Assisi: Not just for Catholics!
Your Weekend Duchess skipped Assisi on her first few trips to Italy, thinking that one more church couldn’t possibly be that exciting. As rarely as it happens, I am willing to admit when I’m wrong—I recently spent two days in Assisi, and it is an enchanting Umbrian town. Yes, there are numerous touristy shops and it’s probably unpleasantly crowded at Easter or other high holy times, but on a normal day, Assisi is a delicate time capsule of medieval cobblestone streets and fortresses.
As with most towns in hilly Umbria, the train station for Assisi is well below the town itself, and a bus will take you up to the main square. I rode with a crowd of teenagers just out of school for the day, and it was as rowdy and giggly as any similar bus would be in America, with an exceedingly curvy and narrow route up into the sky. Those who enjoy heights will thrill at the swinging hairpin turns, but those with vertigo might just want to find a happy place for this part of the trip.
Once you arrive in Assisi, you will want to walk through the town to the cathedral where St. Francis is buried. It’s not a short walk, and it’s easy to get distracted along the way, with several smaller churches, the Temple of Minerva, and countless cafes with views of the green, lush countryside. There are monuments and memorials to Francis everywhere, and one doesn’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the story of a boy who gave up a posh life to commit to his dream, or to be sympathetic to a child whose father locked him in a church closet as punishment.
As you stroll through the winding, beautiful hills of the town (recently certified a UNESCO World Heritage Site), you’ll also gain an appreciation for the accomplishment of the man’s journey through Umbria barefoot. Even the cushiest Skechers sneakers will be challenged by this terrain, and when you see Italian women without their stilettos, you know it’s an aerobic walk! Finally, when you reach the basilica, you’ll have to marvel at the sheer size and splendor of this monument to a man who lived his life so simply. It may not be what he would have chosen, but the spectacle of one entire church built on top of another is undeniably impressive.
Massive murals line the walls of the upper portion of the cathedral, helpfully detailing the life and exploits of Francis and his friends. It’s a colorful story and provides informative background for your visit underground to see the remains of the man himself. The theatrical nature of these halls always makes your duchess feel a little like dancing, and on the day I visited, there was actually a pop-up choir of children performing under the bright blue dome, adding a joyful tone to the potentially solemn surroundings.
When you can tear yourself away from the cathedral, make time to climb up to the Rocca Maggiore castle. The castle itself isn’t much to see from the inside, but photos of the surrounding country taken from the castle grounds will impress even your most jaded Facebook friends. If your legs are still holding up, head out to the Eremo monastery. This is allegedly the site where Francis had his famous conversation with his feathered friends, but the walk takes you through absolutely stunning countryside.
The stillness and serenity of this walk set the scene for conversation, contemplation, or a transformative epiphany. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that here, away from the memorials and dried flowers and amidst the lowing cows and endless greenery, one feels closest to the ideals that Francis represents. Sometimes you have to strip the gilding away to find the real value of a place.1 comment