Assisi – calling it a day

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.


Valfabbrica to Assisi and scenes from Assisi (28/29.5.16) Starting early morning 0730 at Valfabbrica

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.


A steep climb out of the village with Valfabbrica disappearing behind me.

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.


A small chapel on the brow of the hill with a prayer celebrating St. Francis and his taming of the wolf

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.


The first dramatic and inspiring view of Assisi – a genuine ‘hold your breath’ moment as it appeared around the corner

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.


Moving closer to Assisi all the time – the trail from here was mostly an open view, making the approach all the more dramatic

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).


The Chiesa de San Francesco clearly visible now on the right

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.


La Chiesa de San Francesco

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.


The first (of many) devotional statues of St. Frances. I watched fascinated as a woman of middle age spent at least 10 minutes, crossing herself and bowing to the image

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 north eastern gate

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.


Inside the town and walking down towards the Chiesa de San Francesco

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.


Some scenes from my walk through town




La Fortezza fron the front this time – a beautiful structure that would dominate any other town, but in this one, stuffed to the gunnels with architectural gems, it is jusrt another site


Approaching San Francesco later on in the afternoon: the bus park is now full and the streets thronging with pilgrims and tourists…


Stunning view across the massive and endless plain below with La Chiesa di San Francesco perched serenely above


The view to the south from Assisi

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.

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