One of my favorite things about traveling the world is the arrival in each new place. I love the surprise when we step off the train/airplane/boat or out of an automobile. It is a whole new world just waiting for me to discover it, to peel back the layers and find the truths and beauties. The air smells different, the vibe feels different and the architecture always varies. My senses heighten and I am full of wonder, like a kid discovering something new.
In some locations I have expectations or ideas of what it will be like when we arrive because of pictures or blog posts from other travelers. With Assisi it was completely surprising. As we stepped out of the train station I was surprised to see a city on top of a hill in the middle of the Italian countryside, with a castle perched a top the hill overlooking the city and the land below. I am not sure what I expected but this wasn’t it. It looked regal and protected from progress and modernity. As our taxi drove us up to the hill where we were to stay for two days I became more and more surprised. The open countryside was giving way to tree lined roads, old stone houses and walls protecting an ancient city above.
Entering in through one of the old stone gates was like turning the clock back hundreds of years. There are not many cars allowed in the town so our taxi drove us through the closest square and up to our Airbnb (which had the smallest & cutest kitchen ever). Each building was made from old stones to coordinate with the cobblestone streets creating a cohesive atmosphere.
Assisi is full of history most of which is located in Piazza del Commune, Rocca Maggiorie (the 14th century castle) or the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. We chose to eat dinner in the Piazza del Commune, on a balcony overlooking the Piazza with its beautiful fountain and lively atmosphere. There is a feeling here that you are overseeing the rest of the world, almost as its keeper. It is easy to understand why people chose this hill to build a town where they could protect themselves.
Our first day we headed over to the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. We walked the short distance from our apartment (Assisi is a very small town so walking anywhere takes no more than 15 minutes). Assisi is hilly so be prepared for a little leg workout. I loved walking the small streets, checking out the local shops and amazing bakeries. The window displays were all so tempting I almost ate my way to the Basilica. Before I tell you about the Basilica I have to preface the story with the fact that J and I have seen so many churches in our travels if we are not careful we can be very nonchalant about them. It is hard to impress or move us (one of the reasons you MUST see La Sagrada Familia since it knocked us off our feet.) When you reach the corner of the intersection where the town gives way to the Basilica it is sensory overload.In front of you lies the gorgeous church watched over by the impressive and inspiring statue of St. Francis of Assisi. Behind you lies the old stone town represented on this corner by a picturesque restaurant with red flowers dripping from window boxes. The Basilica serves as a gateway to the Italian countryside below, laid out like a quilt of different colors and textures.
Entering the Basilica is an immediate rush of awe and calm. There is a feeling in this church that is missing from most that we have toured. It feels calming, spiritual, accepting and forgiving all at the same time. The intensity of the ceiling and wall details is almost overwhelming. It is hard to comprehend the amount of work put into the frescoes detailing scenes from St. Francis’ life as well as all of the other details in this Basilica, and how well they were done to have survived since the 13th century. The lower level of the Basilica contains the grave of St. Francis. As I made my way down the stairs I was moved by the number of nuns there to pray at the grave of this gracious man. Their reverence for all that St. Francis stood for was evident as they knelt before his grave and prayed.
The Basilica also displays some incredible art and sculpture collected and gifted over the past 700 years. It is also home to the tunic worn by St. Francis. I really didn’t think it would be a big deal to see this, but honestly it was very impressive. I suppose after reading all that he did, believed and sacrificed the tunic represented all of these things in such a simple and humble way.
On our second day we spent a leisurely morning in the Piazza del Commune before heading over to the Roman Forum Museum located under the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. (It can be tricky to find this little treasure so don’t give up, it is hidden under the Piazza.) When we entered the museum we were immediately impressed with the pre-Roman treasures hidden within the ancient brick walls. There were capitals of columns, carvings, and statues all of which used to make up the Forum which was located in what is now the Piazza del Commune. As we made our way up the hallway we started to see what would have been the old Forum, the walls, stairs, and columns which would have supported the Forum. There are really interesting movies (they are in Italian) which show what the Forum would have looked like and some of the process of excavating the area which is now the museum. As we walked deeper into the space it felt as if history was unfolding before us. The structure started to take shape as well as the life that would have taken place around it. The romance of pre-Roman times always gets me, and the museum surprised me in how much it brought that history to life.
We wandered the streets the rest of the day, stopping to see an art exhibit, feed a hurt bird and take pictures of the gorgeous countryside surrounding us. The wonderful thing about Assisi is all of the quaint places tucked away down old cobblestone streets. It is full of romance and the Italy that has captured hearts for centuries. The warm hospitality of the Italian people was evident as we ate dinner in a little restaurant tucked away at the end of a little street. We were spoiled with excellent service, great local food and the owners and their family trying to coax their cat off the adjacent stone wall.
Assisi surprised us both. As we left it felt a bit like leaving home.