I’ve been stuck on this post for a while now, getting frustrated over sentences that just aren’t working, sentiments that won’t be put into words, and a tone that cannot be found. Possibly because it’s been a few weeks since I was in Italy and now I’ve got other things on my mind. Or that when I do turn my thoughts towards Assisi, they’re met with glorious sunset images that simply cannot be described without sounding saccharine or clichéd.
I know the world probably doesn’t need another self indulgent writer harping on about ‘the wondrous Umbrian light’… but never mind, indulge me. Assisi is beautiful and I would like to sing its praises, no matter how clumsily or inadequately, and starting with the sunsets.
Assisi is one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever been to. At sundown, at least in summer, the ancient stone facades all glow a lovely, dusky pink – a reflection of the peach and flamingo medley sky. The medieval town is built on the side of a hill, surrounded by views of a seemingly endless rust and olive coloured landscape. That would be Umbria, bathed in magical Umbrian light.
In addition to being almost inconceivably pretty to look at, Assisi has a wonderful vibe. Being the birthplace of St.Francis, it is, of course, an incredibly religious place. I’m not a religious person, and the word ‘spiritual’, in certain contexts, invokes in me an admittedly violent scepticism that makes me feel physically ill. But compared with, for example, the crowded halls and tacky gift shops of the Vatican (and countless other religious hotspots), Assisi seems so much more dignified, modest, and yes, genuinely, humbly ‘spiritual’. In the least pretentious sense of the word.
It was really nice to see churches being used as churches, and pilgrims without cameras.
Another thing that struck me about Assisi was that it manages to strike a nice balance between tranquillity and liveliness. The clergy-to-layperson ratio is possibly one of the highest in the world, which is perhaps why the streets felt so safe and everyone seemed to walk rather slowly. But in no way did it feel sleepy or musty, and there’s more to the town than religion. For example, there are lots of fantastic bookshops and bakeries (which is enough to sell a place to me, but possibly not everyone). There’s also live music in the streets, plenty of bars and cafes, art galleries, and non-tacky gift shops (although there were some admittedly tacky ones too). When Mum and I were there, there was a medieval festival happening, with hot marching drummers, and hot roast sandwiches & glass of wine combo for 2.50€. There was a Morris Minor motor club passing through, and like most hilly places in Southern Europe, insanely fit cyclists flitting about in professional looking getup. The streets were filled with happy people enjoying Aperol Spritzers in the late afternoon light. I wouldn’t say Assisi is a party town, but it definitely has an upbeat feel to it. It’s refreshingly clean. And the local dessert is some kind of delicious brioche dipped in some kind of delicious liquor, just in case you were wondering.
As for St.Francis, he sounds like an interesting fellow. Mum and I were talking to a trainee priest who gave us a bit more insight on this apparently misinterpreted saint. Misinterpreted, according to our priest friend, because people often imagine him as a nature loving hippy. The story goes that St. Francis was a rich boy, the son of a wealthy silk merchant, who relinquished his comfortable life in order to be closer to God by living in poverty. He spent a lot of time wandering the countryside, talking with animals, and urging people to respect all living creatures as equals… sounds pretty hippy to me. And makes me wonder, perhaps if St.Francis had been born on the other side of the world, about 1600 years earlier, he and Buddha would have made good mates. Anyway, in addition to being a friar and wild animal tamer, the young Francesco was also a trendsetter; he was the first recorded person to ever receive the stigmata, and he bought Jesus’ humble robes back into fashion (retro was aldready ‘in’). He was reportedly a diplomat, who tried to put an end to the crusades by talking and negotiating with foreign leaders. He started his own order, and convinced his ‘friend’ St.Clare to do the same. St. Francis spread the love and was popular amongst his contemporaries, so much so that he was canonised just 2 years after his death. He’s since become the patron saint of ecologists – a hippy if there ever was one. However, St.Francis appeals to me personally on a more superficial, aesthetic level. He’s often pictured with birds… I’ve a bit of a thing for birds, and they look so sweet in all the paintings.
So anyway, no matter where you fall on the belief spectrum, I can highly recommend a visit to Assisi, especially if picturesque countryside, cute little rambling streets, or elegant architecture is your thing. There are a tonne of churches – not the gilt, austentatious kind, but the graceful, austere, gothic variety. Austere plus colourful pschedelic frescos. Anyway, the town is small enough that you can walk around comfortably, and big enough that you can stay for two or three days without getting bored. Another option is to spend a couple of months there and do an intensive Italian course, now that would be nice. There are lots of picnic spots with good views, and being in the heart of Umbria (more specifically, Perugia, the home of Baci chocolates), there’s plenty to see and do within an easy, day-trippable distance.
As always, but particularly this time, my photos don’t do the place justice. Perhaps St.Francis is telling me it’s time to buy myself a fancy high-tech camera with a panoramic lens.