I had a plan.
I had it all figured out. I’d walk from Hotel Alexander, my B&B just off Assisi’s Piazza del Comune, down past San Damiano around 7am, just in time to hear the monks singing morning lauds. With my handy hiking-map in tow, purchased at the central book store in Assisi the day before, I’d find my way to Viola, a small village in between Assisi and Spello, and stop there for a mid-morning snack. From there I’d locate the “Path of Olives” on Mt Suvasio and walk down it most of the way to Spello, cutting down to the main road just in time to reach the Sportoletti Winery, a kilometer outside of Spello’s walls. I had a 12:30pm winery tour scheduled. After that, it would be easy to walk the next kilometer into Spello, hang out for an afternoon and then ride the train back to Assisi in time for dinner.
Sounds great, right? I thought so.
Unfortunately, there’s a saying about plans. About them “going awry”. And its too often true.
7am: I walked out of my hotel by Piazza Commune carrying the hiking map I had bought the day before in the town square. I knew that daytrippers didn’t usually start arriving for a few hours but I expected that locals would be up and about, starting their days. Nope. I could hear birds chirping and church bells ring the hour, but otherwise Assisi was silent.
I made my way toward the archway in the city walls that lead toward San Damiano, boots echoing off the stone. It was a bit eery, so quiet. Almost like a movie set.
The sun wasn’t up over the hills yet but was casting a dim glow over the valley. Absolutely beautiful.
7:20am: I walked down toward San Damiano, a 12th century church built by St. Claire and restored by St. Francis, and heard morning lauds drifting up from small chapel. Making a note to come back the following morning to attend, I turned left instead of right at a fork in the road, taking me away from the monastery and toward Spello.
Looking behind me I could see San Damiano perched on the hill, hiding my view of Assisi behind it, sunlight starting to stream down on its roofs. I was incredibly happy and inspired. The air was cool and fresh, the sun would warm my skin and take off the night’s chill, I’d spend the morning walking through beautiful olive groves and luncheon at a local winery. How perfect!
My hiking map distinguishes between “tracks” and “mule tracks” and “forest paths” and “tramped-earth roads”, but I’m not sure that *I* really knew the difference. Regardless, after my first few turns I felt pretty confident.
The Umbrian countryside astounded me. I grew up in the suburbs but 10 minutes away were cow pastures, so I was used to seeing livestock, but our pastures in Florida couldn’t hold a candle to this. This made me want to be a shepard.
8:30am: I think I might’ve confused a “track” with a “forest path” somewhere along the way and now I have no idea where I am. I know that to one side of me there’s a mountain and to the other – eventually – a large road that runs between Assisi and Spello, so I just keep going. I’ll get…somewhere, if I walk long enough.
9am: At this point I was getting a little too frustrated to take any pictures. My ambivalent, “live in the moment” attitude from earlier was starting to escape me as I stared at this ridiculously confusing hiking map, in the middle of the countryside with nothing notable to reference and figure out where I was, not knowing how far I’d walked or if I was just turning to continuously walk up and down the hill instead of actually making progress toward Spello. I decided to start walking down the mountain, toward the road, thinking there had to be more activity and people to ask in that direction.
9:15am: Well, there certainly wasn’t much.
I come to the intersection of three roads forming a sort of “Y”, one leading down the mountain, the other leading back up in the opposite diagonal from where I had just come from. Trying to decide which one to take, I heard two faint voices off to my right. Thinking this might be the opportunity to ask for directions that I’d been hoping for, I rush over to the side of the road where the land drops down fairly drastically. Down off the shoulder, covered by overhanging trees, is a garden and a small cottage. And in the garden are two stereotypical Italian gentlemen (brown cotton pants and suspenders, white linen shirts and black vests, small flat caps). They seem to just have emerged from the back door of the cottage and are talking, one pointing to plants and gesturing energetically.
At the time I spoke virtually no Italian, but I called out to them: “Scusi! Scusi!”. They look up and and continued, “Dove Viola?”. The two men look at each other, confused. I repeat, “Dove… Viola?”
“Viola?”, one of them says, taking off his hat to scratch his head.
“Si”, I said. “Viola”.
They still look confused, glancing at each other and repeating, “Viola, Viola”.
Then one of them looked up with a look of understanding on his face, “Oh! Viola!” He said it slightly differently, but yeah, sure, I’d go with it.
The apparent owner of the garden then began miming out directions (“take the fork in the road to your left, walk a ways up the hill and you’ll find it”), both of them smiling ear to ear like this is a fun game of charades. I suppose it was, in a way, and I actually thought I understood what they were trying to tell me, so I thanked them with a cheery “Grazie”, spirits restored, and set out toward “Viola”… however you say it.
More to come on my morning hike from Assisi to Spello…