St. Francis, although a Catholic saint, is embraced by almost all Christian (and even some other) faiths. Many Christians are still following his basic premises of being Christ-like with the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience today. The new pope has even taken the name of Francis to show his commitment to the poor.
St. Francis’ birthplace of Assisi is visited by many pilgrims and tourists from all over the world not only for the Renaissance art work in the churches, but for also the peace that comes from visiting the many churches and the Medieval buildings in the town on the hill. UNESCO Designated Assisi as a World Heritage Site in 2000.
While traveling in Europe, the easiest way to travel (and one of the cheapest) is by train. Flying in to Rome, catching the express train from the airport to the train station is relatively easy and the locals are very helpful (but don’t trust the taxi drivers). First class tickets assure you of a seat in a near empty train car, but go for the cheaper second class (where we always had a seat, anyways). Second class will give you more of the flavor of the country.
Arriving in Assisi, there are really two towns, Assisi the ancient town on the hill and Assisi Stazione (station) located down below, because of the train station. Getting a hotel room near the station was easy and cheap and the ride up the hill to the churches was all achieved by local bus transit. It is a short uphill walk to the Basilica of St. Francis.
There are three levels to the basilica, the upper church with its different frescoes of the life of Christ on one side, juxtaposed against the other side with the life of St. Francis. The frescoes were originally thought to be that of pre-Renaissance artist Giotto, but now thought to be of artist Pietro Cavallini. They are impressive and beautiful even though an earthquake damaged them in 1997.
On the second lower level is another church, this one decorated by Giotto and his mentor Cimabue . Frescoes portraying heaven, the saints and the life of Christ are very inspiring, even utilizing the windows in the storytelling. The artists’ skill is remarkable!
The third and lowest level is a small chapel, where the grave of St. Francis is located. On display are some of his garments and personal items. It is dark, quiet and thought provoking, completely unlike the upper two levels.
Celebrating St. Francis Day, October 4, is an Italian National Holiday, schools out, banks closed. In Assisi there is pageantry, costumes, lots dignitaries, both religious and political. The crowds are large and the church services are full, in the St. Francis Basilica, even though there is more than one service.
After the service there are speeches, prayers and official blessings with even trumpets sounding (those big long royal looking trumpets) with lots of pomp and circumstance. After the speeches and ceremonies, the crowd disperses to the upper village to eat drink and be merry.
Up the hill from the basilica is the ancient Roman Temple to Minerva (now one of many Catholic churches), restaurants, pizzerias, trattorias (family owned restaurants) and souvenir shops. Further up the hill are more churches such as the Romanesque San Rufino (Saint Ruffino), the church of St. Claire (Santa Chiara) with its namesake’s tomb, and other churches with a multitude of the architectural feature flying buttresses. Views of the agricultural plains and the city below are breathtaking.
The medieval town is basically intact and it is a joy to turn the corner and follow the cramped streets to another wonder of centuries past. After walking, hiking and site seeing, a bus will take you back to the city below.
One thing not to miss is the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Mary of the Angels) A huge church with a golden statue of Mary at its peak, it houses a small church inside, the Porziuncola, or the small chapel that St. Francis rebuilt by hand. It became his home and from here he gathered his first disciples.
Assisi is a place of peace and reflection. As tourists, we came and wanted to see everything as fast as possible, but after being there a short time, peace and goodness overtook us and a sense of wonder is what we felt when we reluctantly left.