Planning some time visiting the hilltop village of Assisi is the perfect addition to any Italian getaway. Looking at the village from the road below you can see how impressive its going to be. The rounded roman arches that flow across the north surrounding slopes of the village and the Basilica di San Francesco is breathtaking. The rest of the city is protected by historic defense walls that were built around the second century.
What is Assisi like?
Assisi’s scenic beauty is a combination of arched trestles stretching over tiny meandering cobblestone streets. The long picturesque stairs climbing high in between two sides of historic buildings and that lend to rising church spires is inspiring to say the least. The earth tone colors of the town combined with balconies and windows filled with striking flowers mesh together fabulously.
Getting to the village
If arriving by train hop a bus outside the station that will take you to the village. Then exit the bus at Piazza Unita d´Italia. Tickets can be purchased at the tobacci shop in the station. For return tickets pick them up from the souvenir kiosk at the bus stop. The bus runs every 30 minutes on Line C.
If driving the best place to park is the Mojano Assisi Parking just a short walk from the historic center. Make sure you park in designated areas to avoid parking violations. The last thing you want is an added expense on your trip.
Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis Assisi is a favorite stop for religious treks but actually this town has so much more to offer. A two night stay is recommended or stay a few more nights and use as a home base to discover the Perugia region.
Night time after the crowds have left is the best time to enjoy the village. Walking down quiet, romantically lit streets is an experience to remember. To see all the historic sights all lit up at night in my opinion is one of the better ways to see it. Soft yellow lights blending into the ancient buildings has an almost mystical quality to it. Its so quiet and calm you would swear you were the only people there.
Starting at the top
The best way to explore the village is to start at the top. If you have used the parking lot mentioned above take the short walk to the escalator. The steep ride drops you off at the best vantage point to explore on your own. If you have been dropped off at the bottom of the hill its a short hike to get there but the escalator isn’t hard to find and the walk is nice.
Stepping off the covered elevator the first sight will be the wide buttresses of the Basilica di Santa Chiara or in English the Church of St. Claire. Once inside you can see some of the original Roman stones set into the floor. This church is also the resting place of St. Claire one of St. Francis’s most faithful followers. Highlighted here is a frescoed panel that historically shows eight paintings of her life. It’s free entry into the church and worth a look.
Sitting in front of the church is the Piazza Santa Chiara a large area with captivating views of the valley below and the fortress above. Many people sit around the fountains to eat their lunch and take in to scenery. Plus there is a great view of Rocca Maggiore the original fortress of Assisi.
A short walk above the piazza is San Rufino Cathedral. The Romanesque facade outside is fancier than the cathedral itself, but there is an interesting story of something that happened to St. Francis here. It was documented by his followers while he was seen praying at the alter, others saw him outside jumping into a chariot of fire. In two places at once? You decide. Highlights are the exotically decorated portals within the facade. Inside is decorated with geometric designs along with animals. And of course classic arches and columns, lions and griffins.
Walking back down to the the hill to the Piazza Sana Chiara is the Santa Maria Maggiore. Built over the pagan temple Janus it was the main church used in Assisi until the start of the 2nd century. The church walls were once filled with frescos in the 14th century but due to lack of attention only a remnant have survived. One stand out is the painting of the Virgin Mary and child. Then the Bishops House nearby is where St. Francis renounced all his worldly possessions.
The birth place of St. Francis was actually in a stable which is now called the San Francisco Piccolino. The entrance archway is inscribed with “Saint Frances was born here”.
Next up is the Chiesa Nuova or New Church built above a storehouse owned by a local merchant. Also believed to have been the dwelling where Saint Francis was born and grew up. The domed structure built in 1615 and was blessed personally by Pope Paul V. There is a sad note that this structure was built on top of the prison where Francis’s father kept him a prisoner for giving away all his belongings. Even though, the church today is beautiful and peaceful.
Hanging out in the Piazza del Comune (Town Hall) is the busiest spot in Assisi and centrally located. In fact it seems all streets end up here. Its a place where local families tend to spend time socializing and its a great place to people watch. Especially as you sitting outdoors at a table with a cup of coffee during the day, a glass of wine at night or Italian gelato anytime. The tall columns of the Temple of Minerva is the stand out attraction in the piazza. A clock tower fashioned after the one in Venice’s San Marco Square is next to the temple. At the top of the square is the Lions Fountain which is guarded by three ferocious felines. Considered the loveliest of squares in Assisi its no wonder so many come to hang out there. Lining the street has access to shops, restaurants, a bank and bankomat.
Built by the Umbrians the Temple of Minerva is a real eye catcher. It reminds me a little of the building that was build into the rocks when Indiana Jones finds his way to Petra where the Holy Grail is. The Six original Corinthian columns tall with deep grooves shelters a small portico. The large arched door displays a cross as you walk through to the Cathedral which is now called Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Its not large but there is a very nice ceiling fresco with a gilded frame. The alter has 4 marble columns, adorned in gold with haloed Madonna in the middle. Its worth a quick look.
The busiest street in Assisi is Via San Francesco. The road takes you from the Basilica Saint Francis to the Piazza del Comune, the heart of town. The cobblestone street takes you along the medieval homes, shops and restaurants built of stone. Don’t forget to look up at the balconies with seasonal flowers on either side of the street. It can be a steep walk in places which makes it smart to start from the top and work your way down. Along the way you have a chance to visit Assisi’s museums, shrines, and churches. Take to look at some of the doors they are exquisite and some of the best sights in the city.
Staring up into a squared facade of three circular stained glass windows with a tall lengthy windowed bell tower behind it is the Abbey of San Pietro. As the abbey was being built it actually became the newest part of the outside wall. An inscription can be found stating the year the abbey was completed in 1268. Beside the entrance door are two lions guarding heavenly scrolls. Inside is very unique and rustic, the floors are of a reddish rock with different tile work in each room. There are three naves separated by pillars with a remnant of frescoes. The Blessed Sacrament chapel’s highlight piece is the gothic trinity. There are six tombs inside from the mid thirteenth century.
A small chapel in its original appearance is the Santo Stefano Church. Outdoors has the traditional white brick look of Assisi. The wall depicting halo’d saints surrounding the Madonna is ancient but good condition along with the Christ Crocifisso (Christ on the Cross). The tiny building allows for only one apse but its unique enough to stick your head inside for a look. The bell tower outside is a top photo shoot for tourists from the hill up above.
Monte Frumentario Museum near the Temple of Minerva this ancient building was used as a hospital and hospice for the poor from the mid 13th century. The structure is still stunning today with a mixture of Romanesque-Byzantine-Gothic brick arches held up by Roman columns as you enter the long portico. The artwork above looks Moroccan then topped with the typical Assisi tile roof. The museum houses Etruscan urns, stones with inscriptions, a sarcophagus from the 2nd century and ancient Roman statues.
Built as a hostel to house the pilgrims visiting Assisi the Oratorio dei Pellegrini was the place to stay before paying homage at the tomb of St. Francis. Quite a moving experience sitting, contemplating the brilliantly preserved frescoes once painted by Umbrian painters of the fifteenth century. The left side includes an impressive miracle scene of St. Anthony Abbot with St. James on the right. Almost hidden the chapel is along the Via San Francesco and directly across from Assisi Jewels.
Across from the Oratorio dei Pellegrini is the 15th century Casa dei Maestri Comacini. Otherwise known as the House of the Masters (builders) it became their abode while building the town of Assisi. The steep stairs climbing the hillside behind the house are traditional of Assisi. The first thing you will notice is the long Baroque facade of rounded arches and columns. Inside are a couple of real historic gems, first the oldest writings of St. Francis and then the Bible of St. Ludwig of Toulouse. Inside is almost entirely covered in frescoes.
Finally you reach the Basillica Saint Francis one of the most visited cathedrals in Italy. Even if you are not a Christian chances are you have heard of Saint Francis of Assisi. Built on top of of gallows that held criminals sentenced to death. This building is dedicated to him and his works and is the place he was laid to rest and is actually two churches in one. The basilica has two levels, the Upper Church known as the Basilica Superior and the Lower Church called Basilica Inferiore. Then you have the underground crypt where you will find the tomb of St. Francis.
The Upper Church is large and quite vibrant unlike the Lower Church. The high crossed vaulted ceiling of pointed Roman arches is a work of art in itself. The long hallway ceiling frescoes are deep blue with patterns of the cross, golden starts and leaves between the arches. Either side the walls are saturated with fresco’s that depict life stories of St. Francis by famous artists of the time. Such painters and Master Artists as Giotto di Bondone, Cimabue, and Pietro Cavallini to name a few. These paintings show similarities between Jesus Christ and Francis, suggesting he was the second Jesus. The rose window still has traces of some golden mosaics and is a marvelous piece of work that you can see as you enter the Upper Church. Situated on each corner of the window are symbols of four evangelists as sentries.
Basilica inferiore, the Lower Church of Romanesque design is also decorated with frescoes. The Sacro Convento (Grand Monastery) finished construction in 1239. Dark compared to the Upper Church it doesn’t mean you won’t see beautiful art and frescos. In the transept on the right is Giotto’s “Crucifixion” and St. Francis with Angels by Cimabue where it is said that this is the closest resemblance to what Francis really looked like. The walls of the apse are filled with the “Last Judgement” by Orvieto.Stairs from the nave take you to the tomb of Saint Francis that were only discovered in 1818.
Basilica St. Francis Lower Church in Assisi It seems between these two churches a world apart yet both covered in stunningly beautiful decor. Once you enter through the Upper church its a tour of different styled rooms, large chambers, guilded accents and uniquely painted archways that give you a glimpse into a richly artistic era. I don’t know what St. Francis would have thought of all the opulence but today we can admire the incredible beauty. I guarantee you won’t forget walking through the halls and sanctuary or any of what Assisi stands for anytime soon.