We couldn’t have arrived at a more perfect time. The setting sun was throwing it’s last rays on Assisi’s medieval walls and majestic Basilica, gently painting each stone a shimmering, dusky rose and transforming the whole town into a glowing beacon of warmth and peace …. one could almost feel a divine presence standing there welcoming all pilgrims and travelers with open arms and offering shelter and spiritual rest. The spirits of St. Francis and St. Clare themselves maybe – both patron saints of Assisi.
Even as we slowly drove up the olive tree and cypress-lined streets to the top of the old town, the last eight hours on the road suddenly dropped away and I could feel my own spirit restored.
My spirit might have been restored, but unfortunately my physical body was still complaining …. so after quickly checking into our hotel, we wandered out into the now crisp evening air and down the quiet, softly-lit cobbled streets in search of food and drink.
We tried a delicious local aperitivo – a sparkling rosé ‘umbro’ (from Umbria) almost the exact colour of Assisi at ‘tramonto’ (sunset)….before warming ourselves up with one of my favourite Italian soups, ‘ribollita’ a hearty, rustic soup that originates from next-door Tuscany. The soup uses a combination of bread, cannellini beans, vegetables, cabbage and kale and is basically, as the name implies (‘re-boiled’) a soup of left-overs. But it was exactly what was needed after a long stressful drive ….and now both spirit and body were very, very happy!
The next day was sunny and hot – cloudless blue skies and a feeling of excitement in the air at the thought of exploring somewhere new.
But first a coffee.
We strolled down narrow streets, passing the Cattedrale di San Rufino until, descending even further, we found a great outdoor coffee spot with some mellow live guitar music being played by a mellow live Italian guitarist. He was crooning Frank Sinatra’s classic, ”My Way” with a husky, sexy Italian accent and attracting all the local ragazze (young girls)…and not only them I have to add!
Unfortunately I knew that all this walking ‘down’ meant that at some point we would have to do quite a lot of walking ‘up’. …but after so much time in the car I had to grudgingly admit that exercise was needed! And I must say by the time we left I was feeling much fitter after all those hilly walks.
But carrying on….the must-see of Assisi is of course the magnificent Upper and Lower Basilica (and Friary), constructed around the tomb of St. Francis in the late 13th century and ever since considered to be the head and mother church of the Franciscan Order.
Walking through the doors brought a sense of reverence not only for the artistic splendors inside – many of them recently restored after the devastating earthquake of 1997 – but also in memory of St. Francis himself, his humble life and selfless love.
The Basilica houses spectacular frescos from some of the greatest artists of that time – Cimabue, Lorenzetti, Martini – and Giotto. Between 1297-1300 Giotto painted his glorious cycle of 28 frescoes in the Upper Basilica depicting the life of St. Francis, whilst above the altar in the Lower Basilica I particularly loved his luminous ‘Allegory of the Vows’ with St. Francis seated in glory amongst the allegories of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.
The Ecstasy of St. Francis @wanderingcarol.com
Having spent all morning exploring the Basilica, we decided to venture further afield – just a couple of kilometres outside the city – where we found the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels.
Although an imposing 16th century church in itself, the inside is where the secret lies. Sitting in the centre of the nave you can see a tiny chapel called the ‘Portiuncula’ – literally ‘a little part’ – which is the beautifully preserved site of Francis’s original hut. It was a spot loved by both Francis and Clare, and was where Francis first came to understand his true mission, where he gathered the first brothers to form the Franciscan Order in 1209 and where he asked for and obtained the pardon of forgiveness for all. It’s also where he died.
We decided to end our sight-seeing day here. There was one other place we particularly wanted to see before leaving Assisi, but we decided to wait for the next day.
The place was Spello, a little jewel of a town which everyone had said was a must-see. And they were right, it was beautiful and I could imagine how stunning it must be in spring and summer when they say the whole town is full of flowers.
It was hard to resist trying all the different local olive oils on offer, tasting opportunities were everywhere. Umbrian olive oil is quite delicious – it’s light and mildly fruity with just a hint of pepperiness, not too overpowering and ideal for just dunking bread in and eating as is. I heard the Spello tourist guide saying that no local here would dream of buying oil, everyone produces their own.
On the whole, the menus in this area tended to be heavy on meat and there seemed to be an abundance of salami and prosciutto shops with the odd stuffed wild boar face grinning from shop windows. Lurking amongst these well-stocked shops I spotted an alarming yet intriguing display of specialty treats on offer including ‘coglioni di mulo’ or mules testicles – swinging enticingly in the centre – whilst an eye-popping notice signalling ‘le palle de nonno’ or ‘grandpa’s balls’ was attached close by…shock over, all I could really think of was poor grandpa!
Anyway, I think I’m going to quickly change the subject and talk instead of our evening meal in Assisi which definitely didn’t include any of the above!
I chose a simple egg dish which quickly became very un-simple and sophisticated when it was showered with feathery white truffle shavings – my absolute favourite and I was in heaven!
To finish we were served with a slice of ‘Rocciata di Assisi’ and a glass of Vin Santo (or Holy Wine). The rather unromantic name ‘rocciata’ translates literally as Rock of Assisi, suggesting that you’re in for a dangerous tooth-breaking experience – however, it’s actually referring to the twisted rock-like shape of the pastry!
This ancient traditional pastry, is somewhat similar to a strudel and although eaten all year round, is particularly made in the autumn and winter months around All Saints’ Day….which for us, happened to be the following day.
It was delicious, not too sweet and very Christmassy with its filling of dried fruits and spices….so much so that I determined to try making it when I got home and perhaps even use instead of mince pies this year.
It’s easy to make so I can recommend trying it out and giving your meal an Italian twist this year!
RECIPE: ROCCIATA di ASSISI
Traditionally the rocciata is made into a curve or horseshoe shape but you can also leave it as a log. Here as you can see I made a horseshoe shape as I was thinking of the good luck aspect! I based my rocciata on a recipe from www.gustissimo.it so I have them to thank. The olive oil pastry is easy to make and easy to roll out – the trick is to make sure it’s nice and thin, but of course you could always use filo pastry if you prefer. Vin Santo or Holy Wine is an Italian dessert wine so you could use any dessert wine or, as I did, you could substitute with sherry – or even port or madeira.
Time: 90 minutes
Preheat oven: 200C/400F
For the fruit mixture
1 lemon, organic if possible
500g fresh & dried fruits (I used one large cooking apple and then a mixture of raisins, almonds, walnuts, chestnuts and prunes)
100g brown muscovado sugar
2 tablespoons Vin Santo (or dessert wine, sherry, port or madeira)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
For the pastry
200g plain flour
50g caster sugar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Warm water to mix
Oil, butter or an egg to glaze
Wash the lemon and grate the peel.
Peel and core the apple and cut into cubes. Place them in a bowl together with the coarsely chopped dried fruit, lemon peel and muscovado sugar. Then stir in the vin santo, olive oil and ground cinnamon and mix everything well. Add more vin santo or oil if the mixture is too dry….you want it moist but not liquid. Leave aside for the moment.
Pour the flour, salt, sugar and oil onto the pastry board or into a large bowl. Start kneading the ingredients by gradually adding a little warm water to better work the mixture which needs to be soft and smooth. Then let it rest for at least 15 minutes by covering with a clean cloth.
After this time, take the dough, knead it for a few more minutes and roll it out with a rolling pin in order to obtain a wide, thin sheet. Distribute the filling evenly and then roll up the pastry on itself like a swiss roll.
Place your ‘rock’ in a lightly greased pan and brush all over with oil or butter. (I suggest using an egg wash to give it more colour and glaze).
Bake for about 30 minutes at 180/200C. Before serving, slice and sprinkle with icing sugar
N.B. You can store this for a few days in a cool place (but not the fridge).
Lower Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. c. 1320.