I have decided to call it a day and end this particular walk in Assisi. The trail has a natural break in this town, and with three fifths of the 530km route completed and absolutely no hope of my being able to complete the entire trip to Rome (230km) by my hard deadline of Thursday evening, it would seem to make sense to put a fullstop here and save the rest of the journey for later on in the year or next year.
I am a little sad, that I will not have fulfilled my mission of tackling the whole fransiscan Camino in one go, but on reviewing my plan, drawn up before the trip and before I had the faintest idea of what sort of terrain I would be crossing, I realise that the stages I had naively bundled together, creating one day’s walking out of two, were hopelessly impractical and I will bow in deference to the reality on the ground.
I am writing this in the shade on an unseasonally hot day back in Greystones, County Wicklow, the sun belting down out of cloudless sky and temperatures more reminiscent of August than late May. The sun, blue sky, light breeze and the feeling of summer are making it a little easier to transport myself back a few days to reconstruct the atmosphere of Assisi on a hot weekend in similar temperatures, although I am still in decompression, rather than reflection mode, wondering where on earth the time went.
My last evening in Gubbio was quiet and peaceful and I spent most of the late afternoon in the absolute calm and solitude of the Parco de Ranghiascio, to which I alluded briefly in my last dispatch. Although I had been given a tip for an osteria tipica, with excellent basic cucina casalinga, (Picchio Verde or Green Woodpecker) by a trusted local – Marino my driver to and from the camino, with whom I struck up a friendship – I was not much in the mood for talking or for any other company, than my own. Consequently, I prevailed on the concierge to organise a large bowl of risotto con everything and a tiramisu to be brought up to my room from the restaurant just below the hotel and, equipped with several large bottles of cold water, I spent the evening on my solitary terrace, seated at my large table on my comfortable wrought iron chair, watching the sun slowly disappear behind the hills stretched out in front of me, hills that my walk had taken me over heading south, on the previous two days and listening to faint sounds of the city below me, as it, too, wound down and disappeared into the restaurants and osteria and bars and dining rooms to finish the day. I read and wrote and reflected, slowly working my way through my steaming hot, sticky, delicious risotto and enjoying the untrammelled peace of my rooftop oasis. I love good hotels of character, the quirkier the better, and if I find a particularly good room, well-proportioned, with some unexpected aspect that renders the experience of living in it unique and memorable, then I am loth to leave it and am apt to milk the short stay for all it is worth.
I had arranged with Marino that he would pick me up shortly before 07:00 and return me to Valfabbrica, where I had completed the previous day’s stage. The weather forecast was for more of the same hot weather and I was keen to get as many of the remaining 17kms to Assisi completed in the relatively cool morning hours as possible, knowing that on this stage, there would be even less cover from woods and trees than on the days before. Also, my right foot was hurting from my wounded toe and I wanted to get cracking, hoping (possibly rather naively) that the experience of walking on it would be less unpleasant in the cool. I say naively, because on reflection, the temperature inside my boot was not going to be affected that much, whether the outside temperature was 18 or 35C, but I convinced myself that this was, indeed, going to help.
Marino was as good as his word and, leaving the hotel somewhat reluctantly, we headed off to Valfabbrica on time, in the cool morning air, onto the more or less deserted streets of Gubbio. We then spent some 45 minutes travelling to my starting point, giving me the opportunity of digesting exactly how far I had walked in the previous two days and being not a little astounded to be reminded of how far 40km actually are. On the way, Marino, bless him, invited me to return in late autumn, accompanied by my wife, to join him for a day of white truffle hunting in the woods on the opposite side of the valley to Gubbio. It turns out that Marino is a seasoned truffle hunter and that the area around Gubbio is famed for its white truffati. Indeed, I had seen several signs indicating areas in which truffati were to be found (usually in conjunction with clear instructions not to trespass) en route. I am going to take him up on his offer and will report back when I do. He shot the lights out for me by offering to drop my backpack off at my hotel in Assisi, leaving me to tackle the trail with just my small leather shoulder bag, containing my essentials (a litre flask of water, a panino, a pear and my garmin).
By 07:45 I was on the trail, on a metalled road leading out of town and already starting to climb, slowly at first and then more steeply as the road wound its way up the hill, around whose base Valfabbrica is constructed. Within about 20 minutes the village was lying well behind me in the distance and as the road made its final turn around the brow of the hill, the views to the north, whence I had come, disappeared altogether. This hill merged seamlessly with the next and another longish pull up took me to the Pieve San Niccolo, a pretty chapel, with three of the characteristics I have most come to admire on the trail, namely a bench, some shade and a fountain with fresh, cold drinking water.
So I sat, cooled off and washed my hands and face and drank the water happy that shortly after 0900 I had already scaled the highest point of the trip and the only significant uphill stretch, before reaching the foot of the mountain upon whose summit Assisi was assembled.
With that early victory in my pocket and with my Garmin telling me that I should be in Assisi by 1030, I ambled down the southern flank of the hill, following the metalled road until it turned off onto a dusty track, which led me through olive groves and farm yards. Gentle walking in gentle countryside, with a rising sense of excitement at the approach to the storied hilltop centre of pilgrimage and the end of the northern section of the trail. When the view of Assisi first appeared it was – I own – magical. The large mountain appears, dominating the horizon, set between further hills on both the east and the west but alone and independent of them. Entirely visible immediately are the massive structure of the Chiesa del San Francesco on the eastern flank, built on a promontory, running away from the bulk of the rock and the fortress, not yet discernible as a ruin from the distance some 7 kms out dominating the apex of the mountain.
The remaining 5,5 kms were beautiful walking, exciting as Assisi drew closer and the details of these two buildings became clearer and the rock began to tower above the valley, until it rose, as a vast green cliff, with the trail ending abruptly at a devotional statue of the man himself. The final 1.500m led me up, up, up through olive orchards stuck to the side of the hill, on a path that appeared little worn as it snaked its way through the long grass and wild flowers. It was now exceedingly warm, the olive trees affording no protection from the sun, and I was slowly becoming caked in a mixture of pollen dust and sweat, which stuck like damp flour to every inch of me. After what seemed like an interminable battle up the side of the mountain, with only an occasional glimpse of my red and white way marker indicating that I might not be on entirely the wrong track, the trail spewed me out at the back of some large structure, just by the bins and with a large wall in front of me, indicating that I was entering the town through the tradesmen’s entrance (it turned out to be the cemetery). Following the road to the west and avoiding the the route up to the fortress, I was soon walking along a magnificent alley of cedars, which led straight up to the northern gate and my entrance into the town.
I will save my reflections and impressions of Assisi for a separate dispatch tomorrow, but I will close with one thought. I was quite prepared not to like Assisi very much – I had had such a delightful time in Gubbio, which is above all a merchant city, that I wasn’t particularly taken by the thought of a clerical city, particularly given my thinking on that particular theme and had none of the religious fervour motivating my walk that the dyed-in-the-wool pellegrinis had. I was – and I may lose a few friends here – expecting a catholic Disneyland, with all the usual accoutrements and cash-extraction amenities of a massively successful tourist attraction and religious theme park, and was, by and large, not disabused of this standpoint during my two days there. However, I will say this: the Chiesa de San Francesco, constructed on its own grounds apart from the bustle of the main thoroughfares and commanding the most dramatic of views over the massive plain below, is without doubt the most beautiful church edifice I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. It is quite simply gorgeous and not even the heaving mass of tourists, pilgrims and churchgoers, thronging on the walkways to the church and crowding the courtyard in front of the main entrance, could distract from the quiet dignity and powerful simplicity of that architecture as it stood gleaming in the midday sun. It was worth walking 300 km just for that.