We sat on the balcony of our hotel in the late afternoon sun, enjoying the views as the sun set, sipping on some local red wine. The hotel was set on the edge of the hilltop, so we looked down onto tiled rooftops, the houses and gardens of the local residents, and beyond, across the valley, across Umbria. As the sun set, and the blackness filled the valley below, the sparkling lights of the towns and villages stretched as far as we could see. Our red wine, and our fingers, slowly chilled in the cool November air. We started to shiver and eventually admitted defeat, entering the warm, brightly lit, tourist-filled hotel behind us.
Earlier that day we had joined the locals of Assisi on their pre-dinner promenade. The narrow cobbled streets and stone buildings transported us to another time, as we saw families of all ages enjoying their long-standing tradition of an evening walk. Except for those of us staying in a couple of hotels in the hilltop town, the tourists had largely left for the day, packed into their tour buses heading for Florence or Rome. We joined the locals in breathing a sigh of relief, as they ventured out of their houses and reclaimed their streets. We felt welcome and relaxed in this small Umbrian village that shed its touristy nature and fierce quest for foreign exchange as soon as the last tour bus left town.
Of course, there is one main reason tourists visit Assisi, and that is the Basilica of St Francis. Dating back to the 13th century, the Basilica has a magnificent position on the edge of the hill of Assisi, and can be seen from a distance as you approach the town. It is divided into two; the lower church was constructed first and contains the crypt with the body of St Francis. The upper church was completed only 30 years later, in 1253, and has – according to postcards and photographs – glorious, soaring ceilings.
We visited in 1998, just a year after a large earthquake that had damaged the upper church to such an extent that it was closed to entry (hence my references to the postcards and photographs). But to be honest, that didn’t disappoint us; we fell in love with the lower basilica.
It is dimly lit, with low, arched ceilings, cocoon-like. Dark and embracing, the walls are decorated with magnificent frescoes, the ceilings the beautiful deep blue, painted with stars, that is often found in Italian churches of the times. We walked down into the crypt yet another level below, feeling the years peel back. The decorations here are simpler, the stones showing their age, guarding and honouring St Francis. I thought of my mother, also a Frances, knowing she would have loved it. Before we left, we sat in the pews, drinking in the atmosphere. More so than in any other church, I felt the history here, the years and years that worshippers, believers, had spent on their knees, in the cool, serene dark. I didn’t want to leave.