(published in the Rapid City Journal on Sunday, July 5, 2009)
Tuscany and Umbria
We arrived in Assisi late in the day after a speedy ride up the Autostrada from Rome. (I believe “Autostrada” means “straddle all lanes with your auto”; passing requires squeezing your eyes shut and screaming a lot.) Assisi is a picturesque Umbrian hill town dominated by the lovely and austere Basilica di San Francesco.
As St. Francis of Assisi is Italy’s patron saint; this town of 3000 is overtaken by up to 5 million tourists and pilgrims every year. And without great accommodations, it will feel like you’re sharing the town with all 5 million at once.
The Hotel de Umbria, secreted off the main square with its own cloistered and leafy outdoor café, was the perfect place to escape the crowds and still be within easy walking distance of most of Assisi’s attractions. “Easy walking” is a misnomer: with only a few portals into town and the tiniest of winding medieval lanes, you’ll be sharing the ‘streets’ with cars, trucks and that most noxious of transportation inventions: the two stroke scooter. As you gaze at the façade of the Temple of Minerva, built at the time of Christ, the incessant whine of those infernal scooters will have you thinking rather pagan thoughts.
Assisi is clean, beautiful and, thankfully, frozen in time. The League of Graffiti Artists (the amount of graffiti in Europe is astounding and dismaying) have left Assisi unmarked; the difference is almost startling. Most of the medieval buildings are constructed of a muted grey stone; boxes of red and pink geraniums spill from every window and peeking into jewel box courtyards is a tiny, thrilling glimpse into Italian home life. The huge, spray-painted signatures of Big Rex and Ultimo 5 are not missed. (Let’s hope there’s a special place in Hades for these defilers of Europe’s noble and historic structures!)
A visit to St. Francis’ tomb is a deeply moving experience. Because of warring families in Italy at the time of Francis’ death, his body was sealed in a rock tomb so that it could not be dug up or defiled. The tomb today is still rock, encased in iron, deep in an underground chapel, almost jarring in its simplicity. The solitude and serenity is palpable. It is not to be missed.
A few miles from Assisi is Cortona, the classic Tuscan town whose outskirts now resemble American suburbs. I think we can thank Frances Mayes and “Under the Tuscan Sun” for this phenomenon. If you have an interest in the thrills and follies of owning a second home in Italy and are the only literate person in America who hasn’t yet read this book, don’t miss it. When you’re done, try to resist the urge to buy a home there. Surely, a Walmart is soon to come.
Cortona, itself, remains another perfect Tuscan hill town; the steep ascent to the town is matched only by the steeper ascent once you’ve achieved the town gates. If you go, be prepared to climb. One guidebook describes the lanes as ‘ladder-like’; although they’re not quite that steep, anything other than flat shoes will easily pitch you onto your nose in most of the town. Cortona has, by far, the best location for the passeggiatta, or, ‘little walk’, which is an Italian pre-dinner tradition, a daily walk from 5 to 7PM, in which the locals dress up and slowly amble down the loveliest lanes in town. This would be a wonderful tradition to start in Rapid City; the downtown streets and parks around the Rapid River would be ideal – and then we’ll all go to dinner at one of our delicious downtown cafes. See you there!
And finally, Firenze! Florence – the living work of art. An example of what can be accomplished if everyone doesn’t sit around watching TV every night. Home to Michelangelo’s “David”, Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation”, Brunelleschi’s “Duomo” (or cathedral); there isn’t enough room on this page to list the famous works residing in this city. Once saturated with masterpieces, you’ll be ready for a little cappuccino on the main square, the Piazza della Signoria. Grab a fringe table, especially on Fridays and Saturdays and watch the brides come streaming out of the Palazzo (palace); even more entertaining: watch the brides endure the Italian tradition of being kissed (and I do mean kissed!) by any male who wishes. Don’t forget to watch the faces of the grooms! And all for the price of a cup of coffee!