When we were planning the sabbatical we were challenged by the desire for it to provide renewal and inspiration for mind, body and spirit. Our friends Lizzie and Chris had recommended we visit Assisi as a place of pilgrimage and spiritual refreshment.
Assisi is a beautiful Medieval city of rosy pink stone on a ridge above the Umbrian plain on the side of Mount Sabasio, which rises out of the Plain like a giant turtle. It also looks like a monks head with a fringe of trees (hair) and a grassy (bald) top. It sits with Subasio National Park, as does Assisi.
Assisi with Mount Subasio in the distance. It looks more like a turtle or Monk’s head from a different angle.
It was here that St Francis was born in 1181 or 1182AD and died 1226. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant who was in France on business, at the time of his birth. He was originally called Giovanni but was re-named Francesco – literally “the Frenchman” because of his father’s love of France. Inspired by God, he turned away from a life of a typical rich young man and instead began to challenge the church to return to its humble origins; to live and preach as Jesus did. He quickly attracted devoted followers who became known as Franciscans; still one of the most influential Christian orders. Interestingly, the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio on recently accepting the Papacy became the first Pope to call himself after St Francis.
We were not certain what to expect so we booked two nights in a hotel in the old city. After one night we were so enjoying the happy, friendly atmosphere that we decided to book an extra two nights as we wanted to explore more.
The view looking down the street from our hotel
Anne blames her father for the compulsion she feels that if there is a hill it should be climbed. So after breakfast on our first day Anne set off with her sun hat to find a footpath up the 4,200 ft high Mount Subasio.
Mount Subasio from the edge of the tree line
Walking steadily up through the pines, holm oaks and sycamores, the path was hard and stony like the rest of the hillside, and, like a pilgrimage, it didn’t get easier but one became used to it. St Francis and his friars would have walked on the same paths over this mountain. Numerous butterflies such as white admirals and fritillaries danced in the clearings created by the path. The hillside is wreathed with small roads and well used picnic sites – you can drive up part of the way but then you don’t see so much.
Chicory was very common along all the roads and paths.
The following morning Gary woke early and decided to go for a stroll before breakfast and the heat of the day. Firstly he walked through the deserted, narrow streets. Without planning to, he found himself going out through an old stone gateway and along a track ascending through the woods. Gary kept on going, at first following a trail marked with the sign of St Francis. Meanwhile Anne had decided it was breakfast time and she wasn’t waiting any longer. Gary kept on walking, enjoying the scenery and wildlife but getting a bit lost. The morning was getting hotter and the path longer. But Gary was blessed by the hospitality of the people he met, who generously shared their water and conversation. Eventually, with the sun beating down and no shade for miles around, Gary reached the top. The views were great and he could finally look down to see Assisi and the Umbrian plain. To the north there were great views of the rest of the Apennine mountains.
Assisi from Mount Subasio. You can see how Assisi is built along a ridge
Typical vegetation above the tree line. Very painful if you are wearing sandals!
Descending Mount Subasio with views across to the peaks of the Apennines
It was now midday and very hot and a long way back to Assisi. By the time he returned back down to the treeline, Gary was more than ready to accept a lift, if only to get out of the glaring sun. The first car that he stuck out his thumb to, in the universal hitch-hiking gesture, stopped and an elderly couple with their grandson, gave him a lift right back to the main square of Assisi. This generosity was typical of the people we met, whether locals, people holidaying, relaxing or walking over the mountain. It felt as if they were consciously or subconsciously acting in the spirit of St Francis, of helping anyone in need.
Part of the path on the mountainside, which we had both walked on separately, was a pilgrims’ way linking Assisi and the Vatican. During our stay, we saw many groups of young people, including troops of scouts and guides – St Francis is their patron saint too.
An impromptu open air short service in front of the Basilica of St Francesco
Whether climbing in the hot sun, singing outside the basilicas, picnicking on the mountainside, listening to a friar talking to them outside a church in the evening or playing noisy games in the main square at night, they all seemed to be enjoying themselves, giving Assisi a vibrancy and joyfulness not found simply in a tourist destination.
Whilst Gary was up the mountain, Anne decided to walk around Assisi and ended up walking through a stone gateway and out of the city along a steadily descending, narrow road to a small church. Toiling up the road, were a steady stream of young pilgrims carrying heavy rucksacks. Anne soon reached the small, old stone church building of Santa Croce nestling in the valley. The church was very simple inside. Unusually it had just one large picture of an empty cross.
Being a place of pilgrimage, Assisi has many church buildings. As St Francis renounced any worldly wealth and goods and also, probably because Assisi city went through times of poverty during the centuries, the basilicas and the churches are generally fairly plainly decorated. Many of the smaller churches are open all day for prayer and meditation, as well as services. The churches gave a great sense of welcome; you were met with smiles even if you turned up in shorts and strappy tee shirt, (it was hot). You were accepted for who you were (what was in your heart) and not how you appeared.
Sisters resting in the shade
We attended evening services (Vespers) at three different chuches: The Basilica of San Rufino which St Francis used to attend and preach in; the main Basilica of St Francesco and the Basilica of St Chiara (St Clare).
- The cathedral church of St Rufino
The Basilica of Santa Chiara
The Basilica of St Francesco
All the services we attended were in Italian, so we understood very little. But we appreciated the calm contemplation, unity of worship and friendly diversity of the congregation. We noted that, unlike England where people wait quietly to be ushered up for communion, there was instead an enthusiastic surge forwards to the priest.
We stumbled across the church of St Maria della Rose that had been internally modified to accommodate a display consisting of two large letters (alpha and omega) linked by 33 tubes. Each tube held a small, identical wooden carving, a tactile representation of Mary, mother of Jesus. Each carving used a different type of wood. Here, the visitor was invited to sit and meditate or pray. The statues were designed to fit into your hand and a number of ceramic copies were placed in the centre of the display for visitors to hold as an aid to prayer and reflection.
Overall, we were struck by the lack of any general explanation of who St Francis was. There were a couple of multi-language leaflets in the main basilica and there were always Franciscan priests standing around talking to people but for a general, uninformed tourist we wondered how they might learn of the enduring power of his message.
Friars on almost every street corner
The message of St Francis, that there are more important things in life than possessions, was elucidated and expanded on by the American Franciscan priest who took the service at the Anglican Church which we attended on Sunday morning. An excellent sermon, it was remarkably similar to what we had heard a few days earlier from Tomaz Hartman, Head of the State Forestry Service in Slovenia. As we had walked with Tomaz alongside one of the few remaining examples of a Virgin Forest, he shared with us his concerns over the rise of consumerism and the impact this was having on people and on the environment.
We were so pleased to have sought out the Anglican Church. Overall it was a wonderful, thought provoking service – as well as one which we could follow and understand. At the end of the service the congregation was invited next door for drinks. Then the lady from the restaurant across the street came in to ask how many would be staying for lunch. It turns out to be a regular feature that members of the church have lunch together. So, many of the congregation went across to a busy restaurant, full of local Italian families enjoying their Sunday lunch. After everyone had ordered a simple meal – typically a pasta or meat dish with a salad, Gary was asked to say grace, reading out (very loudly in this noisy restaurant) a short prayer giving thanks to God for the meal and for fellowship. After the meal, the bill was split so that we all paid the same, except “the vicar” who did not pay. Then we went up to the main square to sit in the shade having ice cream and coffee; what a lovely Sunday.
The main piazza; a great place to meet friends or sit and watch the world go by.
It was great to meet and chat; we were a diverse mix; residents, pilgrims (one Scotsman had come on a gruelling walking pilgrimage and he sensibly wasn’t going any further) and a few were tourists. Some regular members of the congregation had travelled miles to be there – on our table were two other couples who had driven 1.5 and 2 hours respectively to worship together and have fellowship.
In Assisi we ate lots of simple, straightforward Italian meals and they were all absolutely delicious; fresh pasta, olive oil, warm peaches. For deserts, a local specialty was a cake – a bit like a cross between a apple strudel and a mincemeat tart, made using figs. I could go on but I’d better stop.
During the day the streets were full of tourists and pilgrims – and full of noise. One morning about a hundred young pilgrims, led by a Franciscan priest walked past, singing, clapping calling out and generally having fun. The next morning two to three hundred bikers on Harley Davidson’s drove through the street from the St Francis Basilica, below our hotel window. As people lined the narrow street, waiting for them to pass, some waved, others applauded. In return the bikers waved back or gave a quick blip on the throttle, creating a crescendo of sound. Generally the streets were much quieter in the evenings, except Saturday which was an evening of Weddings.
Looking at the map one late afternoon, Anne decided to walk along a route from the main Basilica which she had not been on. This street was an oasis between two busy tourist routes; it was quiet and empty, no shops, hotels and restaurants. There were a couple of nuns chatting happily on their way to the Basilica and further along a group of local ladies sitting on a bench under a plane tree, sharing conversation. There were many different aspects to Assisi, waiting to be discovered.
The main basilica of St Francis has separate entrances for the upper church and the lower one where the saint is buried. The whole basilica was badly damaged in 1997 by an earthquake which in particular destroyed the frescos or wall paintings. Fortunately it has been possible to restore them. The Upper basilica includes frescoes attributed to Giotto that illustrate the Old Testament, Christ’s life and that of St Francis. Originally the pilgrims would have visited and marveled at the pictures interpreting them as we follow a television documentary today. The message of St Francis can be seen in the frescos of the church and seen and experienced in the streets and environs of Assisi.
St Francis had a strong belief in social justice and care for nature. Despite his wealthy upbringing, St Francis chose a life of evangelical poverty, humility and peacemaking. He travelled to Egypt to intervene in the Crusades and surprisingly built a relationship with the Sultan and other Muslim leaders – seemingly based on a mutual respect, belief in God, the need for kindness to the poor and a desire for peace. Back in Italy, he attracted followers from both inside and outside the church. He travelled to the Vatican where he was temporarily jailed as a result of delivering his uncompromising message. St Francis’s mission was to share the good news about Jesus and God’s love. His call for faith, prayer and selfless love was both simple and challenging, for poor and wealthy alike. The influence of St Francis on the church was profound and his message as relevant today as it was in the 13th century.
PAX = Peace
Marked out by box hedging on the lawn in front of the Basilica of St Francesco
We thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of Assisi. It was a lovely place to visit; a positive pilgrimage. We could easily return.