For the three days of the conference, I found myself periodically staring out the window of my room over a perfectly manicured vineyard at the unusual city and ancient structures that dominated the nearby hillside. I felt longing – while located a mere 15 minutes outside of Assisi, our schedule was busy and largely confined to day-trips to near by cities or events at the resort. This meant that it wasn’t until the final day of the conference that I had an opportunity to join a small group of other travel bloggers for a free-form trip into Assisi. Our goal was simple – to enjoy a few hours around sunset walking the city before ferreting out a place for dinner and local Italian wine.
We reached the town late in the afternoon just in time to enjoy an hour or so of solid light before the day began to give way to dusk lit by stunning clouds. The view out from the city was full of rich fields, beautiful trees, and at least 20 hues of green. The spotted clouds cast shadows across the landscape and broke the light, softening the view. The soft rain which had fallen earlier in the day wet the soil, slicked the roads, and deepened the verdant hues that stretched out from the hilltop upon which Assisi rests.
The city of Assisi is an old one. While it is unclear just how old – historical indicators suggest that the city’s roots date back around 2,500 years. Possibly earlier. Located in Italy’s breadbasket, it held a powerful strategic position for nearly 2,000 years and was incorporated into the Roman Empire during Rome’s infancy.
Our exploration of Assisi started at the main bus park. A humble beginning, but none-the less a convenient drop-off point for our taxi. From there we surveyed our surroundings before opting to head towards the city’s primary landmark and defining characteristic: The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi.
The street curved and flared out, teasing us with a sweeping vista over the countryside as we looked out from beneath the Basilica compound’s castle-like arched supports. As I glanced out over the country side I was greeted by a view I never quite get tired of. ..a solitary tree standing alone amidst a well-kept field. I find there’s just a certain poetic charm to the sight. One that nags at me to pause, reflect, and to slow down. No small challenge given the fairly hectic pace I tend to set for myself in my day-to-day life.
Soon though, the overlook/street dove through a fortified gateway and we found ourselves pulled in toward the city’s heart. After ascending a brief but steep street we wound around, navigating more by landmarks than by any actual plan or idea where we were going.
As I mentioned in my Perugia post, one of my favorite things about Umbria’s historic hilltop towns are the irregular roof-lines. Assisi is no different with a veritable maze of unique structures, all at different levels and facing in a variety of directions. At times it reminds me of the drawings of M. C. Escher.
Quite suddenly we found ourselves passing through a gateway into the lower plaza of St. Francis. We had traded the narrow, steep, winding cobblestone streets for the large open area that serves as the Basilica’s welcome mat. The Basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which dates back to 1,228 AD. The complex consists of two churches – creatively named the Upper Church and the Lower Church.
The structure serves as the mother church for the Franciscan Order, also known as the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor.It was erected in part to honor St. Francis who began and ended his life in Assisi. In an interesting twist, many reports note that the hill where the Basilica was erected was initially used to execute criminals and went by the name of the hill of hell. After it was gifted and re-purposed by the Franciscans, the hill has since found redemption and is now hailed as the hill of paradise.
A fitting name given the hill’s location on the spur of the large slope where the town of Assisi resides. I imagine that the fresh air circulating around the Basilica was a wonderful boon to its inhabitants in medieval times and the location on the hill overlooking the warm plain below kept it cool and bathed in gentle breezes even during the most humid and muggy parts of the year.
By the time we reached the entrance to the Upper Basilica the light had begun to change and fade. As if on command, the sky let loose fantastic rays of light in every direction which framed the Basilica in a near-halo. I’m not a religious person, but it was the type of view that renews my love and wonder for the natural world around us. I can definitely imagine that it would have been a moving moment for the faithful.
When I’m in a hilltop town I always feel inclined to go up…And up….And up. It makes navigation simple and usually takes you toward some sort of central square, fortification, or view port. In this case we wound around the large green yard in front of the Upper Basilica, past a rather forlorn looking statue of a knight on horse,walking along the city’s exterior wall toward a small gate.
With the gate and the ruined tower that sat vigil over it behind us, we paused at a steep hook in the road and watched as the sun slowly began to sink toward the horizon. The town was largely silent outside the the occasional squeak as a passing car’s wheels desperately clung to the slick cobblestones accompanied by the rhythmic noise of feet shuffling along the cobblestones as an elderly couple or two two made their way down into one of the lower parts of the city. Enticed by the rich scents billowing out into the streets from the numerous restaurants around us, we couldn’t ignore the sound of our rumbling stomachs as our bodies roared in protest.
Eager to get one final view of the Basilica and the sunset we paused along a small walkway near the city’s exterior wall and then set to the task of finding an affordable restaurant. Quite often no small challenge in a city like Assisi which is known as a significant tourist destination. Still, with our stomachs growling, we overcame the challenges of making a group decision, and quickly settled on a small place just around the corner. We entered and piled into one of the side rooms.
Contrary to what I expected (expensive food and small portions), the waiter suggested one of the evening’s specials – pork shank with potato wedges for 10 Euro. Still skeptical, I expected a small shank served on an equally small bed of potatoes. What showed up was a massive, fist sized, shank and a hearty serving of potatoes that was full of flavor and cooked to perfection. Everyone’s food looked fantastic and came in hearty portions. The place was Trattoria Al Camino Vecchio on Via S. Giacomo, 7 and I’d return there in a heartbeat the next time I find my way back to Assisi.
We finished our meal and met up with another large group from the conference in the basement of a nearby restaurant. It was offering 2 Euro 50 cent pitchers of house wine.
The wait to see Assisi had been well worth the it. Even though I only got a brief taste of the city’s winding streets and delicious food selections, I was thoroughly enticed and rewarded by the offerings of the city. I look forward to returning to Assisi and exploring it in greater depth. I would love to tour the fortifications, re-visit the inside of the Franciscan friary, and Basilicas which I remember vaguely from my visit as a child of 11 in 1994.
If you’re considering a trip to central Italy, I hope Assisi makes the list of places you intend to visit. It’s a charming city with a rich past and one can only hope a bright future. Have you been? I’d love to hear your personal stories of times spent exploring Assisi in a comment below.