By LINDA BIRD FRANCKE
Published: December 21, 2003
UP, up, up, and then up again. Hairpin turns. Switchbacks. Stunning views of the Rieti valley, with its lakes, orchards, deep brown fall fields. Then up again through high olive groves into forests of ilex, giant firs and holm oaks.
We know from the road signs with gold crosses on them that eventually, around another curve, we will come to a Franciscan sanctuary, a secluded, stone compound with an ancient church, a working friary, and signs to a Sacro Speco where Francis of Assisi, not yet a saint, retreated about 800 years ago to pray, meditate, wrestle with the devil, receive revelations from Jesus, perform miracles. Each will have centuries-old sculptures and frescoes documenting his life. And each will have a tiny stone hermitage that the saint shared with his early ''brothers,'' a stone pillow and often, a steep climb to a holy cave where Francis withdrew for absolute solitude, interrupted only by the sound of the wind.
There are four such hermitages in what has become known as the Holy Valley of Rieti, just 60 miles north of Rome, and my husband, Harvey Loomis, and I went to all of them last fall. A new 40-mile footpath linking the hermitages, the Cammino di Francesco, is opening in stages starting this month, to be completed in the spring. But we drove the pilgrimage route.
I have always been intrigued by St. Francis, the bald-pated, bird-preaching friar whose universal appeal is ecumenical. I had been to his hometown, Assisi, and marveled at the Giotto frescoes in the basilica. But the multinational tour buses circulating between Assisi and Francis' retreat on Mount Subasio, and his original tiny chapels since recreated and encased in gigantic churches to accommodate the crowds made the experience feel more like a visit to a theme park than a reflection of the simple, austere life Francis personified. We found much more of that life in the well-marked hermitages within 15 miles of the medieval walled city of Rieti.
The first, Fonte Colombo, seemed deserted when we arrived high up on Monte Rainero. The sleepy dog in the central courtyard barely raised his head when we let ourselves into the 15th-century church to admire the medieval wooden sculptures of Francis and to follow the signs down steep cobbled steps to the small and exquisite 12th-century Chapel of the Magdalene, where he often went to pray.
With its fading but still bright frescoes, one predating Francis, and Francis' seal, a red Tau cross that he supposedly etched himself on the recessed window wall, the simple little chapel spoke of the saint as Assisi could not. There were even fresh lilies on the altar, though we hadn't seen a soul.
Franciscan history was made at Fonte Colombo, so named by Francis for its natural spring and attendant doves. Below the chapel on a steep mountain path, past the tiny stone cave of the Chapel of St. Michael and a stark white cave used by Francis, we entered a long, three-foot-wide cleft between two towering rocks, marked by a rude cross of sticks.
Known as the Franciscan Mount Sinai, it was here in the white cave and this desolate stone fissure that Francis spent 40 days in the winter of 1223, praying, fasting and rewriting his original Rule to accommodate the exploding numbers of his increasingly fractious followers. Unhappily for him, not every one was eager to take his vow of absolute poverty, beg for food and go barefoot in the winter.
Even more unhappily, in the tiny cells of his hermitage back up the path, Francis underwent an unsuccessful medieval operation in 1225 for his failing eyesight: the cauterization of his temples with red hot pokers. Already in pain from the stigmata he'd received in his hands, feet and side the year before, this additional pain, despite his welcoming of ''Brother Fire,'' must have been excruciating.
Standing in the cold stone anteroom in front of the dormant fireplace, it was hard to imagine the agony of his recuperation in the adjoining cells so small that even I, at 5 feet 2 inches, had to stoop to enter.
t was with some relief that we heard cheerful voices in the courtyard. A mother had brought her children to race down to the spring and back. A young woman had brought her little son, Francesco, to visit his uncle, Simone, 24, a Franciscan novice. And a thoroughly modern friar arrived in his car, opened the gates of the friary with a remote control, and disappeared inside.
We drove on to La Foresta, a sanctuary eight miles away in a sun-drenched valley on the other side of Rieti where the weakening Francis had rested in the summer of 1225 on his way to his eye surgery at Fonte Colombo -- and reportedly performed a miracle. So many people crowded around the resident priest's guest house to see Francis that the priest's vineyards were trampled. Francis assured him that he would have a plentiful pressing from the few grapes that were left and according to legend, the priest had his best ever.
The original stone vat remains in the guest house (the Domus), whose walls were so blackened by smoke that Francis sought refuge in a nearby cave marked Grotta di San Francesco to protect his painful eyes.
There are still vineyards at La Foresta, a lovely spot in a forest of chestnut and oak trees with immaculate gardens and in the cloister, tubs spilling over with geraniums. The sanctuary has been taken over by Mondo X, a community of troubled young men founded by a Franciscan, and we found their resident leader, Daniele, putting together a colorful arrangement of carnations and daisies in the ancient church of San Fabian. With its fading 15th-century frescoes, the original slab altar and the old jumbled stone floor of the earlier church visible through protective glass, it is no wonder that young couples from Rieti often choose La Foresta for their weddings.
The first sight of Greccio, the third and largest sanctuary -- about 12 miles west of La Foresta -- is stunning. From the road below, the three- and four-story stone buildings rise straight up from the edge of a sheer cliff and seem to be holding up the mountain behind. A big parking lot and a tour bus of Italians from Campobasso signaled Greccio's significance:
It was in a cave here, in 1223, that Francis staged the first known living Christmas nativity scene, complete with ox and ass. The cave was incorporated into the Chapel of the Crèche in 1228, the year Francis was canonized, and is still adorned with vibrant, side-by-side 14th-century frescoes of the nativity in Bethlehem and Christmas in Greccio, by the school of Giotto.
Francis is everywhere at Greccio -- in the impossibly small cell where he slept; in the equally cramped, five-foot-wide stone corridor ''dormitory'' for his early followers with crosses carved in the wall, apparently to mark individual ''beds''; in another rough-rock cell outside where the bulging mountain forms a wall.
Above the nativity cave is a beautiful, tiny 13th-century chapel with blue and red stars on the vaulted ceiling, the first church to be dedicated to St. Francis after his canonization, and the original 13th-century wood dormitories built by his friars shortly after his death in 1226, with twigs visible in the hardened mud walls and pages from medieval books plugging holes in the roof.
Close to 100,000 people visit Greccio every year, including about 30,000 for the four re-enactments of the nativity scene around Christmas. Time must seem frozen as the same candle-lit procession walks up the mountain to celebrate the re-enacted living nativity as happened in Greccio eight centuries ago.
Poggio Bustone, the final sanctuary, is essentially where the Francis we know, began. It was here in 1208, on a high, wild outcropping of rock, that Francis, then 26, accepted his conversion from playboy to penitent and emerged the humble pilgrim of enduring legend. The process was not easy for him, nor, it turned out, for us.
The small parking lot was overflowing when we finally achieved the dizzying height of Poggio Bustone, the white ribbons on one car signaling that a wedding was under way in the 15th-century church. So we missed the frescoes and Francis' favorite hermitage and instead went directly to the sign for the Sacro Speco. We labored on foot up an unrelentingly steep path, pausing only to pant and admire the red cyclamen blooming wild in the forest. Along the trail, we passed several 17th-century grilled shrines, one encasing a stone imprint said to be of Francis' knees, another described as the footprint of an angel, a third the twisted image of the devil -- each giving us false hope that we had reached the Upper Shrine or the Grotto of Revelations. A rude cross marking the precipitous rock where Francis wrestled with his conscience spurred us on, as did the celebratory sounds of the wedding: the church bell, car horns and some gunshots drifting up from below.
Finally, after a half-hour climbing steep stone steps cut into the mountain, we reached a jagged, early 15th-century stone church clinging to the edge of a chalk cliff. We pealed its bell to celebrate our survival.
The church seemed locked up until, by chance, Harvey tried a tiny wooden door, and there we were in the sky-scraping chapel with an ancient fresco of St. Bernadine, fresh roses, candles, hand-made twig crosses, crucifixes draped on the little altar cross, the flower-festooned, frescoed stone grotto where Francis fought his demons -- and a guest book. Most of the messages were in Italian, some in German and French and a few in English.
''We traveled a long way from Dallas, Texas and Rockall, Texas,'' began one entry from the summer of 2001. ''We pray for peace, love and understanding.''
The way back down, down, down the mountain was easier, of course, through fields of late sunflowers and olive trees heavy with fruit. But unlike Francis, who walked on from Poggio Bustone to a legendary life of poverty, we returned to a hotel of great comfort in Rieti.
Treading in a holy valley
Rieti is an hour or so northeast of Rome on the Via Salaria (Route SS4), which follows the ancient route traveled by St. Francis.
The Rieti tourist office was quite helpful; for help in English, ask for Rita Giovannelli at (39-347) 727-9591, fax (39-0746) 205-721, or e-mail: email@example.com.
Where to Stay
We stayed in one of the two four-star hotels inside the city walls of Rieti, the Hotel Miramonti on the Piazza Oberdan, (39-0746) 201-333, www.hotelmiramonti.rieti.it. It is $110 a night, at $1.25 to the euro, for one the 27 doubles.
The other four-star hotel in town, Grande Albergo Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons) on the main Piazza Cesare Battisti, (39-0746) 271-071, fax (39-0746) 271-090, www.hotelquattrostagionirieti.it, is even more attractive, especially the 20 rooms (of 43) overlooking the countryside. It is a bargain $104 for a double.
Outside the walls is another four-star hotel, the 28-room hilltop Villa Potenziani, (39-0746) 202-765, fax (39-0746) 257-924, www.villapotenziani.it. A double is $160.
These hotels include breakfast with their rates.
What to See
We visited two Franciscan hermitages a day, though it is possible to do them all in a day. They are open daily 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 3 to 5 p.m.
They are clearly marked on the Touring Club Italiano map ''Umbria e March,'' available for $12.95 at the Hagstrom Map Store, 57 West 43rd Street in Manhattan, (212) 398-1222; or at www.mapsguidesandmore.com.
We found an excellent larger scale map of Rieti province at Our Heritage, at www.initaly.com/ads/maps.htm, for $9.25.