The Land of the Fox, Squirrel, Badger and Dormouse

Mont termenilloThe rocks and woods of Italy’s Valle Santa di Rieti are filled with natural beauty.  The ancient forests, deep rivers and springs create a fertile plain with an abundance of wildlife living in such harmony with nature that it inspired St. Francis of Assisi to write the “Canticle of Creatures” one of the world’s most beloved spiritual texts. Also known as The Canticle of Brother Sun it praises God through the elements of the earth (sun, moon, stars, wind, water and fire) and reflects Francis’ personal theology about the relationship between the creatures of the earth referred to as brothers and sisters to Mankind.

The sacred nature of the Rieti Valley is celebrated each October with the Cammino di San Francesco (St. Francis Walk) a pilgrimage walk along the same route travelled by Francis through the Sacred Valley. The 80 km of paths and roads can be done by foot, bycycle, mountain bike, horse or car and follows the spirit of the Franciscans; purity, poverty and a respect for the environment. You can stop at various Franciscan santuaries along the way traveling through an  extraordinary landscape of valleys and mountains filled with the colors of the season to experience  the mystic beauty of a land once walked by a saint. The Walk will take you to the medieval walled city of Rieti and the fairytale landscape of Poggio Bustone passing through Rivodutri’s mysterious Alchemic Gate. On the other side of the Sacred Valley you will visit Greccio, known as the Franciscan Bethlehem. It was here, in the winter of 1223, that St. Francis celebrated Christmas Eve with the Nativity CrècSt. Francs Walkhe that has become a seasonal tradition of faith renewed with live open-air scenes in Greccio and throughout Italy at Christmas time. There are various other stops and sites along the Sacred Way marked with special signs and an itinerary with a “pilgrim’s passport” (to be stamped at the sanctuaries) as a remembrance of your journey.  Walking through a land where the creatures of the forest and stream look to you as their brother and sister to reflect Francis’ sweet song of praise.

*Other significant areas that follow the path of St. Francis include Assisi, Gubbio and La Verna

It’s Not Christmas in Italy until . . .

Every country has certain rituals and traditions that give meaning to the 1950’s classic holiday song “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”. For most it probably has to do with putting up and decorating the Christmas tree. In Italy setting up il presepe is what creates that Christmas feeling. Il presepe (presepio) is the Italian Christmas crèche or nativity scene that depicts the birth of Jesus as described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Although many Christians outside of Italy include a manger with Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels awaiting the birth of Jesus few achieve the intricate detail of il presepe. The least of Italian presepe scenes are elaborate constructions that create a tablescape of buildings and figures while others achieve the intricacy of a museum diorama complete with running streams and flickering fires.

presepio bestAcross the country in churches, town squares and shop windows there are incredible scenes of the story Bethlehem from miniature to life-size. Some were commissioned to be made by well-known sculptors* and constructed with the same attention as the building of a real town or village.  Often figures would appear that resembled the people in the town, a tableaux of the community in a scene from the time of Christ’s birth. Natural materials and greenery from the surrounding countryside were collected and clothes were especially made for each figure as part of a vignette to create a realistic view of that moment in time.

The idea of creating a scene in which the people could feel part of the miracle of Christmas was first imagined in the village of Greccio in 1223 when Francis of Assisi prepared a special celebration on Christmas Eve.  In a natural cave near the town he prepared a straw-filled manger to create a presepe vivente“, a real-life nativity scene with live animals and towns people dressed as Mary and Joseph. The scene was described as follows

“the brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis . . . then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”

*the most ancient known presepe was sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio at the end of the 13th century and can be seen in the museum of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

Time Traveling Christmas

Over the years my travels in Italy have taken on a deeper meaning, well beyond the casual tourist, beyond the taste traveler, beyond the travel writer. My road trips are often off the tourist radar and off the beaten track. I’ve seen the usual monuments, works of art and ancient ruins but from a different view. My Italian family and friends have become my personal docents, teaching me to travel like an Italian to discover an Italy way beyond a show and tell tour, often to a time and place I least expected. Yes I did say time. No I haven’t discovered the secret behind H.G. Well’s time machine, paradoxes or traversable wormholes. The evocative landscape of Italy has the potential to take you to another time if not literally than figuratively with places and people who lived in the history of its land.  I have felt this way in Ravenna, in Ferrara and Florence, in Siena,  Venice and certainly in Rome but nowhere more than in Assisi where the footsteps of saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings echo through time.

Assisi is a hill town in Umbria and together with the monastery at La Verna, in the Casentinesi Forest of northeastern Tuscany, is a spiritual center for the followers of Saint Francis. Francis believed that the ethereal message of Christmas needed a tangible expression. He wanted the Feast of the Nativity to be more than a story from the past. He wanted to remind people of the real reason we celebrate Christmas. He decided to do something dramatic for the time and arrange a special celebration on Christmas Eve in the village of Greccio where he would create a living manger scene. Francis had real people portray the shepherds, Mary and Joseph. He brought a donkey, cows and sheep in from the fields near the village to complete the scene. In the manager was a life sized wax figure of the Infant Jesus.

Over time the Nativity Scene or  presepio, as it is called in Italy, spread throughout Western Europe and many people created nativity scenes in their towns, villages and homes to commemorate the birth of Christ and travel back in time to that night in Bethlehem to recreate Christmas.

*Nearly every Italian town has a presepio, often with life-sized crèche figures. Some of the most famous are in Greccio, Naples, Verona and the Basilica of Saint Cosmas & Damian in Rome. Commissioned by Charles ll, it measures 45 by 20 feet and features hundreds of wooden figurines.

Invoke an Italian Saint

The landscape of Italy has always been populated by saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings. Traveling through the villages and towns of Italy, Renaissance cathedrals, Roman ruins, monasteries and medieval castles speak of another time and place with an evocative backstory. The roads traveled were once the way of the pilgrim whose fate was determined by princes and popes.  Every monument, museum and chapel in Italy, whether in the cities or at the end of a country road, reminds you of the saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings who have traveled through its doors or eaten of its fields.

Since I’m no prince, pope, pilgrim or king, certainly no saint; I’m left to the last remaining category that we perhaps all share in common.  Over the years I’ve visited many monasteries, abbeys, chapels and cathedrals in Italy that have left a lasting impression. Some have even been spiritually moving like my visits to Ravenna, Assisi and La Verna.  Many have put me in touch with the remarkable humility and exceptional holiness of a group of people whose moral presence has influenced the lives of others in transforming ways. Here are a group of Italian saints that through my travels have a special meaning for me.

Francis of Assisi –  seeing the 12th century cross of the church of San Damiano in Assisi  that inspired the young and restless Frances to a spiritual rebirth and the founding of the Franciscan order.

Clare of Assisi – the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi and her cloister at San Damiano where she describes her contemplation as “the brightness of eternal light, a mirror without cloud.   

Apollinaris of Ravenna –   depicted in the awe-inspiring  early Christian mosaics of St. Apollinaris Basilica in Classe, Ravenna, the seat of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and then of Byzantine Italy until the 8th century; now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 Catherine of Siena – a scholastic philosopher and Doctor of the Church, she is one of two patron saints of Italy, together with Francis of Assisi; the medieval town of Siena in Tuscany  with its black and white cathedral, home of Catherine whose active, intelligent, courageous life and intensity of prayer influenced popes and princes.  

Constantius of Perugia – from Umbria “terra santa”, a land known for mysticism and saints, on this saint’s  feast day, “torcolo“, a ring-shaped cake made of pine nuts, raisins, and dried fruit, is a traditional food in Perugia.   

Ubaldo of Gubbio –   a visit to see Etruscan tablets ended in sight of Gubbio’s Mount Ingino, the end point for a procession known as  La Corsa dei Ceri, “Race of the Saints” where teams of runners carrying decorated wooden constructions (ceri) almost 20 feet high and weighing up to 900 pounds, displaying statues of St. Ubaldo, patron saint of Gubbio, St. Giorgio and St. Antonio climb a 2.5mile course through the town and up Mount Ingino to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo.