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Looking around Do you know that kids show 'Go outside' with the woman and her collie in the biplane? I took her message very much to heart.

Notes on Umbria

UNITED KINGDOM | Friday, 26 June 2015 | Views [139]

We had decided we needed some time out of the city, and planned to stay for a few days in the isolated peace of the Perugian hills. A bus ride outside the city of Perugia was a farmhouse hostel with donkeys and rentable bikes. Umbria, though lacking in exciting things to do, is much more beautiful than Tuscany in my opinion. Everywhere looks as if it’s crying out to be admired, touched, strolled on, cycled on or just enjoyed. The rolling hills are not as spectacular as lush and rocky Liguria but it kind of reminded me of home; of bike rides to Cannock Chase on Sunday afternoons. We got off at the wrong bus stop and had to walk a little longer than expected, which was totally my fault. But the farmhouse itself was secluded off the main road, down a dusty lane with wild garlic and lavender growing along it. My friend, more in tune with plants than me stopped to point some out and we were met by an old woman walking the opposite direction. She explained that the man who owned the farmhouse was her grandson. We followed her directions and kept walking until we came to an idyllic gate completely bathed in lavender and butterflies and bees. We spent the rest of the day just relaxing in Perugia, sitting outside under the grape veins and eating homemade pizza with the other guests.

The next day we decided to go on an organised trip to the Perguina chocolate factory that was just down the road. We learnt all about the famous Italian chocolate Baci, how it was invented by a husband and wife who worked in the factory, and the little love notes are inspired by the love notes they used to pass to each other. Originally the wife wanted to call them punches because the shape looks like a fist, but a savvy business type recommended they call them kisses instead, because they’d sell better, which they did. We also got to taste a lot of them. And witness some of the problematic Italian advertising posters they’d used in the forties to symbolise mixing milk and chocolate, if you can imagine. If you like mixing nuts and chocolate, as all sane people should in my opinion, then Italy is for you. Just think of Nutella, that stuff flows like ambrosia here, and most places in Europe actually, god it’s delicious isn’t it? What was I saying? Oh yes. The chocolate factory was a fun, and non-strenuous way to spend the day. The walk wasn’t so bad there, but coming back, in the midday heat it seemed much further. For the rest of the day we did nothing. We just relaxed by the pool, bathing in the sun, reading, sleeping or sketching the hills.

We broke our streak of doing very little the next day and took two buses and a train to get to the medieval hill top town of Assisi. At the bottom of the hill there was a whole field of sunflowers, and at the top you could see across the field of Umbria. It’s a gorgeous little town, similar to the windy streets and picturesque stairways of Urbino, which we visited earlier in our trip.

If you know anything about medieval catholic saints, which honestly why would you, you’ll know Assisi is home to the famous saint Francis of Assisi, namesake of the Franciscan order of monks. As far as medieval saints go Francis is a popular one, evidently from the queues of tourists who came to visit his tomb, vaulted below the Cathedral. Though even if you don’t care about showing respects to dead saints, Assisi’s Cathedral is worth a visit. Forget the Notre Dame, forget bare stone walls and echoey churches, this is what a medieval church looked like. On the outside it is not very special. A simple white stone building with a bell tower and a hint of gothic stained glass. But on the inside, it’s spectacular. Every wall is painted with elaborate and highly colourful frescoes of Francis’ life. Mosaics of colourful tiles fill the columns and the entire floor. But the most spectacular is the low vaulted ceiling, which is painted a rich royal blue and scattered with hundreds of individual painted golden stars, to mirror the night sky. Outside it was oppressively hot but now inside I swear I could feel a cool evening breeze from that celestial illusion. I overheard a tour guide say the frescoes are particularly special because they were the first to be painted in 3D perspective. They’re not fantastically realistic, in fact they reminded me a lot of paintings I used to do as a child, but that was somehow comforting.

Downstairs there was the low, dark crypt. A conveyer-belt of people trudged toward a large, wide, circular pillar made of brick with a marble lip at the bottom to pray or sit and put tokens and offerings on. This was the tomb of Francis of Assisi. About a hundred or so people were crammed in this little cellar, scrambling for a pew and attempting to sneak a photograph without the angry volunteers exasperatingly pointing to the no photos sign. You’d be surprised how many people tried to take one despite that. I couldn’t decide if it was ballsy or disrespectful. You couldn’t really stop to take any of it in, you were pulled along with the current of visitors.

The rest of the day we spent just relaxing in Assisi and trying to avoid the hot sun. We knew that this part of Italy was famous for its truffles so we found a nice restaurant to eat dinner in and ordered something with truffles on it. Honestly truffles just taste like really strong mushrooms, but still the food was good. We went back to Perguia, spent our last relaxing night in the hills and prepared to get the early morning train to Rome.

Taking the 7.09 am train from Perugia to Rome reminds me how much I miss my early morning commutes to college. The world is most beautiful in the morning, before the sun has had chance to begin its oppressive reign, or the rain clouds have staged their coup d’état, when the world glows a blue-grey colour. The shadows on the ground solely pull back as everything stretches to life. The morning breeze snaps you awake, caresses you or bites you like nudging cat impatient for your attention. I feel serene at this time of the day, and I feel serene on a train; temporarily suspended in time and space; just an observer to the world’s levee. And Italy is also most beautiful in the morning, without the heat or the fiery sun glaring off the hills.

Tags: assisi, baci, perguia, perugina, relax, saint francis, umbria

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