Florence to Rome (via Assisi)

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Florence to Rome (via Assisi)

Leaving Florence  Today's trip will take us through several very different rural environments: it's a journey through the heart of medieval italy. We head south, along the backbone of the Apennine mountains. then we'll leave the Autostrada and take a smaller road around Lake Trasimeno — one of the largest in Italy. We'll pass through the hilltop towns of Umbria — the region of Italy associated with St. Francis — which includes Perugia, and of course, Assisi itself, where St. Francis was born and where he is buried. Then we'll be back on the Autostrada and after some tunnels, we'll approach the outskirts of Rome.

Chianti wine country: Off to our right is the River Arno, which runs back into Florence. The river originates high up in the Apennines at a point some 20 miles off to our left. This is Chianti wine country — you can see the vineyards on either side of the road. Pretty soon we cross the Arno, which wanders off to our left and disappears into the hills.

Arezzo  We now get off the Autostrada and head east, into the town of Arezzo — one of the loveliest in Tuscany. The whole town is built on a hill, and it resembles a giant staircase, leading up to a fortress on top. Arezzo, like many of these towns, goes back to Etruscan times; it was a thriving commercial center even then, and continued to flourish under the Romans. It was called Arretium in Latin. Arezzo is the birthplace of several famous Italians, including the poet Petrarch, who rivals Dante as the literary genius of the early Italian Renaissance.

Arezzo also has an important connection with St. Francis. In Assisi, one of Giotto's paintings of the life of St. Francis shows the city of Arezzo besieged by devils: all sorts of wars, conspiracies, and betrayals wracked the town. It seems Arezzo really needed St. Francis' preaching. The painting shows St. Francis bidding another monk to bless the city and throw out the devils. In the background, the devils are shown fleeing the city in dread of the Saint's power, flapping their tails and wings.

Cortona (Some 20 miles after Arezzo)  Like Arezzo, it's spread out over the slopes of a hill, and is visible for miles. Like them too, it is dominated by a castle which looks down on narrow streets, small tile-roofed houses, and olive orchards. It was an old Etruscan town, and hasn't changed much since the Renaissance. St. Francis walked these hills 800 years ago, visiting the sick and preaching in the market squares. He was well known in Cortona, and established a hermitage outside the town.

Lake Trasimeno  A few miles beyond Cortona, keep your eye peeled ahead and to the right. A patch of blue materializes out of the mist — Lake Trasimeno, the largest body of water in Italy outside the Alpine region. (Signs in Italian read: Lago Trasimeno.) Before actually reaching the lake, look for the broad, marshy plain which extends roughly fromCortona on to the lakefront. This was where one of the most savage battles of the Punic Wars was fought.

Battle of Trasimeno: Hannibal the Carthaginian had entered Italy from the north by crossing over the Alps, using elephants. It was a daring operation, typical of the general's genius. A year later, in 217 B.C., Hannibal approached Lake Trasimeno, taking roughly the route this road follows today. The Roman forces sent out to check his advance were led by the Consul Flaminius, who approached the area from the east (i.e. our left), circling around the lake. It was in June, and the heat was ghastly. Flaminius consulted the omens (probably the entrails of an owl), which his sorcerers said were full of gloomy predictions. Hannibal was shrewd: he didn't need omens. He withdrew before the Romans, luring them into a fairly narrow area between the lake and the hills to our left. It was right where we are now. Then he struck. The Roman forces were annihilated: their chariots and horses got mired down in the bog and couldn't move. Flaminius and about 20,000 of his men were slaughtered. Thousands were driven into the shallow water, where they stumbled over themselves and drowned. No one knows how many bones are piled up at the bottom of the lake. It was said that the marshy areas around the lake were red with blood for weeks afterward. Nearby are two villages which still have the names Ossaia (Bones) and Sanguineto (Bloody). It took years, but the Romans finally did defeat Hannibal; right after the Battle of Trasimeno, however, the outcome was still very much in doubt.

Trasimeno today: The lake is gorgeous most of the year, especially the summer. Umbrella pines spread out along the shore — they're aptly named. Cypress and olive trees are legendary in this part of Italy. The olive oil produced here is supposed to be the best in Italy. The lake itself is quite shallow — average depth: 23 feet. The lake covers 50 squares miles, with a circumference of 28 miles. It resembles Lake Okeechobee in Florida, which is so shallow that the wind blows the water one way and then another, making for a very unstable shoreline. Fishing in Lake Trasimeno is excellent, especially for trout. The skies are usually crystal-clear, and the air is Alpine fresh. We'll start climbing some small hills, losing sight of the lake for a few minutes. Then we'll descend, and the lake will appear on our right, just a few yards from the road.

(COURIER: Any of these places along the lakefront is excellent for a brief rest stop, if you have the time.)

Soon we turn east, and Lake Trasimeno recedes behind us. We've left the region of Tuscany and are now in Umbria, the land of St. Francis. It's a country of rocky hills, broad valleys, and lush green patches of pine and poplar trees. All these towns were originally Etruscan settlements, then Roman villages — they're among the oldest in Italy.

Perugia  This is the capital of the Umbria region. It sits on a hilltop 1,100 feet above the valley.

A beacon of culture: Perugia has always been a very cultured town. The Romans called it Perusia, and Octavian, the nephew of Julius Caesar, plundered it when one of Caesar's assassins took temporary refuge here. Then, wishing to restore the city, he ordered thedamaged buildings repaired. An inscription dating from these times still remains: Augusta Perusia (Great Perugia) a pun on the title Augustus Caesar (Great Caesar), which Octavian had adopted himself. In 1962, a 1st-century Roman reservoir was discovered under one of the city's squares. By the Middle Ages (14th century), Perugia had become a center of art and intellectual activity. The Perugian painters of the Renaissance blended humanism with medieval piety, and this strongly affected their work. Bonfigli is one. One of his paintings shows the Virgin standing guard over the city during a plague: the whole population is sheltered under her mantle. This kind of painting gives one a vivid impression of the day-to-day fears that concerned people at the time. Instead of pollution, car payments, or junior's college tuition, these people had to worry about more basic things — plagues, fires, or famines that could destroy half the population overnight. This background makes Bonfigli's picture seem a little more down-to-earth.

Perugia was also the home town of the painter Pietro Vanucci, known as "Perugino". One of his younger pupils was Raphael, who went on to make a name for himself in Florence and Rome. Perugia's cultural role continues today, with more museums, libraries, and schools than its modest size would suggest: the Italian University for Foreigners (many Americans study Italian here), and the Academy of Fine Arts. Perugia also boasts local industries: chocolate, pottery, and wool.

Hilltop Towns of Umbria  Just beyond Perugia, we start winding our way down the parched hillsides, and before long a huge, sweeping valley comes into view. Rising up from this valley are little bump-like hills, with villages clustered on top. This is the pattern followed by most of these ancient settlements: they used the natural protection furnished by these hills. Unfortunately, this made for much hard walking to get up and down, but the Umbrians have always been good walkers: St. Francis set the example.

Soon the rocky summit of St. Subasio looms up ahead. On top, and spreading down the slopes in Assisi, the town and tomb of St. Francis. The road becomes straight and even, approaching Assisi, as though the bus were journeying down an outdoor aisle toward the altar. (The bus can't get into the city proper — the streets are too narrow — but must park outside the city wall.)

(COURIER: Start the following well ahead of time.)

Assisi  The town will be forever associated with its most distinguished citizen, St. Francis, by far the most popular saint in the Catholic world.

Life of St. Francis: Francis lived from 1182 to 1226. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi. His mother was French. He received a good education and was all set to follow in his father's footsteps, or even make a name for himself on the battlefield. But something happened which changed his life. Perugia and Assisi were locked in one of their interminable wars, and Francis, at the age of 19, went off with his countrymen to battle. He was captured by the Perugians. As he lay in his cell one day, a vision came to him. He was converted, and vowed to devote the rest of his life to a moral reform of the church, cleansing it of all worldly ambition. He began at the bottom: with the ordinary people in the townsand countryside, hoping to spark a revival which would spread to the higher echelons of the church and society. (He seems a very contemporary figure in this regard.) He walked through all the towns of Umbria, preaching compassion. He was especially known for his love of nature and kindness to animals. He felt a personal relationship to everything around him: e.g., "Brother Sun," "Sister Moon," etc. He addressed animals by name; composed a Hymn to the Sun. People spoke of him as "God's troubadour." He became a popular figure among the common folk, and attracted a devoted circle of followers. They vowed to live in poverty, insisting on going barefoot. Emphasis was on preaching, and visiting the sick. One of his disciples was a beautiful and intelligent woman, Clara; she organized a company of women, called the "Order of the Poor Clares." After Francis' death, his followers became known as Franciscans, an order of monks who make their living entirely by begging. The order was destined to play an important role in European history: e.g. (unfortunately) the Franciscans were at the forefront of the Inquisition; but they also contributed to philosophy and theology. Francis was declared a saint two years after his death (1228); later, Clara was canonized as well.

Giotto frescoes: The Basilica of St. Francis houses his tomb, which is located in the crypt below. The basilica is actually two churches, one superimposed upon the other. The Lower Church was constructed in the incredibly short period of 22 months, because people from far and wide came to work free; such was the saint's popularity. The Upper Church — considerably larger — was completed 10 years later. Several of Francis' relics are displayed, including the robe he wore when preaching, the rope that went round his waist, and his crude sandals. But the prize of the basilica is the series of frescoes on the life of St. Francis, done by the painter Giotto. There are 28 pictures in all; the last 4 were done by one of Giotto's pupils. They show scenes from St. Francis' life: e.g. his conversion, preaching to some birds, handing back his clothes to his father as a sign of renouncing worldly goods, making a spring gush forth to give water to a thirsty peasant, healing a wounded man, giving his cloak to a poor knight, preaching before the Pope. Francis' death, and his canonization. What is the significance of these frescoes? Though the mood is medieval, and the style is still highly ceremonial and a little awkward, we find for the first time in European painting, an emphasis on individual expression in the faces and movements of the characters. Each differs slightly from the others, and each shows his emotions directly. E.g. when Francis gives back his clothes to his father as a sign of renouncing worldly goods, the father's face is shown to be indignant, and a companion must restrain the father's hand. When Francis preaches to the birds, his fellow monk gapes in astonishment. Here in Giotto's frescoes, we see the art of the Italian Renaissance just beginning to peek through the medieval atmosphere: the first harbinger of something new.

(COURIER: Now give a short preview of your stay in Assisi: luncheon arrangements, visit to the basilica and St. Francis' tomb, rendezvous times, etc.)

Assisi to Rome (COURIER: You will be taking one of two routes: either via Spoleto (the scenic route), or Via Todi (the faster route). Both routes will be given below.)


Todi  A lovely hillside town, typical of many in Umbria. Three sets of walls are visible: the early Etruscan, the Roman, and the medieval.

Narni  This small town is hidden in olive groves at the foot of a 14th-century castle. A few miles later we'll pick up the Autostrada which takes us into Rome.


From Assisi to the Autostrada  As the bus pulls away from Assisi, we'll see Mt. Subasio once more, which runs alongside the road a few miles to the left. The town of Spello appears on these slopes: the old gateways and city walls are older than anything else around, having been built by the Romans. It was a prosperous agricultural center in those days: wealthy Roman merchants had their villas up on the hillsides above the town. The plebeians were cramped together inside the city wall.

Foligno, a few miles later, is more modern looking. Notice the limestone quarries and other signs of industrial activity. (Limestone from quarries in this area furnished the building materials for the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.) You'll detect the noxious odor from the chemical works. Even a town this small had its own school of painters in the 15th century.

The countryside remains fairly uniform for the next hour or so. Small towns spill over rocky hillsides, each one boasting its own local traditions, many of them involving tales of St. Francis. In all of them you see traces of old Roman fortifications, mixed with "newer" buildings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. We're heading due south, toward the Autostrada that we left after Florence, which will take us into Rome.

Spoleto (This town appears on the right — not to be confused with Spello, which we saw earlier.) Spoleto is another old Roman town — 3,000 years old! Its amphitheater dates from the time of the Caesars. In the Middle Ages, it was a town of great importance; the Pope incorporated it into his domains in 1247. Spoleto was a special favorite of St. Francis, who liked its plain, rather austere look. Directly in front of us, on top of the hill, is a castle built by the Popes. We'll pass right through it under a tunnel.

(COURIER: after you emerge from the tunnel, tell the group to look back over their left shoulder.)

This huge aqueduct was built by the Romans and then enlarged in the 14th century. It was used as a fort to defend the town.

Terni, further south, is a city of steel mills and foundries, with a surprisingly large population (100,000) for its appearance. Much of the military hardware for the Italian army is manufactured here. Hence the town's nickname, "Arsenal of Italy." The Roman historian Tacitus — who described vividly the Germanic tribes encountered by Roman legions in thenorth — was born in Terni in 54 A.D. After Terni we get on a smaller road, which takes us to Narni. This small town is hidden in olive groves at the foot of a 14th-century castle. A few miles later we pick up the Autostrada which takes us into Rome.

(COURIER: The rest pertains to both routes.)

The Apennines  The twisting and turning, and the mountain passes we're crossing are an apt reminder of Italy's most outstanding geographical phenomenon: the Apennine Mountains. This chain of mountains is the backbone of the Italian peninsula, starting north in the Alps and sweeping down the length of Italy to Sicily. The mountains were formed eons ago by a geological fault in the earth's crust: the two sides of the fault overlapped each other, pushing rocks and soil upward, which created the mountain peaks. Like most geological faults (e.g. the San Andreas fault in California), this chain once had dozens of volcanoes and was earthquake-prone; volcanic eruptions and earthquakes kept changing the face of the land. Today, however, only two volcanoes are active: Vesuvius and Etna (in Sicily). The highest peak of the Apennines is Gran Sasso (9,500 feet), located near L'Aquila, about 70 miles northeast of Rome.

Latium  We'll know we're not far from Rome when we see a sign pointing out the River Tiber (Italian: Tevere), which we cross several times. We're more or less following it into Rome. We've left the region of Umbria and are now in Latium, origin of the word "Latin." Latium is the cradle of Roman civilization, the heartland of the Roman Empire. The Italian tribe living in this area was the first to develop the organizational skills that enabled it to spread its influence and power, first over other Italian tribes, and then over far-flung peoples and nations in the then-known world. Latium's capital city has always been Rome.

Entering Rome  Notice the road signs announcing the different exits for Rome. The industrial suburbs come first, then the apartment buildings of workers, and, finally, as we near the center of the city, you'll see the older landmarks of ancient and Renaissance times. This illustrates the layout of European cities, which is the exact opposite of American cities. In the U.S., the center of a large city is usually its ugliest part: decaying old buildings, factories, stores, and only the poorest people live in it. Those who can afford it move out to the most spacious suburbs. In Europe, on the other hand, the center of the city is its most picturesque part, full of historic monuments, parks, and stately old mansions — all kept going out of civic pride. The wealthiest citizens live in the center. The surrounding suburbs, in contrast, are where the industrial plants are situated, and those who work in them live often in apartment buildings only a few blocks away.

(COURIER: Now start your introduction to Rome, following it with a brief rundown of the Rome schedule.)


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