I’ve no idea how we missed the bus stop. Almost all of our fellow passengers got off, but for some reason we stayed on. As the bus took a sharp, uphill turn we saw a fleeting glimpse of the Basilica of Saint Francis; we pulled away. Several hairpin bends and delicious views later, we reached the end of the road, literally. There was a sign opposite the bus stop pointing out the pedestrian route to the centre of the town via a Roman tunnel. Into the depths we descended through the Roman remains of Assisi. Suddenly, daylight, big skies, church towers and domes!
The Duomo of Saint Rufino is thought to date from the 8th century, although it was rebuilt in the 11th century when it was consecrated as the cathedral of Assisi. It is an enormous structure with a beautiful green dome and evidence of repairs due to age and earthquakes.
Although Saint Francis of Assisi is the town’s most celebrated former resident, his contemporary, Saint Clare, is also honoured here. The Basilica of Saint Clare was constructed in the 13th century. It has a pretty, striped facade, using pink stone from Mount Subasio, on whose lower slopes Assisi lies. The church has a large, square bell tower and, from above, wonderful views of the Umbrian countryside.
Still we descended the steep streets, with picturesque views to right and left.
Through arches and bridges we saw changing vistas of mountains and trees, crops and clouds.
Tall medieval buildings seemed to dwarf their Lilliputian residents.
Approaching the town centre, the 13th century Torre del Popolo towered above the ancient square, the Piazza del Comune. The beautifully situated 16th century fountain in the same square is guarded by 3 rather tame looking lions.
Assisi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO describes the town as “an outstanding example of a type of architectural ensemble that has significantly influenced the development of art and architecture.” That is quite an accolade, but one that is well deserved, not least because of the Basilica of Saint Francis.
In front of the Basilica there is a striking bronze statue by the sculpture and artist Proietti Norberto, a native of nearby Spello. The statue is known as the Return of Saint Francis or the Pilgrim of Peace. The Franciscan movement preaches a universal message of peace and tolerance, a message sadly lacking in our troubled times.
Looking down into the lower plaza, the panoramic views extend across the Umbrian plain. You might just make out the blue dome of the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli: I have written about this unusual church, containing the cell in which Saint Francis was said to have died and his first chapel, in an earlier post.
The plain facade of the Basilica of Saint Francis does not prepare the visitor for its remarkable decorative interior with frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue and Pietro Lorenzetti amongst others. Both the lower and upper churches are crammed with remarkable art.
This unique treasure house, somewhat ironically built in honour of a man who cast aside riches and dedicated himself to the poor, is surely worth a visit.
On our previous visit we had concentrated largely on the Basilica and found it rather overwhelming and a little distasteful. But we were glad we had returned; through missing our bus stop we had seen a whole new side to Assisi with its winding streets and quiet squares. We also had a chance to enjoy once again the mesmerising religious art of this historic town.