Assisi and Around

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On Thursday we drove the short distance to Assisi, and parked at the S.Pietro lot. As we were walking toward the Basilica SanFrancesco, we found that the street leading up to the Basilica was blocked of by security officials and police. We were told to climb the stairs, along with hordes of grumpy tour groups. When Larry pointed out my cane, they agreed to let me walk up the street. Though in true Italy fashion, the security people at the top would not let me go, so sent me back down the hill. No one quite knew what was happening in the Piazza outside the Basilica, eventually an officer told us it was a political event, with an audience of school children.

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Anyway, I climbed the series of stairs, hooray for me. Well worth the trek, as the structure is immense and amazing that it simple supports itself, all that stone. The fresco work inside is dizzying in its amount, variety, and mixture of artistry and artistic near-misses. No photos allowed, so I’m using some I found online. The lower church is completely enveloped in frescoes, with bands of geometric designs separating the paintings. Add to that patterned floors, rich color and pattern, heavy shadow, crowds, and a guard who periodically shouts “silencio !” Over a loudspeaker. It’s a bit overwhelming. But once we sat ourselves down in different areas and took the time to really look at discrete sections with the obsessive details from an Assisi guidebook, it was wonderful. My favorites were the 14th century Saint Martin Chapel, the Giottos in the right transept and the Cimabue Madonna. Larry went down to the Crypt, I elected to spare my knees.

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(these 4 photos not mine)

I was struck by how quickly the tour groups were moved through the place, although it was good to see some of them seated listening to a leader who knew the art. We walked up to the relatively airy Upper church, and found it almost deserted. We walked the circuit of the Giotto St Francis frescoes, trying to guess the narrative of each for a little fun, then looking at the guidebook. The frescoes are lovely, chock full of details and imaginatively rendering of the story of St Francis.

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(these 2 photos not mine)

Back outside, we walked up the street to the Piazza Commune, stopping in two tiny churches along the way, the Oratoria dei Pelligrini  and one other. Old houses, fountains, lots to admire as nuns, priests and monastics walk by. Many shops selling junk, but sone interesting ones as well if you look around corners.

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The Piazza is charming, fronted by the facade of the first century Temple of Minerva, turned into the Church of St Mary in the 15th century. The interior is heavily Baroque, with huge gilded angels smiling down at you. Inside is heavy Baroque, and I liked the gilded angels looking down at us. . Also surrounding the Piazza are several palaces. Larry particularly liked the official measures used in the day, at the bottom of the 13th century tower of the Palace. Oh, and a fascinating fresco “grotesque” under a loggia, a 16th century take on the Domus Aurea, complete with naughty bits. Since it was such a beautiful day, we decided to not go to the several museums, saving them for a wetter day.

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We stopped into Chiesa Nuova, supposedly the site of the house of St. Francis’ parents. We found most notable a little cell where supposedly Francis’s father imprisoned him when he renounced his wealth and family position. Kids, don’t piss off Papa. I had really wanted to get to the Domus excavations down the hill, but it was closed. Another time. We found Santa Maria Maggiore down another hill, with some lovely early frescoes.

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Unfortunately the crypt was closed. It was obvious that many of the “lesser” sights were closed for the lunchtime pausa, so we decided to do the same. We walked down the long but mercifully easy to walk street from Santa Maria back to the parking lot, and headed to Santa Maria degli Angeli.

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Our local friend Letizia had recommended La Basilica for simple, traditional cooking. We shared a wonderful antipasti of perfectly friend vegetables, crunchy and not at all heavy. Zucchini, eggplant, beans, cauliflower, olives, zucchini flowers, all delicious. Then I had pasta with cherry tomatoes and porcini; and Larry had pasta with a Norcina sauce (sausage, truffles, cream) Good food, lovely host.

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After lunch we toured the not terribly charming Santa Maria, where nevertheless  I adored the tiny little hut inside, a reminder of Francis’s huts and supposedly where he founded the order. Google “Porziuncola Chapel” to see the wonderful photos of the exterior and the interior frescoes. Obviously a venerated space, people were sitting in contemplation and prayer inside. If you follow the little corridor, it leads to a rose garden  of thornless roses, and a little chapel with some lovely frescoes.

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We though a nice drive would be a good plan for the afternoon, so took the 444 out of Assisi. It winds and twists as it skirts the mountain ridge, giving great views way over to the Appinenes and down into valleys. It’s a good road, and you pass through a couple of small isolated towns.

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We then turned south at Cerqueto, and got off at Nocera Umbra. This is an off the beaten path town with a long history and an archaeological museum we’d like to get back to. I had read in Bill Thayer’s journal of a Roman wall and bridge in the area–in spite of crisscrossing a few times, we never found them. We did chance across a Museum of Textiles in little Valtopina, unfortunately, you guessed it, closed.

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We stopped in Foglino to scope out parking for Saturday night’s Medieval parade for the Quintana, and to see of Gelateria Crispini, who recently was named as having the best pistachio, really is all that. Foglino has a large underground garage at Porta Romana, and while the outskirts are ugly as sin, the old centro is full of life and charming–kids hanging out, business people having a drink before heading home, real shops for shoes and vacuum cleaners. And while I don’t know about the gelato being the best, the pistachio and bacio were pretty damn good.

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Back home, we stopped by the store to get a few groceries, and I was delighted to find zucchini flowers in great condition. I used the recipe I learned from a cooking class in Bologna, stuffing them with a bit of ricotta and lemon zest, and then simply sautéing them instead of frying in batter. Very delicate this way, and you can actually taste the vegetable.

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