Assisi | Florence, Italy

Posted by on May 25, 2001
The only side trip we took on our recent visit to Florence was a two day sojourn to Assisi. There seems to be a fortuitous rekindling of interest in St. Francis these days. Or is it just my imagination? know there are two new biographies of the great saint just published. (Stop in at Merritt Books.) And I (now) know that the restoration of the great Cimabue frescoes in the Basilica has been pretty much completed.Do you remember the earthquake of a few years ago, which was so frightening to those who love St. Francis, and those who revere the enormous treasure of sacred art which the basilica of St. Francis houses in Assisi??The evidence of that earthquake was all but gone when we were there in March. March is a good time to go to Assisi, but what it lacks in tourist crowds, it made up for in raindrops. Big ones. I say this because I got literally soaked by taking a walk after dinner without an umbrella. In the interest of full disclosure, however, our second day there was filled with warming sunshine.

If you ever go down to Assisi from Florence or Siena, you would not go wrong to try to pass through one of my favorite towns, San Quirico d’Orcia. Now there is better reason than ever to go there, as a new restaurant, the Osteria Il Tinaio is open for lunch and dinner. We decided it might be the best meal we had on the trip; the food was marvelous from the local red wine to the tiramisu for dessert. My favorite course was a handmade teardrop shaped pasta, stuffed with potatoes and finished with a sauce made with porcini, arugula and Parmesan. This house specialty is called “lacrime de San Quirico,” (the “tears of San Quirico.”)

It’s a small town, and Il Tinaio is easy to find. And Franco, the proprietor, is very welcoming. It’s on via Dante Alighiari, number 35. (telephone: 0577/898347) While you are there you can take a look at the magnificent portals of the Collegiata, as the Romanesque church is known, and the Madonna by Sano di Pietro inside.

We arrived late in the afternoon in Assisi, and fetched up at the Hotel Subasio. Its major appeal is the magnificent view from the windows; so don’t fail to get a view room if you stay there. Otherwise you’ll have to keep running down to the dining room to remind yourself why you are staying there. I certainly cannot recommend the flooding shower, the granite bed and the rock like pillows, but then, look what St. Francis was willing to put up with.

In fact, I should be ashamed of myself, for I now have renewed admiration for this twelfth century saint who left all his material wealth to “leave the world” and serve God through prayer and meditation. I cannot hope to resolve the paradox that has resulted in some of the world’s most valuable and magnificent frescoes, and most highly decorated edifices being here in Assisi, the home of this humble man. One would have to assume that this is not what he wished.

However, the world of art is certainly the better for the genius, which is displayed in the Giotto and Cimabue frescoes, which depict the life of Francis and various saints, as well as the life of Christ.

Since few could read or write in those days, the fresco was a way of telling the story of the saint, to help in the prayer and meditation efforts of the various followers and pilgrims who came to these holy sites.

Today, one can spend days viewing and studying the frescoes in Assisi. In fact, many of the art students from around the world who study in Florence come to spend time here. It is well worth a few days of quiet contemplation, but hopefully during a period when there are not many people around, which we so much appreciated.

Assisi is a mighty impressive town. Built on the side of Mount Subasio, the town is punctuated by church spires, and is dominated by the Basilica of St. Francis. It consists of three separate churches, built on top of each other, and is a place of constant pilgrimage. It can be seen for miles around, and excited our curiosity, as we got ever closer.

On the plain in the valley of Spoleto that spreads out below Assisi is the town and church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where the little chapel of the Portiuncola is now housed under a baroque dome. This little chapel is a few feet from where St. Francis actually died, and is revered by all who visit.

Being a place of pilgrimage also means that there are lots of hotels, hostels, restaurants and gift shops in Assisi. I am sure that Assisi is more like itself in the evenings when most of the tourists are gone, and the gift shops are closed, but as usual, it is worth seeking out those excellent crafts that are always in evidence along with the cheap souvenirs.

We had a very pleasant, simple lunch in the Trattoria degli Umbri in the town square. The porcini and arugula bruschetta with a little white wine was just enough lunch for me, along with some pecorino cheese. Others had simple pastas that looked very tasty. It’s rather easy to get a delicious lunch in Italy in my experience.

Although I would not recommend our hotel, I have heard that there is a very acceptable new hotel in town, called the Grand. I am sure one could find it on the Internet. That’s what I would do if I went back.

Like many towns in Italy, Assisi is a living museum. It gave me a very deep sense of history to spend time in this town, and a sense of wonder that men like Francis have lived. As one of those who have not given up the material things of life, it also gives me pause to reflect on the important things in life. Such is the real value of travel.

Betsy Shequine is off to Greece now, “In The Footsteps of Saint Paul”, but would love to hear from any of you about WHY you travel.

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