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Monday 13 October 1997

(Part 2 of 3)

Thursday the 9th was Peter and June's planned outing with me, a kind offer to take me somewhere remote. I certainly obliged, I'm afraid.

We left at around 0945, and they don't like Foligno, and that accounted for much of the morning. . . I'm not quite sure in fact why I took 'em to S. Silvestro, but I did, and they liked it: it really is a beauti­ful spot, and once again the weather was near perfect.

From there to S. Giovanni and, following my map, to Armenzano so we could go to Valtopina and around Foligno to the N and E. Well, no real road, and what there was, was apparently knocked out: back to S. Giovanni repeating my hike, to Valtopina. Still bent on avoiding Foligno, we wound up, partly thru the vagaries of quaked roads, exactly where I've been telling myself I wouldn't go, impeding any earthquake recovery: Colfiorito — or at least within 500 m when we were turned back. Mind you I'm glad I saw the marsh SW of Colfiorito, a few hundred acres of cat-tails and reeds, occasional glimpses of the underlying water: in a couple hundred years Trasimeno will look like that. Here and there, a partially wrecked village, but frankly, even so close to the epicenter, not that much damage: this wasn't so much a big quake as a famous one.

More winding around on uncertain roads, but luck and intuition got us thru — I took a road marked as non-thru, on the gamble that surely it wouldn't be blocked until after the intersection we needed, and such turned out to be the case — and we arrived outside the walls of Norcia some time before 1 P.M., with a small market in progress, mostly cheap clothing, but a bit of fruit and sausages too. June likes markets, so we ambled about thru it: they bought a belt, and I bought socks.

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	Norcia proper is small, I kept on repeating this for some reason, idiotically, thru the afternoon, but it's true; what's more, it's clean, wide-streeted and almost carfree, which makes it very pleasant. We visited St. Benedict's right away, in the (mistaken) fear, induced by an Italian tourist, that it was about to close for lunch, which it never did. A pleasant church with an interesting "crypt": actually the ancient substructures, including patches of opus reticulatum and a (closed but partly visible) exedral building also of Roman period, somewhere in all of which tradition puts Benedict and (twin) sister Scholastica's birthplace and house. I did my guide number, but it seems very odd to do it in a place I've never been.

A brief pause for a picnic snack; I don't usually eat at midday on this type of visit, and in fact just wasn't very hungry, and nibbled on some bread, Pecorino, cooked ham; sitting with Peter and June on the little curb of sorts right in front of the Castello; then we split up for an hour, me to chase churches and inscriptions, them to wander about and sketch.

Two interesting places in particular: the little square shrine known as the Edicola or Tempietto, with some odd iconography which, if I read it right, includes among the instruments of the Passion, a disc harrow — surely most peculiar, and all I can connect it with is the harrowing of hell, but that might just be an accident of English — and the church of Sant' Agostino, open (no quake damage at all in the southern parts of Umbria) and with a very attractive 17c? organ loft and a fair group of frescoes surviving; among which more depictions of various kinds of underwear than I'd ever seen outside a catalog. A particularly grisly nude martyred saint (Three swords: thru each shoulder and the nape, the point of this third one exiting the poor kid's crotch); a rather large number of S. Sebastians; but I didn't really tumble to the underwear until I saw a S. Rocco showing us his leg — as often — but with his tunic really quite needlessly hiked aside to show us his groin and his underwear, looking quite like any jockey-type white underwear today: anyhow, Thomas Merton's comments about his first days as a novice and learning the intricacies of subligacula came rushing to mind —

[image ALT: A stone statue in a stone niche. It is an ancient Roman statue, completed with a mismatched ancient Roman head, commonly known as the statue of Vespasia Polla, in Norcia, Umbria (central Italy).]

I managed to do a fairly complete and only slightly rushed visit in the allotted time; then the Castello opened, where the courtyard is said to include Roman inscriptions — not true now — and house a statue of maybe-Vespasia‑Polla: it does, and a modern Latin inscription below it baldly says that's who it is, but the head seems awfully big for an adult; not an attractive statue, and a bit of a disappointment. (There is a "via Vespasia Polla" in town though; also, tho' I doubt the city fathers intended anything by it, the only vespasienne I've seen so far in this trip. . .)

Upstairs, an exhibit; part temporary of legal documents 14c-concerning Norcia having owned Arquata del Tronto, then having had boundary disputes with them; part permanent, the best part of which is about three small rooms of medieval sculpture: a particularly good lifesize crucifixion group with its paint gone; and an on the other hand fully and brightly painted box about elbow-length; but on the whole, to Peter and June finishing their sketches of the piazza just outside, I reported it as not worth the price; then I ran them quickly, at their request, to the Tempietto which they'd wanted to see and failed to find; transiting them thru the holy underwear, too. Thus, off to Castelluccio.

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The road just goes up. Slowly, gradually, but constantly: 700 m, 800 m, 900 m, inexorably signposted every hundred meters altitude, up to about 1500 m (with horrific drops two feet from the passenger side, James would have hated it!) when it suddenly bursts onto a terrific view from the south of the Piano Grande. I'd never been in any landscape like that, and bubbled with wows and ohs all the way to Castelluccio. A two-minute stop at the south end — pictures — a two-minute stop down in the plain where hang-gliders sail in targeting a drop zone next to some trailers and a corral of rental horses — pictures — and an eight-minute stop at Castelluccio itself — pictures. Castelluccio itself is thoroughly nasty: an extremely poor place which seems to have no church and certainly nothing to see other than its view. On the clearing where the road goes thru, several dingy houses and one or two stores: one dark grey stucco'd house had a long sentence painted with white paint over one full storey, about someone being a puttana or some similar sentiment. June and Peter didn't want to get out but encouraged me to run around; so I started up the older and steeper of the little summits of the town, but after about 90 seconds just stopped, took a picture, and walked down again: I think what did it was a lived-in rusting mini-trailer with its rear window blown out and pasted over with cardboard and strapping tape. Not one of your nicer places, yet it could be. The main problem seems to be that it was a poor decent herding center, until the hang-gliding associations found it: and the local people had no capital to invest, yet own all the land; so that you have interlopers with money and inhabitants with bitterness and resentment you can cut with an axe: a very sad situation, unless of c. I'm reading it all wrong.

Anyhow, we got out of there, twisted our way to Spoleto then sped down to Spello on the highway, and I was home by 7:30 having spent the day in two places that would have been very difficult to get to otherwise: although I'm still considering hiking Norcia to Spello, but (a) the urgency is off; (b) I'll know not to count on that apparently mythical nice little hotel in Castelluccio, and on the contrary arrange any hike so that I do the Piano Grande in the early part of the day, traverse Castelluccio and steam right on to my evening hotel (I saw signs) at Castelsantángelo sul Nera.

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