Assisi is an “overgrown village” with a huge cathedral, on the side of one of Mt. Subasio’s foothills. It has a population of about 3000 people, but hosts about five million visitors every year. Frommer’s writes, “This constant flood of travelers has polished the usual hill-town charm right off Assisi.”
But if you stay in the town, as we did, like our experience in San Gimignano, in the late night and early morning after the tourists in their cars and the tour buses have pulled away, this area of Italy where St. Francis and St. Clare walked and prayed holds quite enough charm for me.
Our hotel was off a short alley from the main square in town called the Piazza del Commune.
Our first stop was the Basilica di San Francesco at the edge of town. Inside, frescoes by Giotto tell the story of St. Francis’ life.
“But suffice it to say that Assisi’s grandiose, gorgeously embellished Basilica di San Francesco is an incongruous memorial to a man who preached and lived an utterly simple life.” (Frommers).
Down the large stone staircase from the cathedral, open shelters were constructed for pilgrims as a place to camp for the night. We caught a taxi from here and went to see St. Francis’ hermitage on Mt. Subasio.
Monks now live in the hermitage tucked into the wooded hillside where St. Francis often went to meditate and pray. We saw the stone bed, a simple indentation in the stone floor, where St. Francis slept, and took a short walk along a trail in the woods.
Our taxi driver waited for us a half hour. We were concerned about letting him go and not being able to get a ride back. Unfortunately, for me, a half hour was not enough to soak up the peace that can be found simply by sitting along the walkway in this place.
We decided to take the taxi up to Rocca Maggiore instead of back to town. Rocca Maggiore was built by Cardinal Albornoz in the 14th century to establish papal authority over Assisi—a striking visual of the medieval church’s reach for civil power. It was a fun, not very crowded place to tour.
We had free reign of the castle ruins. We entered the outer walls and saw the recently restored keep and soldiers’ quarters.
Then we took a very long, narrow corridor lit by repeating arrow slits (and a few electric light bulbs) to a polygonal watchtower with a panoramic view.
Our taxi driver assured us it was an easy walk back to town from the castle—all downhill.
After stopping for gelato on our way back down, we went on to Santa Chiara—the resting place of St. Clare‘s bones and St. Francis’ miraculous crucifix. Inside the church, a small museum displays St. Clare’s handmade dress, her hair shirt and a robe St. Francis wore among other things.
Santa Chiara is located on a terrace-like piazza with views over the valley.
In the morning Mark and I got up and went to a mass that was entirely in Italian (go figure). Then we left our cozy bed and breakfast with the rooftop patio and drove on to Rome.
Photos by Christine M. Grote and Mark Joseph Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote
See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.
Frommer’s Florence, Tuscany & Umbria, 6th ed., by John Moretti, Wiley Publishing,NJ, 2008