Thursday, August 15, 2013

Travel Memories: Rocca Maggiore

Rocca Maggiore, Assisi, Umbria, Itlay
Nestled on a hilltop above the birthplace of St. Francis, in Assisi, Italy, is an old 12th century castle. The castle majestically overlooks the town of Assisi. These are stunning ruins and from the castle hill one can have splendid views of the surrounding valley.
For my daughter’s high school graduation present she and I went on a group trip to Italy sponsored by the school.  It was a fantastic trip and a wonderful introduction to the great country of Italy, where our ancestors are from.  We landed in Milan, shipped off to Verona, Jesolo Beach, Venice, Assisi, Florence, Rome, Naples, the Isle of Capri and Pompeii. It was certainly one of the highlights of life to take such a trip.
One exceptional memory we have is of our visit to the Rocca Maggiore castle ruins. I read a tourist book in preparation for our trip and that is how I found out about the site. We had a nice visit to the Franciscan Order in Assisi proper and enjoyed the talk by the monk, we also toured the abbey. The rest of the day we had free, so we roamed up the winding path to the castle ruins. Just the journey up was an education in itself; we saw cobblestone streets, geraniums blooming on balconies, bits of forest here and there, an alley of merchants- where we ate pizza for lunch, and great scenery. Since public bathrooms are hard to come by all over Italy, we also left our pee in a patch of woods-out of sheer desperation- (don’t tell on us, ok?).
(The Castle seen on the hill above the town of Assisi.)

Inside the courtyard

We arrived at the ruins and it was pretty deserted there. The clerk asked us if we were students (yes) and we paid a nominal fee to enter. Wow! We had the whole place to ourselves, nothing was roped off and we spent the next few hours exploring the site and being taken back in time to days of castle glory! We wandered and climbed around to our hearts content, all over the place, we were eager tourists!
The spiral stairs.
One particular place was a test of our mettle, it was an ancient spiral staircase going up…into sheer darkness. We had no flashlights with us and were surprised how freely we were able to explore around the site without any caution or do not cross signs. If we really wanted to, we could go explore up there, nothing was stopping us. We were glued to our spots looking up into the pitch black wondering if we should chance it and without having any idea of what the condition or safety of the place up there would be. We were, in short, terrified. We tried to convince ourselves to go for it but it was a very scary proposition. Where would the ancient mystery stair lead us? Finally we worked up the courage and in near tears from the expectation of the unexpected, one by one, we climbed the stairs. Oh what a sigh of relief we breathed when we arrived at the top and there was a bit of daylight peeking through! What a fantastic reward met our eyes for us taking the chance with the staircase.  It was a supremely long tunnel, complete with arrow slits, little narrow windows, and on and on it went.
The tunnel.
Where would it lead us? Away we went with renewed energy, nothing could be as bad as climbing an unknown spiral staircase in the dark, right? The tunnel was elevated high off the ground and lead to the top of a watch tower for the castle, and the views were to die for from that place. What a highlight to our trip! Plus, we faced our fears and conquered them with the journey up the unknown stairs.
The dreaded spiral staircase.

 If you are ever near Assisi, please do visit the home of St. Francis, but you must also visit the magnificent ruins of Roca Maggiore!!!
Some history Rocca Maggiore (which can be translated as the ‘greater rock’ or ‘large castle’):
The oldest records of the castle are from 1174. It was formerly a Germanic Feudal Castle.  Frederick II, the future emperor of Swabia (a region in southern Germany) spent his childhood years in the castle. He was young and was under the care of Conrad of Urslingren. The town below the castle harbored no love for their feudal German overlords and when Conrad was away they rebelled and attacked the castle, destroying a good portion of it. It lay a ruin until 1367 and was rebuilt by Papal Authority over Assisi under Cardinal Albornoz.
Inside the castle.
Ancient Weapons on display

In 1458, Jacobo Piccinino, the Lord of Assisi added the 12-sided tower to the castle and a long wall which connected the castle to the city.
Pope Sixtus IV, in 1478, restored the keep and in the 1500’s Pope Paul III built the round tower which can be seen by the main gate today. He also restored the soldier’s quarters, and added the very long corridor, with the arrow slits, to get to the tower. (The very corridor and tower we had visited!)

A view out one of the castle 'windows'.

Ancient weapons on display.

Another castle staircase.

There are also pre-Roman fortifications in the town that can be seen and remains of a wall built then which enclosed the whole town of Assisi. (Talk about self-defense!)
 It is believed the Umbrians, early residents of the area, were descended from Romans and Etruscans. The city fought with the feudal state of Perugia (and lost), it was ruled by several despots, and also held under Papal Jurisdiction for much of its early history.  In the 1300’s the Black Death devastated the area and nearly wiped the population out.

The dark spiral staircase takes you to this long rock wall which contains the tunnel leading to the turret.
On the hill above town.

The view from the turret looking towards Assisi.
View from the turret looking out on the countryside.
Castle Turret at the end of the long tunnel. 

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