If it weren’t for one man, the story of the small Italian town of Assisi would be vastly different. The town would have been relegated to the still prestigious ranks of being yet another awfully scenic hilltop town. But this is not the case and it’s all thanks to the pious St. Francis of Assisi. As a student of European history, I’d come across his name time and time again, seeping into my subconscious and driving me to visit Assisi when I got the chance last December.
Situated only a short distance from the city of Perugia in the heart of Umbria, I decided to make a day trip out to Assisi on the train. True to form, I hadn’t really done much research about the town, but I figured the birthplace of such a prominent figure was bound to have some sights of interest. And yes, there are plenty of attractions related to St Francis, but Assisi turned out to be far less one-dimensional than I could have possibly anticipated. I may not be religious, but what follows was my personal little pilgrimage to the enchanting town of Assisi.
Arriving at Assisi train station, it was either a bus trip or 3km walk up to the actual town. Lacking patience for the bus to come, I decided to head off and make the walk up. Soon I had left the residential area, found myself walking between olive farms and looking ahead into a blanket of fog or smog. I basically had no idea what lay before me or what Assisi actually looked like.
As I continued to walk up, it wasn’t until I got surprisingly close to the town before the fog began to clear and the town came into view. What was particularly striking was the basilica at the town’s western end and the immense, arched foundations that sat beneath it. The sight spurned me on and after not too long, I found myself at the town’s lower gate.
St Francis of Assisi
It is because of the teachings and orders of St Francis, that Assisi has become such a popular pilgrimage site. As you walk the lower streets, you’re bound to come across plenty of shops selling religious items and souvenirs. The main attraction however for religious visitors to Assisi is the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi, the immense building I spotted upon my walk up to town. The basilica was built to honour St Francis after his death and canonisation in 1228, and several years later, where the saint’s remains were laid to rest.
Unexpectedly, when I arrived outside the basilica, I found armed police and heavy barriers protecting the main entrance. That should give you some idea just how revered and important Assisi is as a pilgrimage destination. It should come as no surprise that due to its great cultural and religious significance, the basilica is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Heading inside, what really stood out to me was that this basilica has in fact two floors, the Upper Church and Lower Church. Each church has a remarkably different style and aesthetic, the Upper large and roomy, the Lower a little more crypt-like. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take photos once inside the basilica, but the interior is well worth seeing for yourself. I really liked the starry sky they had painted on the Lower Church’s ceiling, given that there’s another church immediately above it. All in all, a memorable attraction even for those that aren’t religious.
Streets and Architecture
As a hilltop town, you can bet that you’re going to spend most of your time in Assisi walking up hill. You won’t mind too much though, as everywhere you walk you’re surrounded by elegant and historic stone buildings. Throughout the town, there are plenty of stairways but also some gorgeous arches. Assisi has certainly retained its medieval architecture and with it, its wonderful atmosphere. This is even more impressive when you realise that much of the town had to be drastically rebuilt after the destructive earthquake of 1997.
Walking through the town’s streets, it’s hard not to be impressed with the effort that went into restoring the buildings. Perhaps the state of the town was most obvious after coming from Perugia, where the streets are lined with worn buildings and faded architecture. This contrast meant that Assisi had a dignified, polished feel to it.
Plenty of Churches
While the main church in Assisi is the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi, there are plenty more to admire throughout town. Probably the second most important is the above Cathedral of San Rufino, a beautiful Romanesque building. The cathedral honours San Rufino, the bishop that converted the town to Christianity in 238 AD and has been buried in the three churches that have sat on this spot over the centuries.
Further proof of the town’s focus on faith are all the other churches to be found in Assisi. Probably the most striking is the Basilica di Santa Chiara with its long, square buttresses. The interior may be a little plainer than the main basilica or other Italian churches but the architecture of the Basilica di Santa Chiara is definitely unusual and eye-catching. You can also spot other church bell towers from its nearby viewpoint.
Walking past the above window, I stopped dead in my tracks. I may not have the biggest sweet tooth but even I couldn’t fight this temptation. After narrowing down my preferences, I went in and came away with a decadent cannoli. A deserved sugar hit after so much walking throughout the day.
Having first spotted the fortress above the town through the fog when I first arrived, I was keen to make my way up to see it. But to do so, I’d first need to climb some stairs – sorry, a lot of stairs. Thankfully, even the staircases in Assisi are marvellous stone creations and add to the town’s ambience.
Once at the top of the hill, I stood beneath Rocca Maggiore, who’s walls seemed even higher and more imposing up close. The fortress dating back to the 12th century stands proud in spite of the many earthquakes that Assisi has weathered. Because of time and money, I opted not to visit the inside of the fortress but it was open, even in winter. I was content with simply marvelling at its size and character from the outside.
While Rocca Maggiore is the main fortress of Assisi, there are extensive fortified walls that run across the hillside towards the smaller fortress of Rocca Minore in the distance. The fortifications of Assisi include its numerous distinguished gates scattered around the lower reaches of town. Finding all of these fortifications were a really cool and unexpected surprise, as it was a side of the town I wasn’t expecting. There really is a lot more to Assisi than just religion.
While there are a number of spots among the streets of Assisi where you can find great view points, it’s honestly hard to beat the view points directly beneath Rocca Maggiore. From here you can see so much, weather permitting. I’d caught snippets of countryside earlier in Assisi but from the top there you could look out across the fields right up to the fog/haze.
The view from below Rocca Maggiore also allows you to look down over the rooftops and towers of Assisi, giving you a fresh perspective on the town that you’ve just explored. Looking down makes you realise how steep a hillside the town is on and just how narrow it is across. I easily could have shared plenty more photos from the top, there were simply too many to choose between.
The Walk Back
At the end of the afternoon, it was time to make my way back to Perugia. Figuring it was all downhill this time, I chose to walk back to the train station. As the fog had cleared during the day, the stunning view of Assisi came into focus. It was definitely a marked difference from when I had arrived. While I could barely make out any of the city before, I could now clearly see the walls, towers and fortresses of the town as I walked back through the below farmland.
- Take the train from Perugia main station but there are some buses; timetables at the bus station;
- Assisi really can be visited as just a day trip but there are plenty of accommodation options if you choose to stay in town;
- Don’t miss your chance to try the delicious Umbrian speciality of sandwiches filled with succulent porchetta, i.e. roast pork. My favourite!
Have you visited Assisi or heard of St Francis before? Which of these spots would you be most keen in visiting first? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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This post is part of Wanderful Wednesday at SnowinTromso and Weekend Travel Inspiration at Albom Adventures. Please head on over for more great posts.
If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.
-St. Francis de Assisi
If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.
-St. Francis de Assisi
While it is commonly known that St. Francis of Assisi was a lover of both creation and the Creator, his role as a grassroots environmentalist is often surprisingly underplayed in biographical synopsis of his life which center mainly upon his profound journey of faith.
Decreed the Patron Saint of the Environment/ Ecology and of Animals, Francis' latter life was not only an unblemished model of religious devotion, but an exemplary paragon of harmonious existence on Earth. He was a friend to man and beast, an admirer of the sun and of nature, and a peacemaker in every sense of the word.
Francis was not merely at peace with his fellow man -- he was at peace with all living things, everything beautiful that his eyes could behold. He wrote hymns of praise to his God for the creations he felt so blessed to behold, and he wrote poems to his "Brother Sun" and "Sister Moon," even repeatedly praising his "Sister Death" upon his deathbed -- as he felt so much at one with creation that he considered the sun his brother, the moon, his sister, all men his siblings.
Francis felt compelled to reach out to the voiceless, the rejected, and the needy. He embraced and assisted lepers, whom, at the time, were outcasts of society, their skin condition causing them to be feared. He visited hospitals and cared for the sick. He sent food to thieves. He befriended women and recognized their abilities and their intelligence, a concept foreign in that time.
Yet again, his allegiance did not only lie with human beings. He was deeply committed to the well-being of the environment and of all of creation in as grass roots a fashion as has ever been seen. He lived with animals. He rejoiced amongst nature. He preached to the birds to remind them to praise their Creator for the blessings they had. He tamed a wild wolf and made it one of his many pets. Yet, he understood the plight of nature and the circle of life, albeit brutal at times. Despite, he felt that his Creator would not create evil, and hence, everything around him was good and accordingly, should be treated with courtesy and kindness and generosity, from the earthworm to the lamb, the cicada to the wolf. It is perhaps because they recognized his genuine sincerity towards their existence that the animals felt so drawn to him as well.
Illustration by: John August Swanson
Simply put, Francis was a heartfelt ally to everything and everyone around him. From man to beast, from the trees to the stones, from the sun to the moon to the changing seasons - Francis was their kindred spirit. He did not call judgment on mankind for their use of the environment, be it animals for food, trees for shelter, etc. Instead, he simply urged humankind to show respect, humility, and love towards their fellow inhabitants of the earth and surroundings, and likewise, he expected the same from other creation. He felt that by embracing and rejoicing in the wonders around them, mankind would naturally then be drawn to perform acts out of love and respect rather than anger and domination.
He conversed with the universe. He spoke to his Brother Fire, his Sister Moon, with the fowl of the sky, and the beasts of the earth. Yet for as much as he lived in a spiritual realm, he was entirely human. He made no attempts to deify himself. He expected no reward for his life of service. He simply lived to serve and love in harmony.
Yet his story is that much more profound considering the sacrifices he willingly made and the lifestyle he corrected to reach this oneness with creation.
Also known as Francis Bernardone, or il Poverello, St. Francis de Assisi was born Giovanni di Bernadone, named by his mother after John the Baptist on October 4th, 1181 in Umbria, Italy. The son of a rich cloth merchant, his father changed his name to Francis because he allegedly didn't want his child named after a saint. Though blessed with popularity and riches, Francis had a tumultous youth, with bouts both as a street fighter and as a soldier, and was considered to be one of the leaders of the dissident youth of the town of Assisi. While imprisoned after a battle, he had a life-altering spiritual experience which led him to a change of heart and change of life.
Upon his release, Francis gave up all material possessions, which, having come from a very wealthy family, was a large sacrifice. His mission then forward was to follow his faith, and he recognized that in order to do so, he must first rid himself of excess, of boastfullness, of ego -- traits that tyrannize our modern times as they did Francis'.
Dressed in ragged clothes, working as a brick layer, and often begging for his sustenance to survive, yet all the while preaching peace and purity, Francis' family and old friends either beheld him with great sorrow or with great embarrasment. Many even considered him a "religious nut" and treated him poorly, not understanding the depth of his calling. His father even attempted to have him imprisoned.
The Church also saw him as a threat. He was an unconventional revolutionary of sorts. His call for poverty, simplicity, and sincere love were seen as a threat to the status quo of the day.
Yet Francis' work pressed on.
By 1209 he had attracted followers and founded the Fransiscan order of brothers. In 1221 he resigned direction of the Fransiscans, but his work and his order still continue and thrive to this day.
Towards the end of his life, Francis already a frail man, was practically blind and very ill. In 1224, two years before his death, he received the stigmata, the actual wounds of Christ upon his hands. St. Francis of Assisi died on October 4th, 1226 at the age of 44 and was Canonized (made a saint) on July 16th, 1228 by Pope Gregory IX.
Giotto, Upper Basilica of St Francis, Assisi
-St. Francis de Assisi
It is said that St. Francis of Assisi inspired the Italian Renaissance, one of the greatest cultural revolutions the world has ever seen. His profound love for the beauty of nature sparked Italian painters to bring naturalism again into their work. His value for humanity also roused the Renaissance's own movement towards humanism. He was an inspiration in his lifetime and to consequent eras and even cultural movements as well as to modern-day heroes.
St. Francis de Assisi followed his calling gladly and without resentment. His Earthly sacrifices were not seen as a burden to him but as a natural path towards oneness with creation and the Creator. His story is perhaps most powerful in that he was a young man with every worldly thing going for him: his family was wealthy, his friends saw him as a fearless soldier, he was a natural leader, and he enjoyed the pleasures of the earth. Yet he sacrificed everything for his heartfelt beliefs and took it upon himself to care for all creation over his own well-being. By doing so, he gained much more - a profound and enchanting harmony with all creation.
He is a heroic example of sacrifice, of selflessness, of humility, and likewise, a reminder of the attainability of achieving a harmonious state of peace and unity with all creation by simply exuding love.
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Last edited 1/9/2017 4:43:20 PM
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
-St.Francis of Assisi