Years ago, I bought a book titled Best Walks in Europe. In mid-October 2015, we walked through the pages of one of the chapters of this book as we walked through several hilltop towns of Umbria, through “the green heart of Italy”. As the land-locked central region of Italy, Umbria is known for her fertile hills and mountains, as well as her wine and olive oil. The Valley of Spoleto is covered with olive groves and dotted with vineyards. We entered Umbria driving from Tuscany along Lake Trasimeno, a large round blue-green lake where Saint Francis fasted for 40 days during Lent in 1213 on the island called Isla Maggiore. Many months ago, we had planned a 30 mile walking pilgrimage across Umbria into Assisi, beginning in Trevi. Due to my body ailments (neck/back pain), we changed our plans, rented a car from Florence, and decided to drive across Umbria and explore each town on foot, but drive from town to town.
We drove to Trevi on October 8, 2015, and checked into a former Franciscan convent, “Monastery of St. Chiara”, now run by a Christian community as an ecumenical retreat house. The manager, Aldo told us they were struggling to grow as a new movement in Trevi, with only three couples who lived on site, and very few coming for services. He gave us a tour of the beautiful former convent facility, overlooking the Spoleto valley. From the guesthouse, we could see the hilltop town of Montefalco clearly silhouetted across the valley at sunset. The town of Trevi sits atop a hilltop spur of the Appenine mountain range, with buildings spilling down the hillsides filled with olive groves. Olive harvest occurs in late October into November. We saw harvesters at work in the olive groves, shaking down the olives onto netting spread around the base of each tree. We drove to the town center on the hilltop for dinner, dining outdoors under starlight. The following morning, we walked about the steep viccolos and narrow roads of Trevi, visiting the town museum located in the Church of Saint Francis (Chiesa San Francesco), with a museum of olive oil, roman artifacts and sculptures, as well as frescos around the medieval cloister telling stories of the life of Saint Francis. We enjoyed a fabulous pasta lunch at Taverna della Sette, a restaurant up a steep viccolo (a narrow lane) just off the Trevi main piazza, with outdoor seating surrounded by terracotta colored walls, as Pavarotti sang arias over the sound system. One of Trevi’s specialties is called “Black Celery”, a very large variety of celery with dark green leaves (thus the name “black”), featured in many local pasta dishes, and celebrated annually with the Trevi Black Celery festival.
Our second stop was a night in Montefalco, the home of one of Italy’s finest red wine grape varietals, Sagrantino. Montefalco is called “the balcony of Umbria”, situated on a high knoll in the middle of the Spoleto Valley. Today, the hillsides of Montefalco are also home to dozens of excellent vineyards making superb red wine. We checked into our hilltop hotel with a window looking south across the valley, past vineyards and olive groves, all the way down to Spoleto. One of the great gifts given to us on this sabbatical journey has been the views from our lodging windows. Our Montefalco window view was one of the finest. In the morning, we visited another Church of Saint Francis in Montefalco, with brightly colored frescos by the famous 16th century Florentine painter, Gozzoli, all on the life of Saint Francis. Under the sanctuary chancel, we discovered a museum to monastic medieval winemaking. This church in Montefalco was also the site of a medieval wine cellar where the local monks brought their locally grown grapes, pressed them in winepresses seen in this museum, and prepared wine for communion in the basement of the church. Earlier this year, I read Desmond Seward’s excellent book, Monks and Wine (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1979), in which he traces the history of winemaking across Europe, with most of the medieval vineyards planted by monastic communities. I was delighted to walk into a medieval church in Montefalco and find a wine cellar where medieval monks made wine for sacred use in the Lord’s Supper a thousand years ago. We discovered many other rare treasures in this museum as well, including medieval painted crosses, crucifixes and alter-pieces for meditating on the passion of Christ during worship. Coming out of the museum/church, we were greeted by a friendly white dove seeking entrance, as though knowing this was the Church of St. Francis who preached to the birds not far from this location.
Day three took us through Bevagna, another well-preserved medieval walled Umbrian city. Even in a very small car (Nissan Micra), I found it a fascinating challenge navigating the labyrinth of such a place as Bevagna. Some of the streets allowed for only a few inches on either side to pass through narrow twisted lanes. After several passes through the small town, we found a parking place next to another church dedicated to Saint Francis, Umbria’s hometown hero from the 1200s. Saint Francis is said to have preached to birds in a tree near Bevagna. We heard many doves cooing in this town where we stopped off at a small restaurant for lunch and discovered the building included a 1st century Roman wall and foundation. History runs deep in Umbria, with Roman ruins around most corners. We were told Bevagna is divided into four quarters, with each quarter dedicated from medieval times, into artistic districts: silk-making, wax-making, painting, and paper-making. We headed into the paper-making quarter and bumped into Francesco, a paper-maker, using tools and paper-making technology from medieval times. He took us through an hour-long tour of his medieval industry, showing us how paper was made in the time of Saint Francis by making paper before our eyes. Cloth rags are shredded, soaked, and pulverized by a waterwheel run wooden machine. The rag pulp, which looks like oatmeal is then placed in a large wooden barrel. A framed screen with the paper-maker’s symbol (watermark) embedded into the screen is lowered into the watery pulp, and drawn out. The water runs off through the screen leaving the pulp. The new wet layer of paper/pulp is then transferred onto a layer of cloth to dry. The paper-maker’s logo, called a “watermark” can been seen embedded in the layer of pulp. Once dry, the sheet is pealed off the cloth, and sanded flat with a pumice stone. This paper-making technic had been used by Egyptians since before the time of Christ. In Italy, in the Middle Ages, local paper-makers from Umbria began to add glue to the newly made paper to bind the rag content, and better hold the ink. This is the type of paper used by Gutenberg in 1456 when he converted his winepress into the first printing press, and produced the first machine-printed Bible. Of the two dozen or so Gutenberg Bibles are still in existence today, and the paper still holds the ink, thanks to the inventiveness of medieval Umbrian paper-makers.
We stayed our third night in yet another hilltop medieval town, the city of Spello, location of a Roman outdoor amphitheater which can hold 15,000 people. We attempted to drive up through the center of town, but the roads were under construction, so we found an easier route up to our hotel, perched on the hillside, again looking out across the Spoleto Valley. Our room had a terrace with views of Trevi and Montefalco to the south. We awoke on a Sunday morning, and walked downhill into the heart of Spello to the Church of Mary Magdalene for 11am worship. A community band was playing music just outside the church ten minutes prior to the service. After they finished several lively march tunes, the entire band came in for worship, bringing in their festive red banners. The Church of Mary Magdalene features a side chapel with brightly colored frescos by the famous Florentine painter, Pinturicchio, including a painting of the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary, and a Life of Jesus fresco painted in 1501. The worship service was well-attended by over 200 people, including many children and families. After worship, we visited the museum of the annual Spello flower festival held in early June. This festival is like the Rose Parade in Pasadena, but the detailed flower art is made on the street not on floats. After we packed up, our route sent us north around the backside of Mount Subasio, through forests and olive groves, into the tiny village of San Giovanni, and finally into Assisi, hometown of Francis and Clare. More on Assisi, Francis and Clare in the next post.