Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Montepulciano to Assisi – Day 23 – Saturday

Got up early Saturday morning and Fiorella took me to the bus station to catch the 8:30 bus to Chiusi.  Unfortunately, the bus doesn’t make a good connection with the train, so I had to wait until 10:58 for the next train to Florence and then another hour at Cortona where I changed to the train for Assisi.  I munched my porchetta panino and the bread was only a little stale.  All went well when I got to Assisi, however, and I had just enough time to buy a ticket before the bus came to take me up the hill from the station to the town.
My Hotel Room
Interesting Door Arrangement

My Terrace
The bus from the station dumped me off at the bottom of the town and my hotel was at the top.  It wasn’t actually very far, but it was very steep.  I didn’t have a good map, but managed to find the hotel pretty easily and got checked in.  I stayed at the Hotel San Giacomo.  The hotel is very close to the Basilica of St. Francis.  The room was plain, but spacious and opened onto a lovely terrace that would have been enjoyable in pleasant weather.  It must get hot in Assisi because the outer, locking door to the room was louvered.  There was also an inner door that did not lock.  The hotel is run by a nice family and has really good wireless internet.

Rocca Maggiore

I dropped off my luggage, consulted my guidebook, and set off to see the sights of Assisi.  Rick Steves recommends a walk that starts at the opposite end of the town from where I was staying.  I decided to hit the castle on the way across town, since it wasn’t on the route.  Rick kind of glossed over the Rocca Maggiore, but I found it very interesting.  Most cities in this part of Italy are built on the tops of hills, but Assisi is built on the side of a mountain.  The castle occupies the top of the hill.  The Pope used the castle to dominate the citizens of the town who weren’t too keen on Papal rule.

Red Poppies
Me on Top of the Tower
Medieval Reenactment
Umbrian View
It was a long, steep climb up to the castle, made longer by the fact that I went the wrong way down a steep hill, looking for a road that wasn’t there, and had to climb back up again.  Then, of course, I couldn’t resist climbing the tower.  The spiral staircase was barely one person wide and very steep.  Fortunately, there were landings where people could pass.  The museum curators have replaced the original wooden beams and floors with steel beams and plexiglass floors.  That tower is pretty vertiginous, but interesting.  There are many photographs of medieval life displayed there.  Reenactments are staged each year during the first week of May.  The view from the top of the tower was spectacular.  Fields and farms stretch off into the distance on the downhill side and rugged mountain valleys stretch out in the other direction.  I took a picture for an Asian couple who were trying to figure out how to get both of them into a shot and they took a couple for me.

Assisi from Above
Roman Amphiteater with Infill

From the castle, it was an easy walk downhill to the parking lot when my walk was supposed to begin, but I had a devil of a time finding the beginning because I was looking for a Roman amphitheater and didn’t recognize it because it had been completely filled in with 13th and 14th century houses.  The surrounding 2,000 year old wall is in remarkably good shape and today forms the outside wall of many buildings.  I circled the amphitheater and took in some fabulous Umbrian views from city gates.  Then I wandered down through some very steep and crooked, but quite picaresque, lanes to the Cathedral of San Rufino.

San Rufino
St. Francis of Assisi may be the patron saint of Italy, but San Rufino is the patron saint of Assisi.  The 11th century Romanesque cathedral has been “modernized” with the addition of a Gothic façade and Baroque interior decoration.  The church contains the baptismal font where St. Francis was baptized in 1181 and St. Clare in 1194.  The children of Assisi are still baptized there.  The cathedral features some fine 19th century statues of Francis and Clare and has had sections of the floor replaced with plexiglass so that you can see the foundations of earlier churches and temples dating back to Roman times.
Medieval Street

Heading down the hill from San Rufino, one passes through a neighborhood of medieval houses.  The architecture can be recognized by the pointed arches above the doorways.  Assisi holds a flower competition every June and many homes and businesses are decorated with potted flowers and blooming window boxes.

Geraniums in Assisi
Santa Chiara

The next stop on my tour was the Basilica of Santa Chiara (or Santa Clara.)  The church and attached convent are the headquarters of the order of Poor Clares.  Clare was inspired by St. Francis and formed a corresponding order for women.  The basilica has impressive flying buttresses, which were occupied by troops of cub scouts playing games with friars when I passed by.  The former church of St. Mary of the Angels was the cradle of the Franciscan order.  Today, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Los Angeles are all named after things Franciscan.

Piazza del Comune

The former Roman Temple of Minerva today houses a Christian church.  I wanted to visit, but there was a service in process and, as the place is rather small, I couldn’t visit unobtrusively.  The temple fronts on the Piazza del Comune, which would be a delightful place to have lunch or a cappuccino on a day that was not windy and threatening rain.  From the piazza, I headed down a series of steps and crooked lanes and eventually arrived at Via San Francesco, the main drag of Assisi.  

Via San Francesco boasts many shops and galleries, but most were closed when I passed by.  I did stop into the gallery of Massimo Cruciani.  I am a fan of his glass paintings, but I am not here to buy stuff.  I especially like his paintings of red poppies, but the gallery in Assisi had a larger variety than the one in Montepulciano.  There were many Tuscan scenes and also a wonderful version of the Last Supper.   I decided to pass on visiting the Basilica of St. Francis because it was getting cold and looked like rain and I was tired from getting up early and then climbing all over Assisi.  I went back to my room and read for a bit before dinner.

I had a tasty dinner in an atmospheric cellar restaurant called Locanda del Podesta around the corner from my hotel.  They are noted for their sausages, so I ordered some penne with a sausage cream sauce and a glass of wine.  I was not disappointed.  The service was very good and I enjoyed the food and ambiance.  I was also glad not to have to schlep back up the hill from the lower town after dinner.  After dinner, I stayed up much too late reading and working on my blog.

Assisi to Montepulciano – Day 24 – Sunday

I abandoned myself to the first good sleep I had had in a long time.  When it rains, Montepulciano is noisy and it has rained almost every night for weeks.  I always stay up too late and I have to get up early for school.  I didn’t wake up until 9:00 and wasn’t moving very fast, even then.  I decided not to hurry to eat breakfast at the hotel, so took my time.  I left just after 10:30 and wandered back towards the piazza, thinking I would have a cappuccino there.  It was threatening to rain, however, so I ducked into a pastry shop and had a Danish and cappuccino.  I sat there for half an hour or so reading my guidebook regarding the Basilica of St. Francis.
Mob at Basilica of St. Francis

Basilica of St. Francis
After breakfast, I visited the basilica.  The place was an absolute madhouse.  There are two churches there, one on top of the other and both were packed for Sunday mass.  The lower church is very Romanesque and features beautiful colorful frescoes.  I would have liked to examine them closely, but it was impossible.  I stood in the back, listening to the choir and gazing up at the ceiling painted with stars.  Then I gave a few Euros to the friar with the collection basket and joined the line of people shuffling towards the tomb of St. Francis.

Lower Basilica

The actual tomb is quite beautiful.  St. Francis’ remains are in a stone sarcophagus banded with iron and the whole thing is enclosed in another stone enclosure with iron gratings.  The room is decorated with flowers and lit by candlelight.  It was a peaceful spot and I sat there contemplating St. Francis and his ideas until a troop of children arrived and shattered the tranquility of the place.
Upper Basilica

The upper church is more Gothic in design, with a much higher ceiling and more light.  It is also frescoed with scenes from the life of St. Francis.  The frescoes were damaged in an earthquake in 1997 and were pieced back together except where an aftershock caused part of them to shatter a second time.  I arrived just before the mass ended, so got about a minute to gaze at the frescoes before a fresh crowd packed in for the next mass.  Never visit Assisi on a Sunday.

Temple of Minerva

By the time I left the basilica, I was done with crowds for a bit.  I walked back up the hill and visited the Temple of Minerva again.  This time I was lucky and arrived just as the service had ended.  I was able to look at the building closely.  Today, it is gaudily decorated in baroque style, but the original altar is visible, along with the drains for the blood from animal sacrifices.  Of all the Roman temples I have seen, this is the only one that is still serviceable.  It was built more than 2,000 years ago.  Kudos to the architect.

Giant Meringues

After visiting the temple, I wandered back down Via San Francesco.  Assisi has the best shopping I have seen in Italy, so far.  I couldn’t resist buying a pair of sandals for 22 Euros that would have cost me $125 at home and I also bought a few small gifts and a bottle of absinthe.  I will have to drink it here because I can’t legally bring it into the United States, but it is a small bottle.  I caught the bus back to the train station.  

At the bus station someone asked me if the buses were running because she had heard something about a strike.  This concerned me when I got to the station because all of the monitors were down and I couldn’t determine if the trains were running or not.  I had just missed a train, so had to wait for a couple of hours, not knowing if the train was going to come or not.  It was a bit of an anxious time because I really had no idea how I would get back to Montepulciano if the trains didn’t run.  My train was about 20 minutes late, which added to the anxiety, but eventually did arrive.  I had to watch very carefully for my station because it was impossible to hear the station announcements and the second class cars do not have electronic displays.  Despite these hardships, I managed to arrive at Cortona and change to the train for Chiusi without missing my connection.

There are no buses from Chiusi to Montepulciano, so I had resigned myself to paying 50 Euros for a taxi.  My taxi driver drove straight past the sign for Montepulciano.  I have made the trip several times and knew he wasn’t going the normal route.  I spent the 20 minute drive planning how I was going to argue with him if he tried to overcharge me, but the fare ended up being only about a Euro more than the normal route, so the excess just came out of his tip.  The route was actually fairly interesting, so it all worked out.

I got home in time to unpack and do my homework before having dinner with Fiorella and our new housemate, Gosha from Poland.  She is a cheerful young woman in her 30s and a nice change from the mostly older crowd at the school.  We shared a dinner of gnocchi in ragout and pork loin, along with the usual salad, wine, fruit and cheese.  Oof!  It was good to go to bed reasonably early.

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