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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.