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The only snow I have had in Italy! We woke up to a thin blanket of the white stuff, and got to spend the day under a very gentle snowfall. We completed our tour of the town, which is more or less a stroll through the major churches, and stopping for another Umbrian five-course meal.
On the way down from the higher end of town where we start the day to the big Basilica of San Francesco, we stopped by the small, old church of San Stefano whose bells are said to have rung miraculously by themselves at the moment St. Francis died. In itself, the church is a testament to the simple style of the age, created without an architect, just the stonemasons putting together a basic design that would serve its purpose: a house for the church.
The Basilica San Francesco is massive, three stories from the crypt to the lower basilica to the upper, with two huge piazzas, one off of the upper and lower basilicas respectively. It was at this site that Pope John Paul II called his World Day of Prayer for Peace in 1986 and again in 2003, gathering leaders of every major Christian communion and of virtually every religion on the planet, from the Dalai Lama to First Nations peoples from the Pacific Northwest.
It is said that Francis was the first to use a presepe, a nativity scene or crèche, in commemoration of Christmas, and Italian churches go all out, especially in Assisi. An entire stable is converted for a life-size display near the Roman Amphitheatre, and the Piazza San Francesco also has a life-size display. Within every church we stopped at were scenes with sometimes hundreds of figures, rolling hills, light and water effects, sometimes music. In the Benedictine Abbey church of San Pietro, the lighting and sound effects were timed to give a full rotation of the day and night, with corresponding village sounds, birds, etc.
The last time I was in Europe, I had only made a day trip to Assisi. This time, we spent three full days in this quiet Umbrian hill town made famous for its twin medieval saints, San Francesco (Francis) and Santa Chiara (Clare). It was probably my favorite part of our holiday, and I cannot thank Nancy enough for arranging for us to stay there as long as we did – and in such comfort as we did.
Through her timeshare, we landed a last-minute deal at some vacation condos 5km from the old city. (I wanted to stay in a cave to get the full Franciscan experience, but she convinced be that the on-site sauna would serve just as well: both are dark and damp, and not very spacious. Not sure Francis would be sold on the idea though…)
The first day was a beautiful, cold, crisp, clear day, sunny and freezing. I cannot tell you how nice it is to have the lucury in this town not to feel as though one has to see everything in a day. You can – it is not very big – but you get so much more out of the experience with a leisurely pace. We decided to roughly follow the Rick Steves’ Assisi stroll, and started at the higher end of town with the old Roman Amphitheatre, now converted for use as a restaurant with a garden.
Because of the fame of Francis and Clare, I always think o Assisi as the quintessential medieval town that it became by the 13th century, but forget that long before that it was also a Roman town, built in 295 BC. Before the Romans, it was Etruscan. Before that, there were Umbrians in the area, perhaps as early as 1000 years before Christ.
By the end of the third century AD, the town and environs had been largely converted to Christianity by Bishop Rufino, a martyr and the patron saint of Assisi, for whom the cathedral is named. We arrived there just in time to join the Sunday Eucharist, which happened to have an American Franciscan presiding (in Italian). The small baptismal font is near a plaque noting some of the notables who had been baptized there, including Sts. Francis and Clare, Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (the young Passionist saint whose sanctuary we visited in novemeber) and Frederick II.
After mass we took a tour of the Cathedral crypt, one of Francis’ frequent places of prayer, mostly dating from the 9th century and later, but including the third century ossuary thought to have held the remains of Bishop St. Rufino, the martyr Apostle of Assisi.
Down the hill from the Cathedral is the Basilica Santa Chiara and a beautiful view of the valley below, including the “new” part of Assisi, also known for its major church, Santa Maria dei Angeli. In addition to the resting place of the little rich girl who “fell in love” with the older Francis and his order, a side chapel holds the cucifix that was in the Church of San Damiano, where Francis had his conversion experience.
Just off the piazza Santa Chiara was the site of the best meal we had all week, a small trattoria 50 meters off the main street boasting traditional Umbrian cuisine. Plenty of time in the shops nearby, and we did not make it much further than the central Piazza Communale, on which you can find an original Roman temple rededicated as a Christian church.