Today we were touring with Sense Umbria, Narelle and Troy Hindley, two Australians now living in Umbria. See www.senseumbria.com for details of their tours.
We were meeting outside Firenze Santa Maria Novella at 8am. Up early we walked to the station. We had a photo of Narelle hopefully we would recognize her.
It was Friday morning; the traffic was bad and getting a park near the station almost impossible. Half an hour later Narelle arrived on foot, Troy having to park in the Station car park. Soon we were on our way, heading south towards the Province of Arezzo.
Our first stop was to be Le Celle of Cortona. It was here in 1211 St Francis of Assisi created the monastery and sanctuary of Le Celle. After receiving official recognition from the Pope for his new Franciscan way of life, St Francis set out on his apostolic mission.
Although Troy and Narelle had visited Cortona neither had been to Le Celle. The tom tom was invaluable.
We left the car at the top of the hill and walked down the stone path across the bridge into this remote quiet holy place. History tells us there were buildings here before St Francis arrived, mills and small cavities carved within the rocks. St Francis was known to alternate between periods of his apostolic missions and the need for intense spiritual withdrawal and contemplation.
During his times of contemplation he sought out places of solitude, wooded areas, remote rocky outlets. Here at le Celle he chose a crack in the rock face for his living space. This is still visible today, with only minor changes.
There was quietness here, serenity…a remote haven where solitude and meditation were paramount. La Celle is a place of significance, from the arrival of St Francis to the Franciscan brothers who have passed through these walls.
No one spoke; there was a reverence about the place similar to being inside a Basilica. The only sounds were those of the water as it flowed over the rocks and the troubadours of the forest as they sang their sweet songs.
La Celle sits within high mountains creating waterfalls cascading across the rocks, under the bridge and disappearing into the forest. There is a distinct change in the sound as the water passes from the rocks to the leaves on the creek bed.
The place seemed deserted with only a few visitors. We went into the small cell St Francis chose as his room…a stone cave. We walked up a staircase and found a small church, originally built by the Fraticelli, Spiritual Franciscans, in 1314. Later the church was transformed into the classical choir of the Capuchins, an order of Friars. It was easy to sit here and contemplate the wonder of life and to admire the Franciscans devotion to a life of poverty and service.
It was time to leave. We were heading into Cortona. On the way we stopped for a photo opportunity of Frances Mayes home, the real Casa Bramasole. The home sits on the side of a hill surrounded by beautiful gardens and a long driveway. The actual home used in the film ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ is also near Cortona.
Cortona is the main cultural and artistic centre of the Val di Chiana – a valley lying on the territories of the provinces of Arezzo and Siena in Tuscany and Perugia and Terni in Umbria. Troy dropped us in the main street, Via Nazionale, and went to park the car.
The village sits 600 metres up on the hillside. The architecture is medieval with steep narrow cobblestone streets. We walked until we came to Piazza Luca Signorelli. Here the menfolk of the village sat watching, chatting, a time to while away the day. We visited the Teatro Signorelli, a neo classical theatre built in 1854. With its high narrow red velvet seating the theatre is reminiscent of the Opera houses of Rome, Florence and Paris. Today it doubles as a cinema, conference centre and bar.
We left Cortona and drove southwest to Montepulciano in the Province of Siena. Montepulciano sits 605 metres high on a limestone ridge and is a walled medieval and renaissance village built in the 14th century. The main street stretches from Porta al Prato to the Piazza Grande at the top of the hill. Like Cortona, the streets of Montepulciano are steep. Fortunately for us Troy dropped us at the top of the hill and went to find a park at the bottom. We slowly made our way down to a small Trattoria for lunch.
Along the way we visited the Castle of Montepulciano that was the heart of the first fortified citadel of the ancient city walls. The fortress was under restoration and closed for winter. Further down we came across the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, built in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The Cathedral is famous for the artwork it contains, a monument dedicated to Bartolomeo Aragazzi an archpriest in 1427 and the famous ‘Assumption’ by Taddeo di Bartolo from the 15th century.
The streets were quiet with many shops and restaurants closed for winter. We spent a couple of hours in the warmth of Osteria Porta di Bacca enjoying the wonderful food, wine and company. When we emerged the weather seemed to be attempting to clear.
We left Montepulciano and drove to Castiglione del Lago. This is a walled city surrounded by Lake Trasimeno. Once the fourth island of the lake, over the centuries the gap between island and the shore has been filled with houses, churches, piazzas and other buildings. This beautiful historical centre is a well-preserved medieval old city. We walked the streets and stood by the wall with views across the lake.
By now it was getting late. We headed home. Troy and Narelle dropped us back at the station. As they are not residents of Florence they are forbidden from driving or parking within the old city.
We thanked them both for a wonderful day and walked home. Dinner in tonight with a couple of wines and a well earned sleep.