Gubbio to Valfabbrica and back again

I am not quite sure where to start. I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of historical facts, architectural nuances, legends, Fransiscan memorabilia, views, impressions, stories from Gubbio, churches and monuments, all cascading in on me over the past 48 hours, that I am still sorting it all out in my head and trying to make narrative sense of it all. And somehow fit it into the context of my walk.


Francesco and the wolf


So perhaps I should deal with the walking bit first. The trail from Gubbio to Assisi is probably the most sacred of the whole path. St. Francis didn’t actually walk the length of the St. Francis trail at any point in his rich and varied life, but it is undisputed that he did, in the winter of 1203/04 – by all accounts a brutal and desperate winter – escape from his confinement in his father’s house in Assisi, with only the cloth on his back and sandals on his feet, and walk the 45 odd kilometers to Gubbio. This journey which took him the best part of two months, with a few stopovers to prevent him from freezing or starving to death, is well recorded and the trail today follows his footsteps as accurately as possible, given the passage of the foregone 813 years. And indeed there is something, an aura or mystic about this section that renders it palpably different from the previous sections. These woods seem more intense, the silence more soporific, the trail underfoot more ancient and aware of the very special passenger it carried all those centuries ago.


Chiesa Vittorini – St. Francis’ first church

And it was in Gubbio that Francis found shelter and protection from the wrath of his father and the elders of Assisi, which he had evidently provoked, through his distribution of the proceeds of his father’s business to the poor (an act that would have any business owner explode in fury), his complete rejection of his inheritance and indeed all his worldly goods in a celebrated renunciation act before the bishop of Assisi and assembled patriarchs and his determination to establish a radical order based on a closer community with nature and the original spirit of God in a life of distinct anti-materialism and in an ethos that celebrated all life and treated it as essentially one. His was, to coin a more recent phrase, the first fully inclusive organisation.


So Gubbio became the base for his start-up and he established himself here very quickly. His first church, the simple, but wholly beautiful Chiesa della Vittorina, which was gifted to him by the local bishop Vittorino almost immediately on his arrival became the cornerstone of his movement. The heart of the Fransiscan presence in Gubbio is the much larger church of San Francesco della Pace, built on the site of the place of business of the family who originally protected and supported him. Francis’ vision must have been extremely attractive, because in less that 5 years (or so) he had already attracted over 5.000 adherents, many of them young men from wealthy families, who found his message of a simple life, free from politicking and money-making in service of the poorest, irresistible. Gubbio became, therefore, the city of the underdog, making an independent decision on the merits of the case probably in the face of high displeasure from the bishop of neighbouring Assisi. All of which makes the town even more ‘sympathisch‘ in my eyes.


View of Gubbio from the trail about 8km away

The trail from here is magical, there is no denying it, but at the same time there is no denying the fact that after 14 days on the road without a break, my feet are feeling as if they have been tenderised with a schnitzel hammer and my little toe (right side) does not bear much resemblance to my little toe (right side) pre-camino and is hurting not a little. Added to which, the temperatures are creeping up – the needle hit 35•C later on this morning – with no cooling breezes and significantly less protection from the sun through woodland than on previous stages. In a word, I am trudging my way across these last kilometers before we hit Assisi, thankfully relieved of my backpack, which I have stored in the hotel, but handicapped by feet which are dying for a rest and some TLC.


I did manage to hobble around town yesterday for two hours in the company of Valentina, an art historian and my personal guida, who the hotel were kind enough to organise for me. My purpose, as I explained to Valentina, was not just to tick off the various sites and monuments so that I could cry Bingo! at some stage in the evening, but to understand how the town had evolved and maintained its architectural integrity for almost 1.000 years.



Door of the Palazzo Ducale

It appears that Gubbio was always wealthy and important, not just because of its location in a fantastically fruitful valley, but also more importantly as a production centre for aggregates, cement and bricks, hugely valuable commodities in roman times as the empire needed roads and buildings in vast quantities to keep the lines of supply and of communication functioning. Indeed Gubbio’s wealthiest citizen and a generous patron is the owner of the large cement production facility just to the north. The town, I discovered, was built from top to bottom, with the first settlors being the ancient Umbrians, who constructed the initial primitive fortification around their settlement, about halfway up the mountain which forms the backdrop to the town. When the Romans settled the town, they had no need of elaborate fortifications, as the entire area belonged to them anyway and the town spread rapidly downhill and into the plain below, without any city walls. Who was going to attack them there? The ruins of the amphitheatre, (built around 200 BC) evidently the second largest in the empire, set well outside even todays city limits, is a testimony to the peaceful security the town enjoyed under roman rule.


Frederico Montefaltro, builder of the Palazzo Ducale

That all changed, of course, with the demise of the roman empire and the shattering of that security as Langobards, Goths and neighbouring states picked over the receding territories of the roman state. Gubbio retreated behind newly built fortified walls, as was the fashion in the middle ages and these are still mostly preserved today. Gubbio bloomed in the time of the Segnori, the time that also saw the rise in power of cities auch as Florence under the Medici or Milano under the Benedotti amd Sforza patronage. Much of the towns architectural magnificence is due to the enormous prestige accorded to the places of Governance by the elders of the town, here called Consoli, and to their rigorous focus on trade. The medieval palazzi of these wealthy merchant families are, by and large, entirely preserved for posterity, making Gubbio one of the most complete and well-preserved medieval cities in Italy and therefore the world. The only word for it is breathtaking.


Palazzo dei Consoli

The scope for enlargement, given the geographical limitations of the mountain on and up whose side the town is constructed, also meant that any future rulers wishing to impose their decorative taste on the city, had to be very creative in doing so. Space is limited and at a premium here. The best examples of this are the new Ducal palace built in the renaissance style by Frederico Montefeltro (he of the famous nose, disfigured by a sword blow which chopped off the bridge of his hooter) and plonked onto the garden of the cathedral as well as a few other houses, whose cellars and stones form the foundation and the Piazza Grande, which is literally suspended on a platform of arches between the Palazzo dei Consoli and the Municipal Palace, in a mind-boggling feat of engineering.


Crossbowmwn preparing

This piece could easily turn into a 10.000 word encomium on the delights of Gubbio and perhaps I will pen that sometime soon: Suffice it, at this point, to say that this city is full of surprises and, given its relatively compact size, equally full of quiet corners and islands of peace, such as the Via della Camignano, built on a stretch of water specially diverted from the main river to provide water to the guilds for their production and the little visited Parco de Ranghiasco, constructed on a series of terraces, just below the cathedral and which today contains a few modern sculptures and a magnificent arboretum, providing peace, shade and tranquility a few minutes walk away from the busy centre.


Via dei Consoli

I have quite fallen in love with the place, which has the added attraction of being seriously under-marketed (200.000 visitors pa. compared to Assisi’s 7 million pa. and the two towns only 35 kms apart. Go figure) and still pretty much undiscovered. Even if all the faithful readers of my blog were to descend wholescale onto Gubbio on the same weekend, you would probably all still be able to move around pretty much unencumbered and find a decent hotel room.


Fontana dei Matte – Madmans fountain. If you walk three times around the fountain and wash your face three times in the water, then you have a license to behave like a madman for a day…


Camignano district


Camignano district – for my money the prettiest part of town


The Church of St. Ubaldus, Patron St. of Gubbio, visible at the top of the mountain.


The wolf in the crypt in which the real Lupo from the St. Francis legend is interred


The grave of St. Francis’ Lupo


A distant castello, perched dramatically on the hilltop ahead of me


A much needed fontana, working this time just by Coccorana, wearing my hat and glasses. The temperatures had by now risen to some 35•C


Rested, washed and back in Gubbio: my favourite end of the city, Via di Camignano away from the crowds and the bustle




Walking (mostly) from Pietrolunga to Gubbio

My hotels along the trail have been a very mixed bag, but mostly simple Albergos, with a metal frame bed, a side board, a radiator that doesn’t work or, at best, wheezes into a semblance of warmth, sometime in the night only to return to its icy natural state by morning, a shower, sometimes that dribbles, sometimes gushes. Only one bath (if I don’t count Consuma, where the bath was in fact an oversized bidet) – in the faceless Euro hotel attached to a motorway service station in Pieve Sanpetro, but with one exception, always, at least, a bathroom of my own. Not that I mind sharing – 12 years of boarding school conditioned me for living with a minimum of personal space – but, you know, if I am allowed to choose….The one luxury which I craved for (ok, apart from scrambled eggs ans sausage and a decent piece of toast, not the white stuff we might think about using for packaging, that they eat here) was the offer of a washing service for my soiled kit.


Pietrolunga to Gubbio – my new favourite Citta. A last view back over Pietrolunga bathed in morning sunlight.

Not every day, but at least the offer. I had that twice: in the very simple Albergo Foresta in Badia Prataglia and on Tuesday in Pietrolunga, courtesy of Simone and his brother Marco my charming hosts at the Locanda del Borgo, who made every effort to ensure my wishes were fulfilled in their charming hotel.


My road this morning, back in dense woodlands and, of course, up….

So you can imagine that it was quite difficult tearing myself away from a very comfortable room, with delightful hosts, a divine kitchen, excellent service, freshly washed and dried clothes, a shower that really worked with radiators that pumped out heat from late afternoon until the morning, and a kettle. But tear myself away, I did and set off on what Simone assured me was going to be a delightful day of walking.


…but quickly on the tops and then rolling hills and flowers and bushes in bloom, wherever the eye roams.

He also cautioned me that the last six kilometers were really not very attractive as they were on the flat and wound their way through the zona industriale that lay before Gubbio. Much better he advised to catch the bus just before the nasty bit starts in the valley and ride into town. “That way you will have more time to spend in beautiful Gubbio.” Which is exactly what I did.


Wild roses in abundance…

Simone was absolutely spot on: the walk was beautiful, encompassing three valleys, so two long ups and three long downs, through glorious much more open countryside, under a blue sky and surrounded throughout by wild roses and furze in full bloom, poppies and the purple flowers of clover everywhere. The walking, too, was good under foot, with broad footpaths marking most of the way until I hit the asphalt down in the valley. Today also I could finally see where I was going for most of the time, the lack of sight having begun to irritate me over the last few days. As I was not caught entirely in woods today, I had long views over the terrain I was about to cross from valley to valley an after reaching the highest point at around 1100, magnificent views over the long, green, almost alpine valley that stretched away below and in front of me to the plain at whose end Gubbio lay.


And then after a tea, coke with lemon juice, a panini and a bus ticket purchased and consumed at the little bar opposite the bus stop and a wait of only an hour, the luxury of a bus into Gubbio; and what a town Gubbio is! I was immediately captivated by the beauty and historical overload that this magnificent specimen of what must in former times have been an opulent, wealthy and powerful city emanates and after a few hours in the citta, in my even more exquisite hotel, with my own private balcony overlooking the town and the appenines in the near distance, had fallen hopelessly in love with the place.


Tea break looking down on the trail at the highest point of today’s stage

I will let the pictures speak for themselves and deliver a guided tour through the history of this remarkable town, when I have explored it with the help of a guide this afternoon, but suffice it to say that I have changed my plans and will be walking my sections for the next few days, but returning here in the late afternoon and using Gubbio as my base camp. They will have to throw me out, I think…


A few scenes shot from today’s quite beautiful walk….


The first view the valley with Gubbio at the far end… barely visible on the photo, but clearly discernable from my vantage point, hundreds of cedar alleys lining the roads and paths.


Almost at valley level.


Then Gubbio – a magnificent museum of a town, bursting with ancient and medieval architecture and very much alive as a town.


The forum in Gubbio.


Street views – endless streets of medieval merchants houses, palazzi and municipal buildings interconnected with stairways and narrow alleys.


The centro municipale (and an ice cream for anyone who can spot my icecream taking a quick nap).


The view from the terrace attached to my room – why would I want to move on from here?


The houses of Gubbio still festooned with flags from their Patron Saint’s (St. Ubaldus) Day on the 16th May.


Simply stunning – the ducal palace originally built by the ruling Gabrielli family then after their demise in 15th century, rebuilt by the new rulers, the Montefeltro family.

may25_2016_17 may25_2016_18

From Lama to Pietrolunga via Bocca Seroglia

The village of Lama, which I left on a clear Monday morning, just as the clock was striking eight, was only marginally more lively than yesterday’s ghost town appearance and rush hour consisted of two cars at the roundabout slowing down to allow the drivers to exchange a few pleasantries. And although I walked along the main road out of town to the south-east, I don’t remember being passed by a single car for the two kilometers, before turning off and starting the familiar walk along farm-tracks and through deserted and half-deserted farm buildings.


Lama to Bocca Siroglia – 8th day on the trail (easy walk out of the village for the first few kilometers).


Slowly climbing into the foothills on my way up into the mountains

The path rose gently, winding through fields and long grass, often obscured, making its quirky way through the countryside and leading me, as every day, deeper into the wilds, inexorably up and inevitably free from other human beings. I passed a postman once and a lady out walking her dog, but that was in the first 30 minutes of leaving the village. Thereafter – silence and solitude. Not even dogs barking. The call of the cuckoo has been my constant companion over the past ten days, joined occasionally by the ticking of a woodpecker, but no people.


The ruined church of Santa Felicita

The trail, sometimes little more than an indentation in the grass, lost itself regularly in thick brambles, wild rosebushes and jungle like vegetation, such that without my GPS trail, I would have been hopelessly lost and not for the first time on this trip. But I have learned to trust my technology and am sensitive to the slightest deviation from my waypoints. I am always amazed at how quickly the satellite system is able to show when I have taken a wrong turn and I have developed a keen sensitivity to the way in which my track is depicted on the screen, allowing for inaccuracies, which can be between 3 and 10m. I have often caught myself walking slowly backwards and forwards at the intersection of a few tracks, uncertain which of them was meant for me, knowing that a wrong turn could – under normal circumstances – lead to wasted time, energy and motivation, watching the tracker symbol calibrate my position, until it appeared to make up its mind and settled for an accurate reading. I can tell when it needs more data, when it is struggling with triangulating my position and together, with my moving and stopping, we figure it out.



The view from the abandoned site of Santa Felicita at around 534 msl

Even though I purchased an excellent detailed map of Italy, the area of my walk being mostly 1:25,000 level of detail, many of the tracks and forest paths are not shown. This is in singular contrast to the quality of maps that I have used in the UK and Ireland and also in Germany, Austria and Switzerland (I haven’t tried out France yet, but I will be doing just that in September). So any image of me taken along the route would more than likely show me with my Garmin nestled in my left hand, flicking adroitly between various apps showing either the elevation profile (basically telling me how much more of this steep bit I have ahead of me) or the waypoint catalogue showing me the distance and estimated time, given current speed, to the next waypoints (highest point, lowest point, next village, end of track etc) or the track details showing me how long I have been walking, what my average speed is, how many kilometers I have clocked up and so on.



A rare selfie (I hate doing them and despise the result)

Now you may think that all this measuring is a little nerdy and detracts from the serenity and inner contemplation which the walk is supposed to promote, but having put almost 2.000 kms of trail walking behind me, I can assure you that nothing is as likely to put a mental cat amongst your contemplative pigeons, than getting lost, having to retrace your steps perhaps for an hour (two kms off track means two plus two back, which adds up to an extra 45 minutes to an hour) and losing precious daylight hours and of course energy.



A beautifully restored hotel with the interesting title of ‘Country House’ : I wish I had known – I would have happily walked the extra 10km.

And perhaps the last point is the most critical – I am not a professional athlete nor do I make a pretence at operating at peak fitness during the normal course of my life. I walk a lot and like cheesecake and sometimes (mostly), the cheesecake has the upper-hand. So budgeting my energy resources and knowing how far I have to travel and over what sort of terrain, is an important part of my self-management of these trails. Now I have been told that I am a control-freak and that I like to know stuff, especially when it concerns my well-being. I am also pretty sure that this is never meant as a compliment and that a state of trust in the benevolence of the universe, would lead to less stress, a more contemplative balance and equanimity and that this state of being is infinitely more desirable and is to be aspired to (right, Angela?). However, I am not there yet and until I am, I am keeping my Garmin and checking it at regular intervals to see if I am OK and on track (and close to my next cup of tea and cheesecake or local equivalent).



Looking back at the country house with Sta. Felicita still visible in the background

The last two days have not been quite as dramatic as the previous ones and I have spent most of my time in woods either marching stiffly up (yesterday very stiffly) or down hills, with slightly more up than down. I spent yesterday afternoon and night at the Refugio di Bocca Seroglia, a very primitive hostel type house set by an abandoned church in a clearing in a forest, with the Bar de Cima some 100 yards further down the hill, where basic necessities and alcohol (which I don’t count as a basic necessity) can be purchased, if it is open. I was the only guest when I arrived just at the start of a hefty downpour and was greeted by the charming, dishevelled, keeper of the Refugio, Leander, whose english was on a par with my italian so we hit it off just fine. Leander informed me that he was expecting four other guests, but that he had to pop off somewhere and would I show the guests to their rooms and generally look after the place in his absence. Never one to ignore a leadership challenge, I took on my new responsibility and decided that what this damp, dank hostel needed most on a cold wet miserable day, was a roaring fire in the grate in the main room. Leander thought this was a novel idea, as novel as wanting to brew a cup of tea in the afternoon, and told me that there were some logs and firewood behind the old church and off he went.


I wish I had brought a pair of trunks – the water looked divine

My afternoon – or at least the next two hours – were then spent in the pleasant past-time of creating a roaring fire from two pieces of paper, kindling made up of damp bark and twiggery, collected old-style from the edge of the surrounding forest, and logs which, happily were covered by a plastic tarpaulin, but which were cut to a length of about 1m and impossible to break. Now, I adore making a fire and as long as I have one match (on a sunless day), I know I can, with patience, get a blaze going eventually, but faced with so little material and my main resource not really fit for purpose, this was going to test even my resolve.



It took about an hour to dry the kindling and I almost lost my initial glow on a few occasions, but slowly a whisp of smoke, that came from the heat starting to accumulate in the centre of my little pile of twigs and bark, indicated that this was more than just paper ash smoking and that, even if infinitesimally, the fire was beginning to take on a life of its own.



The Maria Martell.


Trying to start a fire in the hearth with just my sandwich bag and some damp twigs as well as some oversized loglets: note the small whisp of smoke…

My brain-flash (and saving inspiration) was remembering that I had more resources in terms of paper at my disposal than Leander’s initial gift of packing paper, in the form of my sandwich bag and the kitchen paper in which my daily panino had been wrapped. Once this had been deftly and judiciously inserted into the smouldering pile, we were starting to accelerate and some thirty minutes later, the kindling had evaporated enough moisture for a flame to appear. For those of you who have gone through the painstaking process of lovingly breathing and willing a fire to life, you will recognise the sense of deep elation and satisfaction of knowing that the momentum is now on your side and that, if you feed the flames, the fire will accelerate and grow stronger by the minute. Thus it was and by the time another thirty minutes had passed my damp, smouldering heap had metamorphosed into a roaring blaze that filled the grotty little room with heat and light and allowed me to draw up to chairs over which to hang my sodden kit and boots, in order to dry and warm them. Not quite the same as having them washed, but much much better than nothing.


An hour later, the fire is roaring, boots drying and tea steaming.

One more little incident fron Bocca Seroglia: later that evening, after a delightful and surprisingly good supper cooked by Leander, I was sitting in front of our now enormous fire with its bank of glowing embers pumping out heat into the room, when the wife of the Austrian couple staying in “my” bit of the hostel, asked her husband to pull up one of the two ancient armchairs to the fire. This he dutifully attempted to do, but dropped the chair with a yelp as a large black scorpion crawled over the headrest close to where his hand was, or had been. There is a very good reason that most people hate and react violently to snakes, scorpions and spiders: all our ancestors who were not possessed of the gene that screams “I hate spiders/snakes/scorpions” were bitten and the “oh how sweet” gene died with them. We three – all of us from the same primordial gene pool – then spent an exciting 15 minutes marshalling our resources to execute a disposal plan, which ended with Roman, the bravest, carrying the offending arachnid, to its exile in the forest, all of us hoping it wasn’t a homing scorpion, whose only purpose in life was returning to its base behind our sofa. Guess how well I slept last night, having turned over every piece of furniture in my sparse little room and hung my boots by their shoelaces from the cupboard, to reduce the likelihood of my finding creepy crawlies in them in the morning.


As I write this, I am ensconced in a perfectly charming room in a perfectly charming family hotel, with a steaming pot of tea and the rest of my monks chocolate from Camoldoldi, in the hillside village of Pietralungi. I am luxuriating in the fact that I have a hot shower that really works (no vasca de bagno unfortunately), a large and comfortable bed, a host who (with a little persuasion) has taken all my kit off me, that was seriously in need of a wash and dry, and looking forward to a dinner that, my host informs me, is Gault Milau and Michelin quality.


Sun out in the afternoon and a delightful spot in the garden in front of the refugio, listening to few podcasts and catching up on some reading…


Sentiero Francescano – sign outside the bar Cima.


My trail ahead today


Approaching Pietrolunga.




The old castle next to the municipal offices, Pietrolunga.


Hotel Locanda del Borgo, Pietralungo. My dining room, replete with a rather prettier fire than yesterday’s.