Visible throughout the Val d’Umbria, literally from anywhere you travel south of Perugia to Spoleto is a dazzling white stone city that shimmers in the daytime and glows at night: Assisi. The birthplace of St. Francis and one of the most beautiful and memorable cities in Umbria. And not just for the faithful.
True, Assisi is a mecca, literally, for religious pilgrims drawn to this holy place to pay tribute to and be inspired by the same things that inspired Assisi’s native son. But even for those less religiously inclined the city is a both a magnet that draws one in and a place that casts its considerable shadow over the valley below and over the life of Umbria. It is a place that invites you come for a quick visit but one that rewards even more those who stay and spend time not looking and exploring, but experiencing and feeling. For of all the senses – sight, sound, taste – Assisi is best experienced through feel.
Built by the Romans, Assisi was a strategic town built on the slope of Mount Subassio about a half hour’s drive (not sure how long by chariot) from the Etruscan city of Perugia. Its location, perched on the west-facing slope above the valley below means that it is visible for miles around. Built in monochromatic pink-white pietra serena stone, it shimmers on the mountainside, surrounded by the silver-green olive groves that blanket the hills from just north of it all the way to Spoleto. It stands out as a well defined, majestic stone city during the day and at night when the town fathers illuminate it, it dances in the darkness, shimmering and whispering on the breezes that kiss the valley below. If one had only the opportunity to view it from afar, night and day, and never enter its gates, one would feel fulfilled. Its beauty never – never – fails to amaze and elicit slight chokes or gasps from me, and I have viewed it hundreds if not thousands of times over the past five years.
But Assisi does deserve to be entered, to be seen, studied, understood and experienced. It is a fascinating place. And what better place to start than the Basilica of San Francesco, the double church that was constructed in record time after the death of the saint in the early 1200s. In fact, touring Assisi using Saint Francis as the unifying theme is the best way to appreciate this town. We fell under Saint Francis’ spell gradually, hearing a little about him during our early visits to Umbria, the volume increasing and accumulating over subsequent visits. Finally we decided to learn more about his story through some of the hundreds of biographies and stories written about his life. It is a story written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries but one that inspires us even today and one which seems so relevant and useful in the modern world.
The story of Giovanni Bernardone, known as Francesco – the little French boy – who accompanied his rich, merchant father on trips from his native Assisi to France in his youth is one of a young courtier who had visions of glory on the battlefield but who later threw away those dreams in favor of rebuilding the broken church that Jesus asked him to do in a miraculous vision. Along the way he developed a radical philosophy and lifestyle, in an age when radicalism was not exactly the norm, of not just worshiping Jesus, but of living life according to the example set by him, one of simplicy, poverty and service to others. One of peace, respect for others and love of God’s earth. It’s a wonder he wasn’t executed for heresy.
To walk in the footsteps of Saint Francis, to wander the streets where he walked, to see the house where he broke from his father, the square where he finally rejected him, throwing off his clothes and renouncing his father and his worldly goods before leaving his birthplace to found a commune of like minded followers in the valley below, is a true inspiration. And this incredible story is chronicled in the frescos that cover the wall of the upper basilica, one of two basilicas built upon one another shortly after his death. Here the master Giotto not only tells the story of Francis’ life, but forms a bridge from the art of the middle ages to the beginnings of the renaissance. Just as Francis’ way of looking at the world began the transformation from the medieval mindset to the more enlightened view of the role of the individual in the social and spiritual world. Art imitating life.
The basilica, an enormous structure built on an arcade that dominates the western portion of the city, is a landmark as well, an iconic and immediately recognizable feature of the city. Any painting or photo of Assisi will include the colonnade topped with its dome, as well as the enormous stone fortress – the rocca – that stands guard above the town. The basilica and Assisi are, in some respects interchangeable.
But to limit your visit at the basilica would be a terrible mistake, one made by many visitors to Assisi. For around the basilica is a collection of postcard vendors, trinket sellers and religious paraphernalia hawkers that gives the town a bad name. Walk five minutes up the main street away from the basilica and new treasures begin to appear, not least of which is the Roman temple that is tucked away and so well hidden in the main square that it is possible to walk through the piazza without noticing it. It was there, some four or five years ago that we first “discovered” it, shaking our heads in amazement that Assisi had a Roman temple in it, that there was anything more than churches and St. Francis. It was then that we realized how rich and special Assisi really is.
From the main square you might duck into one of the number of restaurants that are built into the hillside, looking out over the Umbrian valley below. One of our favorites in this respect is Metastasio, a fairly traditional and typical Umbrian restaurant with good food and friendly service and a view not to be missed.
Walking the town, strolling is actually the better approach, from the main square toward the church of Santa Chiara, dedicated to Saint Francis’ friend Saint Claire who founded a Franciscan-type order for her sisters, you can’t help but notice how serene, pristine and upscale it all is. The pink pietra serena stone, from which all of the buildings are made, creates an unmatched beauty and serenity, and all of the houses have flowerboxes overflowing with brightly colored flowers flowing from them. Nothing is amiss and everything is so well arranged you would think this was a town inhabited by the Swiss. But this is Italy at its finest.
The walk from one end of town to the other, from the basilica of St. Francis to the church of St. Claire takes about twenty minutes or so, but this is a town that cries out for a walking tour with a capable guide. We have taken countless two hours strolls around Assisi over the years with a number of guides and each time we learn something new, see something different but come back equally inspired about the life of St. Francis and the life of this amazing city.
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One of our favorite places to eat in Umbria is a little restaurant perched on the side of Mount Subassio, just outside the city walls of Assisi. Built in the Fontemaggio campgrounds, the restaurant, called la Stalla after the barns in which it is built, is a simple place that is absolutely unique and worth a visit. In the middle of the large room that used to house horses, cows and pigs, diners pig out on all manner of simple foods cooked in the enormous wood barbeque that dominates the center of the room. Here the cook grills various meats – chicken, steak, ribs, lamb chops – toasts torta al testo flatbread that has been baked in the fire and fills it with chicory, grilled sausages and cheeses, melts cheeses over the fire in ramekins that are then topped with honey or truffles. The crowning touch, however, the perfect accompaniment to a memorable meal are small potatoes that have been baked in a pile of coal and ashes, then brushed clean, cut in half and slathered with fresh local olive oil and a generous sprinkle of salt. It is simple Umbrian fare at its most basic and, possibly, its best.
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Olive oil plays a major role in the life of Umbria and some of the best oils in Italy come from the slopes of Mount Subassio just outside of Assisi. Much of it is bottled and sold by family farms or cooperatives that have been growing olives on these hills for generations. But many individual families produce their own olive oil for their own use from their own groves. Such is the case with our friends the Palermi family. We have been fortunate enough to be invited to help them with their olive harvest for several years, arriving at the olivetto in the late morning and joining family members climbing ladders or reaching into the branches with long rakes to pull the olives from the trees onto nets that have been stretched out on the ground underneath. This is a typical Umbrian tradition, a family harvest that is followed by a huge outdoor feast. A few bottles of oil are typically distributed later to those who help out. It is a day of working together with family and friends, sharing a laugh and a meal, breathing the crisp, clean Umbrian air and getting close to nature. It is a lifestyle that Saint Francis probably understood well.