It’s not hard to tell when you’re approaching the popular Umbrian town of Assisi – its thirteenth century basilica stretches along the hilltop, dominating the horizon for miles around.
Although this area was once known by people in the Middle Ages as ‘the hill of hell’, nowadays thousands of people – art historians, holidaymakers, and religious pilgrims alike – arrive in the town every year, to visit the basilica where St Francis of Assisi (or San Francesco di Assisi, to give him his original Italian name) is buried.
The vast building is actually made up of two churches, one set above the other, and they are very different in style. The upper church is Gothic and slender, while the lower one, which you enter via a thirteenth century archway, has a much more austere, almost squat aspect.
Here in the lower church, the magnificent frescoes – including works by Giotto, Lorenzetti and Martini – captivate visitors, irrespective of their religious beliefs.
The remains of St Francis were not actually discovered until excavations were carried out under the altar in the early 1800s. In 1820, Pope Pio IX canonized Francesco and ordered the building of the neoclassical style crypt, and it is here that countless people now come to pay their respects to San Francesco.
Although the Basilica of San Francesco is the main attraction for visitors, there is yet more to discover in this town where the Franciscan Order was born. By contrast, for example, the Lyrick Theatre (Teatro Lyrick) in Via G. D’Annunzio offers a varied programme of dance, music, drama and comedy all year round.
As with anywhere in Italy, it goes without saying that you can also enjoy some of the finest food and wine to be found. In Assisi, the regional specialities include delicious mushrooms and that prized delicacy, the truffle. Extra virgin olive oil too is particularly fine here, owing to the landscape’s many thousands of olive trees that give Umbria its silvery green shimmer.
Reaching Assisi is fairly easy, with a variety of options. The small Sant’Egidio international airport is about 10km away, although there is no bus connecting it with the town. Alternatively, the train is a good option. Travelling from the Florence, for instance, you can take one of the regular daily trains, just changing at Terontola or Cortona. From Rome, again take one of around ten daily trains, this time changing at Foligno. Remember though, the train stations in Umbria are at the foot of the hills, while the towns cling to the sides… and the Basilica of San Francesco is at the top.
Keeping the St Francis connection, you might also like to take in Isola Maggiore, the largest of the three islands on Lake Trasimeno, which is within easy reach around 50km away. St Francis chose to spend Lent on the island in 1211, recognising its closeness to nature and how perfect it was for quiet reflection. Today, Isola Maggiore is gently evolving into a simple cultural retreat, and creative writing workshops take place there each Spring and Autumn, as well as the annual Isola del Libri book festival.