilled sausages, and—yes—bruschetta. All dressed with their excellent olive oil, which was being pressed two meters from our table. We talked and laughed and relived our adventures and made plans for a next outing.
And I took a moment to feel grateful for this amazing region and its people…most of whom are not axe-murderers.
Something amazing happens when you start to write about a region like Umbria. A region, that is, populated by warm, welcoming people who have a long history and deep roots in their land. This amazing thing is that these people contact you and are like, “Hey, I’ve got something really special in my neighborhood I want to share with you!” Not because they have something to sell, or something to promote, or something to gain in any way. Just because they genuinely love their region, and want others to love it, as well.
Take, for example, the sweetest couple ever: Paolo and his wife Anna Lisa. Out of the blue, Paolo got in contact and invited us to hike an area near his home on the outskirts of Foligno. Just because, you know, there were a couple of pretty sites there he thought we should know about. And we decided that we would take the risk that Paolo was a crazy axe-murderer and meet up with him on a Sunday last fall.
Paolo was not an axe-murderer, but one of the friendliest, kindest people you’d ever want to meet. He enthusiastically led us along an itinerary in a little-known area of Umbria, introducing us to couple of places that I’d honestly never heard of with the shy pride of a kid unveiling his latest art project.
Paolo. Not an axe murderer.
We began at Belfiore, a hamlet outside of Foligno in the Altolina valley, leaving our car parked in a gravel lot and beginning our walk among the ubiquitous olive groves that cover these mountain slopes. Paolo was playing his cards close to his chest about what awaited us during our outing, and the first stretch of the trail was a pretty, but typical, olive grove hike. The kind you get inured to after twenty years of living here. Bucolic, schmucolic.
Then we arrived at our first lovely surprise of the day: the Menotre Falls. The climb began to skirt the Menotre River, and we came across a series of small, charming waterfalls, pretty wooden bridges, and wooded overlooks that had us gushing and snapping pictures. Paolo told us that the Cascate del Menotre (also known locally as the Cascatelle di Pale) are an oasis for families on hot, summer afternoons, and I could see why.
We continued uphill through the remains of a villa garden with traces of stone grottoes and carvings, passing the tiny village of Pale (and its poignant abandoned paper mill and canal system, with manual valves and weirs). Here the climb got tougher, and Paolo pointed out our destination perched high above us on the rocky cliff of Mount Pale: the Santa Maria Giacobbe Hermitage.
We puffed up the trail, stopping to place our heels in the indentation left by the Saint’s foot in the stone steps (according to legend) and the our fingers in the handhold worn in the rock wall by centuries of pilgrims climbing the same route. Our labors were rewarded by a visit to the hermitage, including its chapel covered in frescoes dating from the 14th to 17th centuries, the cistern holding waters said to have healing powers, and a moving collection of ex votos spanning more than a century.
We had caught our breath and were ready to head back down the hill, but Paolo had one more surprise for us on the cliffside. We climbed a few hundred more meters above the hermitage to a heart-stopping, palm-sweating perch in the rock, and he pointed out a number of small paleolithic markings (easily missed if you don’t know were to look) under the shelf, protected from the elements for thousands of years. I found myself almost more moved by these rough red lines than by the rich frescoes in the hermitage below. From the beginning of time, humans have felt the urge to leave some sign of their passage on this earth…from the earliest cave paintings through the history of art.
Our day didn’t finish here, but to discover what else Paolo had up his sleeve, stop back on Thursday! There are more surprises in store…
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