Welcome back to another day on the Gita Italiana — do you need a rest yet? Sorry, you won’t be getting one until August is over!
Today we’re spending time getting to know and love Assisi with Rebecca Winke of Rebecca’s Ruminations; you may also know her as one of the driving forces behind the Agriturismo Brigolante in Umbria. Welcome Rebecca!
There’s a tipping point on the eternal scale of love.
At the beginning, you fall for the love of your life for the big things—her eyes, her smile, the way she walks—in short, those same things that have smitten every guy who has come before you and are still what make heads turn. But slowly, over time, your focus shifts and at a certain point you realize that what you love about her now are the little things, details so small and intimate that you feel like you, and only you, know. The way she looks sad when she talks about her grandfather, how she bites her lip when she’s nervous, her secret stash of Phil Collins albums. And though she may be admired the world over for the big things, it’s those little ones that make her yours.
This is where I’m at with Assisi. Years ago I fell in love with her for the big things—the Basilica of Saint Francis, the winding alleys lined with pink stone houses, the pretty piazza—all of those things that have struck visitors for centuries before me.
But now, after almost 20 years of living here, I love her for the small things, my private collection of quirks that makes me feel like we belong together.
Her Checkered Past
Sure, your woman is a staid mater familias now, admired for her domestic organization, professionalism, and civic activism. But you know. You know she shies away from tank tops and sundresses because of that tattoo on her shoulder, the one she now finds tacky and slightly embarrassing, but which is the only remaining evidence of a ten-month long teen rebellion that involved quitting school, thumbing it to California, hooking up with a ne’er-do-well group of hemp activists, and finally having to call collect from a biker jamboree in one of the Dakotas for money to fly home and shower. And you love that tattoo.
Assisi is all peace and love and Saint Francis now. But I know. I know her past as a scrappy little warmonger, wreaking havoc in neighboring Perugia and Arezzo and taking up arms at the drop of a hat (for better or for worse) against Rome, the Byzantine empire, and the Lombards (amongst others). Today, Assisi is admired for her Basilica (the one dedicated to Saint Francis who was, before his religious conversion, a fierce merchant-warrior who survived numerous battles and captivity), but I love to visit one of the only vestiges of her bellicose past: the captivating and dramatic Rocca Maggiore, her stone fortress set above the town. I wander through the semi-restored tunnels and turrets, and climb the far tower to gaze over the whole of the Umbrian valley with a conquerer’s eye. I know.
Her Chipped Tooth
Everyone loves her smile because it’s perfect; you love it because you know it’s not.
Whenever I visit the Basilica, I always stop to admire the famous fresco cycle in the upper church documenting the life of Saint Francis, with its breathtaking first steps towards conveying depth and perfect rendering of facial features. But what I spend most my time in front of is Cimabue’s magnificent Crucifixion decorating the apse, with St. Francis on his knees at the foot of the Cross. Because the artist used lead oxide in his colours, which were applied when the plaster was no longer fresh, the frescoes soon suffered from damp and decay and deteriorated to photographic negatives. Somehow seeing a great master’s “Doh!” moment makes all the perfection just a little more human and lovable.
What’s Really Important to Her
You’ve heard her hold forth at dinner parties about travel, food, wine, shopping, and all six seasons of SATC. But you’ve also listened to her read pages from her diary out loud to you in bed. You know what she would run back into the burning house to save.
Assisi has shops, restaurants, music and arts festivals, religious feast days, nattily dressed inhabitants, and many, many cell phones. But if you really want to see what makes this town tick, take the pretty walk past Porta San Giacomo to the cemetary. Aside from being architecturally lovely in that way that old monumental European cemetaries so often are, here you will discover the soul of Assisi. Notice the names on the stones that repeat over and over, as generations live out their lives in this small town. See the carefully tended graves, as women return every week to freshen flowers and polish marble. Watch as they tenderly touch the portraits attached to the graves and quietly greet their loved ones. Assisi would run back into the burning house to save her family.
How She Sleeps
Nothing is more intimate than looking down on your love’s face while she sleeps, and, indeed, the winter months when the tourists have left and Assisi seems to have fallen into quiet repose is when I feel closest to her. I wander her silent streets on a misty February night, hear the echo of my footsteps, discover alleys and winding staircases, and have only the occasional cat or church bell tolling as company. Everyone loves her when she’s awake and vibrant in the sunshine; I love her when she’s all shuttered up in the fog.
She Can Still Dazzle You
Yes, you are over the big stuff. But every once in awhile she comes down the stairs dressed for an evening out and manages to leave you breathless and head-over-heels in love again.
I see Assisi every day. I admit I get inured to her beauty after awhile. And then there will be that one magical fall evening when I’m headed up the hill and the light is just the right shade of dusk to set the whole town ablaze in pink and orange and the sky is an improbable azure and the mountain she perches on is an autumn firestorm and the air is so limpid that you can see every detail to postcard perfection and I am so smitten that I pull the car over and put my life on hold for ten minutes to watch my beautiful Assisi in all her glory. And I think, “It’s you and me, baby. We’re in it for the long haul.”
Rebecca moved to Italy from Chicago in 1993 and shortly thereafter opened an agriturismo in her husband’s renovated family farmhouse at the foot of Mount Subasio near Assisi, Umbria. She spends her time taking care of guests at Brigolante, blogging about the lovely region she now calls home at Rebecca’s Ruminations, and wondering about what strange winds blew an urban vegetarian to a pig farm in Umbria.