Europe 2016: Asissi, Italy – July 2016
We left the city of Rome with our eyes set on the city of Ravenna which is about 4 hours away by car along the Adriatic coast. However, in order to break up the drive we decided to stop for the afternoon in the city of Assisi which sits approximately halfway between the two cities. Assisi is not a city that people generally think of as a place to visit as it is kind of out of the way and quite small but it makes up for it by being stunningly beautiful and full of deep and rich history. Assisi has been continuously inhabited since before the time of the Etruscans and is also famously known for being the birthplace of St Francis of Assisi in the 12th century. Much of that rich history is still visible today in the cities art and architecture but the city also has plenty of modern restaurants and charm to delight the modern traveler.
Being a medieval city on a hill vehicle access is fairly limited but the city does have several larger parking lots where you can leave your car and walk from. We arrived in the early afternoon and parked at the first such parking lot we saw before exploring the city by foot. The city itself is not very large so it is not a hard place to see on foot and after all our walking in Rome it felt even easier. The city itself is a maze of tiny streets which makes for a very cozy and welcoming feeling as you explore all its nooks and crannies. However, luckily there was a map available for free right in the parking lot where we parked as well as brown street signs pointing the direction to prominent landmarks.
During our visit we visited the following highlights:
The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi
The Cathedral of San Rufino
The first landmark we visited was the Cathedral of San Rufino (St Rufinus) which is named after the patron saint of Assisi. The original church was inaugurated in 1253 by Pope Innocent IV. Despite its age most of what you see today in the church is the product of extensive renovations which were begun in 1571 and carried out in a late Renaissance style. The main altar was completed in the 18th century. Although it is a rather spartan Cathedral in terms of adornment, at least when compared to other Cathedrals in Italy, it is still quite beautiful.
Underneath the church in the crypt is the Museo del Duomo that holds numerous works of art which are associated with the history of the cathedral. There is an additional fee to enter the museum but in my opinion it is worth the money. One of the main Highlights in the museum is the front of a 3rd century Roman sarcophagus which purportedly once held the remains of St Rufino.
After taking in the Cathedral of San Rufino we continued on our way towards the Basilica of San Francesco which was near the bottom of the hill on the opposite side of the city. Along the way we stumbled upon the Chiesa Nuova (New Church) which is a 17th century church which sits on the presumed home of St. Francis. The church is very small but like almost every church in Europe is still full of beautiful works of art and architecture.
The church is quite small so it didn’t take us long to take it all in before continuing on our way. There were several other museums and sites we passed as we walked but due to the time and the fact that we still had to drive to Ravenna after our stop we decided to just keep on going towards our main objective. The Basilica of Saint Francesco aside from being a magnificent structure is also the mother church of the Franciscan Order. Construction of the church was begun in 1228 and was built into the side of the hill and as a result it has both an Upper Church and Lower Church. There is also a crypt where the remains of St Francis are interred.
The Upper Church is particularly interesting and different from many other churches in Italy because it is an important example of the gothic style in Italy. In addition to the magnificent architecture there are countless frescoes by late medieval painters adorning the walls.
The whole Basilica is quite large and actually can take a bit of time to get through if you are really taking the time to look at everything and even then it can be impossible to truly see everything in one visit. However, I am quite glad we stopped to see it, even if we did have limited time.
After taking our time and enjoying the Basilica we decided it was time to have lunch and then head back up towards our car at the top of the hill. However, on our way back we figured we had enough time left to make one final stop at the Rocca Maggiore which is a massive citadel on top of the hill overlooking the city.
The citadel was first built in the 12th century but most of what you can see today is the product of renovations and additions completed by the 15th century. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame is that the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II reportedly lived in the citadel for a short time. The citadel itself is well preserved and there are plenty of fun towers to climb and even a narrow dimly lit corridor through the long outer wall of the citadel connecting one of its towers. To be honest this place was a bit of a dream come true for my inner nerd. There are some exhibits as well but in all honesty they are a bit lack luster and offer more of a recreation than any authentic artifacts. However, that being said, even if you don’t like history the views from the citadel are simply incredible and well worth the long walk up the hill.
I think we stayed at the citadel longer than everyone else in the group really wanted to but I really enjoyed it and was a little reluctant to leave. However, eventually we had to get going back to the car so we could continue our drive towards Ravenna which was our destination for the night. All in all I was extremely happy that we decided to make this side trip as it was one of the highlights of the trip for me (in a trip full of highlights!). If you are in the area and have the time I would highly recommend a visit!