Assisi has always been in fashion but as a place of pilgrimage you might expect it to be, well, sober in appearance.
Instead I found the colors of Assisi vibrant, almost exploding as the rain fell and continued to cling.
I remember my first visit to Assisi, that extraordinary hill town in the middle of Umbria. Still a child, I was dragged along by my parents on that most dreaded of holidays, the educational experience. I vaguely remember being pulled up hills and through damp churches, looking in vain for signs of gelato.
The second time was in the 1980s, when I organized a major conference as part of my communications job for WWF International. I recall a handful of notables, bickering journalists, and religious representatives of every stripe huddling to debate the meaning of environmental conservation in their individual religions.
The third time was strictly for my own pleasure just after attending the annual Travel Bloggers Unite conference. When it ended and everyone went home I nearly had the town to myself. It was wet and thundery, with that special light unstable weather brings with it.
Home of St Francis
Assisi is best-known as the birthplace of Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, the future St Francis of Assisi who was born into a wealthy family in 1182 but after a spiritual awakening left it all for a lifetime of poverty. He was believed to communicate with animals and felt deeply about the natural world around him.
I was surprised to learn that earlier in life he was a poor student, a womanizer, a soldier and a former prisoner of war, when he fell quite ill with tuberculosis and malaria. There are even stories he was in love – with Clare, who would join him in poverty and go on to found the women’s monastic order called the Poor Clares. That, however, was nearly a thousand years ago and the truth today is a bit hazy.
St Francis died young by modern standards, at 45, his body a mass of illness.
Assisi is a place of pilgrimage and the sight of monks and pilgrims strolling through the steep streets contrasts with casually dressed day trippers vying for trinkets or St Francis memorabilia.
The town’s centerpiece is the Basilica, a slightly daunting visit when you consider the building was hit by a major earthquake and severely damaged in 1997. The vault collapsed, frescoes were destroyed, and several people died, a grim memory in such an otherwise peaceful place.
While the hilltop is where everyone rushes, there’s an unusual church on the plain at the bottom of town. The imposing Santa Maria degli Angeli was built to protect a tiny chapel called the Porziuncola, which was in disrepair until St Francis renovated it. The Porziuncola is where he made his vow of poverty and it is the Franciscans’ most sacred site.
Back up on the hillside, I return to Assisi and the rain-washed streets smell clean and metallic and a breeze pushes its way up the narrow streets. The cobblestones are shiny (and slippery) and umbrellas are out but that can’t dampen the colors which seem even more vivid after they’ve been scrubbed clean by the weather.
There’s something about the atmosphere here that keeps people – including myself – coming back.
What every Woman on the Road should know
- In Assisi I stayed at the Hotel Ristorante Bellavista – and the view was beautiful because I was down in the valley looking up at the hill town. Inexpensive and a stellar welcome, and great and simple food.
- In Assisi town I ate one night at Il Frantoio, a bit hidden down some stairs behind a hotel with good food, good services, a great view and value for money.
- Assisi is easiest to reach from Perugia but you can catch a train there from other Italian airports.
- Bring good walking shoes: there is plenty of hill walking (it’s even harder if you leave the main town). If you’re staying down the hill there’s a frequent city bus that goes right to the top – all you have to do is walk down the road, on the sidewalk.
- Also of interest: What every woman should know about travel to Italy.
Photos by Anne Sterck unless otherwise noted.