Assisi is a special place. There is something about it which draws you in, gently, as though St. Francis were floating above extending his hand in blessing over the tiny hill town, asking residents, tourists and pilgrims alike to just breathe and take in the beauty. We’ve been to Assisi a few times, and each time we experience the same sense of sacredness.
Of course, this ‘calm’ only descends after you’ve battled your way up the tiny, winding road, skirting vehicles and pedestrians by inches, as you search for your hotel and for a parking space that is within a 2 km range. St. Francis traveled light: no car, no possessions. He could navigate both the town and the calm much more easily in his dusty leather sandals.
This year we arrived in Assisi on April 24, just in time for Liberation Day (April 25), an important national holiday which marks the fall of Mussolini, and the end of the Nazi occupation of Italy. It is a day in which all Italians mobilize and join the battalions of tourists already scrambling for a purchase on the ‘boot’. The prime national sites are usually full to the brim with turisti and Italian families out for a little culture, sunshine, and relax. This year the holiday fell on a Tuesday, making it a 4-day ponte, long weekend, so everyone (and their dog) was taking advantage of the extra time for an extended holiday.
Our lodgings, Hotel San Giovanni, were situated at the very top of the hill; it was a sweet place just inside Porta San Giovanni and not far from the Basilica di San Francesco. After dropping off our luggage in the room we headed out into the late morning heat, towards the church.
I’d forgotten how truly beautiful Assisi is: In the bright sun, the gray stones of the houses, dotted with potted plants and neat window boxes, gleamed; the narrow streets, some made up only of steps, were clean and inviting; the view of the surrounding valley, breathtaking.
When we arrived at the basilica, now a UNESCO Heritage Site, the scene changed dramatically. Machine-gun-toting military personnel had set up barricades and checkpoints and were rifling through everyone’s bags and strollers. People were jostling and being jostled, while family and tourist groups struggled to keep together. Welcome to travel in a terrorist age.
The church itself is divided into a Lower and Upper Basilica, both begun in the 13th century, both awash in Medieval gold and blue, and a riot of frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue, Lorenzo Lorenzetti, and others. An earthquake in 1997 took the lives of four people in the Upper Basilica and damaged–and in some cases, destroyed outright–many of the frescoes.
Inside the Lower Basilica visitors walked single-file down the aisles as security, like a bad, broken record, repeatedly tried to silence the crowds and ensure that no one took pictures. The line-up to see St. Francis’ tomb was long and lethargic so we decided on avoidance as the best option; we chose, instead, to sit in a pew and take in the colours and images swirling around us. Even the hordes and the constant shushing from security did not diminish the impact of the beauty of the Church. Every square inch was part of a story–a teachable moment that had lasted centuries. If a picture truly paints a thousand words then we were sitting in an enormous library. I marveled at the dedication, the tenacity, it must have taken to complete such a task.
When we ascended to the Upper Basilica, we found it still crowded but the Gothic ceiling lifted us to the heavens, just as it was designed to do, and made it easier to breathe and to move. Again we sat in a pew and let those Medieval pigments wash over us, grateful for the experts who had been able to restore the damage caused by the earthquake.
By now it was well past lunch time and the crowds were thinning. We decided to try our luck with St. Francis’ tomb. This time we descended easily, and did not feel part of a bovine herd. The tomb itself is much in keeping with the philosophy St. Francis had lived by: Simple. Still, I’m not sure how he would have felt about the thousands of people filing by his tomb and reliquaries, the glass cases housing his vest, tunic, sandals, and sackcloth, among other things. Far too much attention for one who espoused and preached a simpler way of living—and dying. But human nature is thus: We mortals feel a need to be close to greatness, fame—or holiness. Some of us need it for inspiration; some of us simply to fulfill innate voyeuristic tendencies. Whatever the reason, St. Francis is rarely alone.
Mid-afternoon. The sun was hot and our stomachs, empty. We returned to the hotel via a different route, enjoying the play of light and shadows on the grey stones of the houses and streets. Potted plants and bright flowers dotted the tiny streets and broke up the monochrome. Inside the homes we passed, we could hear snatches of conversations as families gathered for their midday meals, the smells transporting us and making our mouths water.
We had imagined lunch at the trattoria across from our hotel. Sadly, there was a line-up to get in, even though it was past 2:00 pm. Our hotelier was standing in our doorway so I approached her and, over the desperate rumbling from my stomach, asked about other restaurants in the vicinity. She directed us to an unassuming osteria–sans line-up—beside the hotel, the Locanda del podestà, and quietly suggested that we would eat much better food there. And eat well we did. The food was delicious and simply prepared, and the wine, restorative. The best part, however, came when a young family got up to leave. Their baby girl of about a year in age decided to say ciao to every patron in the restaurant. Holding out her chubby hand in the iconic Italian underhand ciao-ciao wave, she departed on the arms of her father, looking at each patron in turn, taking her leave with an innocent smile. In her eyes we were all one happy family dining together. Her spontaneous inclusivity was irresistible: We smiled at each other from table to table and commented on the child’s future in international relations and diplomacy. A natural.
After a rest in our room we continued exploring, heading into the center of town where, in the central Piazza del Comune, bleachers were being erected. It was almost time for Calendimaggio, the yearly Medieval festival to celebrate the arrival of Spring. It is comprised of sfide, games and competitions, between the two factions of the town: la Magnifica Parte de Sotto, the Magnificent Lower Part (clad in red), representing the Guelphs, and la Nobilissima Parte de Sopra (in blue), the Most Noble Upper Part, representing the Ghibellines. These were the families that had engaged in a bloody struggle for power in the town of Assisi, one that lasted more than two centuries.
The competitions are divided into three categories: Feats of strength and skill (tug of war, races with tregge, sledges, crossbow shooting, etc.); music (both factions compete with choirs and with drumming); and a general show pageantry and spectacle. Beyond these main competitions, there are many sfilate, parades, and other events which flaunt the superiority of each parte, each faction of the town. There is even a Bandi di sfida after the physical duels have been fought—a verbal challenge in which contestants try to slay their opponent through sarcasm and irony. . . only in Italy! In the end, a jury comprised of an historian, a musicologist and a well-known Italian celebrity award the palio to one of the factions (Blue or Red), an honour they will keep for a year, until the next Calendimaggio, when it all starts over again!
Beyond the formal events which take place during the three official days, there are many activities in which the townspeople of Assisi participate while clad in sumptuous medieval garments. As the date for the start of the festival approaches, the entire town slowly readies itself for the festivities.
Even while we were there, almost two weeks before Calendimaggio, there was evidence of the town gearing up and of individual pride of place. People were identifying themselves and their houses or businesses, as either Red or Blue.
That evening we walked across town to the Basilica di Santa Chiara, St. Clare, a follower of St. Francis who espoused his ideals of poverty and service to others. The basilica itself, although large, is extremely plain, one of the most unembellished churches I’ve ever visited in Italy and the antithesis of the vividly polychromatic Basilica di San Francesco. Santa Chiara’s tomb, however, in the crypt of the church, did not reflect the plainness upstairs; it was intricately ornate. Again, how she would feel about the excess of money lavished on her resting place, rather than on the poor, one can only speculate. I assume that she would not be pleased with her followers. However, as a dyed-in-the-wool marble lover, I must admit that I was grateful that someone had gone to the trouble of carving all those elaborate stone details. Whatever views one holds of the Church’s history and of its present place in the world, it cannot be denied that an amazing quantity of beauty has been created because of it and through it.
When we exited the basilica, the sun was setting over the town and the surrounding hills. We sat at the railing in the piazza in front of the church, looking out over the valley, watching the spectacular, ever-changing show. In our lifetime we have had the great fortune to see many stunning works of art but, somehow, they never compare to the breath-taking beauty we have found in nature. To be in a place like Assisi, where it is possible to witness, simultaneously, great art and natural beauty, is a true privilege–and a gift that we did not take for granted that evening.
As we sat, mesmerized by the red glow on the horizon, we began to hear drumming. This is not unusual in Italy. Even in Lucca I was serenaded by drumming rehearsals every Monday and Thursday night (starting at 9:30 pm. . . !) coming from the rampart next to Porta San Jacopo, directly across the street from me. In Assisi, as the sky darkened and the percussion continued, we walked to the center of town in search of the noise-makers. We found them descending from the upper streets, so obviously, the ‘Blues’, the team from the Parte de sopra.
We met the troupe, about twenty-five in size, in a small vicolo leading to the main piazza, where the men, most in their twenties and thirties, stopped drumming long enough to sing a bawdy song as shoppers and passersby stood beside them, laughed and cringed. That done, they began once more to beat heavily ** on the snare drums slung around their shoulders, their timing impeccable. Our ears and insides reverberated with the thunder. It was thrilling! Like good groupies, we followed them down to the piazza where they stopped in front of the Temple of Minerva and put on a great show ** for the patrons who were sipping a drink in the local caffè, and for the rest of us standing around them. I never would have imagined enjoying drumming so much. No wonder this tactic was used to rile up the troops and ready them for battle: I was certainly all geared to go! After about a 10 minute concert, the troupe filed, still playing, into the caffè–to the shock and surprise of both patrons and those of us watching. They finished their piece, then marched out, beers in hand (an offering from the bar owner to help speed them on their way, I assume), while the patrons and workers inside the bar checked for hearing loss. All in good fun. After a well-deserved rest and libation, the men once more stood in formation and marched out of the piazza, still playing and entertaining. At this point, wholly caught up in the festa atmosphere, we found a table outside the assaulted bar and ordered a drink. Like everyone around us we were sporting wide grins—and still thrumming from the drumming!
** the videos imbedded are ours. Sometimes and Error page comes up when you first click on the One Drive link. Try again — the video should be visible on the second (or third…) try. Technology!
(The numbered pictures were borrowed from Assisi tourist sites)