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In 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 on it.

Not 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 Assisi.  

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.

Strolling 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.

Another 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.

On 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 stay.

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 Grande.

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 abruptly.

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.

Outside, 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.

On 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, aged forty-four.

by Timothy Foster

First published in Pure Magazine 2002
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