I came to Assisi as a solo traveler after several weeks of intense work in Rome, ready to clear my head and breath the clean mountain air. The trip was my birthday gift to myself. Assisi had been on my wish-list for many years, in part because of its obvious beauty and charm, and in part, because Assisi was the home of St. Francis and where he founded the Franciscan religious order in 1208. As a former foster mom to dogs, cats, and a hamster, I’d been wanting to get to know the place that helped shape this saint who is so famous for his compassion to all creatures.
I trained from Rome to Assisi, an insightful trip of lush valleys framed by beautiful mountains that showed me why Assisi’s region of Umbria is affectionately known as Italy’s “Green Heart.” I was caught by surprise, upon arriving at the train station, that there was a steep climb up Mount Subasio still required of my journey to my Airbnb, although this is typical when visiting Italian hillside and mountain towns, so I should have expected it. My taxi driver was a local and laughed at my Italian slang as he sped up the winding road, up the mountain, as the streets got narrower and narrower, and the traffic got sparser and sparser.
My Airbnb and my host were both lovely. It was early March and there was a chill in the air and a quietness about the evening. After I finished getting settled, I stepped outside in search of food, but truly in pursuit of curiosity. I was so ready to finally orient myself to this town I’d been imagining for years.
Assisi is a UNESCO World Heritage site. While I didn’t know that during my visit, it wouldn’t have come as a surprise winding through Assisi’s expertly preserved medieval streets. Dusk on the side of this mountain, with the town spreading down into the sprawling valley ahead with twinkling lights and the occasional silhouette of a tower, couldn’t have felt more special.
I spent two days in Assisi with a minimal agenda. I didn’t have a name for it then, but I realize now that I practice slow traveling. I read up thoroughly on my destination before I arrive, and then I just go with the flow based on how my days go, and with the aid of locals and Google Maps. Compact and full of history, Assisi is an easy place to practice slow traveling.
My first chilly morning in town was a typical windy, March day, and there were very few tourists around yet, as many tourists in Assisi only visit for a half-day. I began wandering the tiny, winding streets above Assisi, and with each passing sign and religious icon, I was taken with the sincerity of the spirituality of the area, and its incredible views. In addition to St. Francis, St. Clare and St. Gabriel were also born here.
I eventually made my way to one of the major attractions of Assisi: the basilica ordered by the pope to be built for Saint Francis after he died. This picture is one of the first glimpses I had of the basilica. I sent it to my mother, and she responded, asking me if my photo was a postcard. I was entranced by the giant white puffy clouds moving around it, as if by design.
As I walked toward the basilica, I came across an opening in the long stone fence that lined the upper piazza. The door seemed to call to my name, and after walking through it and down a short, dirt path, there was a small tourist office taking donations for the nature trail. It somehow felt like the perfect activity for the day, my birthday. There was something enchanting about this place, and it felt like it needed exploring. Much later on, I learned that the Franciscans and St. Francis himself spent much time in this nature.
The trail was easy and had a lot of informative signage along the way. I busied myself taking photos of views and plants along the way until the trail approached a Benedictine complex of Santa Croce, a former home to Benedictine nuns. I was charmed again by the small garden planted in honor of the nuns’ garden which was maintained by FAI, a widespread Italian environmental organization that restored the trails and runs a visitor center out of the complex. They were running a composting class that day. I listened in on the class as I explored the chapel that shared a wall with the tourist office, called the Chiesa Santa Croce.
I soon continued along the trail which now paralleled a small river and watched across the river as locals enjoyed the day with their children and pets. I eventually ran into a land art project called “Terzo Paradiso” (Third Heaven) by the artist Michelangelo Pistoletto. I walked along the circular paths he designed, lined by 121 olive trees, the beautiful sun shining through the olive branches, contemplating the artist’s third heaven. There wasn’t another soul in sight. It was an unexpected and not unwelcome spiritual experience.
I emerged from the olive trees and decided it was time to make my way back to town. It didn’t take long to reach the basilica again, which is actually two churches stacked on top of each other. I couldn’t recommend them more, no matter what religion or spirituality you identify with. The upper church is known for its long series of images on the walls, making the experience more akin to visiting an art museum, as you walk along the walls and take in the stories the images are telling. The church on the bottom feels like the heart of Saint Francis. It has a very low-key, rich, welcoming spirit about it. I just stood there and took it all in, breathing a long, relaxing breath.
When I finally left the basilica, no tourists were in sight, only priests. I caught myself wondering what the priests’ evenings were like. I was grateful to be approaching another peaceful dusk in Assisi. I cherish this feeling after most of the tourists go away that you’re suddenly the center of your own adventure again.
It had been a very successful day, and it was time to relax and enjoy the simple, delicious food that the region of Umbria is known for. There was no issue figuring out where I was going to dinner – it would definitely be the same place as I had gone the night before called Trattoria Degli Umbri. My dinner was sure to be as soul-nourishing as my day’s adventures.
The next day I planned to take a late afternoon train back to my home base of Bologna. It was a rainy day, but I didn’t have an agenda, and a few raindrops weren’t going to ruin it. I darted in and out of the rain from Assisi’s beautiful streets into tiny churches, the family home of St. Francis, and St. Claire’s basilica.
My Airbnb host ran a tourist shop on the other side of town, and I stopped in to see him, and he was so happy and welcoming. It is nice to see a familiar face when you solo travel. He helped me get a taxi, which I took back to the train station an hour before my train. I had one last visit yet to make – the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli, just next to the train station, housing the tiny church known as the Porziuncola, which is said to be where St. Francis understood his calling and took a vow of poverty, the beginning of the Franciscan movement. The scale of the giant basilica built up around the tiny Porziuncola somehow tells the story of the sacredness of the space. Paying it a visit was the perfect way to bring this trip to a close, feeling like I had experienced some of the sacred characteristics of the Asissi that inspired St. Francis, and those of St. Francis that have inspired Assisi.
I hope you’ll pay it a visit and find your own inspiration.
What to Drink in Assisi
Bibenda Assisi Wine Bar
Vicolo die Nepis, 9
What to Do in Assisi
Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi
Giardini and Bosco di San Francesco, FAI
Chiesa Santa Croce
Torre Annamaria and Terzo Paradiso
Torre Del Popolo
Chiesa di Santo Stefano
Basilica di Santa Chiara
Eremo delle Carceri
Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli