Paola is the world’s most dedicated walker, and passes up no opportunity in good weather to get outside and walk. This one particular day, after a long day of preparing lunch for her extended family, and cleaning the house and the B&B rooms, the daylight was going quickly. She and Leonardo often go to Assisi in the winter months, when the sun sets early, so that they can still walk with the lights illuminating the streets. After more than five weeks of navigating Spello in my cast, I was leaving the cane behind, but welcoming a chance to walk (and clomp) around Assisi, taking it slowly for my tender foot.
We set out about 4:30 in the afternoon, allowing plenty of time for all of us to be back for dinner, normally not before 8:00 each night. As the sun was beginning to get low and the light became golden, we entered Assisi at Porta Nuova, so that we could walk from one end of the town to the other.
Much of what we pass in Assisi is commercial, and the shops are stocked with tourists in mind—full of snacks, small bottles of balsamic vinegar or limoncello (NOT from Umbria, but farther south, near Naples), bottles of wine from Umbria and Tuscany, and (of course) grappa. This little enoteca was full of wines and liquors to carry away, many packaged already for travel, and in small containers that would fit easily into a suitcase.
Soon, we were passing the Basilica di Santa Chiara, begun in 1257 and dedicated to the young woman who was one of St. Francis’ first followers, and who also founded the “Poor Claires,” or the Order of Saint Claire. In the tomb below the church, her remains are displayed in a glass coffin, and have been there in the basilica since 1850. This particular church (one of MANY in Assisi) is easily recognized by its massive lateral buttresses, visible here through the archway.
Here, a typical window from one of the dozens of souvenir shops, lining the main roadways. The first shirt says “My aunt loves me, Assisi,” and the rest are all meant to attract tourists and pilgrims, especially those looking for gifts for children.
This is a quick view into a bar as we passed, with a case filled with meringues, these nearly 5 inches in diameter. It seems that these are popular here, in many pastry shop windows, and in the displays of sweets in the bars. I can just imagine that the first bite into one of these huge treats would result in a shower of shards to the street—with the entire brittle thing crumbling to small bits. At the least, these are only sugar, egg whites and cocoa powder, and are not going to do much damage to a low-fat diet.
As the sun disappeared, and we continued to walk toward the basilica of San Francesco (at the north end of the town), the streetlights were coming on and giving a beautiful glow to the streets and shops. We were among many taking a walk in the early evening, enjoying Assisi with several hours yet to go before returning for dinner.
In the Piazza del Commune, the principal piazza of Assisi, the square hosts several popular bars and restaurants, and is always busy with passersby, often gathered near a small fountain known as the “Lion’s Fountain.” Here, also, is the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (“St. Mary over Minerva”), with six impressive Roman columns. Assisi was once Roman, and had this impressive temple dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, which was later transformed into a church where the Virgin Mary was said to “stand above pagan wisdom.”
Across the piazza from the Minerva Temple columns is a decorated vault, with intricate frescoes from nearly 500 years ago (the doorway at the end of the vault leads to a restaurant—quite an impressive entryway, don’t you think?). There are a variety of family crests included in the vault’s decorations, and Paola asked me to capture some of them for her ceramic paintings—so I just explored a bit with my camera. It is actually the surround of the crest, or “stemma,” that is what interests her, to use in some of the commissions she takes to create painted ceramic pieces.
Before reaching the Basilica of San Francesco (St. Francis of Assisi), we turned around and headed back toward the car, and the time for Paola to get back into her kitchen, preparing the next meal, was approaching. Here, Paola and Leonardo are passing the Lion Fountain in the main square, and night had fallen entirely. We were all wearing warm coats, and were glad to have made such a wise choice as the temperature fell quickly.
I could not resist a few shots inside the souvenir shops as we passed. Some are entirely filled with religious souvenirs, especially figures of St. Francis and St. Claire. His sermon to the birds is such a revered part of his history that he is often represented with birds in his hands, or surrounding him, as seen here. A second window of the same shop was a haven for angels, in all sizes and poses. Many of the shops carry almost exactly the same inventory—including the nun’s habit and monk’s robe wine bottle covers that I purchased in Assisi nearly 7 years ago, the first time I visited Assisi.
Paola has quite a sweet tooth (especially for chocolate), and is a spectacular baker, herself. The croissants for the B&B are all made by her, as are the other pastries served there for breakfast to the guests. She is always looking for new ideas, and cannot resist a stop at a pastry shop window to see what is offered. These “toreiglione francescano” caught my attention because of the intricate design in the pastry covering the fruit and nuts that fill this particular treat. The price is one that I have come to regard only from a distance, with my wallet closed tight. Instead of a price per kilo, these are priced at “€3.10 per l’etto,” which is €3.10 per 100 grams (only a tenth of a kilo). That means that these 6” wide pastries, assuming them to be about a pound (550 grams) each, probably cost about €15, or nearly $20. When I see a price “per l’etto,” I tread cautiously and make certain that I understand how dearly I may pay for an impulse purchase. (I wonder how many tourists clutch at their chests when they are told the price, once their pastry is bagged and rung up at the register?)
On our way out and back to the car, we passed a little street with the Chiesa Nuova, a small church built over the original home of St. Francis. Here, a fresco located over the steps down to the door of his family home helps to identify the importance of this spot in the history of Assisi.
Our last stop was at the city wall, to take a look out over the valley below, and the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels), lit well enough at night to get a small image. This church is at the foot of Assisi, about 2 miles below the Basilica of San Francesco, and was created to house the Porziuncola, the most sacred place for Franciscans. It was in this small chapel that St. Francis heard the call to rebuild the church, and renounced his inheritance to live in poverty, starting the Franciscan movement. I have taken many guests there, to see “the other half” of the St. Francis story in Assisi, and many have considered Santa Maria degli Angeli to be their most treasured visit while in Assisi. The small Porziuncola was the modest church of St. Francis, in his time, and he died just outside the chapel in 1226, in the Chapel of the Transito, where a stone now notes precisely where he died, and where his rope belt is preserved in a reliquary. As many pilgrims soon arrived to seek the “Pardon of St. Francis,” the small chapel was considered inadequate to house so many, so the church was built around the chapel beginning in 1569. Both the Basilica of San Francesco and Santa Maria degli Angeli are officially Vatican “territory,” since 1909.
Taking a walk with Paola is often an adventure, but having another chance to tour and get to know Assisi is such a treat for me–cast or no cast, but with two great tour guides. Each time I feel I already know my way around, but discover more than I have ever seen before, and add to my knowledge of the lives of St. Francis and St. Claire, whose ministries are so thoroughly woven through the history of both Tuscany and Umbria. (The convent across the street from me, today housing 29 cloistered nuns, is the Order of Clarisse, or St. Claire, and the path of the pilgrims passing in the footsteps of St. Francis leads right by my doorway, and down through the center of Spello, heading toward Assisi.)