Friday, May 27, 2016

Assisi: Basilica di San Francesco & Taverna Consoli

Perched on a cliff along the walls of Assisi, the approach to the Basilica di San Francesco can be overpowering. Assisi is the birthplace of St. Francis, who was born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone in 1182 and later founded the Franciscan Order and Women’s Order of Santa Clara. Thousands come to worship in Assisi's magnificent churches, and to pray to Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Italy affectionately called Il Poverello because he lived and preached a life of simplicity and poverty. Famous for its spectacular Basilica di San Francesco, built in the 13th century, Assisi is worth visiting even without the churches, extraordinary frescoes and associations with St Francis. Founded by the Umbrians, Assisi was prominent during the Roman era but achieved its greatest fame and importance during the Middle Ages. The town still retains the architectural flavour of these times, as we enjoyed strolling through its extraordinary squares and streets.

A labyrinth of meandering Medieval walkways wind through Assisi

The Basilica di San Francesco is perhaps the most visited sight in Umbria, housing the saint’s relics and Giotto‘s renowned fresco series of St. Francis’s life

View of the Basilica 

Sculpture on the front lawn of the Basilica depicting St Francis as a soldier
before he devoted himself to a life of poverty

The Basilica, which was begun in 1228, is comprised of two churches known as the Upper Church and the Lower Church, with a crypt on the lower level where the remains and relics of St Francis are interred. The Basilica and accompanying friary are a distinctive landmark when approaching the hilltop town of Assisi, one of the most important stops for Christian pilgrims visiting Italy. The Basilica's breathtaking interior and world famous frescoes, painted by the greatest artists of the time including Giotto and Cimabue, portray the life of St Francis as well as scenes from the Old and New Testament. An exquisite church with a fabulous collection of priceless frescoes, it was tragic, when in 1997, massive earthquakes hit Assisi, causing enormous damage to the Basilca and the fragile frescoes located within. Astoundingly, the restoration was done in record time, and the Basilica was reopened just two years later. Today, pilgrims flock to Assisi and the Basilica di San Francesco with the hauntingly beautiful lower church where St. Francis is buried — a simple tomb with a vaulted ceiling, painted dark blue and dotted with stars.

The interior of the Upper Church of St Francis with Giotto's fresco cycle on the life of St Francis

The Stigmata of St. Francis by Giotto, painted 1297-1300 

Saint Francis' Sermon to the Birds

Miracle of the Spring

The Basilica of St Francis - The Lower Church

Side Chapel in the Basilica

The Burial Tomb of St Francis of Assisi in the Basilica

The interior Cloisters of the Church

One of the older sites within the ancient town is the former Temple of Minerva, now a Christian church, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The entire Roman facade, with its imposing Corinthian columns are from the first century BC. After several centuries of abandonment, 6th century Benedictine monks began to restore the space, but from the 13th to the early 16th century, the temple was even used as a city jail! In 1539, Pope Paul III ordered the inner sanctum to be completely restored. The church nave now is decorated in an extravagant Baroque style, which is unbelievably beautiful, but the contrast to the classical exterior is quite shocking.

The Roman facade of The Temple of Minerva is now a Christian Church with an extravagant Baroque interior

A pigeon waiting outside the temple for an offering perhaps

Temple of Minerva's Baroque apse

The ceiling is wildly ornate in such sharp contrast the stark Roman exterior

View over the Val d'Umbria on our stroll to the Basilica of Santa Chiara

Exterior of the Basilica di Santa Chiara, a 13th-century church that houses the relics of St. Clare, 
a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi and founder of the Order of Poor Ladies, 
known today as the Order of Saint Clare

The beautifully carved door and architrave

Carving detail of a lamb on the entry to Santa Chiara, the symbol for Christ

The church interior was given a Baroque makeover in 1742-57, 
which was sadly destroyed by an Allied bomb in August 1943

Ornate painting of St Francis 

In addition to Assisi's religious and cultural highlights, Assisi is also famous for its fine restaurants. Located in one of the most beautiful buildings in the historic centre of Assisi, with glorious views over La Piazza del Comune, is Taverna dei Consoli, which has been in business with three generations of one family since 1936. The menu emphasizes local cuisine using traditional recipes and delicious local produce, such as black truffles from Norcia, porcini mushrooms, wild boar and game plus a selection of regional cheeses. The charming interior has retained much of the original splendour of its Roman and medieval heritage with vaulted ceilings and stone arches, but on a warm summer day the best place to have lunch is on the outdoor terrace overlooking the main square. 

The beautiful exterior of Taverna dei Console overlooking the fountain in Piazza del Comune

The canopy covered entrance to Taverna dei Consoli

Having reserved a table a month before, our terrace table was ready and waiting

A delightfully long and sumptuous menu on a sunny afternoon on the best terrace in Assisi

Fresh bread...

...a glass of Prosecco...

...and an Aperol Spritz - heaven!

Prosciutto Crudo di Norcia e Crostini con Paté di Fegato di Pollo

Insalate di Finocchio e Pecorino Umbro

Grilled Raddichio

Pappardelle di Ragu Rosso di Chinghiale

Umbrian Sausages with Polenta

Lamb Cutlets

Roasted Potatoes



Thursday, May 26, 2016

Arezzo: Piero della Francesca & Lancia D'Oro

With its origins dating back to the Paleolithic era, Etruscan Arretium was founded around the 9th-century BC, and quickly became one of the most important cities in Tuscany, playing an important role over the centuries due to its strategic position along the Via Cassia. Arezzo's most powerful period came during the Middle Ages, before the town was taken over by Florence, and even though much of the centre was destroyed during World War II, Arezzo is today a vibrant wealthy city with many exquisite monuments, churches and museums remaining, allowing visitors a unique opportunity to step back into the city's rich and colourful history. The city's greatest artistic treasure however, is Piero della Francesca's fresco cycle The Legend of the True Cross, located in the Basilica of San Francesco. Started in 1452, this early Renaissance masterpiece tells the story of the 'True Cross', considered to be Piero della Francesca’s greatest masterpiece and narrates a medieval story about the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The story tells the legend of the cross used to crucify Christ, from sprig to Tree of Knowledge, to its use a bridge during the reign of Solomon, and ultimately its discovery by Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor.

Piero della Fransesca's fresco of the Legend of the True Cross

Closeup of the 'Annunciation'

The Dream of Constantine, one of the earliest nocturnal scenes in Western art

Triptych beside the Legend of the True Cross

A Friar lights candles on the altar in preparation for a special service

After viewing the fresco cycle, the church stopped admitting visitors as a special mass 
started to get underway

As the mass started, each member of the clergy stood and began to sing in harmony

Once the service became more intense and the devout began to pray, we left the church quietly and made our across the piazza for lunch

One of the more picturesque places to eat in Arezzo, is under the beautiful sun bathed Loggia designed by Giorgio Vasari. One of the prettier restaurants nestled under the vaulted colonnade is Trattori Lancia D'Oro, which serves traditional Tuscan and Arezzo cuisine with delicious homemade pasta and an admirable wine list of local wines — the ideal spot to enjoy a wonderful lunch, a bottle of wine and wait out the stormy weather out on the piazza.

With a little rain and a wee bit of thunder, we found a lovely outdoor trattoria in the Vasari Loggia

The outdoor loggia of La Lancia D'Oro

The menu features typical Arezzo cuisine

Warm homemade foccacia with roasted tomato and zucchini

An amuse bouche of hot tomato and bread soup

A local Chianti

A glass of lovely red wine to enjoy with our lunch

Rocca di Castagnoli Le Pergoline, a Tuscan white wine

A light crisp white wine, perfect for a sunny and stormy afternoon

Lasagna Verde with béchamel and bolognese sauce

Pici al Ragu di Chinghiale

Macchiato Caldo