Re-reading the last couple of posts I realised the one on Bevagna came to a somewhat abrupt end, I’d intended to write about Assisi (the place that gave St Francis his surname) in the same post and then got distracted, can’t remember by what but suspect it was one of the vices: popping of a wine cork, rustle of a chocolate wrapper, handsome stranger walking past the window… they’ve all been known to cause amnesia.
Anyway, Bevagna was a truly lovely and picturesque hill top town. But if it’s picturesque hill top Italian towns you’re after, then you’ll hit the motherlode with Assisi.
Despite being a town made of 2 metre wide streets, Assisi has a public transport system and you can park your car at the top or the bottom of the hill, walk down, or walk up and then get a bus back to your car. Since our group included unenthusiastic walkers and a septuagenarian, we parked at the top and worked our way down. The historical immersion starts as soon as you get out of the car. The parking lot itself encompasses an old system of tunnels carefully excavated and preserved, and it’s just a little bit creepy…narrow dark tunnels… underground dark parking lot… serial killer’s pick’n’mix delight.
Bollocks! I just went to look at my notes on Assisi – yes, I make notes, my memory has gone from phenomenal to Sucky McSuckerville in two years – and they’re all gone! Damn save button, what reason do you have for transforming into my nemesis? Fine, we’ll just have to do the best we can.
I was designated as the tour guide for the sole reason that somebody had dropped Rick Steves’ guide to Italy into my back pack (not sure about Rick Steves, he’s got some great information in his books, but his guide is crammed with opportunities, tips and recommendations that seem to be geared towards making him money. He’s already swanning off around the world, now he’s being greedy), so I masked my panic and confidently marched off with a jovial, “This way everyone,” reasoning that as long as we were going down a narrow, medieval cobble stoned street, we’d come across something impressive, eventually ending up at St Francis’ Basilica because that’s where everyone else is headed and you have to actively fight against droves of people in order to end up anywhere else.
A Basilica by the way is a special type of church, there are a couple of theories about what constitutes a basilica. One is that the pope has said it is soooo special that it should be known as a basilica, and be a special site of pilgrimage. Another is that it houses a particular type of throne/altar. If you look on the online forums for this answer it’s apparent the Catholics can’t agree either and everyone’s copying from wikipedia.
Our first major sight was the San Rufino basilica, which, apart from being generally quite grand, is also the place where St Francis and St Claire, and Emperor Frederick II were baptized. St Francis is a big deal basically because he was a wealthy young man (well, the son of someone wealthy), who gave up that lifestyle and lived in poverty as a monk and was a huge proponent of simple living and compassion to your fellow beings. Not the first to be like that but apparently he was very charismatic, passionate and also – because he was educated – a lot of his personal writings have survived the last 900 years, and he’s been written about extensively by his peers. To put it another way, he’s had great publicity. St Claire was another youngster from a wealthy family who, after hearing Francis, speak eschewed her life of privilege to become a nun, serve the poor… and I think she did a lot with knitting…I’m sure I remember hearing that. Emperor Frederick was an emperor so he gets to be famous just because.
The San Rufino basilica was actually torn down twice and rebuilt from the ground up (today you can go in and see the excavated crypt under a thick glass on the floor) because two separate bishops had ‘visions’. I don’t know what it is about religious people claiming they’ve had a vision just so they can redecorate. The rest of us don’t need a divine vision to get our interior design heads on, we’re all perfectly fine admitting that actually we don’t like the previous owners’ taste in flocked wallpaper, and actually we quite fancy a walk in shower with a bench seat. Hold on, moment of clarity: I know exactly what it is, it’s because technically clergymen aren’t supposed to have any money of their own so they have to justify spending the church’s funds (i.e. the money that church goers donate) on golden tassels and a spiffy new altar. “Bertie, open the safe I’ve had a vision from God himself!” is a good deal more persuasive than, “Ugh, I’m so sick of all this oak! It’s so dated, I want marble I want marble everywhere! The nice stuff mind with the green vein running through it, none of that cheap, crumbly crap.”
My favourite part of the basilica is the entrance, there are two statues on either side of the main doors, each one depicts a lion eating a Christian martyr…head first.
From San Rufino we wended our way to the piazza.. oh god I can’t remember the name of it, damn my lost notes. It was very impressive piazza with a fountain, and lots of Fiat Unos nudging through the tourists. It was also home to the church of Santa Maria, which was formerly a temple to Minerva, that has retained the columns and triangular roof typical of a Roman Temple .
At this point, half our group threatened mutiny. Their young rubbery legs were exhausted by walking slowly downhill, and they couldn’t see anything remotely interesting in ‘old piles of rock’, more popularly known as ‘exquisite medieval architecture’ or ‘fucking amazing buildings’. We split up.
As the youngsters bounded onwards and downwards, the more sedate members of the tribe meandered through winding alleys that turned up hidden gem after gem – tiny museums; craft stores of hand made local goods; boutiques devoted to cashmere, jewellery, fine linens, soft leather shoes; patisseries; wine merchants and of course gelaterias. Some people take longer to meander than others, so I took the opportunity to stop for afternoon wine whilst they caught up. It was at this point that I murmured gently, “Gosh look how dark the sky’s gone.”
Well that was a foolish thing to say.
A shower turned into a torrential down pour, resplendent with thunder and lightning, and suddenly the streets of Assisi were empty. Hundreds of tourists crowding into tiny stores, furtively wondering if they could get away with not purchasing any items. Except for one bold family of 10 (10!!) who marched UP HILL – the roads really are incredibly steep, from far away Assisi looks like a Tim Burton cartoon town with a castle on the top, crowning a wedding cake of yellow and beige stone buildings – in the rain, singing very loudly. The rest of us stood in the doorways to watch them.
With the rain over, and two new scarves in our possession, we continued onto the Basilica of St Francis, where the rest of the tribe had waited for us whilst watching the thunderstorm. The view from outside the basilica, is every bit as impressive as the view inside. As you walk around Assisi, you’re mostly seeing the very pretty walls of buildings, with occasional glimpses of pockets of Northern Umbria luxuriously unfolding in the distance before you. But down at the basilica, the view is unhindered. Look behind you and the town’s tiers can be clearly seen spilling down to your feet. In front of you lies the enormous church, capped by a gargantuan dome. To your side, Italian countryside falls away and stretches out to mountains, where the sea lies just over the crest, beyond sight. On this particular day the clouds were so thick and dark purple that the mountains faded away into mist, forked lighting lashed out, striking far away hill tops. It’s not difficult to see why humans worship beings they can’t prove exist when the sky keeps communicating in such a dramatic way.
But I was not here to stand outside and practice meteorology. No indeed, I had a basilica to see.
Honestly, it’s intimidating. There are many guards telling you to be quiet and not take photos, and they look quite serious. The vibrant frescoes covering the long corridor down to the altar make you feel rather small. From there you journey down stairs… lots of stairs (remember you have to go back up them) through hidden chapels, past more vaguely un-nerving altars, to the tomb of St Francis, which was terribly grand, one wonders he himself would have thought of all the expense spent on his dead body, considering he thought spending anything on it whilst alive was such a deplorable waste.
The tomb is crowded with the living, some offering up prayers, some standing respectfully and admiringly at the sides, and others, like me, feeling awkward and intrusive in a place so highly revered by those with faith, and most importantly, wondering why there was a strong draft emanating from the crypt. The sensible side says, “Aha, there is an air ventilation shaft leading up to the ceiling – very sensible,” the cynical side says, “Somebody’s put a little portable fan down there somewhere to make it seem all mystical.” The rest of me screams, “Claustrophobic!! Time to leave.”
Don’t misunderstand me, the basilica is stunning! But I’ve been living in an earthquake zone for the better part of a decade, I like things above ground.