An afternoon in Assisi

An afternoon in Assisi

While attending an Italian school for a week in Todi, I spent an afternoon in Assisi as part of a mini trip organised by the school.

How to reach Assisi

The very religious town of Assisi is an Unesco heritage site and is best known as the birthplace of Saint Francis. Located a bit closer to Todi than Spello, and less than a half hour from Perugia, it was a fairly short and mostly scenic drive from Todi. While a car is the quickest option, the proximity to Perugia and other neighbouring towns makes public transport (train or bus) a feasible alternative.

What to see in Assisi on a short visit

Of all the towns I visited in Umbria besides Perugia, Assisi was the most busy, but no where near what I refer to as ‘Tuscany busy’. You can see the queue of people waiting to enter the church in one of the photos below, which is a far cry from the lines typically found in a lot of Tuscan towns.

A few of the highlights you can visit on a short visit include:

  • Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli: A small, but impressive church inside a church just outside of Assisi town.
  • Basilica di San Francesco: The town’s main attraction, with two attached churches (one really old and one just old) and the resting place of Saint Francis
  • Minerva in Piazza del Comune: 15th century church built over a 1st century BC temple
  • Basilica di Santa Chiara: lovely piazza and basilica

Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli

Our first stop was to the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli, located off the main road that leads to the old part of Assisi. After several trips to Italy, I have visited many churches, cathedrals and basilicas, but this one has something in it that I have never seen before – another small church. The chiesetta (little church) of Porziuncola, constructed in the ninth century, is very tiny and reflects its humble roots.  It was in this church that a young Francis of Assisi renounced the world in order to live in poverty among the poor and thus started the Franciscan movement. After his death the church became shrine of sorts and over time, more buildings were constructed for the many pilgrims who came to visit the site of their saint.

Madonna degli Angeli

The construction of the large Basilica occurred throughout 1500-1600s and became the seventh largest Christian church. The gold-plated statue of the Madonna degli Angeli was put on top of the façade in 1930. Even from the ground looking up, the statue looks huge!

The inside of the church is really spectacular and definitely worth a look if you’re visiting Assisi. There is a security stop outside the basilica (we waited about five minutes since we arrived at the same time as a busload of school kids) and the entrance is free. I have no photos from the interior of the church as, like several other churches in the area, photos are not allowed to be taken in the interior. Just another reason to see it for yourself!

Basilica di San Francesco

Back to the car, we drove to the main town to see the star attraction – the Basilica di San Francesco (Basilica of Saint Francis). The Basilica, the resting place of Saint Francis, is actually ‘two churches in one’ (do you see a theme here?). The newer church was built on top of the other, with the construction of the lower church started in 1228. The interiors of the two churches could not look much more different, with the lower church dark and (in my opinion) dreary, whereas the upper church is bright, airy and decorated floor to ceiling in medieval frescoes.

The entrance to the lower church in the lower centre and the entrance to the upper church to the upper right. Definitely not ‘Tuscany busy’ kind of queue.
Basilica di San Francesco
Basilica di San Francesco at the end of our visit with the sun setting in the background
If you can only visit Assisi for a few hours it's still worth it
The 53 arches form the exterior of the the friary of Sacro Convento, and as I learned on the day, doesn’t make up a part of the church!

After our visit to the Basilica, we walked the length of the main road that passes through town. After spending the previous day in Spello visiting clothing and leather shops and stores selling a lot of local products, in Assisi, many of the stores are filled with various memorabilia of Saint Francis and a variety of other religious knick-knacks. I felt that the entire town had a ‘vibe’ to it, in that it felt quiet or reflective. To be honest, there wasn’t a lot of street noise and everyone seemed to be in a state of quiet contemplation.

Minerva in Piazza del Comune

After the cathedral, we visited the temple of Minerva in Piazza del Comune, which was also our gelato stop, eaten while sitting on the centuries old steps. The temple was built in the 1st century BC with a church added in the mid-1500s.

The temple of Minerva in Piazza del Comune
The temple of Minerva in Piazza del Comune and the bell tower.

Basilica di Santa Chiara

Our only other official stop was the pink and white marbled Basilica di Santa Chiara located in the square of the same name. People had lined the square and were enjoying the sunny autumn day. In my opinion, there’s no better way to take in the feel of a town than to loiter in a square with a gelato in hand while people watching!

Basilica di Santa Chiara
The view looking back towards the centre of town from the Piazza di Santa Chiara
Assisi the Umbrian hilltop town that can be visited in short visit
The view looking back at Assisi as we were leaving the town. We couldn’t have timed it any better for beautiful dusk lighting.

 I visited Assisi in September 2016. Have you visited the town? Did I miss any of your favourite sights? Let me know in the comments below. 

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