My friend Kate McKenna kept urging me to see Assisi, her favorite village in Italy, and the weekend of September 8, we returned to Umbria for a visit. I can see why Kate likes Assisi so much!
Giovanne Francesco di Bernardone was born in Assisi in 1181. In 1202, following service in a war with the Perugians, Francis was captured and spent a year in prison. When he returned to Assisi, he had changed dramatically, and in 1206, according to Rick Steves’ Italy 2011, he had a vision, “stripped naked before the town leaders, threw his clothes at his father . . . and declared his loyalty to God alone.” Francis became a cult figure for idealistic young men and attracted huge crowds (even then!). Steves says the new Franciscan order “was extremely nonmaterialistic, extolling poverty and simplicity. Despite [the radicalism of its members], the order eventually gained the pope’s approval and spread throughout the world. Francis, who died in Assisi at the age of 45, left a legacy of humanism, equality, and love of nature that would eventually flower in the Renaissance.” Francis died in 1226 and was canonized in record time in 1228.
Today the beautiful small village of Assisi is chock-a-block with tourists and pilgrims paying homage to St. Francis and his simple Franciscan Order, as well as to St. Clare, the founder of the Order of the Poor Clares. St. Francis himself is probably turning over in his grave (in the lower of the two churches at the Basilica of St. Francis) at the extravagance of the complex built to honor him. The basilica is gigantic, dominating the skyline, and we could see it several miles before we got close to the village. Assisi slopes from east to west, and the basilica is at the bottom of the west end of the city. Begun in 1228 on the day after St. Francis was canonized, the basilica comprises a friary and two churches—a lower one and an upper one—and every square inch of both churches is covered with frescoes painted by leading artists of St. Francis’s day. The churches are simply amazing! At St. Francis’s request, he was buried on the former Hill of Hell, where criminals were put to death. The basilica was built on that hill, which is now called the Hill of Paradise. Once the home to more than 200 friars, the friary now houses about 40.
Our hotel was just steps away from the basilica, so we dropped off our car and headed for the basilica. Our first stop was the lower basilica, where some sort of investiture ceremony was taking place. Although photographs usually aren’t allowed in any part of the basilica, Saturday was an exception as friends and relatives (and Michael and I) snapped photos of the new Franciscans. I can’t begin to describe either church except to say that they glow with vibrant colors and images of the lives of Jesus and St. Francis. If you’re interested in looking at some images, click here.
My favorite chapel in the lower basilica was La Capella dell’Immocolata (the Chapel of the Virgin Mary), which featured 22 stunning bronze bas-reliefs by Tommaso Gismondi depicting the life of Mary. One of Mary supporting Jesus on the cross staggered me—it was the saddest artwork I’ve ever seen, and my eyes filled with tears when I first looked at it. The collection was displayed perfectly and was so moving.
We then walked up the steep hill to find a place for lunch. The restaurants on the main square didn’t tempt us, so we ended up at Ristorante Metastasio, not too far from the basilica. The patio has a stunning view overlooking the valley below Assisi. I had pasta with smoked salmon, asparagus, and cream and a delicious local (Umbrian) white, lightly frizzante wine, and everything was scrumptious! If you visit Assisi, give this restaurant a try.
After lunch we visited the upper church of the basilica. Although it, too, was beautiful, we both preferred the simpler lower basilica, which was darker and felt more intimate. Don’t get me wrong—both are gorgeous!
On Sunday we walked through the town of Assisi. Despite the onslaught of tourists, Assisi feels so peaceful. Much of the old town is constructed of pink local limestone, which makes it feel warm and welcoming. We briefly visited the Basilica of St. Clare (Basilica di Santa Chiara) just before it closed for the afternoon. Clare was a contemporary of St. Francis and ran away from home to follow him. According to Steves, she “spent the next 40 years of her life . . . barefoot, vegetarian, and largely silent. Her regimen of prayer, meditation, and simple manual labor—especially knitting—impressed commoners and popes, leading to her canonization almost immediately after her death.”
After visiting Clare’s basilica, we looked for a place to eat lunch. I’m positive that we covered every square inch of charming Assisi—from one end to the other—before landing at Locanda del Podestà, a restaurant that feels like a cave and is located just above the Basilica of St. Francis. This turned out to be one of my favorite restaurants in Italy, with superb pasta (mine was sausages and truffles in cream, and Michael had gnocchi with gorgonzola cheese) and delicious grilled sausages. If you go to Assisi and you like grilled meat, DON’T miss this restaurant! The restaurant doesn’t have a view, but every bite of food is sublime.
What a wonderful weekend. I LOVE Assisi. Thank you, Kate!
P.S., This post is for Jennilynn Howe Parks, just because.