A Medieval wonder
It is a grey day, leaden clouds scudding over dull skies, a threat of rain in the moisture-laden air, the day we visit
The ‘Sheila Effect’ is when everything falls into place after a less-than-auspicious beginning. Sure enough, by the time we visit the crypt of the gentle saint, we emerge into bright sunlight; nary a cloud above and the
Assisi is the hometown of Italy’s patron saint, St Francis, founder of one of the world’s largest monastic orders, and considered just about the holiest person to walk the earth after Christ. St. Francis grew up here, the son of a rich merchant and a wild ‘un. When the town of Assisi went to war with Perugia, the young Francis was captured and spent a year in prison. Once free, he changed his ways, gave all he owned away, tended to the destitute, the ill, and animals, preached love, labour and piety.
The Basilica of San Francesco is, of course, the centrepoint of Assisi. The complex of the Basilica, which predates the Vatican by 300 years, is composed of two churches, built one above the other. The lower church is where St. Francis is buried and is a marvel for its decorated vaulted ceilings painted dark blue and dotted with stars. It has frescoes by some of the greats Masters like Cimabue, Giotto, Lorenzetti and Simone Martini. Above ground in the upper church, the brilliant blue of the lapis on the ceiling is another jaw-dropping marvel. Giotto’s frescoes illustrating the life of St. Francis in loving detail adorn this part of the Basilica, which holds the twin distinctions of being Italy’s first Gothic cathedral and with the oldest stained glass windows in the country.
I make two discoveries-of-sorts in Assisi: one that my forbears wandered all the way over from India to these parts, in pre-Christian times. Well, if not my forbears exactly, Indians, anyway. They were part of the early south-east Asian diaspora in these parts, only to be enslaved by the Romans later on.
The other discovery is not an original one: it is that any trip to Italy would be incomplete without the inclusion of Assisi. It’s fascinating to trawl the cobbled lanes that ascend and descend at almost every corner, all the while affording vistas of the panorama down in the plains.
Here we come upon pink stone stairs winding their way up secluded homes and monasteries; there we come upon a house front with masses of red flowers growing on the walls. Elsewhere, we stumble upon the Italian version of Lush, a store chock- full of the most fragrant soaps, lotions and potions, wafting its heavenly fragrance all down the street. Other shops stock, along with the usual religious artifacts, a great variety of locally made ceramics, all gaily painted in vivid blues, oranges, lemons yellows. Local wines and olive oil are sold in beautiful flacons and bottles. Little cafes supply endless shots of the strong espressos, eateries serve hot pizza, lasagne and pasta. And in one ceramics shop, I come across a leaflet advertising a spiritual retreat in Assisi by one Swami Kriyananda.
With a population of less than 3,000, Assisi sees an average of four to five million visitors every year; pilgrims, art lovers, tourists. For all the many feet that tread these cobblestones, there is a serene ambience that defines Assisi, that makes this beautiful Medieval town such a compelling attraction.
Labels: Assisi, Italy, St Francis, Travel