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

Three days later…

It is 10:00 local time in Florence. It has been a long day and I am sitting in my exquisite second floor room in the Palazzo Tolomei, a light evening breeze wafting through the open window, through which I can see the illuminated monstrous and breathtaking cupola of the Duomo, about 200 yards away. The last few days have been full and intense, starting with a magical long walk in the warm spring sunshine around the Howth peninsular (Bog of Frogs walk) with Britta on our 16th wedding anniversary on Thursday and packing and making last minute preparations for my trip in the evening. Then on to Munich on Friday morning, arriving in the rain, which lasted all day and all night, before taking the morning train to Florence this morning (Saturday) for the proper start of my adventure


A note to myself: remember to check whether any public holidays co-incide with any future expeditions and plan accordingly. I didn’t even give a thought to ask that question this time and discovered yesterday, as I tried to book my ticket and make a seat reservation at the Deutsche Bahn office at Munich Hauptbahnhof, that not only was the train full to the last seat, but that any idea of actually reserving a seat for the seven and a half hour journey was quite out of the question. The act of booking the ticket – normally a matter of five minutes – was extended to a 45 minute consultation as my surprisingly helpful DB sales lady, her mothering instincts obviously moved by the look of horror on my face, as I contemplated spending 7,5 hours wedged into an overfilled corridor of a train heaving with german tourists and holiday makers decamping to Italy at the start of the midterm school break, made a sterling effort to make my trip as comfortable as possible. She managed somehow to reserve me two different seats for two stretches of the journey, both, of course at entirely different ends of the holiday length train (just walking from one end of the train to the other probably qualifies as a stage of my trail by itself), but given the luxury of having a seat at all, I am not complaining for one moment.


It is a long trip from Munich to Florence, but it does pass through some of the most spectacular landscape of any of the great european train journeys and is infinitely more pleasurable than the Air Dolomiti flight. From the pre-alpine undulations of the upper bavarian countryside, past the Chiemsee and into the Chiemgau Alps, over the border at Kufstein with the mountains rising ever more steeply as you pass into the Inn valley and through Tirolia and up to the Brenner Pass and into Italy and South Tirol, mountains, crags and crevasses as far as the eye can see, soaring up on both sides of the train, this trip is as good a tour through the German, Austrian and S. Tirolian landscapes as it is possible to conceive. And then on the italian side, the dramatic change in vegetation, vines in full leaf already, as warmth of the south side of the alps, manifests itself in a spring that is far further advanced than on the northern flank of the massif. The clouds lifted as soon as we arrived in Sterzing and for the rest of the day the sun shone down on us, as we wound our inexorable way to our destination on the Arno.

Alighting onto the large square in front of the central station in Florence, pack on back and already feeling far too warmly dressed for the temperature, the first thing I noticed was the presence – unconcealed and in a full show of strength – of a large contingent of heavily armed police with military back up. The police were mainly stationed inside the main hall, whilst the soldiers and a few armoured personel vehicles, maintained a visible presence at both the north and south entrances and in the forecourts. I tell myself that this significant militia presence was due to the large influx of refugees and the contigent challenges thrown up by this great challenge of our time (I didn’t actually see any), but it might just as easily have been for show to impress the large section of the population of the Peoples’ Republic of China, many of whom I was privileged to travel with on my train, who seem to be gathering in Florence to establish a colony. I am sure that the demonstration of the might and discipline of Italy’s finest will have disabused them of any notion of settling here permanently, but it did seem rather over the top.


I walked the 800 m from the station to the hotel crossing the recently (very successfully) renovated and bustling Mercato Centrale, soaking in the unique atmosphere of Florences narrow streets and magical piazzas, then spent the rest of the afternoon acclimatising, luxuriating in my splendid rooms in the old Palazzo Tolomei, in the Via Dei Ginori and chatting to the proprietress, a charming grande dame di Firenze, who gave me my tip for a good local restaurant for the evening. She advised me to pay a visit to the Cipolla Rossa Trattoria, in the Via de’ Conti, just behind the Basilica di san Lorenzo, assuring me that they cooked the best ribollita in town (a dish for which I have a particular weakness) as well as a gnocchi verde can tartufo, which she insisted was as close to heaven as it was possible to get in this world without committing a cardinal sin. She was spot on: they weren’t serving ribollita today (not even with my best begging look), but the gnocchi verde were on the menu and I ended up, well, getting as close to heaven as it is possible to get, without resorting to a cardinal sin. Great way to start the trip…may be I should wait until Monday before starting. Or Tuesday.