Monday, November 2, 2009

Assisi and Orvieto

By Chuck

Today was quite hectic, but rewarding. We awoke at 6am and were on the road by 7:15. That included shower, check out and camping car cleanup – but not breakfast or coffee. We had our usual difficulty navigating to a parking spot – this time in Assisi; we got to the town, traveled up the hill, but were unable to find a suitable spot to park Homer. We finally decided to look for and follow signs that indicated camper parking was permitted. We finally ended up near the train and bus station in a lot designated for camping vehicles; better yet, it was free! We walked a block to the bus station, bought our tickets, waited 15 minutes and were finally on our way.

We started at the top of the old town and walked down; we had difficulty getting started – we could not find the amphitheater; but, then things got easier.

Santo Stefano, a simple church built by stonemasons. The bells rang miraculously on the day of St. Francis' death, 1226.

Assisi street scene

Beautiful street in Assisi

I would say the highlight of Assisi, for me, was seeing the tomb of St. Francis; the spiritual energy there (or my emotional reaction to the site) was striking. I enjoyed learning (or being reminded of) factoids about St. Francis: he walked barefoot until the last couple of years of his life – after he received the stigmata; the shoes he then wore were purportedly made for him by Santa Chiara, his disciple. And therein lies an interesting story: In the early 1200s, an 18 year old rich girl heard the simple message of St. Francis – obedience, poverty and chastity – and was immediately won over. She was blessed by Francis, even though he was never ordained as a priest. Chiara founded the Poor Clares, an organization dedicated to the observance of prayer, meditation and manual labor. She, too, was canonized almost immediately after death – a tribute to the sterling impression she also had on common folk and Church authorities.

The actual document signed by the Pope in 1223, legitimizing the Franciscan order, is on display in the Reliquary – have I mentioned that I love old stuff? This meant his order need not fear a charge of heresy, while the Church got the benefit of great PR from one of the good guys, reaffirming the morality of the Catholic Church. By the way, Francis is credited with starting the nativity scene craze: he apparently used simple stories and props to communicate with the people in their own language. Evidence of his popularity is given by the fact that he was canonized within 2 years of his death. I was surprised to learn that Clare, like Francis, wore a hair shirt.

Relics of the two saints

Hair shirt of St. Francis, lower left

Claire, Basilica


In California, we have 3 cities that developed from Franciscan missions: Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Clara.

We left with some difficulty: Susanna did not realize construction had blocked her preferred route out of town. We simply tried to backtrack our entry and eventually she got with the program and let us on to Orvieto. Along the way, we stopped to capture a view of the lovely, green countryside surrounding a reservoir.

We have been so impressed with the beauty of Italy, especially in the regions of Tuscany and Umbria. At this moment, forced to choose between France and Italy as a permanent residence, I would choose Italy; but, remember that we did not get to spend much time in southern France. I keep suggesting that we investigate purchasing a little abandoned stone fixer-upper; but Claire knows that I would have difficulty following through on all the necessary renovations and generally remains silent until the mood passes.

I finally realized that drivers of other camping vans and caravans were waving to me. I decided to reciprocate; but, I have been quite inconsistent! And, when I do remember, I often find that the object of my intentions is a commercial van, not a fellow traveler.

Finally arriving in Orvieto, we had our usual problems finding a suitable parking place for Homer; we knew there was a camper parking place, but we could not find it for a while; finally we saw the welcome image of a camper and a P (for parking) sign combined; we followed the trail until we found the campground; they allowed us to park there for 2 hours for 4 Euros. We walked over to the funicular station, bought our tickets and went through the turnstile – at least Claire did; my ticket would not work; finally, the operator let me through with an override; but, the train doors had closed by then and we had to wait 10 minutes for the next train.

The walk to the Duomo provided a brief glimpse of this town – touristy, but not overwhelmingly so. Rick Steves describes this sight as having “Italy's liveliest facade.” It is gorgeous. I will let the picture suggest the complexity of the frontal view.

We purchased our obligatory gelatos and sat across the street admiring the columns, doors and mosaics. Inside, we find that the architect designed the nave to be wider at the back and narrower at the altar; so, from the back, the church looks longer than it actually is; this effect is reversed if your viewpoint is from the altar.

We spent most of our time in the tiny impressive Chapel of San Brizio. Even if we had not been allowed a discount – we're not sure if it was age or our Teacher status cards that did the trick; maybe I just have an honest face. This chapel features Signorelli's frescoes of the Apocalypse (painted 1499.) The Antichrist represented is likely a veiled reference to Savonarola, a charismatic Florentine monk who I believe inspired the phrase “bonfire of the vanities” when he oversaw the destruction of much of the Humanistic art and literature of Florence.

One poignant scene depicts a winged demon flying over the damned with a nude woman on his back. You don't know exactly what he is telling her; but, she is not a happy camper. There is a lesson in political correctness in these frescoes, I suppose, too: The figures were originally almost all nudes; at a certain point in history this was regarded as unseemly and the modesty of all the nudes was provided by painting draperies over strategic body parts; later, more liberal thinking prevailed again and the protection was removed – but only from the damned. Yeah, I don't get it, either.

We walked back to the funicular; along the way, we enjoyed the children in their Halloween costumes preparing to make their rounds. They could have been in any city in the U.S. We paid the host at the campground for our parking and exited for Roma. We had not decided whether we would stop along the way or try to make it all the way; since I was not particularly tired and I wanted to save us time the next day, we drove all the way. As you may have expected, we misunderstood one of Susanna's instructions and missed our turn up to the campground; in the process of turning around, I backed up too far and bent the rear wheel of my bicycle. Damn! I don't think I will ever get used to handling a long vehicle in short European spaces. But, we made it to Roma.

1 comment:

Pat in Santa Cruz said...

I was so excited to find these postings! You two look very fashionable!!!!! So glad that you have found friends to share your adventures with along the way. The architecture, the country side, are just phenomenol. Italy, here I come. :-) Looking forward to the Rome report.