I was unprepared for just how extraordinarily special a place Assisi would turn out to be. The majestic Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, one of Europe’s most distinctive pilgrimage sites, is a spectacular and imposing sight from the train as you approach the town on the main line from Perugia. Built into the slopes of the hill of Asio, this immense structure towers over the valleys below and, when faced with such a monumental vista, it was difficult to believe I’d barely heard of this place just a few days prior. The rail station is a couple of miles out of the centre, but on arrival you can avoid the uphill climb by catching one of the regular buses which drop you at the top of the hill (this was, frankly, music to my ears after a week navigating my way around Perugia).
The town is the place where San Francesco d’Assisi, one of the most eminent figures in Christian history, was both born and died back in 11th-12th centuries. The son of a prosperous silk merchant, Francesco abandoned the luxuries and wordly goods of his youth and subjected himself to a life of poverty and abstinence, devoting himself to Christianity and eventually founding the Franciscan Orders. Following his death he was canonized in 1228 and the Basilica was built in his honour. In more recent history, the town was added to UNESCO’s list of Word Heritage Sites in the year 2000.
As you might expect, the Basilica had throngs of tourists/pilgrims inside but I took advantage of squeezing on a pew and listening in on a guided tour, where I was able to catch a fasinating earful of his compelling life story. Here is a little taste of my day trip of my unforgettable day trip to Assisi.
Basilica di San Francesco, perched high above the beautiful Umbrian countryside
Despite the indisputable magnificence of the church itself, it was the Bosco di San Francesco, accessible through the grounds of the Basilica, that I found the most enchanting and wonderfully tranquil experience. Such an unexpected find, it was like discovering a magical garden of Eden! The San Francesco Forest takes you through woodland, fields, olive groves and some stunning countryside. This 64-hectares of land was inhabited in the late 13th and early 14th centuries by Benedictine nuns and includes a church, a mill, the remains of a monastery and a delightful rustic-style restaurant in the middle of the valley. I spent hours walking around the forest grounds and contemplating nature. Here is a glimpse inside.
One of the many sculptures along the forest trail
At the far end of the forest lies the extraordinary, Terzo Paradiso, the incredible work of artist Michelangelo Pistoletto, created specifically for the Bosco di San Francesco (photo doesn’t really do the place justice!) San Francesco himself was said to be a nature lover during his lifetime and is is known as the patron saint of animals and the environment.
Assisi is without doubt one of the most magical and intensely spiritual places I have had the pleasure to visit. I would recommend anyone add this to their itinerary should you find yourself in this part of Italy.