Village Italy Tour

Day 6 Thursday May 19, 2005
Montone - Assisi

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I arose at five a.m. again. My body seemed to be officially on Central Europe Time. Mario and Giancarlo were correct. It had evidently stopped raining several hours before. So, it looked as if plan A would be in effect. My back felt a little better. I felt the socks on the line. Still damp. They were not, however, too wet, and a few minutes each with the hair drier was enough to make them passable. The shirt was still a little wet, but I was planning on wearing it, so I was pretty sure that it would quickly dry after I had worn it for a few minutes.

I worked on the journal for a short period, this time sitting at the desk. Nevertheless, after an hour or so the pain finally got to be too much for me. I downloaded my pictures, cleared the memory of my camera, and then took my computer into the bathroom to recharge. I could find only three electrical outlets in the room. The TV used one; Sue claimed the one by the bed; I was stuck with the one in the bathroom.

I decided to lie back down for a few minutes to try to soothe my back. Sue got up and milled around getting ready for breakfast and our departure thereafter. I informed her that the weather looked good.

After only a few minutes I learned from Sue that the power transformer that I had purchased from Radio Shack for this specific purpose was hot, and the red light on it that indicated activity was no longer lit. She said that this had also happened the previous night. I unplugged it and crossed my fingers in hope that it was not permanently damaged.

Breakfast, which started at eight, was similar to that of the first day. I helped myself to two glasses of the juice, which was from blood oranges. I also ate a couple of bowls of cereal, some pastries, and a ham sandwich. Nina announced at breakfast that plan A was indeed in effect, and that we would leave at 10 a.m. for the truffle hunt. Sue was having trouble moving that morning. She did not get down to breakfast until nine.

Liberame! Liberame!

During breakfast I made an appointment with Bonnie Shannon. She and Sandy Governanti had been assigned to stay in the cantina, a small room below the level of the pavement on the street. There were iron bars on their only window, which was at street level. Only one dim bulb dangling from the ceiling illuminated the entire room. They really got the shaft when it came to the room assignment. Our room, in contrast, was perfectly adequate.

The view from Montone.

I planned to walk up to the top of Montone for the view, and it seemed that there would be plenty of time to do so, but for some reason it took me an awfully long time to pack. I suppose that all of the wine that I drank the previous day may have had something to do with it.

A nice little park in Montone.

I decided to carry my computer in my backpack, which I kept with me on the bus. This arrangement made the suitcase a lot lighter. I hoped to have time in Assisi to work on my journal while everyone else visited Santa Maria degli Angeli, a church that had made no great impression on us when we saw it in 2003.

Sue shows Mario her picture of him in Dorothy’s pope hat.

Tom and Patti were the last ones to board the bus. Evidently Tom remembered at about 9:40 that he had to take a shower. Mario wore the pope hat. He was really in his glory. Everyone took pictures of him (mine came out crappy, but Sue's were quite good). Mario asked for a copy if anyone got developed a picture of him in the hat.

Mario behind the wheel of the pope-mo-pullman.

Jan mentioned on the bus that she had lost her hat. Either she had left it at the hotel, or she had put it in her luggage. When she determined at the first stop that it was not in her luggage, Patti gave one of her hats, which was of a similar style, to Jan. This was awfully nice of her; it was a brand new hat.

Paola gives the horns to Eva.

Our first stop was at the home of Sergio and Eva, who were a semi-retired (isn't everyone in Italy?) couple, who live on a lovely farm just outside of Orvieto. We also met Paola, who is the mother of the woman who married their son. So Eva and Paola are mothers-in-law. Eva and Paola clowned around a lot. Almost everyone photographed them giving each other horns. Eva even wore a permanent set of horns. Sergio was also jolly, but a little more serious.

We immediately were introduced to their dog Buc. He had gone through all the training for hunting truffles, but he flunked the course. After a few minutes we got to meet the star of the show, Napo, the champion truffle hunter, who for some reason is not allowed by Sergio to run free the way Buc is. He had not been hunting for three days, so he was full of energy. Both of the dogs were very friendly. Sergio said that they were crosses between Brittanies and Bracco, or something like that.

Their estate included vegetable gardens, fruit trees (including lemons), and a vineyard. Napo's home was away from the house next to the chicken and dove coops. A few years ago Sergio had purchased some cuttings from oak, hornbeam, and hazelnut trees that were known to have truffle spores and planted a grove of his own. It was in this grove that we went hunting.

Dorothy, Ruth Abad, Jan, and Barbara Krauss seemed to be very keen on the “back to nature” aspect of this. They could identify lots of the plants, or at least they knew of American species that were similar.

Sergio and Napo.

Ruth Abad holds a good-sized truffle.

Napo earns his keep.

Napo found a whole lot of truffles – more than a dozen. They generally were to be found near the base of the tree. At Sergio's verbal direction, Napo sniffed around from tree to tree. When he smelled a mature one, he started digging. Sergio occasionally let him dig up the truffle, but usually he pushed him aside and used a fierce-looking hand tool to unearth the truffle. He rewarded Napo with a piece of Parmesan cheese. Even after they had been removed from the groun, the truffles did not give off any scent that we humans could detect. Napo was certainly a valuable canine. According to Sergio this type of truffle, which is not even considered to be of the highest quality, would sell for about 300€ per kilo, which, according to my calculations, amounted to about $170 per pound.

Sergio had color-coded the trees as to their productivity.

This was unique fun. However, all of the standing was killing my back. I finally had to sit down in the grass. It was painful indeed to get back on my feet. Once we started walking I felt fine.

On the way back from the grove to the farmhouse Sandy asked me how to say “country” in Italian. She asked me if “paese” was correct. I determined that she wanted to compliment Sergio on how beautiful his “country” was. I told her that the word for country as opposed to city was “campagna”, but the right word was probably “tenuta”, which meant a country estate. She said that Bonnie would not help her with Italian, but she may have just been kidding.

Patti and Tom clean their sneakers.

After the hunt everyone dislodged the mud from their shoes using a stick or some such implement. Pat Beckett shocked everyone by kneeling in front of Wayne to clean his shoes. Evidently she was just returning the favor. Wayne had already cleaned the soles of her shoes.

Quite a spread.

Lunch was fantastic – lots of crostini and bruschette. One spread that Eva called “mad cow” was a pate of cow's liver. At least I think that I heard the word “fegato.” The homemade wine was exceptionally good. Sergio and Eva seemed to make a lot of their own food. What a great life! Everyone wanted to stay and live with Sergio and Eva. I heard that they rent out one or two rooms as a bed and breakfast.

Papa Paola.

As lunch started, I realized that I had made a mistake in my choice of wardrobe. I left my jacket on the bus. It was chilly during lunch in the outdoor eating area.

Montone from Sergio’s farm.

We drove to Santa Maria degli Angeli on the outskirts of Siena. Only three buses were in the parking lot when we got there. Sue decided to stay in the bus. I sat in the parking lot and nearly got caught up on my journal. Chairs and a table were arrayed in the sunlight in front of a small closed snack shop. However, three people were using them. I worked on a bench by the toilet facilities for an hour or so. When I checked the table again, it was free. I moved my stuff over and set up shop on it. The primary problem was that the light was so strong that I could hardly see the cursor. I had to use the Alt and Cmd keys rather than the mouse. Since I don't have these keys memorized, I probably made lots of mistakes.

A view from the bus.

More than a few tourist busses parked in the lot while I was sitting there. At least one priest descended from most of them. Assisi has been for centuries one of the top Italian pilgrimage sites outside of Vatican City. It may have even been the number one. I had no way of knowing how popular the shroud of Turin was.

Those are plane trees on the ridge.

A guy from one of these religious touring groups approached my table, took a chair, and moved it to the shade. He sat down and read a book. At first I could not see what it was. I should have known: Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. Earlier in the year I had tried to read this book. I pride myself on finishing just about anything that I start. However, Brown’s style was so insufferable that I did not make it to page ten.

My sunlit work area.

The rest of the group returned in a quiet mood. I did not hear anyone on the bus say a word about Santa Maria degli Angeli. I was glad that I skipped it.

Assisi: The basilicas are at the lower left part of the city. Rocca Maggiore can be seen on the ridge.

We drove to Assisi proper and parked just below the basilica. This was Sue's worst experience on our first trip. Neither of us was looking forward to repeating it. However, the weather was not nearly as hot this time, and the crowds were a small fraction of what they had been. And – miracle of miracles – the basilicas were actually open to the public.

Nina marches toward the lower basilica.

Nina had given us a map of Assisi and a diagram of the churches that indicated the location of the most important frescos. I was a little more impressed by the basilicas this time, but I still do not understand how this church could get three stars in Rick Steves’s guidebook. Many of its frescos are of dubious authenticity. Several are in poor condition. The architecture is ordinary at best. The crowds can be oppressive, although in fairness they were not bad this time. If you are not interested in the relics, the place has little going for it vis-à-vis the many stupendous cathedrals in Italy.

The piazza of the lower basilica. In 2003 the shaded areas were completely filled with pilgrims.

I would say this for it. There were plenty of places to sit down, and this was a real blessing as far as I was concerned. The backpack, which now contained the computer, was pretty heavy. I spent a few minutes exploring in the upper basilica and a few minutes in the lower basilica. I didn't see anything worth writing about. I went outside and took a few pictures of the grounds. I did not recall having seen the hedges that spelled out PAX and the Tau cross in the lawn in front of the upper basilica in 2003.

The lawn of the upper basilica.

The tour group met at 2 p.m. outside of the upper basilica to walk to our hotel, Il Sole, which was all the way on the other side of the Piazza Comunale. This was eerily reminiscent of the “death march” that Sue and I had undertaken two years ago. Fortunately we were starting at a higher altitude this time, and Nina at least knew for sure where she was going. Patti and Sue were allowed to proceed at their own painfully slow pace. When the rest of us reached the hotel, Tom and I got the keys. We were both on the ground floor of the annex across the street. We were in room #41, and Tom and Patti were assigned room #44.

The Temple of Minerva, now a church.

Tom and I decided to devote the rest of the remaining daylight to climbing up to the Rocca Maggiore, the fortress that sits above Assisi. First, however, I wanted to buy a book, and Tom wanted to do some errands of his own. We agreed to meet in a few minutes. I found an interesting-looking book in Italian. It was about Italy and its many invaders. I could hardly believe my good fortune. I expected to find nothing but religious books in Assisi. I never learned what Tom was doing while I was searching through the bookstore, but he still wanted to go to the Roman-Etruscan museum when we met again. Because I knew that the group had a trip to an Etruscan museum scheduled, I had little interest. While he was inside, I tooled around the nearby stores. The coolest thing that I saw was a wood-carved full-size motorcycle. I took a couple of photos of it. Tom said that they had a lot of stuff in the museum, but it was not very well labeled. You basically had to create your own tour.

The older tower of the Rocca Maggiore.

The walk up to the Rocca Maggiore was not as difficult as we had heard. Basically we walked up to the duomo of San Ruffino. I had to assume that since the basilicas of San Francesco were actually in the Vatican State that San Ruffino must act as the cathedral for the part of Assisi that is in Italy. We walked up quite a few steps from the duomo to the fortress, but it seemed no more difficult than climbing to the cupola in Rome or Florence.

The newer tower.

The fortress was originally build by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in the 12th century. This was slightly before Francis was born. The octagonal tower and the wall that connects it to the main tower were built by Pope Pius V centuries later. The function of the fort, which was originally designed to protect the possessions of the emperor, now became to protect a major center for pilgrimages from the troops of the emperor himself.

Seven guys were sitting outside the fort playing cards in the sun. One of them took a break from the game to sell us tickets. They also had snacks and beer for sale. Life must be good in Italy.

There were originally no stairs in the main tower. The sentries would let down a ladder from the top to let people climb up. They were careful to drag it back up with them after they had used it.

Seen from the Rocca: the valley.

The upper basilica.

Shadows across the valley.

The views from the top were exceptionally beautiful. I tried to take photos, but I doubted that they did justice to the actual views.

It would not be easy to sneak up on Assisi.

The tunnel going from the main tower to the octagonal tower must have been 100 feet long at least. It was perfectly straight and was lit every ten or twenty feet by small lights. Both of us had to bend to get through. Tom could barely fit at all. There was a circular stone staircase in the octagonal tower. The view at the top was the best of the trip so far. It must have been impossible for anyone to sneak up on Assisi from any direction if the lookouts were awake. The only down side was the wind, which by now was pretty strong. Up here there was nothing to block it. I pulled my visor down tightly on my head.

Looking down from the older tower.

On the way back to the original tower I tried a lot of different settings in order to get a snapshot of the tunnel. I took a snapshot of the entrance. I finally got one that portrayed the depth pretty well by using the night setting. I had to set the camera on the stone step to steady it.

The tunnel.

During the descent to the hotel we found what looked like a pretty good place to eat supper, the Trattoria Del Duomo. We also found a shortcut to the hotel down some alleys. We located the ladies in the hotel rooms. They agreed with the choice of the restaurant. It took us quite a while to get ready to eat. Then we had to make the climb up the stairs, which the ladies found arduous. By the time that we got back to the restaurant it was packed. We had to wait quite a bit longer than the promised “due minuti.”

Inside Trattoria del Duomo

The proprietor himself took our order. He used a computerized wand and a book that must have contained bar codes. The orders were evidently transmitted directly to the kitchen. I had pizza Al Duomo, which had ham and mushrooms. It came almost as soon as the others had finished ordering. The crust was very thin but it held together well. It was tasty. Sue had melons and prosciutto and a bowl of soup. Tom had lasagne. He also ordered some boiled mini-onions, but they never came. Evidently they were out of them, or they just didn't feel like fixing them. Patti had spaghetti with olive oil. She did not eat much of it. The roast chicken came very late, and someone from the restaurant removed Patti's unfinished plate of spaghetti before Tom could stab his hand with a fork.

Actually the food was pretty good. However, the problems with the delivery of the onions and the chicken definitely tarnished the overall effect. If we had arrived at the restaurant a little earlier, I think that we all would have enjoyed our meals a little more. I liked the atmosphere of the place because it was not too touristy.

Tom and Patti may have gone out for coffee after supper. I was too exhausted.