The church in Siena was gorgeous, probably my favourite ever (St Marks in Venice is also completely amazing, but in a slightly full of itself way, so Siena is my current winner). Jean-Marie’s favourite, in Italy anyway, is in the hilltop town of Assisi, which is where he’s taking us today.
On the way we stop at Castiglione del Lago, a pretty town with a large castle beside a lake (as the name probably suggests, if I knew any Italian). Lake Trasimeno is gorgeous and calm, below a bright blue sky and surrounded by olive groves and lush green trees. On the way through the town gate I spot a poster for a Picasso exhibition (I’ve been a fan since getting a book about him out the library age 9ish) and somewhat excitedly suggest we check it out. We have a good walk around the town, popping into a church on the way through and wondering what’s going on inside a side room full of people munching on a buffet.
At the tip of the town, we find the exhibition in a museum building leading onto the castle. It’s pretty interesting- a series of sketch type drawings all relating to an affair, some studies of faces and, to my surprise, some works in porcelain and clay. Their technique is pretty rough, either deliberately or through lack of skill, I’m not sure, but the effect of the clay faces is pretty cool and leads me to want to have a go.
At the end of the exhibition, we find a long, narrow passageway to the castle at the end. Through its tiny windows we see the lake on one side and a group of children all dressed up as medieval knights to banish some kind of witch-like creature on the other. The narrow passage seems exactly as it would have been when the castle was used for defense and we delight in imagining what it would be like to guard the village from there.
At the end, we have a walk round the turrets and top of the castle, admiring the gorgeous views of the lake beyond and I imagine I’m a prince in a Disney film telling my loved one that it’s my father’s land as far as we can see and one day it will be ours (no idea why, but it’s the scene that came to mind as I looked out).
Within the castle walls is an outdoor theatre and as we leave, a pretty area with olive trees where families are gathering for picnics. It’s all remarkably beautiful in every direction and we seek out a lunch spot with a terrace overlooking the lake. By this point Eliza is having a nap in the sling so Marie’s parents pop back to the car to get the car seat, giving us all free hands for our lunches, which are pretty delicious.
From here, it’s off to Assisi, after a small break on the grass by the car as Eliza has woken us just as we’re about to put her in the car and I’m fearful it’s not going to end well. In spite of the break, it doesn’t end well, and she sings the song of her people from about 5 minutes into the journey until we arrive, all a little bit worn out from the experience as nothing would really calm her down. By this point she’s worked up a fresh appetite from all the screaming and our first attempt at parking turns out to be in a residential parking area. Marie’s parents have a general objection to paying for parking, so perhaps chose this deliberately, but as I’m sat on a wall calming Eliza down with booby, the police pull up and seem very unsympathetic to our ‘hungry baby’ predicament that Marie’s parents describe to him, replying we must ‘leave NOW!’ I can’t bear the thought of putting Eliza straight back in the car so Jean-Marie heads off to find alternative parking while we climb up to the gates of the town to meet him there.
Assisi is known as a religious city and already, at its gates, are visiting nuns and signs wishing us a contemplative, quiet visit. We head in, stopping for an ice lolly on the way as I’m still feeling pretty hot and bothered from Eliza’s car escapades, finding out minutes later that there’s a plan to stop almost immediately to see a church (which I can’t do with an ice lolly so that’s pretty poor timing on my part). Outside the church, on the piazza, is a small child’s merry go round with religious icons painted all over it and quite a lot of people walking past. The whole of the town centre is pedestrianised and full of a range of tourist shops, mostly selling tourist gifts with a religious theme, interspersed with some ceramic shops and typical food product shops and bakeries. Of course, I’m drawn to these, but Jean-Marie is keen to get on and marches us through the town to the other side, worrying at one point when I point out a strudel with Halloween-green filling to Marie (eugh!) that I’m about to stop in a bakery and it’s quickly suggested that I can do that afterward if I like.
It turns out the rushing is for good reason, as the church we’re here to see is quite a walk away and closes not long after we’ve finished our visit. It’s the Basillica of Saint Francis, who was born and died in Assisi and who, in my now many, many church visits across France, Italy and even some in Ecuador (thanks to Marie and her family’s love of this activity) seems to be pictured in almost every one, easily recognisable by the animals he is usually pictured with. From this I’m concluding that he’s one of the main saints of the Catholic religion.
As we enter the lower church (it’s in two parts, an upper church and a lower church, with an armed security passing point just before it), I’m immediately struck by the beautiful starred ceiling and arch design. There’s no shiny marble or gold leaf here, just painted walls and ceiling so it’s at once grand and extensive and humble, which is fitting for a Saint who preached to the poor and loved animals. The frescoes everywhere are extensive and I get the feeling that I could spend several hours looking at everything and still find details I hadn’t spotted. It feels calm and peaceful, despite sharing the room with many other visitors. I follow people down some steps with Marie by my side, informing me that we’re going down to the crypt, with the tomb of Saint Francis, which is a pretty big deal to catholics, so expect some kind of ritual.
[These three pictures from Wikipedia and Pinterest, as we weren’t allowed to take any]
As we reach the bottom, we enter a small chapel with people sat praying in the pews and a stream of people slowly walking up the aisle, round the tomb and back out again, often laying candles in a basket by the tomb and stopping to pray, draw crosses across their fronts or, in some cases, kneel up against the tomb in prayer. We walk round, hoping Eliza will stay quiet, and taking in the atmosphere, imagining it being high up on the list for religious pilgrims. Whilst I don’t follow any organised religion, or believe in a God, or Gods, for a long time I’ve been interested in the function of religion from a sociological and anthropological perspective and more recently have been fascinated in it from a more personal or psychological perspective- to understand how people come to hold the belief and how it feels to do so. Sometimes in grand catholic churches, particularly if you imagine how high the building stands compared with all the peasant houses surrounding it, the grandeur and imagery has an intimidating feel, so I can grasp some of the heaven and hell beliefs, the idea of submitting to a higher, all-knowing power. Here it doesn’t feel that way, it feels familiar and welcoming inside the church, somehow less formal than elsewhere, perhaps an effect created by the softer tones of the paintings.
Eliza isn’t as fascinated however, and decides she’s had enough before I’ve quite got round all the walls and Jean-Marie has meanwhile discovered that we’re running out of time, so we head upstairs. Here the style is similar but with scenes from Saint Francis’ life depicted in frescoes across the walls and a more typical rectangular shape to the room (the lower church is extensive, with extra bits in all directions, so vast I don’t really have a sense of the overall shape from my memory of it). There’s several guided tours for us to fight through as we walk round, which feels less calm than it had below and perhaps why it’s created less of an impression in my mind, so that’s really all I can remember of it.
Once outside, we have a look at the surrounding hillsides as it’s a great view point and Eliza has some food in the shade before we walk back through the town. Somehow I’m completely exhausted and having noticed a castle high up above us, am fearful this is the next stop. It isn’t, and we enjoy a horrendously overpriced drink in a café with a pretty unfriendly waiter, before slowly making our way back to the car.
I am trying (and to some extent Francoise is too) to go in local food shops. Francoise has Eliza and is having to fight her way through adoring crowds at every turn, causing a bit of a delay which means we’re called on to hurry up just as we pass a perfect looking food shop- partly a grocery shop for locals and partly selling local produce for tourists. We both have a small ‘oh’ and I later decide that I’ll walk ahead, while Jean-Marie is photographing from a viewpoint, so I can duck in any shops I see on the way. Unfortunately, despite only being half of the way back to the car at this point, I only pass one typical food shop among the many offerings and it is closed! It’s rotten luck and, reunited with Marie and Francoise, we decide to pop into a butchers to buy some meat for dinner. I come out to share the taster samples and Marie and Jean-Marie joke that I seem to manage to come across free tasters wherever I go (it’s fairly true, I’d managed the same in a small supermarket in Siena the day before). From here it’s back to the car for a hassle free journey back and a delicious dinner of several different salads and Italian ham.
As for Jean-Marie’s most beautiful Italian church…well it’s hard to decide between this one and Siena for me, but both are beautiful in their own way and will stay with me for a long time.