Assisi, birthplace of St Francis

Basilica di San Francesco
Basilica di San Francesco

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.

Accommodation in Assisi
Accommodation in Assisi

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.

Festival celebrations in Assisi
Festival celebrations in Assisi

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.

Basilica San Francesco interior
Basilica San Francesco interior
Basilica San Francesco interior
Basilica San Francesco interior

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.

Chewing gum fence
Chewing gum fence
Streets near the lower part of the Basilica
Streets near the lower part of the Basilica

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.

Basilica di Santa Chiara
Basilica di Santa Chiara
Cathedral San Rufino
Cathedral San Rufino

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.

Assisi buildings and a helmet for a lightshade
Assisi buildings and a helmet for a lightshade

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.

Vacation sign in Assisi
Appropriate sign for a busy tourist destination

In love with Orvieto

Vineyard and Orvieto in the background

Our accommodation in Orvieto
Our accommodation in Orvieto
Our room at B&B Villa degli Ulivi, Orvieto
Our room at B&B Villa degli Ulivi, Orvieto

Our last day in Orvieto and after stressing about money all afternoon because we couldn’t withdraw cash from either of our accounts, we discovered that there was an actual limit of 250 euros on the bancomat machines in Orvieto. Problem solved, we’ll pay our accommodation with Visa and withdraw more money when we get to our next destination. The fees St George Bank charge us are killers – about $75 AUD in conversion and foreign withdrawal fees to withdraw about $2000 over the past 5 weeks. It is the little things that often drive us nuts, however it isn’t enough to spoil our stay in this wonderful hill town north of Rome.

Anyway, we walked into Orvieto at about 7pm this evening, our B&B accommodation isn’t far but it is all uphill, we walked to the nearest carpark and then made use of the escalators to take us to Piazza Republica. It is Saturday night and the town is packed with locals and tourists, the bars and streets are full, Italians think nothing of standing in the middle of the road while carrying out a conversation. We walk towards the Duomo and along Corso Cavour checking out the menus of several restaurants and trattorias, it is the Zeppelin Restaurant menu that gets our attention, variety of choice at a good price and not far from the escalators that brought us into the old town. Lunch had been an excellent selection of goodies ranging from peanuts and olives to panini, all free with the wine that we drank, it was cheap, tasty and we met a couple of wonderful ladies from Brazil and an English author currently living in Orvieto. Although good and filling, lunch had left us seeking a good solid meal of typical Umbrian fare and we found it at the Zeppelin on Via Garibaldi, not far from Piazza della Republica. The girls that served us at Zeppelin were from the US, friendly and helpful they sent us special help when we asked about wine. Our meal was superb, our waiter (Vito?) recommended several dishes, Marty ordered the wild boar with spaghetti and I the Ravioli stuffed with Asparagus and cheese and covered with a black truffle sauce and almonds, the wine recommended complimented our meals beautifully and it was probably the best service we had experienced since arriving in Europe. Our secondi (mains) were pork stuffed with prunes and rosemary and wild boar with olives, tomatoes and red wine sauce, another excellent choice guided by Vito (please forgive me if I’ve gotten the name wrong) and topped off by Grappa and Limoncello. Not once were we made to feel like tourists, it was a fabulous evening and I would recommend this restaurant to anyone who appreciates good food and service. If you think it sounds expensive, think again, for a good bottle of red wine, a bottle of water, 2 first courses of pasta and 2 mains it was only 56 euros, the liqueurs at the end of the meal were ‘on the house’.

Orvieto has been an extremely wonderful and positive place for us to visit, our accomodation is among the best we’ve had in Europe, the rooms and breakfast are very good and the owners are delightful, very friendly and helpful. I booked online through expedia.com.au¬†and the wonderful Bed & Breakfast Villa degli Ulivi is highly recommended through TripAdvisor as well. If you don’t want to walk up the hill (about 10 mins) you can drive and park near the escalators, it is a great location and the rooms are very comfortable – we wish we had booked for longer. Breakfast is an assortment of cakes plus toast, pastries, cereal, ham, cheese and boiled eggs, their coffee is so much better than the majority of places we’ve stayed that we usually have two or three cups.

In addition to the good food and service, Orvieto is a pretty and easy town to navigate, the facade of the Cathedral is one I could sit and stare at for ages, it is truly magnificent and it is a magical sight when the sun is setting and the light changes from bright to warm and golden. Underneath Orvieto is over one thousand caves and/or tunnels that have been used for keeping pigeons, as WWII bomb shelters and many moons ago, for the production or milling of olive oil. The short tour we did was worth the 6 euros they charged, the tour guide had a great sense of humour and was extremely knowledgeable, plus the caves provide a cool escape from the heat of the day. I didn’t make it into the Cathedral or any of the museums open to the public however, the town itself is worth spending time in without having to visit such attractions, we enjoyed people watching over a glass of Orvieto Classico and plate of nibbles/tapas/bruschetta and met the loveliest people while doing so.

If I sound as though I’m rambling I apologise, this is written on a belly full of wild boar, truffles, red wine, limoncello and a tiny sip of grappa so my senses are pretty much overloaded.

Ciao and good night!