Di questa costa…nacque al mondo un sole.
From that slope…to the world was born a sun.
-Dante, Paradiso, Canto XI (l. 49-50)
It is too easy, and perhaps even ignorant to say that Assisi is like any other Umbrian town. I could have easily watched Assisi pass by the window of my train and think of other better known cities like Florence or Siena. But anyone meandering through the intimate streets of Assisi will probably tell you just how memorable and unique this place is.
The trip is a day trip with Professors Jeffrey Blanchard and Lila Yawn. Perched on the mountains of Mount Subasio, this gem retains much of its medieval hill-town charm. The warm Umbrian sun light filtering through secret alleyways, the serene Umbrian landscape, the yellowish cobblestone of the streets and buildings, and the medieval character of the town all come perfectly together to make this place so unique.
As I make my way up the hill to the famous 13th century Basilica of St. Francis, I started a conversation with three Fransiscan priests who also happened to be visiting the town. With their foreign demeanor and accents, I realized that the town was a major pilgrimage site and that the town, although small in size, commands a large cultural influence around the world as it is the founding place of the Fransiscan Order and the birthplace of St. Francis himself.
A visitor’s eye is naturally drawn to the main basilica but the exploration doesn’t end there. Close to the Basilica is a gorgeous sequence of piazzas leading to the main basilica of St. Francis overlooking the Umbrian countryside. A majority of the day was spent with Professor Yawn in the main Basilica, where we learned about the development of the Fransiscan Order and the Basilica’s architecture and beautiful frescoes.
One of the pleasures of Assisi is exploring the many intimate streets. Unlike Rome, most of the streets here are too narrow to accommodate the width of cars, so the roads are serenely quiet and left to the sounds of local chatter and the ringing of church bell towers.
There is nothing quite like traveling to a small Italian town to buy the food specific to that particular region. I took the opportunity to buy Umbrian meat, cheese, and truffles from one of the many local meat stores.
Winding staircases lead you to the some of the most unexpected of places- hidden piazzas, small surprising openings, hills, city walls, and spectacular views of the Umbrian countryside.
It is of no surprise that the locals describe the region as il cuor verde d’Italia, or the ‘green heart of Italy’.
During the later half of the day, I climbed the hills along the city walls up to Rocca Minore, a small fort residing on top of the hill.
On top of a hill near the Rocca Minore is a medieval courtyard filled with trees–a perfect place to relax and enjoy the view of Assisi from atop.
Our class climbed to the top of the watchtower with a gorgeous view of the green Umbrian countryside and the city itself-a perfect way to end the day in this beautiful town.
One of the nice things about these Italian hill towns is their close proximities to one another. I took a personal detour to a nearby Umbrian hill town called Perugia the day before the class trip.
Perugia, the capital of Umbria, is another lovely Umbrian town near Assisi with plenty of intimate alleyways and a wonderful collection of baroque art. Perugia is worth a day trip if you are ever visiting Assisi.
One of the best experiences was waking up early enough to watch the most beautiful sunrise and see the morning light filter through the streets of Perugia. It is a great way to experience these Italian towns because most people are still sleeping and the streets are at their most serene.