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
Before I get to the attractions of Assisi, I should probably go back to explain why St Francis of Assisi was so important, shouldn’t I?
Born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in 1182, he earned the name Francis due to a nickname given to him by his father. You can actually visit the house in Assisi where Francis grew up over 800 years ago. Francis had a pretty wild life until his early twenties, when he returned to his birthplace of Assisi and found his spiritual side. His streak for helping the less fortunate and living a humble, frugal life started early on. It was with this theme of poverty that St Francis founded the Franciscan orders, which include the Order of Friars Minor, the Order of Saint Clare, and the Third Order of Saint Francis. His impact on Catholicism is so great that today he is considered one of the main patron saints of Italy.
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.
Piazza del Comune
While the main focus of Assisi is definitely its basilica, the Piazza del Comune is a short second. The central square is surrounded by some of the most remarkable buildings and architecture of Assisi. For starters there’s the Comune City Hall with its distinctive crenallations and the town shields. Perhaps the most distinctive building in town though is the Tempio di Minerva, due to its classical architecture and history dating back to ancient Rome.
Visiting in December, the piazza was the home to Assisi’s Christmas markets, selling arts, crafts and local produce. Aside from that, the piazza seems to be a popular meeting point with its large fountain, not to mention plenty of places to get food. I particularly liked the porchetta sandwich I had for lunch from La Bottega die Sapori there.
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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