Take these qualities with you an interest in religious history, an appreciation of architecture and a willingness to walk uphill and Assisi will be the perfect holiday, says Dave Hill FROM rrs HARD niche in the craggy Subasio mountain range, the ancient city of Assisi overlooks the sprawling Umbrian plain central to the socalled green heart of Italy.
For more than 700 years it has drawn pilgrims honouring the life and legacy of St Francis, its most famous citizen and now the ubiquitous emblem of a thriving religious heritage industry.
Today's Assisi is so lovingly 'preserved, so subtly impregnated with the vulgar necessities of the late 20th century, as to be almost artificial. A visit there raises important questions: how should a place of religious interest
balance sanctity with commerce?; when does a pilgrim become just another tourist?
The answer to the latter, of course, lies largely with the individual visitor's attitude of mind. The party with which I travelled on one of the tours from Saga's Footsteps brochure seemed exceedingly well-blessed in this regard. Ranging from married couples in their 50s to widowed ladies well past SO, they were equally varied in expectations and backgrounds. All, though, displayed the essential requirements for enjoying Assisi to the full: an interest in religious history; an appreciation of devotional architecture and art; and a willingness to walk uphill.
This last becomes quickly apparent on arrival, when even the short walk from the car park to the hotel asks some curt preliminary questions of the calves. And when your first outward foray takes you to the obvious starting point, the celebrated Basilica San Francesco, a glance upwards towards the distant Rocco Maggiore might afflict the fainthearted with mirages of cable cars. Fortustately, though, even the most taxing walks on the Footsteps
itinerary are worth every ounce of effort expended. Few areas of religious importance can be more packed with artistic and historic interest than Assisi and its environs. The only serious problem was cramming everything in to the space of just eight days.
The Basilica San Francisco offers creative wonders in abundance. Though perhed on a steep slope, it radiates solidity. It actually comprises two churches, one superimposed upon the other. The entrance to the lower church is distinguished by a handsome Renaissance porch and a vast rose window above. Inside, the basic floor plan is in the shape of a tau, the Egyptian cross which has become St Francis's trademark. The walls and ceilings are lined with frescos dating from and through the Renaissance period. But perhaps the most striking artworks are the friezes by Giotto in the upper church, each depicting a scene from St Francis's life with a clarity of perspective and delicacy of colour virtually unheard of in the 14th century.
For devotees of St Francis, this is just the start of a trail of delights clustered along the city's angular stone thoroughfares. It's only a moderate hike to the Piazza del Comune, with its fountain and first century Temple of Minerva, where the height of the tourist season sees youngsters gather in the evenings to sing hymns. Comfortable cafes and classy restaurants are tucked into the corners of the stepped, curling backstreets. And it's just a few minutes further to the fascinating Basilica Santa Chiara (St Clare), home of the order known as the Poor Clares.
This basilica's status as a sister building to that of St Francis is emphasised by the customary Tshape floor plan and rose window above the doorway. Inside, a glass partition hives off the areas to which those nuns vowed to enclosure are confined. As they go about their daily routines, pilgrims craving spiritual uplift contemplate the crucifix which, legend tells, once addressed St Francis in the voice of God. Down below, meanwhile, the remains of St Clare are preserved in prettified form.
Other highlights reside on Assisi's suburban apron. It's a short drive (or a 40 minute walk) down the mountainside to the imposing basilica of St Mary and the Angels, which contains the little Porziuncola chapel where St Francis and his followers first accepted refuge and which Francis restored from dereliction.
Beneath the same grand ceiling, standing close by, is the tiny Cappella del Tansito, the former infirmary where Francis died in 1226. It now contains an enam
elled terracotta statue of the saint, created by Andrea Della Robbia in 1490.
Della Robbia's works are among the less vaunted of Assisi's artistic attractions, yet (as our excellent chaperone, the Venerable Bill Thomas, enthused) some of its most
rewarding. A collection of them can be found in the hermitage on nearby Mount LaVerna where Francis is reputed to have received the stigmata two years before his death. It's a bit of sti trek to the hermitage, and snow is not uncommon on the route. Though it was worth it in the end, some of the less nimble of the Footsteppers found the walk a little taxing.
Had the air-conditioned motor coach been invented in the early 13th century, even the profoundly ascetic St Francis might have had trouble resisting the temptation to catch one.
How well does Assisi accommodate the modern age? It is a cosmopolitan place, replete with working churches and missions. These help dilute an atmosphere which might otherwise have the over-sanitised feel of those "traditional" English villages whose elders' passion for preservation produce only another kind of artifice to replace the CocaCola variety they so revile. At the same time, the tourist traffic can become stifling. There seemed few times of day when the Basilica San Francesco was not brimming with coach parties and school kids, and the best chance of a tranquil mass was to fit it in before breakfast.
It made an intriguing contrast with the ambience of Assisi's former bitter rival, the neighbouring Perugia, whose own heritage monuments co-exist with the attractive everyday bustles of contemporary Italian urban life, But then Assisi is probably only paying the inevitable price of a local 'economy based on sightseeing.
And the bottom line remains that devotees of St Francis and all he stood for could hardly wish for a more rewarding place to visit than the city where he lived his extraordinary life.