We were a little unsure about visiting Assisi, hometown of Saint Francis and focal point for religious tourism. Would they even let us in? What would two heathens do all day in this super-Catholic town? Bolstered by A&J's recommendation and some other positive reports, we decided to make a go of it.
Assisi is a drive-able daytrip from Piobbico, over the mountains and into Umbria's Spoleto Valley. This was our first real experience with the Italian Autostrada, the national highway system. I gotta say, after winding our way back and forth on tiny mountain passes, it was pretty nice to open up and haul ass on some nice straight roads. Everything you've heard about Italians driving maniacally is true. We had to speed up to keep up.
We knew we'd made the right choice the first moment we spotted Assisi from the road. Carved into the Umbrian hillside, this fabulous medieval city does have its fair share of churchy sights, but it's also got cool castles with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. As with many Italian hilltowns, it's a little tricky to get your bearings, and it took us a while to find what we were looking for. But everyone knows that getting lost and wandering around is half the fun!
Our first stop was the Rocca Maggiore, the enormous 13th century fortress perched high atop the city. This place spoiled us for all future castle exploration! There is an entrance fee, but it's worth every penny. There are not one but TWO towers to climb, affording magnificent views of Umbria in all directions. The main fortress building has some marvelous displays of weapons, armor, and even a room re-enacting a famous medieval painting. (OK, I'll admit, those faceless mannequins were a little creepy.) Everything is well-labeled in English and several other languages. There's a really cool tunnel joining the fortress with the keep, which you can walk through and peek out the tiny windows, pretending you're a knight defending the castle from invading forces. Just watch your head; they were a lot shorter in those days! We also enjoyed the displays and photos from Calendimaggiore, a huge festival that takes place in May and looks like a cross between a Renaissance Faire and Burning Man. We just might have to come back for that!
The remainder of our Assisi explorations included wandering around the piazza in front of the Basilica di Santa Chiara, a peek inside the Duomo di San Rufino (with a somewhat surreal exhibit of JP2-inspired Pope-art), the Temple of Minerva, and of course a visit to the Basilica di San Francesco. As it happened, our visit coincided with the Feast of Saint Francis, so the catacombs beneath the lower church were packed with people streaming in to pay their respects to Assisi's patron saint. The air was thick with incense as pilgrims of all shapes and sizes lined up in hushed tones to circle the crypt containing the remains of Saint Francis. It was yet another occasion for some excellent people-watching. Tiny Italian nuns knelt and wept with outstretched hands. Familes with matching rosaries reverently touched a cornerstone and made the sign of the cross. An entire football team got their picture taken in front of the crypt. And somehow Mark and I made it out of there without being hit by lightning, which to my mind seemed the real miracle.
We emerged to find a stupendous sunset, followed by an enormous full moon rising over Assisi. Gorgeous. Who knew we'd have such a great time in this sacred city?
Alas, apparently we'd pushed our heathen luck a bit too far. As most of you already know, we returned to the agriturismo that night to find that our laptop had inexplicably died. I would've preferred a lightning hit! No matter, not even this technological catastrophe could marr an otherwise delightful day exploring Assisi. We highly recommend this town to anyone visiting Umbria, saints and sinners alike.
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