one corner of the great Umbrian Plain, on a high table of rock, stands
Perugia. In the other, propped against the vast hill of Subasio, Assisi
gleams white, or, for a few days every spring, is ablaze with flowers.
Between gently rising hills, wooded by oaks, cypresses and strange,
twisting-branched mulberries, meadows team with poppies and broom and
wild roses fill the air with their annual jubilation.
Umbria is very different from
Tuscany, more rustic, more ancient, more holy and perhaps a shade
bleaker. It is the land of the Franciscans and of true hilltop towns.
Here, they built high up on the hills, above the plain. Did those early
founders harbour some obscure race memory of enemy attack? What was the
terror that drove them up towards the protection of steep rocks?
Wherever a hill rose up out of the plain, they immediately built a town
unlike Gautama Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) had a mid-life
conversion, took a vow of extreme poverty and gave himself up to the
service of the sick and wretched – helping in particular lepers, who
then abounded in Italy. Notably, he preached in Egypt and Palestine,
unmolested by the Moslems, although the Fifth Crusade was then in
progress. Pope Innocent III hesitated for a long time before sanctioning
the lay Franciscan brotherhood, whose mystic visions, miracle-working
powers and eccentric behaviour bypassed the authority of the Church. St.
Francis’ mendicancy challenged, not explicitly but by implication, the
princely style of life enjoyed by the apostolic hierarchy.
To the end he clung passionately to the idea of poverty, but he was
hardly dead before the Franciscan Order was holding property through
trustees and building a great church and monastery to his memory in
The route taken by St Francis almost 800 years
ago afforded him the contemplation he needed to make
his decision to dedicate his life to God. Unlike him, I set off before
Assisi, near Collepino, to cross Mount Subasio and savour the
breathtaking views over the Valle Umbria.
No one knows precise details of the actual
journey undertaken by St. Francis during his pilgrimage. The trail,
which can only be travelled on foot, on horseback, or on bicycle, has
been reconstructed from confirmed evidence of the Saint’s overnight
stay in several monasteries and infirmaries for pilgrims. From these
stops and by linking ancient paths, a fair assumption was
made of his actual itinerary. Historians do not all agree on the exact
date of this journey because St. Francis often travelled along this
countryside. However, the most probable date is towards the beginning of
the year 1207.
The area surrounding the trail is for the most
part the Chiascio River valley with its castles, towers, fortified
villages and abbeys; the scene of many battles during the days of St.
Francis. As well as bandits, the frequently inaccessible trails and the
unhealthy swamps made it quite dangerous to travel through the Umbrian
countryside. Monastic settlements, usually found near the roadways, were
the only structures that could offer hospitality and assistance. Through
the valley, which was situated between the Dukedom of Spoleto and the
Roman Province, passed an important municipal road - named the “qua itur Valfabricam” in the Eugubine
municipal statutes of 1371 - which connected Assisi to Gubbio. It is a
known fact that St. Francis left Assisi through the St. James Gate (Porta
di San Giacomo) and after travelling along the slopes of Mt. Santa Maria
degli Episcopi, headed north towards the open countryside.
through meadows dotted with wild rose and juniper, the
route is lined with blackberry bushes and winds down
to the Chiascio river. From here, a steep (but brief!) climb brings the
traveller through the vines above the Chiascio gorge. After the
semi-ruined 13C chapel Pieve di Coccorano, the path meanders across
cornflower meadows and olive groves before dipping into chestnut forest
to reach Biscina castle at the top of the gorge.
It is very likely that the municipal road
between Assisi and
Gubbio at this point followed the course of the
Chiascio River. It is also possible that the
friar's roaming may have found him travelling along secondary trails
through the woods in isolated and inhospitable areas. This was difficult
terrain to traverse but definitely in tune with the mendicant's spirit
and his meditations.
St. Francis may have stopped off at the monastery of
San Pietro ‘in Vigneto’ or ‘del Vigneto’, that was located on
the road that connected Assisi to Gubbio. Seen from the valley, the
monastery appears to be a stronghold rather than a religious settlement.
The whole complex belongs to the Benedictine monks of Montelabate that
moved to this isolated area in order to preach and provide hospitality
to strangers. It comprises a church, fortified palace, tower, an
infirmary for pilgrims, and the monks’ residence.
important site on the journey is Vallingegno, including the abbey, the
castle and the nearby forest. Vallingegno may also have pagan origins like Caprignone and
San Pietro in Vigneto. All the communities that have succeeded one
another here have professed a profound respect for the area by building
sanctuaries in the woods in absolute harmony with nature.
the last leg of the trail, a track through fields bordered with oak and
elm trees twice goes under the busy Perugia-Gubbio road, then continues
in a straight line behind gardens and allotments towards San Lazzaro
church, the old lepers' chapel. The white-walled houses of Gubbio seem almost close enough to touch, and
the old town’s first
Franciscan church, the 9th Century Santa Maria La Vittoria remains, in splendid
anonymity opposite a row of back gardens.
In his 1937 novel ‘Journey by Moonlight’,
Hungarian author Antal Szerb described the town as “cowering on the
side of a huge, barren, typically Italian hill, as if it had collapsed
while fleeing upwards in terror… and indeed the entire city has been
left to desolation and ruin. It was even more unplastered, even more
tumbledown than other towns in Italy.”
Nowadays Gubbio is in pristine
condition, a hide-away for Italian urban-dwellers and a good place to
Guided by Szerb’s novel, I planned to
locate Gubbio’s Porte della Morte, the “doors of death” noted by
the novel’s main character, Mihaly.
Leaving the Ducal Palace, I walked down the hill to a narrow
street, then through a sloping corridor into the Via dei Consoli. And
straightaway, in the corner house opposite me, there actually was a door
of the dead, next to the usual door, about a metre above the ground, a
narrow gothic door-opening, bricked up.
A historical conundrum found only in Gubbio,
Assisi and southern France, conventional wisdom declares the doors were cut to
carry a coffin out of the house and then, having been tainted by death,
sealed up. A nice theory, and very Italian, but to judge by the
narrowness of the openings, their purpose was probably defensive. The
main door could be barricaded, leaving the more easily defended
passageway as the only entrance. Szerb reported a door of the dead in
almost every house along the Via dei Consoli, but now only a cluster is
noticeable, between the bars and ceramist’s shops, near to the Piazza
During Szerb’s visit to Italy in the 1930s,
in every Umbrian village the sun’s rays cast shadows behind statues of
Mussolini, foreboding the terror to come. In the novel, Mihaly discovers
a Budapest school friend - who has become a Franciscan monk - in a
darkened street in Gubbio, while hooded mourners hoist a coffin onto
their shoulders and pass it, amid chanting and swinging censers, through
the door of the dead. Peering into the house, Mihaly notices a dark room
containing the bier. The monk agrees to meet him later that evening at
the Monastery of St. Ubaldo where, over a glass of wine and smoking a
cigarette (the worldly monk desists but is considerate towards his
guest), they talk about old friends and the meaning of life.
Milhaly hires a boy to guide him up to the
monastery after a perfunctory meal at his hotel near the bus station.
Since 1960, a little funicular with open ski-lift type cages has
carried visitors up the 1500-foot hill. At the top of the mountain it
began to rain and I sat under the terrace roof sipping a caffe
latte, gazing down at the misty sprawl of well-built houses outside
the city walls. At two-minute intervals a tannoy blared out a refrain
from Mary Poppins and then for no apparent reason stopped
After a short walk up to the monastery the
sound of recorded angelic music greeted me from the chapel. I rang the
doorbell and one of the monastery’s three monks appeared and spoke to
me in English. He had heard of neither Szerb nor of the novel.
Disappointed, I explained the significance of the location, hoping that
in the monk’s memory might surface the recollections of a predecessor.
The vast buildings, the totally whitewashed walls, corridors and smaller
rooms of the interiors, exactly matched the author’s description. I
was by now certain that Szerb had stayed at the monastery as a pilgrim.
The monk was eager to talk of the three
annual Corsa dei Ceri - the
Race of the Candles, in which three four-metre-high ceri, large precarious wooden obelisks, are carried on the shoulders
of three ten-man teams up the steep path to the basilica. He spoke too
of St. Ubaldo, whose shrouded mortal remains and coffin are on full
display in the chapel. But he revealed no knowledge of Szerb’s
visit at all. For whatever reason, it seemed the good man who had sheltered and
inspired Szerb in the monastery had never told a soul.
it began to rain again. Yet on the hillside overlooking Gubbio I felt
very content. I looked back over the forested route I had travelled from
Assisi. The panoramic views diffused a general happiness, an unassuming
Franciscan happiness. The
Umbrian landscape isn’t just friendly and pretty as I had imagined.
Here, there is something desolate, something dark and rugged. Perhaps it’s
the great barren hills that do it. I never imagined there could be so
many high mountains.
a small path below a ruined tower, I picked some wild flowers and took
them down to Gubbio. Opposite the bus terminus, in the Piazza Quaranta
Martiri, I laid them in front of a stone memorial to the 40 citizens
shot by the Nazis in 1944 as a reprisal for partisan attacks in the
surrounding hills. For a moment, I thought again of Antal
Szerb, who had returned from Italy to Hungary and wrote his masterpiece. By
then, he was a distinguished man of letters and President of the
Hungarian Literary Academy. He became a victim of Nazi tyranny, dying in a forced labour camp at Balf in January 1945,
by Timothy Foster
First published in Pure Magazine 2002