The first time I was in Assisi was the day after Christmas, 1986. I was living in Rome at the time and my mom had come to visit for the holidays. Then we traveled for a few days and Assisi was our first stop. When we arrived, we couldn’t believe the view: a snow-covered town in the distance, up on a hill.
Thirty-one years later I went back to not only see Assisi again but to discover the Umbria region of Italy. Umbria sits in the center of Italy, above Lazio, the home of Rome, and to the right of Tuscany. I’ve been to Orvieto and Perugia, both in Umbria, but I’ve not traveled the region to see the hill towns. And that was this trip’s purpose.
Assisi is a wondrous Medieval town with steep streets and home to the glorious 13th century Basilica of San Francesco. The frescoes inside by Giotto are engrossing. I’m not going to give an art history lesson here but they really are must-see.
This is the birthplace of St. Francis, who preached peace and well-being. You see “Pace e Bene” throughout the town, on ceramic tiles and on gads of souvenirs. It means “Peace and all good” and was the greeting used by St. Francis and the friars. Walking around the town, I felt that sense of calm. Maybe it was my Catholic background or maybe it was just the presence of the place. Either way, I felt it.
Did I mention that Assisi has steep streets? How everybody here doesn’t have legs of steel is beyond me. I lived in Siena for six weeks in 2015, with its own steep inclines and steps everywhere. Assisi takes that to a new level.
I stayed in an apartment owned by Umbria guide Anne Robichaud, of http://www.anniesitaly.com (a terrific source for all things Umbria) and it was up four flights of steps. So when I wanted to just quickly go to the center of town and get a cappuccino for breakfast, it was down steps, up steps, and then, literally, up the street. But alas, it was worth it. Never underestimate the satisfaction of a cappuccino in Italy.
I arrived in Assisi late in the afternoon and my friend Paola, who came down from Bologna, met me in the center. We greeted Anne in the bar and then made our way to the Basilica. We had about 20 minutes before closing time. We quickly saw the lower Basilica and had about five minutes in the upper Basilica. And then we walked back to the center, back UP the hill. It’s just the way of life there. By the end of the week, even my quads were stronger. Yay Italy!
On my last day, I went to an alimentari to get an Assisi specialty, Pane di San Francesco, and recounted to the shop owner about that 1986 visit with the snow. He told me he remembered that year very well. I looked at him a bit skeptically since it was 31 years ago. But he insisted he remembered and regaled me with his own tale of getting around the hilly streets with the snow.
Here are some photos of that 1986 visit. Mom and I weren’t prepared for snow, so we put plastic bags around our feet before donning our gym shoes, unlike the friar, above, who was content in his sandals.
That’s me, 1986, and then, on the right, are what I think are the same set of steps, albeit with a bit of a makeover.
The view of the Basilica from above, at the fortress, La Rocca Maggiore. Below, the Basilica at night.
Two photos of the same Umbrian countryside, 31 years apart.
Streets of Assisi, above. Below, the Duomo of San Rufino, built in the 12th Century.
I was then treated to lunch in the countryside outside of the city limits with Anne and her family in their wonderful country home. This is another great thing about eating in Italy. When you eat local, it’s really a treat because, basically, everything tastes better in Italy.