A three-day vacation exploring what to see in and around Assisi in the northern Umbrian Valley. From Bettona to Bevagna, from Montefalco to Rasiglia, passing through Spello and getting lost in the magic of the Fonti del Clitunno. Here is the account of the first day, where we first stopped in the town of St. Francis and then visited the Clitunno Springs and the waters of the small town of Rasiglia, also known as Little Venice
I know, I know: real travellers, those with a capital ‘V’, never leave at times ‘consecrated’ to tourist holidays. If there is one time of year to avoid like the plague when visiting the most popular destinations in the Bel Paese, it is the month of August. Let alone the week before the dreaded August bank holiday.
Yet, although I have always adhered to this unwritten-but inviolable-rule among those who live travel as a philosophy of life and not as a break from the daily routine, I found myself leaving just this past weekend.
Together with Marco, my partner, we gave ourselves three days to visit a couple of friends who live in Bettona, a wonderful little town of Etruscan origin-rightfully included among the Borghi Più Belli d’Italia (Italy’s Most Beautiful Villages)-perched right on the hill facing the town of Assisi.
We were resigned to running into hordes of angry tourists, but this was not the case. Despite the large number of people like us who chose to discover these countries and their wonders, we were still able to enjoy an almost surreal tranquility.
It may have been due to the sacredness-religious and scenic-that permeates these places, or to a new and more conscious way of enjoying the world around us that we do not yet know, but our trip to Umbria was a most pleasant and relaxing experience. So much for August and its dreaded vacationers.
Day #1 – First stage:
Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis
We set off Friday morning from Viareggio in the direction of Perugia. The day promises to be full of a thousand expectations. We are both just back from a very busy working period and these three days in Umbria seem like an oasis in the desert.
Assisi what to see in a day
We arrive in Assisi that it is already eleven o’clock. The Basilica of St. Francis stands imposing and austere on the hill in front of us. We can’t help but stop along the road to admire it from below: in the nonstop singing of the “sister” cicadas-as Francis would have called them-I wonder how many people before me, devout pilgrims or ordinary travelers, have paused at the very edge of this curve.
After the customary photo, we get back into the car and “get back on the road.”
Following the directions of the navigator and the many signs we encounter on the way, we reach the square below the Franciscan complex and leave the car at a large underground car park. It can be accessed with a Telepass: a great convenience.
The Lower Basilica of St. Francis
From the parking lot to the basilica, the walk is little though uphill, but the sacred context of the place makes it almost “light” for us despite the heat of midday August.
After just five minutes of walking, here is the wide churchyard of the Lower Basilica opening before our eyes. Illuminated by the dazzling sun, it looks even more immense. We approach the entrance passing under the shade of the porches that line it on both sides. If you need a restorative break, halfway down the right loggia are the restrooms. They are accessed for 60 cents: they are very clean and there are also vending machines that distribute fresh water and other necessities: believe me, those two half-liter bottles seemed almost a miracle to us.
The transition from daylight to the cool dimness of the interior is extremely pleasant. Many people but all move in silence and respect. The basilica-which almost seems to “kneel” over the saint’s tomb, which is located right in the crypt beneath its floor-is single-aisled and has the shape of a “tau.” One cannot help but be impressed by the richness of the frescoes: not a single inch of surface is devoid of them. Marvelous in the right transept is Cimabue’s Majesty, which contains one of the most truthful depictions of the saint. But truly impressive are the four sails above the high altar, frescoed presumably around 1300 with a cycle of allegorical paintings. Splendid, again behind the high altar, is the wooden choir that ends on the left with a small staircase that ascends to the forecourt of the Upper Basilica. What struck me most was the sense of “welcome.” Often, indeed almost always, these “mastodons” of faith, tend to reject rather than welcome people. It’s different here: despite being one of the most important destinations of the Catholic faith-the most visited in Italy after St. Peter’s in Rome-the entire Basilica is fully usable, with no limitations other than decorum. In fact, disposable faux-fabric shawls are provided at the front door to those who enter in tank tops, miniskirts or short shorts.
The Upper Basilica of St. Francis
Visiting the Upper Basilica is incredibly exciting. Giotto’s frescoes are a wonder for the eyes and the spirit. And this is true even if one is not a believer: true works of art do not speak the language of any religion prayed to by man, but have their own undisputed language of perfection and beauty that directly addresses the soul of anyone who observes them. The inherent sacredness of these frescoes, prescinds the religious and didactic message for which they were made. And one cannot help but admire them in devotional silence.
And the emotion is even greater when you think that the frescoes in the vaults were pulverised during the 1997 earthquake that brought the whole of Umbria to its knees. In a very short time, just two years, they were completely restored and brought back to their ancient splendour. The Basilica was already reopened in 1999, and this, for once, is a man-made miracle.
Lucrative lunch and post-lunch in the Woods of St. Francis of Assisi
Moved, but also a tiny bit hungry – yes, we set out in search of a small restaurant where we could sit and refresh ourselves. We walk down the course that winds right from the churchyard of the Upper Basilica and after a few hundred meters we are seated at the Osteria da Santu Mangione(the name is already a whole program). We order what can hardly be called a light menu – tagliata with herbs and wild boar with olives – washed down with a bottle of Sagrantino, a wine perfect for a winter dinner with near-zero temperatures, but not exactly ideal for lunch on August 10.
And so fulfilled (we ate well) but decidedly “tipsy,” we decided to work off the postprandial, taking a walk in the Selva di San Francesco, the grove accessed from the square of the Upper Basilica and now one of the FAI’s Places of the Heart. The cost of the walk is 5 euros per person, and it literally goes all the way down to the valley. At the bottom there is the “Third Paradise,” a work by Michelangelo Pistoletto. We would have liked to go all the way there, but the great heat and the excesses of lunch allowed us to walk only the first stretch. We surrendered to the view of the Subasio valley from the second bench.
Day #1 – Second stage:
the Sources of the Clitunno
And so, after a contemplative break in the cool of the Bosco di San Francesco, we head in the direction of Spoleto to Campello del Clitunno to visit the famous springs. The drive to the Fonti del Clitunno is a short one, about half an hour. It is a small park, in which the naturalistic aspect (prevalent) seems to have found a magical balance with history and art.
In fact, it is here that the “sacred river Clitunno” as the supreme Virgil called it, a lacustrine environment that in Roman times reached all the way to the Tiber and allowed people to reach Rome through a complex of canals.
And it is here that even today the towering black poplars and weeping willows lap clear pools of water, streams and bubbling waterfalls with their branches.
When Lord Byron visited it on his Grand Tour of Italy, he was so fascinated by it that he mentioned these “grassy shores” in his writings.
Given the smallness of the place, the walk among the ponds and small bridges to admire the crystal-clear pools of water does not take much time; in about an hour or so you can get around the whole park, but if you feel like a place to relax, well, you can spend a whole day there as well. The entrance fee is three euros. There is also a restaurant and a bar where you can have a snack or eat ice cream.
Day #1 – Third Stage:
Rasiglia, the little Umbrian Venice
It is now four o’clock in the afternoon, fatigue is beginning to set in, but we do not give up. We get back in the car and drive back toward Foligno, up, in the direction of Colfiorito, to reach Rasiglia, a small mountain village in the Menotre Valley, consisting of a handful of houses whose walls are literally lapped by streams and waterfalls that originate from three sources of the purest water and form real spring waterways.
Rasiglia what to see
Rasiglia, or as its 30 inhabitants have renamed it-and the number is by no means indicative-“miracle Rasiglia,” is also known as the “little Venice of Umbria,” capable of attracting thousands of tourists, both Italian and foreign.
The reason for this success? Definitely the uniqueness of the place, its unparalleled beauty, the wonder that leaves you open-mouthed as soon as you start walking its narrow streets and come across its rushing waters.
Rasiglia is listed by FAI as an industrial textile archaeological site. In fact, thanks to major recovery work, almost all of the places and elements necessary for the production of textile artifacts, from shearing to the making of the finished product, are in a perfect state of preservation.
Perhaps it is this great care of places and traditions by the whole community that makes Rasiglia so valuable. Valuable and poetic: attached to the walls of houses, the mill, the parapets of small bridges, and the banks of waterways, there are many signs bearing quotes, phrases, and poems about water and the craft of weaving. From Petrarch to Tagore, from Leopardi to Ayuryeda, a very simple and inexpensive form of storytelling-sometimes it doesn’t matter to spend a lot of money to create the “right atmosphere”-but one with sure emotional impact.
We leave Rasiglia after an hour and a half. We have now arrived at the end of the day: Roberta and Silvano are waiting for us in Bettona, where we will be guests at their Bed & Breakfast carved out of the Malatesta Residenza d’Epoca – IV Palazzo Baglioni. We have two more days left filled with Umbrian wonders … but that is another story that I will tell in my next travelogue