Sunday, April 02, 2017

3/19/17- Assisi and more Tuscany

The narrow streets of Assisi

Decided to hit the road this morning.  We wanted to visit Assisi and we also had some unfinished business with  the Tuscan hills.

The weather was a little cooler and cloudier then previous days but nothing that could hinder our experience.  I was personally excited to drive by Umbria and Lake Trasimene.

Students of Roman history will recognize the lake as one of the key battles of the Second Punic War.  This was one of the early routs that Hannibal put on Rome.  We all know how the war turned out but at the moment of this battle Carthage really had Rome on her heels.

North shore of the lake, somewhere a battle took place
Just past the lake was Perugia.  This is yet another great town that gets overlooked by tourists facing limited time and an embarrassment of great Italian options.  All we managed to do was quickly drive through and briefly ponder the Amanda Knox story. A beautiful town and area that will have to be explored on a future visit.

Just as we were passing Perugia we could see the hilltop town of Assisi off in the distance. The hills of Umbria are every bit as magnificent as Tuscany and they even have some of the Apennine Mountains which bring a different kind of beauty.  

The view from the basilica
Our primary goal with this visit?  A chance to visit the region in which the great St. Francis preached as well as to catch a Sunday service at the basilica that honors his name and remains. If you have a moment you should spend time appreciating the life he led and the important reforms his example wrought upon the Catholic Church.  Experts posit that the reforms that resulted from Francis postponed the Reformation by a century.

We parked on the Northeast part of the town and walked through it to the basilica.  It was somewhat steep and difficult for dad but it offered the chance to see one of the most charming Italian towns in person.

The narrow streets and town were straight out of a postcard.  But the brown stone style of most of the homes and building seem to have set it apart from other towns we've visited.  A real highlight was seeing the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva which was built out of the Roman remains of a temple built to honor the Roman goddess of wisdom.

Walking to the upper basilica
At the end of our brief pilgrimage was the grand basilica.  It has a prominent place at the end of the hill that the town is built.  The crowds were somewhat light and the entryway had been changed in light of the potential threat for terrorism.  We spent some time in the lower basilica where the remains of Francis are stored.  This is one of the best examples of Romanesque art and architecture.  The upper basilica, on the other hand, is larger, brighter, and Gothic.  Students of architecture must really appreciate the opportunity to savor these to styles side by side. Another highlight was conducting a
video interview with dad about his mission experience.

After a brief lunch we were back on the road returning to Tuscany.  Our hope was to visit Montepulciano and, time permitting Siena.  We felt physically and spiritually nourished with an appetite to get in a few more spots before our departure in the morning to Lake Garda.

View from Montepulciano
We had originally planned to just spend maybe 30 minutes at Montepulciano.  The real goal was Siena.  But our plans soon changed upon arrival.  We didn't expect to be as amazed by the views as we were and we didn't plan on stumbling upon a wonderful chocolate festival that was taking place at the town square.  This was too memorable to pass up.  We called an audible and decided to forgo the Piazza del Campo in favor of more time here.

The festival
We strolled the stalls and decided which chocolates to try.  I favored the pistachio crepes while my dad offered the old school options bathed in hazelnuts.  As we were savoring our treats we were greeted by the increasingly intense beat of drums.  Soon enough a group of young men and a few young women rounded a corner and began their rhythmic march to the rostra in the square.  They were dressed in some kind of traditional garb and were followed by flag bearers wearing something similar.   The event reached a crescendo with the drum beats signaling the ceremonial tossing and catching of the flags.  I don't know much about this ceremony.  I think something similar
was captured in the mediocre film, 'Under the Tuscan Sun'.

With dusk fast approaching we reluctantly decided to get in the car and leave this magical place.  We didn't want to navigate these roads after dark and we had hoped to visit one more site on our way back to Florence.  We didn't  get a chance to see Siena but we did get a nice consolation prize in the form of Monteriggioni.  Not much more than a small walled fortification it was once a strategic outpost in the centuries old struggle between Florence and Siena.

The day ended and our peaceful feelings were interrupted by some evening traffic outside of town.  Things got worse when our navigation system took us on an incorrect detour through some dark and narrow country and city roads somewhere on the outskirts of Florence.  That final 5 minute drive took about a half hour as we struggled to find a correct route home.  I will look on with great fondness many things from our time in Italy, driving these narrow streets will not be one of them.

  • Italian tip of the day-  Spend a few extra minutes planning your entry points into these cities and towns.  You will typically be prohibited to drive right up to the landmark so find a parking area that gets you access to your destination.
  • Food highlight-  Those pistachio crepes.  The white knuckle drive home kind of killed our appetite for dinner.
  • Italian point of frustration- No surprise here, it is regarding the Italian road system.  Things are fine on the autostrada but the moment you head off into town or on a country road things become unnecessarily complicated and confusing.  Many roads have multiple names and many navigation systems are confused by the many roads that can potentially get you to your destination.

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