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6 June 2020 - Day 56 – Assisi (Perugia)

Assisi is about 20 kilometers due east of Perugia. I had booked an Italian Aroma Company’s 3-4 hour escorted walking tour through Viator called “A City Walk to Forever Remember Assisi” which would start at 10am in the heart of Assisi. However, like Perugia, the train station is somewhat distant from the city center. There are two morning trains on Saturday that make this 20-minute transit, at 8:02 and 9:16. So with 20 minutes to walk down the hill in Perugia, and 3+ kilometers to walk from the station to rendezvous point in Assisi, I had some choices.

Eventually, I decided on the later train and a taxi in Assisi, leaving the hotel on foot at 8:30. No breakfast included at the hotel, per my booking, so when I reached the “Fontivegge” station (as the main station in Perugia on Piazza Vittorio Veneto is known) I picked up hot chocolate and a cornetti before finding my platform and subsequently boarding the train.

The Assisi station is near the commune of Santa Maria degli Angeli. There are several straight roads up to the city of Assisi, and my taxi driver chose Via di Valecchie for the 10-minute ride. Vehicular entry into the city is via the Porta San Francesco, with Via Fontebella being the main boulevard to the Piazza.

Vikas, our guide, was collecting tickets from group members as I arrived. I’d emailed him to let him know my timing issues, so he knew that I’d be along. Also a commercial photographer, he planned to take shots to create a photo album of our tour. Our group was 15, with 2 families with 2 younger boys each, from India and Holland, an American family of six with teenagers and me. I became the grandpa of the group. Most of the adults and all four teenagers had gotten their coffee to go, so Vikas began with an introduction to Assisi. Sitting and standing on the steps of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva with its 100BCE columns while Vikas related how this had been a Temple of Minerva, he began tying the distant past with medieval times, up through the Renaissance and the founding of Italy into the present. Of course, there would be a focus on the saints Francis and Clare, founders of the Franciscan Orders.

Returning to the Fontana dei Tre Leoni where we initially gathered, we learned that this was a source for drinking water since the 16th century, that the Piazza del Comune was the true historic center of Assisi with the Roman Forum had been near the Rocca Maggiore, the old Roman square nearby. The roads from the seven medieval gates all lead from the city walls here. The Palazzo dei Priori at one end of the piazza is still the city hall, having been built in the early 14th century.

Taking Via Santa Chiara, we headed southeast past shops and restaurants for 300m. Standing outside at the fountain, Vikas gave us pointers for what to see once we entered the Basilica di Sana Chiara, the church of St Clare. Built in the mid-thirteenth century, it has housed the remains of St Clare; initially under the altar, the bones were moved to a shrine in the crypt in 1872. We were advised to look closely at the main altar and crucifix, and then descend to see the shrine.

The exterior, rustic Italian Gothic with bands of lighter and darker stone and a bell tower well to the rear has a single-entry door below a rose window. The church itself is very simple, a single aisle with a tall vault. The walls are all white plaster, unadorned. In the half-domed apse, the arched vault is covered in a gold-on-burgundy stencil, with remains of frescoes on the side walls. A painted wooden crucifix hangs from the apse archway. A highly decorated vault is raised at the crossing. Downstairs in the vault, the shrine is ornate, with carved filigree and multi-colored stone at the entry giving to a gated shrine. The entire feeling downstairs is more middle eastern than occidental.

The teenage women had made their visits short, and were posing and getting shots for Vikas to include in their album. I suspect these will be much better than any selfie. As we all gathered, Vikas began talking about the cathedral, our next destination. Climbing the hill, we approached from the south and the octagon-based dome to pause in the Piazza San Rufino in front of the primary entrance façade, which faces northwest.

Standing in front of the Fontana di San Rufino offered one of the better front-on shots of the Cattedrale di San Rufino di Assisi. Considered to be Umbrian Romanesque, a short balcony rises above the three doors with rose windows above each doorway.

Inside, there are three aisles leading to the crossing and the presbytery. The supporting interior columns are rectangular in footprint, covered in a smooth white plaster. Elaborate shrines line the walls. While the nave and vault are unadorned, the circular apse wall is lined with a wooden choir. A shrine with an emblazoned large crucifix is framed in deep red and blue-green marble, capped by crests and statues of angels, while the crucifix at the high altar is framed in red and gold with organ pipes. The transept to the east is foreshortened, bearing a shrine with an oil painting. The opposite opens to the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, an ornate baroque chamber. The cathedra is set against a wooden screen behind the main altar, up four red-carpeted steps. The baptistry, where the infants Francis and Clare were baptized, is in a chapel to the right of the entry beside the stairs to the crypt.

Behind the house of St Clare, next to the north corner is a square bell tower with a single-hand 24-hour clock showing hora italica, with sunset being marked at the apex.

Collecting the group together, we began moving on to the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Rose. On a narrow alley, this deconsecrated church now houses an exhibition of modern works of art by Guido Dettoni della Grazia on the theme of the Virgin Mary.

Soft-edged sculptures in wood or stone are set individually in a clear tube with a spotlight. They are arranged in an open circle under the dome. Vikas had a few spots nearby that he liked as backdrops for photos.

We returned to the Piazza del Comune to enter the Santa Maria sopra Minerva church, with Vikas voicing the considerations of our visits to the St Clare Basilica and the cathedral. Besides the obvious difference in the façade – columns versus flat stone block walls – the rebuilt 16th century church with the Roman front had been fully renovated to Baroque style in the 17th century.

Passing the 8 Corinthian columns and through the single center door, the church is alive with gilt and marble. A rococo organ loft rises above the entry, while the vault has a medallion painted in the center between seated figures. Narrow, there are two marble altars in the middle of either side with large green and gold marble columns framing oil paintings. Saints Peter and Paul, in gold, flank the pair of doubled columns on the high altar, with a statue of the Virgin. Really over the top after the Franciscan simplicity we’d seen.

Back outside, Vikas talked about the neighboring Torre del Popolo, the tallest building in Assisi at 47m. In addition to being a bell tower, it has also housed the Captain of the People, the controlling force in Assisi. The tower adjoined the Fontana San Rufino.

We then moved on to visit the Fonte Oliviera, along the road to the Basilica of St Francis. As we approached the basilica, the building became closer together, with more and more being commercial storefronts. Interspersed were the occasional church, and the department of economics for the University of Perugia.

We had been slowly descending a minor grade when we came to a vast green expanse out in front of the Basilica Superiore di San Francesco d' Assisi. The path leveled out, and the midday sun slipped in and out of the partial cloud cover. Vikas gave us a historic rundown on the building. He pointed out that there are three levels, the Upper Church, the Lower Church and the crypt, in addition to the earlier Sacro Convento o the side. In the two churches, there are significant frescoes done in the late medieval period, as well as exemplary examples of Italian stained-glass windows.

Vikas was about to escort the group back to our rendezvous point, as that is where the tour ends. Those of us who wished to visit this basilica could remain. The parents and younger children opted to return. The teenagers were noisily hungry, so the family all repaired to a restaurant for lunch. I just carried on. Vikas and I had talked about my photobook #CathedralsToTheGloryOfGod while we were walking, and he wanted to see it. He was heading to Perugia later that afternoon, and proposed to meet up in several hours to catch the train together. We agreed on the 16:44 train, so would meet at the Porta San Pietro at 4pm.

Starting in the crypt, I began making my way around the floor plan. I was quite moved by the chapel which has the stone coffin with the remains of St Francis. [Photography is prohibited inside, so my camera was put away. The few phone shots were done on the sly, or are from Wikipedia.] Returning up a flight of stairs into the lower church, called “Naruto”, with all arches being the rounded Romanesque style, I tried to figure out a path. Being a counterclockwise person, I started with the back-right side, with the mausoleum of John of Brienne, King of Jerusalem. Then chapels to St Martin of Tours and St Louis of France. Entering, or viewing from the fenced doorway, the several chapels and frescoes on the walls connecting them was enlightening. I particularly liked the chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene, with its frescoes by Giotto and his workshop.

More of Giotto’s work was seen when I reached the transept and the chapel of St Nicholas, which also had stained glass that is beautiful. In the apse is a papal altar, carved from a single stone from Como. On the left side, the chapel of St Catherine of Alexandria had eight stunning frescoes and several windows with stained-glass that I wish I’d been able to photograph. Some frescoes were and have been deteriorating. I’d see more when I got up to the upper church, particularly those damaged in the 1997 earthquakes. The upper church has more light, more gothic influence. Still a lot of failing frescoes, I hoped that images were being captured so that when techniques improve, copies can be made and displayed nearby. Running along the lower walls of this single-aisle nave, 28 frescoes attributed to a young Giotto (by Vasari) tell the story of St Francis which was so lifelike.

Exhausted, I headed outside. The cool (high 60’s) afternoon air was refreshing. I had almost an hour before my rendezvous with Vikas, so I decided to visit the two city gates at this west end of the promontory that #Assisi is built on.

Porta San Giacomo looked north, was down a street lined with stone houses. The passage through the remains of the tower were one way for any 4-wheel vehicle. While the outbound wall to the guard room overhead was gone, the concept was there, and some wall continued on either side.

Arriving at the Porta San Francesco, it was in much better repair, having been restored in 2001.

Heading down the hill towards Porta San Pietro, Le Delizie del Subasio was on my right.

Offering and extensive list of beer, I stuck my head in. All in bottles, I asked for a Magnifica, an amber from dell’Eremo, an Assisi brewery. With porchetta between a split piece of bread, I was ready to hike to the station. Done in 10 minutes, I was off to my meet-up. On time, we headed through the arch and down to the bus stop.

Vikas knew the public transit system, so we had 5 minutes to wait to board the bus for a 20-minute ride. As we headed across the valley floor, he told me that he’d been looking at his pictures from our tour, and was surprised, and a bit disappointed, to find I was in all of 3 of the 425 he’d taken. I had to admit to being camera shy, and that I really hate to have my picture taken. I told him that his shots of the various places, plus some of our group would be fine for me.

Arriving in #Perugia, he was surprised to know that I knew about the MiniMetrò. We headed off as I had when I arrived yesterday morning, and hiked to the hotel once we’d gotten up into the city. I had to bring the book down as hotel rules prohibit non-registered guests in the rooms, but that was no problem. Just up the street was Caffé Bonazzi, so we headed there and got a table. Vikas ordered a coffee, and I opted for a glass of white wine. He started flipping through the book, asking me about places, and why I’d used certain angles – photography stuff. He asked some very astute questions, as he is more of a people photographer than places. I’d shown him my current itinerary that I’ve pasted I my journal, so he understood the obsession. He’s trying to branch out from social events (weddings, receptions) to photojournalism. He would be covering an event tonight for the regional newspaper.

Thanking me for sharing my book, he asked about getting a copy. When told of the shipping cost, he understood why I haven’t sold a copy in Europe. He suggested an EU distribution point, and offered to investigate for me, so hopefully something will work out. He thanked me for the coffee, and headed out up the hill. I returned with the book to the hotel. I headed up to my room and began updating my journal. Once I had completed that task, and it was nearing dinner time, the restaurant challenge began.

Actually not too much of a walk, Trattoria Piazza Italia | Perugia caught my eye. Decent reviews, a bit off the beaten path, I asked the front desk if they might have a table. With a confirmed reservation, I headed over. A warm greeting, I was seated in the back (brighter) room, and was asked about a beverage. Besides water, I asked about a local montepulciano, and they recommended a La Braccesca from Cortona, up near Arezza. Sounded good, so I asked for a bottle. Then the menu – all in Italian, I was pretty much in point-and-shoot mode, although I’m getting better with some of the words. It just seems that there all these different pastas and I never know what I’ll get. For a starter I selected flan di girello di manzo farcito con polpa di melanzane e caciotta di Norcia con fonduta di parmigiano e tartufo. Then a primi, the Giglietti alla norcina pasta corta artigianale all’uovo con salsiccia sgassata, salsa tartufata e panna. Finally my main (secondi) I got the tagliate di manzo su indivia belga croccante e fonduta di parmigiano alla zafferano.

So, after tasting the wine and loving it, out comes this dish with a small piece of beef under a creamy sauce that almost looks like gorgonzola. Nope, it’s parmigiana with truffles, with a sprig of thyme and a fried curl of bread. Tasted delicious. Scraped the plate and resisted licking the rest of the sauce off. (I’ve been known to do this when I think I can get away with it.) Next came the primi. It was a creamy sausage pasta dish, typical to Umbria, and falls into the category of comfort food. Mighty fine in my book. If the portion wasn’t so large, I might have gone back for seconds. For the main, sliced grilled steak, with a sauce made with saffron and parmigiana, and served with grilled endive. The picture may look really rare, but I got mine closer to pink, so the cow had stopped moo-ing. All three courses went splendidly with the wine, and my waiter had no objection to my leaving him a glass and a half.

Yes, I did get talked into dessert: tortino di cioccolato con cuore caldo fodente e bucce d'arancia caramellate. That came out as a chocolate lava cake with caramelized orange peels. And I forgot to take a picture. With the check came a shot of nocino, which I sipped. Out onto the street, it was getting a little brisk (low 60’s) so I moved a little more quickly than my usual stroll home. The journal was done for the day, and I starting typing away to write the blog, every now and again checking the email queue. I had a late morning start tomorrow, so I finished up most of the email before I selected photos and sent this off. I did note that there was an ex-cathedral in Assisi that I didn’t get to – down near St Clare’s basilica, it just wasn’t on the tour and so it didn’t happen. Probably needed some time before the tour, as it’s 5 minutes from the Piazza we met at.

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