Sunday was a bright and crisp sort of morning and, because the cold wind has gone, temperatures hovered around zero. We decided to visit another nearby town and chose Assisi. Only just over an hour away and, despite its popularity, a freezing Sunday in January should mean that we might have it to ourselves. Actually, we nearly did, as the car parks were empty and, as you can see from the photographs, there were hardly any tourists. But they’d had snow and the fountains were very iced up.
When you approach from the valley, Assisi rises up on the hillside and is dominated by the structure that is the Basilica and church dedicated to the man himself – St Francis.
Winding streets and beatiful higgledy stone houses characterise the town which has a very ancient Roman history. The amazing building in Piazza del Comune, with its Corinthian columns, was a Roman temple to Minerva and is now a church dedicated to Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which means Saint Mary over Minerva, which is very nice of the ancients to give a shout out to the even more ancient. There’s also an amphitheatre which we did not get to see, along with the castle that overlooks the town from the hilltop. Another day….
After a nice lunch, cooked over wood embers to perfection, we wandered up to the Cathedral of San Rufino. The facade of this church has a row of what look like foxes all along it, as well as some quite jolly looking faces of people and animals and an absailing sheep. Actually I thought it looked like Daisy ! Two rather scary ancient lions guard the main door and appear to be occupied with eating people, head first. We went in through the side door.
Then on to the Basilica of St Francis, via a very beautiful small church dedicated to Santa Maria Maggiore. This very simple church with its plain brick facade contains wonderful frescoes painted onto the walls and ceilings. Some have been restored and others have been ravaged by time and need restoration, but the earthy colours and simple drawings are a good contrast to the lavish baroque, marble carved and painting stuffed churches elsewhere. St Francis’ church is again a beatifully painted church. Interior photos are not allowed but the wooden ribbed roof is hand painted in bright jewel colours and in elaborate shapes intended to look like tiny tiles of coloured marbles and semi-precious stone. Incredible to think that St Francis lived in the 12th century and still has such a powerful effect on people. There is a very life-like marble statue of him in the cathedral by a french sculptor, and I just had to stroke his sandled toes, as many had obviously done before.
Maybe due to the overwhelming number of extremely tacky gift shops lining many of the streets, I was lured by their twinkly light and bright interiors and I felt an overwhelming desire to find a snow globe with St Francis in it. There were lots. I was, however, looking for the version of him holding the dove in his hand but could only find him sharing the little glass dome with Saint Clare, another disciple of his who renounced wordly goods to help the poor. But somehow it did not feel right to link these worthies to a piece of tat made in China, that I didn’t even need and was buying as a sort of joke. My residual Catholic guilt stepped in and so off we went, renouncing earthly tat, to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate. I know that sounds really shallow but it was very, very cold. By the way, one of the specialities of Assisi seems to be wood-fired meringues the size of your head.
I would come back to visit but maybe not in the height of the tourist season when it really must turn into a bit of a circus, for example a photo of the Basilica of St Francis with not a soul in front is amazing. We were fortunate to be able to walk around these impressive buildings and still feel a sense of awe at how they were constructed, the beauty of the decoration and the majesty of the paintings and statuary, without the jostling of crowds and tourists buying tacky snow globes.