Away from the main touristic destinations in Italy such as Rome, Milan and Venice, there are tonnes of amazing places to visit which often require some traveling time but are absolutely worthwhile. Right in the Umbria region, in the Province of Perugia, the town of Assisi on Monte Subasio, has been a place I’ve longed to visit since young. This curiosity all started because of the amazing nun-teachers I met during my Catholic pre-school in the Cathedral of St Francis of Assisi.
Designated by UNESCO in 2020 as a World Heritage Site, Assisi is the birthplace as well as the burial place of St. Francis, aka San Francesco d’Assisi, who founded the Franciscan religious order in the town in the 1200s. Ever since, Assisi became the place where pilgrims have been visiting since the 13th century to venerate St. Francis. According to the Unesco, Assisi has a singular importance for its role in the diffusion of the Franciscan Order and for its “continuity of a city-sanctuary” from its Umbrian-Roman origins to today.
This day we drove to Assisi from Marche, along the highway and the winding hilly roads leading up to the hilly town, through thick layers of fogs that offer very limited visibility beyond 10 meters. By the time we neared the medieval town of Assisi, we were literally above the heavy fog and were greeted by a clear amazing welcoming view of the town.
Parking spaces can be found in a few locations outside the arched medieval gate (non-residents are not allowed to drive into the town). Walking up the steep slopes can be a bit of challenge and I was glad I had proper walking shoes. First impression of the town as we entered: clean, well maintained, well preserved, medieval styled, lots of stoned architecture.
Almost every other corner of the ancient stoned architecture throughout Assisi offers some outstanding panaromic views of the town sitting above clouds, against a backdrop of stark earthy tones of forestry and distant mountains.
It’s easy to find hotels, bars, restaurants, trattorias, many churches, shops selling lavender products, wines, leather goods, souvenir and cured meat. It’s apparently also quite a common sight to see nuns and monks donned in long brown robes roaming the streets. We took the whole day to explore the entire town on foot, had time for coffee at a bar, proper sumptuous Umbrian lunch and lots of photo taking of course!
So here are some of the main sites we visited, in sequential order from the main entrance of Assisi:
Basilica di Santa Chiara
The first church we saw sits right in front of a huge piazza – Basilica di Santa Chiara aka the Basilica of St. Clare. As the name implies, the church is dedicated to Saint Clare of Assisi, whose remains are contained within this 13-century Church’s crypt. Saint Clare is one of the most prominent women in the history of the Catholic church, having founded the Order of the Poor Clares. The church features understated Gothic interior and 13-century frescoes and painting. One thing we noticed from the frontal of the church building was that the rose windows are not aligned. Can you spot it from the picture here?
Piazza del Comune
A very short walk from the Basilica di Santa Chiara, we reached the heart of Assisi – the Piazza del Comune, aka the Communal Square. Greeted firstly by the prominent 16th-century monumental fountain Fontana dei Tre Leoni, or Fountain of the Three Lions. This fountain has documents of its location since the 1300s, was rebuilt in the mid 1400s and took on its present form in mid 1700s.
In the ancient times, this square should be the cityhall of Assisi, where all the happening activities took place. In today’s time, the square seems to have kept its main purpose, dotted with restaurants and bars and crowds gathering and laughing among themselves.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Facing the Piazza del Comune, you will not miss Santa Maria Sopra Minerva aka Temple of Minerva. The building may look Roman on the outside but the space-tight interior was completely transformed in the 1600s.
An interesting fact related to its name – when early Christians converted this temple, they bestowed on it the name of the powerful Virgin Mary – a saint who could neutralise any lingering pagan power and influence.
One can be confused with the basilica of the same name in Rome. However this church was built during the BC in the first century, originally dedicated to the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva, as can be observed from the towering corinthian columns, a stark reminder of the power and beauty of Roman imperial architecture.
Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi
The most famous and key feature of Assisi is the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi, aka the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor Conventual in Assisi, where Saint Francis was born and died.
Built since the 1200s immediately after the death of Saint Francis, the basilica comprises of two main churches featuring massive amount of Italian artwork by late medieval painters from the Roman and Tuscan schools including Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti – the Upper Church and the Lower Church, as well as a crypt, where the remains of Saint Francis are interred.
The interior of the Upper Church, or Basilica Superiore, and lower church, or Basilica Inferiore, not only serves as an important example of the Gothic style in Italy, but also demonstrates the outstanding development of Italian art in that era.
The Upper Church is decorated with 28 frescoes, each fresco is a scene from Saint Francis’ life, representing the celebration of beauty and life, carefully restored in today’s time. A stark difference from the the lower church’s dark rooms and sparse decoration, that reflects the spirit of Saint Francis and his Franciscan order. Take note no video or photo taking is allowed in the lower church.
There are quite a number of bars and restaurants in Assisi. We had our first coffee and pastry experience at this extremely beautiful bar, which didn’t turn out too well – coffee was not great, taste of their pastries was too flat (only tasted sugar) and very expensive. We realised later that this bar has an average of rating of less than 2 on TripAdvisor. So be sure to check out reviews before you enter.
Since we learnt our lesson to always check out TripAdvisor before we enter any restaurants, we found quite a number of local trattorias and restaurants with ratings of 4.5 to 5. And it’s not surprising many of these are full during lunch hours with a pre-filled reservation list. We were lucky to find Trattoria Pallotta, somewhat hole-in-a-wall, right in the centre of Piazza del Commune, opposite Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Food was amazing and prices very reasonable. Highly recommended!
Duomo di San Rufino
A short walk from the Piazza del Comune, passing through residential buildings mostly with a view to die for, we reached the San Rufino Cathedral or simply Assisi Cathedral or Duomo di San Rufino.
The 13-century built Cathedral is a favourite spot among pilgrims due to its connection to St. Francis’ life. It features a beautiful, Romanesque façade showcasing three rose windows, with part of the architecture said to be built on a Roman cistern. The site where both Saint Francis and Saint Clare were baptized, the Cathedral was dedicated to San Rufino, or Saint Rufinus, after he converted Assisi to Christianity in AD 238 and was later martyred.
Reachable by a flight of about some 140 over stairs, we reached the massive Rocca Maggiore, right at the top of Assisi. Built in the 14th-century, this fortress or castle site is the perfect finale to our day trip. As we reached the rocca at about 3.30pm, we managed to take some amazing shots of the town below and the surrounding valleys around Assisi. The elevated Basilica di San Francesco sitting on a bed of cloud against the sunset makes the perfect Instagram picture!
The Rocca Maggiore was originally built specifically to intimidate the townspeople, and subsequently had been expanded, pillaged, and restored again and again across the centuries. Today the architecture forms part of the unmissable landmark towering over Assisi.
If you like my Italian travel posts, do check out Mantova, the sleeping beauty of Italy.
PS: Trip taken in December 2020.