Many visitors to Italy do the Rome Florence Venice thing, tick the box and think that they have seen Italy. Of course there so much more to discover away from the frenetic tourist crowded hotspots. A leisurely drive through the countryside to visit a few villages and a pleasant lunch can reveal unexpected delights and even significant renaissance art equal to any found in the major cities. Put the guidebook aside, wander and see what you can discover. We will not rush: this will be a day for leisurely wandering, watching, observing, contemplating, absorbing, learning, imagining, reflection and a good lunch and a glass of wine.
On our drive through Umbria the plan is to visit Montefalco, Bevagna and Spello. We have driven through typically softly curved hilly Umbrian landscape. Sunflowers, vines, olives, dark brown freshly ploughed fields, tiny villages on the hilltops present a picture of a rural idyll, but just to prevent us becoming carried away by this romantic view of postcard perfect countryside an incongruous Enel power station has been slapped down in the middle. Yes I know of course that there have to be power stations somewhere however I’m always slightly miffed when one or some other industrial installation pops up to interrupt my view.
We drive up hill to Montefalco perched high, a perfect belvedere for view almost the entire Val Umbra, walk through Porta della Rocca and uphill to Piazza del Comune at the highest point of the village. Five sided and almost circular’ it encloses you in an embrace. The rhythmically arcaded Palazzo Comunale is opposite us. We stroll by follow Corso Gofreddo Mamelli to Chiesa Sant’Agostino where we meet Beato Pellegrino. His mummified body is inside a glass fronted illuminated box, bent forward in prayer and dressed in rough clothes. The mummified skin is pale, parchment yellow, looking as though it would turn to dust if you breathed on it and one of the ears seems to have been nibbled by a mouse. As we look a tiny stooped old woman passes and points to the Beato. “This is very important signora” she says to Sandra with a knowing nod as though sharing an important secret. She shuffles off leaving us to read the story of the Beato Pellegrino from a text nearby. The story is at least partly legend however I suspect the anziana believed that every word of it was true. Of course all legends are much more engrossing if the truth is stretched to breaking point.
One day a pilgrim arrived in Montefalco from Spain to venerate the body of Santa Chiara Della Croce but he dies while praying to her. He was buried in a tomb but he won’t let a minor ailment like death stop his veneration of the saint after all he’s just walked all the way from Spain. Next morning he’s back in the church praying in exactly the same position as the day before. The monks of the Convent of Sant’Agostino cautiously approach him but the pilgrim is stiff, motionless and most definitely dead. So they bury him for the second time. The following morning he is there again and dead again in the same position of prayer. By now the monks are tiring of the pilgrim’s tricks and toss him up into the bell tower. Many years later he is rediscovered in the tower, still bent forward in prayer, but miraculously the body is not corrupted in any way and doesn’t even smell slightly of death. This miraculous preservation makes him an obvious candidate for display in the church as this can only be described as miraculous. Still, he does not look well today, not surprising as he is more than 500 years old. And if he comes back to life again it will be interesting to see how he escapes the glass case.
It can be tempting to have a flippant attitude to this type of tale however this story is part of a tapestry of shared tales that help to give Montefalco its own unique identity and is part of the web of identity that binds the Montefalchesi to their paese. These small details of a place that arrest my attention and often get missed because there is some more important, more famous sight to check off the traveller’s list of must see things. There is always too much to see. I like to discover the smaller items of interest that help give breadth to the overall view of a place to help understand what makes it unique and if I miss a great sight I don’t feel that I’ve missed out. This is Italy and there is every chance that you will soon see a completely unexpected wonder.
We drive down to the Foligno plain and Bevagna. Only once are we almost killed by a speeding Jaguar passing another car over a crest the offending driver blasts his horn at us as though it was my fault I was in his way when he wanted to drive on the wrong side of the road.
Bevagna is an ancient village on the Teverone River and is crossed by the Via Flaminia; the road built by the Romans to connect Rome and Rimini, the modern SS3 approximates the route. Bevagna still has intact medieval walls and we enter through the Porta Cannara beneath its tower. It is lunchtime and feeling hungry when we notice a pair of smartly suited businessmen striding purposefully across Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi. At this time of day they must be going directly to lunch and judging by their purposeful, determined gait they are impatient to get there. Wherever they are going must be good so we follow them across the piazza into a trattoria – Da Nina. We have gnocchi ripieni with ricotta and parmigiano, veal shank, slow roasted and pigeon in salmi’. And a bottle of Rosso d’Umbria! The food and wine do their work and we sit contentedly at the table glowing with satisfied happiness. When we leave we walk around the village taking small details. I like to discover the often overlooked details that help to give a place its own character. A shop with antiques and pottery, a curve of medieval houses retracing the outline of a Roman theatre, a reused Roman column set into a wall, widows with stone tracery and sturdy doorways. Just above there is a black wrought iron eagle attached to a stone wall. And here a mother sitting on a doorstep is comforting her crying daughter. Just a little further on the waitress from our lunch restaurant is sitting in the street refreshing her makeup in the shadow of buildings undergoing reconstruction after the 1997 earthquake. Bevagna has a relaxed demeanour. Corso Giacomo Matteotti meanders along between medieval houses. There are few other strollers most of whom look like they are just filling time. Sensibly at this time of day, I imagine, everyone else is still having a leisurely lunch. We walk into the quiet and peaceful Piazza Silvestri, stand in the centre and take in the atmosphere. There are two facing churches, San Sivestro and San Michelle Archangelo. Both have harmonious simple architectural shapes. There is semicircular arched doorway, unadorned and comforting in its simplicity. In the centre there is a Roman column adding to a feeling of ancient connection, but the medieval looking octagonal fountain was constructed in 1896. The soft gently grey coloured stone of the buildings in the piazza give it a gentle, calming, harmony. Bevagna is a place that slows you down to an unrushed pace and invites the visitor to contemplate small details because it encourages you to take your time and this sets the tone for the afternoon to come.
Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)