50 minutes to paradise and back

It’s been awhile since we’ve done anything to further the St. Francis brand. So as good, upstanding part-time Umbrians, we scoured our social media feeds (yes, they know where we are) and saw an organized walk to the Bosco di San Francesco (St. You-Know-Who’s Forest) this past Sunday.

Well, scratch that. We don’t do organized things, and in the morning? On Sunday? Still, the place is intriguing, and I’d seen photos of the sylvan woods with a stream running through it, and I’m a sucker for a good walk. So off we went toward Assisi. This place has the added advantage of being outside the city walls, so I didn’t have to deal with parking and other hassles of going into a town’s historic center.

There’s a cool reception center, and there’s a suggested donation of €5 a person. The woods are administered by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), the Italian Environmental Fund. The acronym’s pretty neat; it means “do”–and they, indeed, do throughout the country, cleaning up sites and opening big natural areas to casual walkers and serious hikers alike.

The Bosco has two main hikes. One takes you up, up, up to the Basilica di San Francesco, the towering cathedral that dominates Assisi’s skyline and features frescoes by Giotto, among others. The art inside is breathtaking, as can be some of the crowds. We didn’t take this hike. By the time we got there, the relatively benign September sun was shining ruthlessly. And did I mention that it’s a steep uphill climb?

So, wimps that we are, we took the “Terzo Paradiso” or Third Paradise walk. Hey, how could we resist it with a name like that? The paradise in question is a “land art” work by Michelangelo Pistoletto. It’s in a clearing in the woods and is overlooked by Assisi’s fortress. The artist used oxen to inscribe three circles, a large one in the middle surrounded by two smaller ones. The length is infinite since they’re interconnected. Then FAI and the artist planted a double row of 121 olive trees, and there’s a steel shaft in the middle that symbolizes the meeting of heaven and earth. (Now this is a real olive garden.)

Paradise, found

I know this sounds awfully conceptual and, like, deep. But to experience is both awe-inspiring and fun. First off, it’s a beautiful place. Walking around it is just plain enjoyable. If you haven’t been near olive trees, they’re silvery green and reflect sunlight in a particular way. So when you’re walking around the circles, the trees shimmer around you.

Olive trees and cypresses up there, where we didn’t climb
Water, water, nowhere, except in a plastic bottle

Third Paradise isn’t the only attraction. The woods themselves are beautiful, with outcroppings and the usual central Italian mix of vegetation. Despite the four or five (I lost count) heatwaves we had this summer, everything is still amazingly green. FAI has thoughtfully put benches throughout, so you can take a break and, like the F-man did, contemplate the universe, or the bug circling your head.

The only thing is the stream that runs through these woods, is, to paraphrase Monty Python, a former stream. A stream that is no longer. It has ceased to be a stream, at least for now. We’ll come back after the fall rains to see if that’s changed. And just maybe we’ll scale the hill to the Basilica. Hey, the parking’s free down by the woods.

If you’re around and want to walk where Francis walked—or one of the places—just look up on your sat-nav or phone “Bosco di San Francesco.” FAI also has directions on its site. And there’s what looked like a nice restaurant adjacent to the site, but we didn’t try it out.

The road taken

A few days ago, we were doing our usual morning walk up the road when we bumped into a neighbor, who introduced himself as Claudio. He was out for a walk, too, telling us that he just retired. He told us about his walk, which involves walking down the road and making a turn into a “strada sterrata,” which is an unpaved road. He said that he makes a loop and comes around after being on the Sentiero Francescano. This trail is a series of trails that trace the steps of St. Francis of Assisi when he left his family home and riches, and walked to Gubbio through the woods. A mystical, rebirth ritual walk, in other words.

Curious, we wanted to see if we could replicate Claudio’s walk. (Francesco’s walk is well-marked and in warmer weather, sees waves of pilgrims.) A few days ago, we walked on some of the Franciscan path, and I was looking at the map on my iPhone. I saw as we were walking back down the hill another road that, if you looked uphill, veered left. Hmm, we didn’t remember that. But as we descended, we saw an opening and yes, a path that was carved into the side of the hill. That’s one of winter’s advantages; without the overgrowth and weeds, it’s easier to make out the paths that wind all around here. We took it and saw that it followed a higher trajectory than the Sentiero and then sort of curved around the hill. That must be Claudio’s route, we figured, and made plans to come back the next day.

The turnoff, not that you’d know it. Apple Maps showed it; Google didn’t. But for some other stuff, Google shows details Apple doesn’t. Guess you need both.

So we did. And O.M.G. We’re suckers for a good view and on this path, they just kept coming. Unlike on the Sentiero, you don’t really plunge into deep woods. The path—it must have been a road of some kind at some point—just hugs the hill, carved into it as it follows the basic path of the Sentiero, but about a tree higher. So we got to look into the ruin that we’ve passed many times (we hear that it’s for sale, if anyone out there is interested). As the path curves to the left and westward, the views are pretty stupendous.

Looking into the ruins of a farmhouse. An old timer neighbor told us that the family that lived there farmed the area until the 1960s. Their olive trees are nearby, still producing fruit.
On top of the world! Those are the snow-capped Apennines in the distance.

And then, we thought we hit a road block. Or, at least, a gate shutting us off from the rest of it. Luckily, though, as we got closer, we saw that the path veered left then curved around a large house with a pool and gardens that we soon realized was the Agriturismo Val di Marco. An agriturismo is supposed to be a working farm that welcomes guests, but this one does not look remotely farm-like. It’s just a big comfortable house in the Umbrian tradition that happens to be in the country.

Agriturismo Val di Marco, waiting for summer’s guests

Enough fun, though. What went down had to go back up. Our road, which we knew was south, or to the left, follows a high ridge. And the path did indeed go up. And up. And up. We were panting, okay, I was panting as we neared the top.

There was a payoff, though. We were met at the crest by our usual canine welcoming and escort service. But we disappointed them–The Spartan Woman had forgotten to pack the doggie biscuits. I guess they forgave us, though, and followed us most of the way home.

Casa, dolce casa (home sweet home)



A pax on all your houses

Pax: noun, Ecclesiastical. kiss of peace. [from dictionary.com]

This is the second Fourth of July in a row that I’ve been out of the U.S. I have to admit that I miss it. In our neighborhood on Staten Island, it begins with a good-natured race between the two parks in the area, with us cheering the runners on. Then there’s the usual barbecue.

The part I always liked the most, though, is the fireworks. I like gathering with zillions of New Yorkers on a hot summer night, everyone trying to get a good look at the big show on the East River. There’s nothing like the mix of people in my native city, their good humor, their wisecracks, and how all of a sudden people who’ve been trained all their lives to be hard and cynical look like kids on Christmas morning.

So The Spartan Woman and I were up on the mountaintop in Umbria this Fourth. We had to celebrate somehow, but to our friends here, it’s just another workday. I’ve been wanting to go to a place I think is incredibly beautiful, and it’s full of meaning, too. It’s especially true in this turbulent year, as “leaders” around the world foment discord, hatred, fear, and bigotry.

The place is the Eremo delle Carcere. “Eremo” means “hermitage,” and “carcere” can mean “jail” or “cell.” In this case, it refers to a monk’s cell, and also in this case, the monk is St. Francis of Assisi, known around here as San Francesco. It is on the mountain called Subasio, which rises behind Assisi. We can see Subasio across the valley from our house.

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Francesco used to go up to the Eremo to pray and to meditate. The site is just beautiful, seemingly carved into a wooded mountainside, with a commanding view of the Tiber Valley. I can’t fully convey the feeling of peace and tranquillity that surrounds it. The surrounding woods themselves act as a sort of cathedral space, with their tall trees, some of them with roots that cling to stone walls. The tourists and pilgrims visiting the site don’t diminish the serenity. (And typical of such sites in Italy, there are discreet signs everywhere urging silence. )IMG_4373.jpg

Why the Eremo, why Francesco? The dude was a rich spoiled kid who gave it all away to lead a life of poverty and to preach peace and love, both of his God, but also of our fellow souls and nature. His values and wishes seemed like a good antidote to the bellicosity we see, hear, and read coming from a certain failed Queens casino owner. (Okay, I can take the peace and love thing only so far.)

I’ll admit, it’s easy to be cynical about the Francesco schtick. Assisi, a beautiful little city near Perugia, has its share of what we like to call Catholic supermarkets, tacky souvenir shops peddling statuettes of fat happy Franciscan monks. And the region we call home for part of the year, Umbria, has seized upon Francesco as a marketing tool. Officials here took the airport from one saint (Sant’Egidio) and renamed it Aeroporto San Francesco. The Sentiero Francescano della Pace passes near our house, and there’s a little tourism industry built around people who want to trace the saint’s steps as he walked from his native Assisi to Gubbio, some 50 kilometers away. It’s as though they’ve had to come up with something to position the region and to distinguish it from (cue Umbrian eye roll here) the flashy neighbor Toscana.

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But as far as marketing tools go, it’s pretty benign. And it fits—this region does have a gentle, mystical feel to it, especially if you walk through the woods and peer over hills to see the mists and fogs of the cooler months of the year.

So as my friends in the United States celebrate the country’s birth, I’m wishing I could be there at least for the fireworks and some beer. But I’m not there, and the distance has been good, for a few reasons. The stress induced by the constant ranting and braying by some of our fellow United Statesers (in Italian, you can say “statunitense” instead of “American”) has just fallen away. At least until I go web surfing. So let’s just take a deep breath, feel the love of our friends and family, and try not to be obsessed with the dark forces running around. Francesco would want it that way.

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