Umbria is a fascinating region of Italy that continues to attract visitors from all over the world for all sorts of reasons. For Jules and myself, it was its inescapable beauty and of course its great food and wine, but for others a journey to Umbria is much more of a religious pilgrimage. Indeed, the Christian faith here remains one of the most potent symbols of the region, evident in its incredible number of churches and its wealth of paintings and frescoes created during the peak period of the Renaissance. Of course, in the end all these factors begin to somehow overlap once you visit some of its major towns. Whether you are a Christian or not, you cannot fail to be impressed by its aesthetic contribution to the arts, while the link to the religion of gastronomy is also pretty hard to avoid. This was certainly our impression when we visited two of the more famous sacred towns of Umbria located not too far away from our home-base of Spoleto.
Assisi was about a 45 minute train ride away and offered us an opportunity to visit one of the prettiest and most significant religious towns in the country. As the birthplace of St. Francis and home of the Franciscan Order that he founded, Assisi is regarded as the most visited Catholic site outside of the Vatican. Upon our arrival we could see the old township of Assisi sitting high on the hill, distinguishable by the rows of arches that form the Basilica. In 1997 the walled city was hit by two devastating earthquakes, causing considerable damage to its historic buildings, requiring much repair work to be done in the preceding years. As we entered through the giant arches and made our way up the hill, we could clearly see the dedicated efforts of artisans in bringing the town back to its former glory. While the restoration is impeccable, we thought that it had tended to take away much of the patina of age, giving the town an almost ‘theme park’ quality. This feeling was further accentuated when we caught sight of coach loads of visitors descending upon the town and with that, the inevitable array of tourist stores that line its streets.
I’m not quite sure what the collective word for nuns is … Google suggested a flap of nuns, a convert of nuns, a gaggle of nuns and even a Whoopi of nuns! Whatever it is, there certainly seemed to be a lot of nuns in town visiting the various sites. It’s was clearly apparent that in the world of saints, St. Francis was indeed a superstar, attracting many faithful followers through his love of nature and animals. However, he is actually only one of the seven saints associated with Assisi, so there was plenty here to attract the nuns. Groups wearing the habit of their denomination could be seen wandering the streets throughout the town, admiring the churches, soaking up the history and picking up the odd souvenir. While we didn’t linger quite as long, Jules and I also weaved our way through the lanes, working our way upward to eventually reach the medieval castle called Rocca Maggiori. From this imposing building we were rewarded with the best vantage point to admire the town and the beautiful surrounding countryside.
Like most Umbrian towns, Assisi prides itself upon its homemade pasta, locally produced olive oil and truffles. There are also some particularly nice locally made wines and beers. However, the Franciscan monks have generally been reluctant to get themselves too involved in its production, leaving that enterprise to the Benedictine monks down the road in the nearby town of Norcia. Here, in the birthplace of St. Benedict, the monks have long been supported by their production of wine and beer and over the years they have developed some rather refined skills in that area. More recently they established a commercial brewery to produce a beer called ‘Birra Nursia’ that continues this centuries old tradition. In the name of research, we managed to sample a drop over lunch and it was certainly comparable with the best Belgian beers.
Norcia is much smaller than Assisi and has nowhere near the tourist traffic. It is located in a beautifully picturesque hilly location, which was easily accessible to Jules and I by bus. While for some a pilgrimage here means a visit to the birthplace of the Benedictine Order, for Jules it was the lure of the town’s reputation for cheese and pork products. The area is also well known for the quality of its truffles and the hunting of wild boar, which eventually finds its way into prized sausages and salami. The products produced here are so popular that they are shipped far and wide, providing a very sustainable industry for the towns folk. In fact the two major laneways in the old town are lined with little shops referred to as ‘Norciarias’ that are crammed with cured meat products hanging from their rafters and the overwhelming smell of cheese emanating into the streets.
In the centre of the town is the main piazza where a statue of St. Benedict takes pride of place and at one stage, we stepped into the town hall where several photos from the 1800’s reveal how little the town had actually changed over the years. I imagine that going back even further it would have looked pretty much the same as it did in the 13th century when the original monastery was first built and indeed why should it change! This is a sleepy little town with long established routines and traditions providing a lifestyle that would be difficult to improve upon. From the point of view of outsiders such as us, it seemed that the town’s folk had managed to get it right a long time ago. They had recognized that the secret to a good life could be found by simply providing sustenance for the spirit and for the stomach and who can argue with that!