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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 than Assisi.    

10/11/03 §

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