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Assisi had Etruscan beginnings, and was an important Roman town, Asisium. There is a well preserved Roman temple, the Temple of Minerva (now the church of Santa Maria della Minerva). Assisi is now world famous as the home of St. Francis (San Francesco) and is one of the most heavily visited places in Italy. Despite the heavy trappings of tourism, it is a beautiful town and a genuinely moving place to visit; many visitors are better described as pilgrims than tourists.
My first visit to Assisi was an excursion during a scientific meeting
in Perugia in 1995. We walked through the town and toured the basilica of
St. Francis --the frescoes, by Giotto (possibly), Cimabue, and Torriti, are
stunning--I feel exceptionally fortunate to have seen them before the earthquake,
although the restoration work is nothing short of extraordinary. (The
Cappella della Scrovegni in Padua has magnificent frescoes that are unquestionably
by Giotto. I made a stop in Padua just to see them and it was well worth
it.) Afterwards we boarded a bus and drove out into the countryside onto
narrower and narrower roads, then finally stopped. I assumed the bus driver
had gotten lost, but in fact, he was delivering us to an Umbrian farmhouse
for an "agro-turismo" dinner. We had a huge multicourse meal including grilled
rabbit and duck, washed down copious huge quantities of young white wine
grown on the estate. It was one of the best and most enjoyable meals of
my life. I have _no_ idea how to get back to that place ... in general,
it helps a lot to have a friend or two in Italy if you are to find such places
because it is difficult to find out about them outside of Italy.
The profusion of images in the basilica's frescoes is almost overpowering.
The upper church is well staffed and photography is prohibited (I have
one surreptitiously taken picture which conveys little of the grandeur of
the place; nobody seems to care if you take photographs in the lower church).
To have any chance of taking this all in, you have to sit down and
study the frescoes. Binoculars would be a considerable aid for this.
At the opposite end of town, the basilica of Santa Chiara (Clare),
a female follower of St. Francis and foundress of the order of the Poor Clares.
Assisi's Duomo was old when St. Francis was a lad; in the summer of
2003 it was undergoing an industrial strength renovation. Above the town
are the two medieval fortresses, the Rocca Maggiore and the Rocca Minore.
These strongly resemble, in their functional ugliness, the fortress
above Spoleto; all were built by Cardinal Albernoz, a 14th century Spanish
cardinal tasked by the Pope with subjugating Umbria as part of the Papal
States. You don't go to the Roccas to look at the structure itself;
you go to admire the great view of everything else you see with your back
to the Rocca.
If you are finding your own way to Assisi, the nearest train station
is in the village of Santa Maria degli Angeli, located in the plain a few
miles from Assisi. The town can be reached by local bus service running about
every half hour. Tickets can be purchased in the bar in the train station.
If you find yourself with some spare time, the basilica of Santa Maria
degli Angeli just across the train tracks from the station marks the spot
where St. Francis spent his last years, and eventually died. The church
dates from the sixteenth century but has been heavily reworked; somewhat
incongruously, an abandoned factory (possibly nineteenth century) is the
church's neighbor. The first bus stop in Assisi proper is in the Piazza Unita
d'Italia, near Porta S. Francesco, and a short walk from the basilica
of St. Francis. The bus also stops at the opposite end of town in Piazza
Matteotti, from which it returns to the train station. Another way
to get to Assisi is by bus from Foligno. The bus stop in Foligno is
near Porta Romana, a short walk from the Foligno train station. One
advantage of the bus is that it also passes through the town of Spello, another
beautiful Umbrian town built of pink local stone. Spello has ample
Roman stonework, some interesting churches, and a smaller tourist burden
10/11/03 § email@example.com