The sun shone on the white city on the hill as the train pulled into the station at Assisi. We admit it—we were happy to be out of Florence. Many people feel a great romance in Florence, and at certain angles, I can see why. What’s not to love about seemingly infinite flavors of gelato, or priceless, world-changing pieces of art? And, man, did we eat well. I nearly cried a few times from the deliciousness. Indeed, there is much to amuse in Florence; even so, we were happy to be away from the busyness and feeling like we couldn’t walk in a straight line without dodging people and scooters and bags of trash. Overall, we felt the city was noisy, dirty, and oppressive. It also completely lacked anything green—no parks, no flower boxes, no trees, nada.
But we were on to the next place, and it looked mighty promising.
Why Assisi? Many Italy itineraries do not include Umbria. We came to realize that this is a shame. Assisi had been recommended to us by Josh’s aunt, and we noticed Rick Steves had a whole chapter and a walking tour on the town. We figured there had to be something to it. We also had been urged by our friends to try out one of the many Agriturismos of Italy, i.e. farmhouses turned BnB’s of varying degrees of posh. Our friends were recommending we go to ones in Tuscany, but we couldn’t figure out how to get to any of them without a car. Then Josh found the Il Giardino dei Ciliegi, the Cherry Garden, just outside of Assisi. It sounded like a magical place. So we got into one of the many taxis waiting outside of the Assisi train station. A few miles later we reached our garden paradise. Daniela, the owner, greeted us warmly and showed us to our room. Once inside we were drawn as if with magnets out onto the terrace where the view soothed our weary, nature-deprived eyes. Steep hills tumbled down into the farmlands canvassing the valley floor. The afternoon sun lay across the topography like a golden blanket. We nestled into the two chairs and just stayed there, watching the sunlight turn pinker as the afternoon faded. Slowly, clouds came in, and we retreated into the bedroom and listened to rain fall. We fell asleep in blissful peace.
As if we weren’t already pleased with our lodging, dinner that night erased any lingering regrets about our decision. We were treated to four courses of Italian gourmet glory: plates of antipasti, homemade pasta with a sausage, pepper, and cream sauce, a beef stew, and a fluffy cake. The pasta in particular made an impression. It was the kind of food that forces your eyes closed and demands that you fully appreciate the present moment.
The next morning, Daniela was kind enough to offer us a ride up to town. Because Assisi is on top of an enormous hill, she wanted to spare us the pain of walking up. Apparently we were an anomaly being carless. Oh, well. She dropped us off and we began to explore. The sun was out and the day was perfect. We walked up to the remains of the Roman ampitheater to begin the Rick Steves audio tour (The tours, by the way, are a great way to get your bearings without paying anything!) With Rick’s lame jokes to keep us company, we began to meander down the narrow stone streets, passing dramatic, hilly Umbrian vistas. We drank from a fountain running with water from a real Roman aqueduct. We poked our heads through Medieval underpasses topped with apartments built to accommodate a once booming population. We admired the flowers that cascaded from the window boxes and listened to the older ladies calling to each other from between colorful, open shutters. Assisi, I realized, is exactly what you imagine, and desperately want, Italy to be: a place trapped in time, unpretentious and lovely.
The highlight of our explorations came at the bottom of the hill with the Basilica of St. Francis. Before visiting Assisi neither Josh nor I knew much about the man. The audio tour clued us into a bit of his story. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis had a roguish reputation. After spending a year as a prisoner of war, however, he began to question his purpose. During that time, he felt God speaking to him and calling him to rebuild his decaying church. Francis took the call so seriously that during a public confrontation with his father, who disapproved of his son’s behavior, he stripped naked and renounced the materialistic ways of his youth. Francis quickly gained followers who also wanted a return to the simple and beautiful things in life. Given his reputation for a love of nature, we think Francis would be pleased with the vibrant, naturalistic decor inside both sanctuaries of the basilica (yes, there are two). In the upper sanctuary, Giotto’s frescos capture the stories of the life of St. Francis and frame them in natural images and colors that really stand apart from the styles typical of the period. The effect on the viewer, I think, is stupendous: the colors and natural images capture my imagination and make me want to know more about the man and the God he adores. I am drawn in by the colors and the beauty of nature on display. I feel led to worship and celebrate, and, after all, isn’t this what church is supposed to be about? Alas, we were not allowed to take pictures in there.