Itay: Walking up an appetite

Trekking across Umbria to Assisi might sound like a pilgrimage, but for Robin Lustig, the delights of the journey, from great scenery to gastronomy, were as sensual as they were spiritual
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The Independent Travel

The first time we got a glimpse of it, Assisi was little more than a faraway smudge, just below the horizon. Nestling in a fold of the hills, shimmering in the heat of an Umbrian afternoon, it could almost have been, for us latter-day pilgrims, John Winthrop's "shining city upon a hill", as he addressed the Puritans heading for the New World.

Not that there is anything Puritan about Assisi, of course; it oozes Catholic religiosity. And we pilgrims were cut from a different cloth than those who set out to found a new land in the Americas more than 350 years ago. We had come from Australia, South Africa, the UK and the US, and our goal was not to settle a land but merely to walk on it. Our pleasure was to be in the journeying as much as in the arriving.

You don't have to be especially religious to believe that arriving in Assisi on foot, having walked 70 kilometres across the hills of central Italy, is somehow appropriate in a region where so many millions of pilgrims have walked over the past centuries. In the event, it didn't work out exactly as planned -- and admittedly, our pilgrimage was more four-star than hair shirt – but the aim, I like to think, was a noble one.

We began in the quintessentially Umbrian town of Todi, where we found that the wonderful medieval Piazza del Popolo had been yet further beautified with resplendent plants and flowers in honour of the Feast of Corpus Christi. Like any self-respecting Umbrian town, Todi perches precariously on a hilltop, all narrow cobbled streets, ancient churches and giddying gradients. Even its recent colonisation by Rome's glitterati can't ruin it, despite a plethora of twee boutiques and absurdly priced handbags.

First stop was the magnificent early 17th-century Renaissance church of Santa Maria della Consolazione, just below the town walls, and then we walked up past one of Umbria's countless medieval masterpieces, the huge church of San Fortunato, which towers over the town, and remained clearly visible for many hours whenever we glanced behind us as we trekked across the hills.

In the beginning, we were strangers, united only by a love of Italy and of walking. But Chaucer would have recognised at least some of us: there was a Man of the Cloth (a South African member of the order of Redemptorists); a Man of Law, a Physician, and I suppose I might have passed as a Clerk. By the end of the week, we probably knew more about each other than anyone except our close family. And we had certainly told many stories.

Walking in company does require a peculiar mix of social skills. You need to know when to talk, and when to keep silent; when to walk side by side, and when to allow space for contemplation; when to pause to allow others to catch up, and when to stride out ahead to put space between yourself and your companions. Each of us, in our own way, found a pace, and an etiquette, that suited our needs.

The great advantage of walking out of medieval hilltop towns is that you tend to start the day heading downhill. The sun is not yet high in the sky, yet its warmth is welcome as you stride through the old town gates and out into the countryside.

In late May, crimson poppies, crisp blue columbines and a bewildering variety of wild orchids carpet the hillsides. The grey-green of the olive groves, the leaves on the ripening vines, the brooding shadows of the cypresses – little wonder that this has been home to so many of Europe's finest artists.

Like most reporters, I have the attention span of a gnat. So even on holiday, I need constant variety. Not for me a fortnight on a beach, still less two weeks of church-visiting or art-admiring. But give me a little bit of walking, an occasional church or museum, the chance to say nothing, and to chat when the mood changes, plus delicious meals and unusual wines, and you have a Lustig molto contento.

Walking for softies? Maybe it was. Our bags were miraculously transported for us as we made our meandering way towards Assisi; luxurious lunchtime picnics of cold meats, cheeses and salads were provided along the way; and we slept in beautiful hotels in converted palazzi. (My definition of a perfect hotel: frescoed ceilings and Wi-Fi.) But it was our feet that did the walking, and our legs that ached each night. And believe me, a four-course Italian meal tastes even better if you can convince yourself that you've earned it with some healthy physical exertion.

Our first day out of Todi took us up and over the Monte Martani, a stiffish hike up a stony woodland path until we reached a plateau, dazzling with the colours of wild flowers, and offering that first tantalising view of Assisi. Then a glorious walk down through the olive groves to the hamlet of Giano dell'Umbria.

Dinner that night, in the lovely neighbouring town of Bevagna, featured unforgettable gnocchi al sagrantino, a fabulous sauce based on the wine unique to this region. From Giano we walked to Montefalco, the so-called "balcony of Umbria", with vast views over the multi-hued Vale of Spoleto. And from there, we made our way through more vineyards and fields of ripening wheat to Spello, once a retirement home for clapped-out Roman legionnaires, now the proud possessor of some of the finest frescoes in Europe.

You'll find them in a side chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, the work of Pintoricchio, who painted them in 1501. Each is bursting with life, colour and narrative, yet not enough people know about Pintoricchio, and I reckon Spello is worth visiting for the frescoes alone.

Suitably spiritually refreshed by artistic genius, we set off on the final leg to Assisi, now a mere 10 kilometres away. But why do things the easy way, when there's a tempting mountain en route? Monte Subasio beckoned, so for two hours, we hauled ourselves up through yet more olive groves as Spello diminished into the distance below.

If you're going to spend the best part of a week walking to Assisi, it's not unreasonable to expect that you will, eventually, enter the town on foot. But as we approached the summit of Monte Subasio, the clouds descended to meet us. Soon we were enveloped in pouring rain, accompanied by crazily bouncing hailstones and a chill wind that cut through even the most sensible of clothing.

There are certain advantages to being on an organised walk. And when the thunder started rolling up the valley, help was quickly summoned. After a damp picnic lunch, huddled in our rescue minibus, all but the most determined accepted the offer of an admittedly ignominious lift into Assisi.

But the spirit of St Francis lives on. The following day, after a 7.30am visit to the incomparable Basilica di San Francesco, with an early- morning Mass being celebrated in the lower church, and not a soul in the upper church save for a couple of guards, we headed back up the hill to St Francis's hermitage, situated beneath a canopy of oak trees. And from there, we walked back down into Assisi, entering on foot, as was meant to be, through the magnificently imposing Porta Cappuccini (named after the monks, not the coffee).

And so, finally, it was mission accomplished. Pilgrimages come in all guises, and the joy of our walk through the hills of Umbria was that no part of us – whether spiritual or corporeal – remained untouched. For some of us, the wild flowers and the views will remain the most vivid memories; for others it will be the medieval churches and frescoes; for yet others, the sheer splendour and variety of the food and wine. But whichever shrine we chose to worship at, we reached it on foot.



Robin Lustig presents 'The World Tonight' on BBC Radio 4

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

Rome Fiumicino is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) from Heathrow and Gatwick; Alitalia (08705 448259; www.alitalia.com) from Heathrow; Aer Lingus (0870 876 5000; www.aerlingus.com) from Belfast; Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com) from Birmingham; Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522; www.flyglobespan.com) from Edinburgh; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) from Leeds/Bradford and Manchester.

Alternatively, overnight trains operate from London St Pancras to Rome via Paris (08448 484 064; www.raileurope.co.uk).

The writer booked the "Way to Assisi" walk with ATG Oxford (01865 315678; www.atg-oxford.com). The eight-day group trip costs £1,895 per person, which includes full-board accommodation, transfers to and from Rome Fiumicino Airport, and luggage transport between four-star palazzo hotels, but not flights. There are two more available departures this year, on 13 September and 19 December.



More information

Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; www.italian touristboard.co.uk

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