A mystical trip to Assisi-Umbria

Text & Photos by Farah S. Kamal

Halfway between Florence and Rome, cutting across the Po Delta, we were riding the tour bus through the breath-taking Umbrian hills towards Assisi on a day trip. The bus stopped and we all started disembarking at Pourta Nuova where the city walk begins. I gasped at the scene as it unfolded in front of my eyes – this Italian Medieval town appeared literally untouched by any modern structures. As I absorbed the colours, sights and sounds, I could not wait to stroll around a town so well-preserved. The faint pink architecture was set amongst the emerald green hills lined with olive trees. “This is so mystical”, I mumbled to myself, listening to the sound of church bells coming from a distance. Gazing at the rugged stone buildings, I slowly started following the tour guide on the narrow cobblestone lanes.

As I travel and explore cities and towns around the world, I specifically make it a point to visit, explore and learn about any UNESCO World Heritage sites there. There is a lot to learn from these sites. They reflect traditions, art, languages, cuisine, music, crafts, history and literature. I understand now how important these first-hand experiences are for establishing identities and fostering respect and tolerance among people across geographical boundaries. Walking through the lanes and charming piazzas of Assisi, one of the 53 UNESCO heritage sites within Italy, was another such insightful trip.

Assisi is right at the heart of Italy; this famous town is perched on the hilly slopes of Monte Subasio in Umbria, which is a symbol of peace. “Pax et Bonum” is the Latin phrase meaning “Peace and Good” inscribed on buildings and tiles all over the city. I leisurely strolled around the slopes while taking pictures, stopping occasionally to simply stand and admire the beautiful little details and architecture around different corners of the streets. The cute winding stairs leading up to the beautiful vintage doors of houses was one such example. I was stunned by the surprises at every turn and corner of these steep lanes – the entire town has flower pots scattered everywhere, hanging from walls, windows, arches, roofs and pillars. What else does one need to instantly fall in love with a place? And here, there appeared one at every sight.

There were monks in black robes, nuns and sweet sounding chants of devotional songs, creating a mystic setting to the architecture of this town. One of my travel mates told me that for Italians, this town is of great religious and heritage importance since it is the birth place of St. Francis of Assisi, a 12th-century monk who founded the Franciscan Order and lead a religious revolution. Talking to some pilgrims, I concluded that he shunned materialism, believed and preached to love all creations.

Our tour guide suggested that we keep walking the ridge of the town to Basilica di San Francesco. I enjoyed strolling slowly towards the end of the town to this spectacular complex comprised of upper and lower Basilica and the saints’ tomb. It turned out to be a magnificent structure of extraordinary Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture from 12th and 13th century, recognised for dominating the city and can be viewed from a distance. The stunning frescoes by the late-medieval artists Cimabue and Giotto, and the lighted Gothic church depicting scenes from the life of St. Francis were no doubt an astounding view.

On the church grounds I was pleasantly surprised to find a huge group of primary school children with their teachers and a catholic nun on guitar, leading the choir, singing songs sitting on the floor under the cloister of the basilica. Several tourists and visitors, including myself, joined them. Yes, I do not know a word of Italian but somehow sang along to the rhythm! After touring and photographing the complex, I started heading back to Piazza del Comune on the Via San Francesco, checking out some cute little shops full of local souvenirs and knick knacks. Took a bit of rest sitting down on the stone steps of Temple of Minerva on the way, nibbled on chunk of Pecarino Toscano, a delicious Italian cheese and crusty bread while watching people and life go by. Later, I wandered along and photographed the various squares, alleys and sites like Piazza Stanisalo de Chiara, the Basilica of Saint Clare and the Romanesque style Assisi Cathedral, known as Duomo di San Rufino. I was still glued to my camera, shooting around when I heard the bus driver’s call for departure. I felt like a schoolgirl refusing to get out of bed on a winter morning. The atmosphere of the medieval town, the views of the surrounding country-side blanketed by woods and olive groves were all too magical for me to come out of their spell.

Marvelling at the incredible architecture and art, I left the town heading towards my first ever European road trip.