AS I take the path up the lower slope of Monte Subasio, in central Italy, on my way up the mountain to the medieval town of Assisi, all I can hear is the sound of the birds singing. It is late October, and the roar of the tourist buses up to the birthplace of St Francis, Italy’s patron saint, has gone.
Years ago, I went with my mother on a hot August Sunday, and the main street was so crowded that we had to shuffle along with our noses almost pressed to the window of shop after shop selling cute monk cruets and jugs. The Basilica was worse — a chaotic cacophony. “It is not what I expected,” my mother said.
I never wanted to go back until I met Gigi, a long-distance walker and lover of Assisi. “The very best thing to do is to walk the Way of St Francis from Florence,” he said, “but if you don’t have the time, then choose carefully when you go. Never visit at weekends, or in the summer months, and only enter the Basilica at dawn or dusk.”
This is why, while recovering from my dawn walk through the Bosco di San Francesco (the woodlands of St Francis) on the new woodland trail, recently recreated by the Italian equivalent of the National Trust, I find myself quite alone in the Lower Church of Assisi’s great Basilica. It is peaceful, majestic, and magical. Pope Gregory IX laid the first stone here in 1228, the day after he had canonised St Francis. By 1253, the church was consecrated, and work started on the Upper Church.
I have to wait for the custodian to turn the lights on before I can clearly see my two favourite frescos. On the right, Giotto’s Flight into Egypt, where the palm tree bows down to the Virgin on her donkey, to offer dates to the Holy Family. And, on the left, theLast Supper, where plates are scraped to feed scraps to three hungry cats. In the airy gothic Upper Church, surrounded by frescos of the life of St Francis, it is easy to feel connected to the peaceful saint of 800 years ago.
Close to the fresco of St Francis among the birds, is a stone set in the floor to commemorate the four people who died in the 1997 earthquake. My thoughts turn to those affected by the recent earthquakes, not far away.
I find an open bar for a cappuccino and a creamy doughnut before I wander up the main street, shops still shuttered. I wish my mother could have seen Assisi this way, and enjoyed its serenity and beauty.
Assisi is a long thin town of pink sandstone, hewn from Monte Subasio, with a basilica at each end: one for St Francis, the other for his contemporary, St Clare. In between, every alleyway is a picturesque photo opportunity, lined with quaint steps, floral balconies, and rustic doorways. Those who linger in the town beyond the tour buses are further rewarded when Assisi’s medieval buildings, ranging in hue from pink to pale orange, glow magically as the sun sets.
From the big piazza in front of the pink-and-white stripped Basilica di Santa Chiara (Basilica of St Clare) there are stunning views over the plain of Umbria. The crucifix that St Francis was praying in front of when he felt Jesus speak to him from it, has its own chapel in the Basilica (originally, the cross hung in in the church of San Damiano; now, a replica hangs in its place there).
After a rejuvenating bowl of farro soup, I walk to the church and monastery complex of San Damiano, located just outside Assisi, through the pungent olive groves that are thick with busy olive pickers. This monastery, where St Clare lived and died, is exquisite, a little jewel, filled with harmony and bright with flowers.
In spirit with St Francis, I spend the night with the Suore Elisabettine, in their new convent close to San Damiano. Monasteries and convents accommodate couples, as well as families, and often provide dinner. But, on this occasion, I am their only guest, and there is no dinner or breakfast for me. There is always a 10.30 p.m. curfew, though, which is not a problem, as I am more than ready for my simple bed.
In the morning, after breakfasting in another café, I hike the two miles up from Assisi through ancient woodland, where St Francis famously preached to the birds, to the Eremo delle Carceri, which houses the original cave that St Francis used to pray in. The hermitage has something for everyone, and I pass a Buddhist practising yoga, and a monk with his guitar strapped to his back. The Eremo comprises a series of twisting interconnecting rooms with low and narrow doorways to make the friars bow their heads in penitence. I bow mine, too.
On another day, I head for some of Assisi’s less-visited monuments, starting with the cathedral, dedicated to Assisi’s first saint, San Rufino. The façade is charming, with 12th-century grotesque animals crawling around the door, but the inside is dull remodelled 16th-century. I walk on the floor, set with thick glass panels over traces of the original church, and feel queasy.
The Temple of Minerva, back in the main piazza, is also not to be missed. Its grey, Corinthian-columned Roman façade gives way to a glittering baroque church inside. An underground museum can be accessed inside, too, which includes a rendition of what the temple originally looked like after it was built, in 1 BC.
The Abbey of St Peter — with its charming nativity scene the size of a small room — tempts me to visit, too, before I leave. Then, to retrace my steps on the Bosco’s woodland path, I nip through the door in the giant wall beside St Francis’s Basilica. I had seen him revered and exalted in Assisi, but it is off the tourist trail, among the hornbeams, downy oaks, and olives of these serene woods, that I sense the true spirit of Italy’s gentle saint.
Perugia is the nearest airport to Assisi; Ryanair flies there from Stansted. From Rome airport, Assisi is a two-and-a-half hour drive. Trains from Rome take under three hours. Alternatively, there are buses from the station into Assisi. The Way Of St Francis, by Sandy Brown (published by Cicerone), provides a guide to those wishing to walk the 550km pilgrimage route from Florence, through Assisi, to Rome, visiting key sites from St Francis’s life. Accommodation includes the three-star Hotel San Francesco, close to the Basilica (www.hotelsanfrancescoassisi.it). The House of St Bridget, in Assisi, offers a good standard of accommodation (http://www.brigidine.org/brigidineorg/en-EN/GalleriaAssisi.aspx). Alternatively, the website Monastery Stays provides information and contact details on 15 monasteries or convents in Assisi (http://www.monasterystays.com/?a=destination&b=Italy/Umbria/Assisi).