For reasons I have forgotten, our itinerary took us from Orvieto to Assisi and then down to Sorrento, it would have made more sense to go to Assisi first given the proximity of Orvieto to Sorrento but it all worked out fine. Assisi is a medieval hilltop town in Umbria and is most famous for being the birthplace of St Francis, patron saint of Italy and founder of the Franciscan order. The drive from Orvieto to Assisi only took about 90 minutes, trying to find a park probably took longer because there are restrictions on cars in the old part of town. To be on the safe side we parked outside the walls and located our accommodation on foot, a medieval festival had been held over the weekend and members of the opposing sides were standing in the doorway of our hotel arguing about the results. When we finally reached reception they told us we could park outside the hotel to unload the car but long term parking (for a discounted rate) was not far away. As an apology for the obstruction in the doorway they upgraded our room.
The festival that we had missed (typical) was the Calendimaggio, a medieval festival based on competition between the two sides of the city: Red and Blue, the Blue team had won and were still celebrating with singing, drums and dancing in the main square. There was grandstand style seating set up, after wandering down to the Basilica we sat and listened to the music being played by the competitors and their supporters.
Basilisca San Francesco is a 13th century cathedral and still a major destination for pilgrims, popular with the faithful and with art lovers and history buffs. St Francis was a man who lived a simple life of poverty and abstinence, souvenirs featuring his face can be found throughout Assisi and range from the spiritual to the downright tacky. The interior of the cathedral is beautiful, crowds move slowly and silently throughout and should there be too much noise a voice can be heard ‘silenzio’ and people talk in whispers once again. The walls are covered in frescoes based on the life of St Francis and painted by Giotto, the ceilings are a vivid blue dotted with gold stars, a truly magnificent sight and I could not resist sneaking a couple of photos.
The Rocca Maggiore sits atop the hill, it is a medieval castle that dominates the skyline and from the outside it looks delapidated however there is plenty to explore inside its walls, we chose to brave the wind and look only from the outside. From the hill you have expansive views of the area and can see most, if not all the major churches that exist in Assisi. Walking past the fence covered in chewing gum and bubble gum we head down into the narrow cobblestone streets that run behind the main streets, cats rest in the sun and rambling roses grow over doorways, it is a pretty part of town.
Three wheeled trucks are common, they remind me of the Mr Bean television series and I imagine they’re very useful for navigating the narrow lanes. Out of the wind, it is quite pleasant just strolling, we pass a convent and another gate to the town before finding ourselves looking down upon the Basilica. In the midday sun the cathedral glows and tourists are all around us, taking the same photos that we have taken since our arrival.
The two other churches we saw, but did not enter were the Cathedral of San Rufino, a church with a Romanesque facade featuring lions and griffins, dedicated to San Rufino and the gothic Basilica di Santa Chiara, dedicated to Saint Claire. The square outside the Basilica di Santa Chiara is popular in the evenings as locals and tourists gather to talk and watch the sun set, nearby is a nutella crepes stand, something we haven’t seen much of since leaving Paris several weeks ago.
Eating in Assisi was simple and the food very good, we enjoyed a pasta with wild boar, cream and truffles as well as huge pizzas and thick, gelatinous hot chocolates. The restaurant where we ate pizza was hidden in a side street not far from our hotel, I wish I could remember the name because it was a wonderful place and we enjoyed lunch so much that we returned for dinner that same night. The television was always on, Dad (or perhaps a Grandfather) sat at one of the tables, he watched television, gave instructions and helped with waiting on tables. As we sat eating steak, chips and spinach we could not hear much English and I’m sure the other patrons thought our meal was a bit on the odd side, the waitress didn’t seem to mind, she appeared happy to see us return so soon.
The couple of days we spent in Assisi were extremely relaxing, we did a little shopping, alot of eating and exploring at a slow pace. The hotel we stayed in was very central, we could open our windows and look down to the main street and towards the square, the red and blue flags were draped all over town adding colour to the buildings. We also met a gentleman and his family who were staying at the hotel for the festival, they live in Rome but come to Assisi every year for the festival. His English was excellent and he told us that it was very warm in Rome, we spent a good deal of time chatting to him, he told us more about the festival and suggested places to go during our stay.