In the Footsteps of St Francis

Updated on June 2, 2018
Anne Harrison profile image

Anne fell in love with Italy at the age of ten. Her most recent trip was in 2017, introducing her daughter to the delights of the country.

St Francis tames the wolf of Gubbio © A Harrison
St Francis tames the wolf of Gubbio © A Harrison

First Steps on the Pilgrim's Way

I woke to a watery sun creeping through the window. Outside, spires and steeples appeared and disappeared as a breeze stirred the early mist. A sonata of morning bells called the faithful to mass.

Despite the millions of tourists and pilgrims who flock here each year, Assisi remains a place for contemplation. With cars banned from the centre of the town, it is also a place for walking. Geraniums tumble outside the windows, and the buildings are of the soft pink and grey stone typical of Umbria. Every street, it seems, offers a view over terracotta rooftops to a countryside so classically beautiful as to be breathtaking.

As I wandered the cobbled streets the words of St Francis become tangible: pax et bonum, peace and goodwill. The spirit of St Francis is everywhere, and it is easy to follow his footsteps through the town.

Entrance to the Lower Basilica (c) A. Harrison
Entrance to the Lower Basilica (c) A. Harrison

The Basilica San Francesco

The most obvious place to begin is at the Basilica di San Franscesco. There is a plethora of books regaling the beauty of the cathedral, the work of Giotto, the birth of the Renaissance, it’s survival of the earthquake. Pope Gregory IX laid the foundation stone of the Lower Basilica on 17th July 1228, the day after the canonisation of St Francis.

In a crypt below the lower cathedral is the tomb of St Francis, and this is the heart of Assisi. Whatever time of day you visit, there is always someone venerating his tomb. In the darkness and the quiet, the peace and spirituality is palpable.

Unlike other cathedrals in Italy, the Basilica remains quiet even when crowded. At dusk, when the last tourists of the day have gone, or a in the first light of morning, it is truly a magical place.

A Walking Tour of Assisi

A
Basilica San Francesco, d'Assisi:
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Piazza San Francesco, 2, 06081 Assisi Perugia, Italy

get directions

B
Chiesa Nuova:
New Church, 06081 Assisi Perugia, Italy

get directions

C
St Clare Basilica:
St Clare Basilica, Piazza Santa Chiara, 1, 06081 Assisi Perugia, Italy

get directions

D
San Rufino, Assisi:
San Rufino Cathedral, Piazza San Rufino, 3, 06081 Assisi Perugia, Italy

get directions

E
Porta Cappuccini:
Via Eremo delle Carceri, 06081 Assisi Perugia, Italy

get directions

From the Basilica, the via San Francesco leads to the main square of Assisi, the Piazza del Comune. Just off the Piazza is the New Church ­– the Chiesa Nuova – built some 400 years ago. It is built on the site of St Francis’ family home; tradition holds he was baptised in the nearby Oratorio di San Francesco Piccolino.

From the church a passageway leads to a warehouse believed to have been owned by St Francis’ father. There is also a tiny room used as a cell by his parents, who locked up St Francis to prevent him from denouncing his life of wealth to follow God.

A geranium filled street © A Harrison
A geranium filled street © A Harrison

St Clare, Friend of St Francis

On the Corso Mazzini, but easily reached from the Piazza del Comune, is the Chiesa San Clare. This pink and white church is the burial place of St Clare. Born in 1193, she was a friend and follower of St Francis and founder of the Order of the Poor Clares. Built in 1257, the church is in typical early gothic Assisi style, complete with a large rose window. The church occupies the site of the Church of San Giorgio, where St Francis lay buried until his remains were moved to the Basilica in 1230.

The Piazza San Chiara gives a lovely view over the terraced hills below Assisi. Inside, on the right, is displayed the Oratorio del Crocifisso, reputedly the 12th century crucifix from San Damiano which spoke to St Francis, commanding him to ‘rebuild my church’.

A display of relics on the back wall includes a shirt embroidered by St Clare,tunics belonging to St Francis and St Clare, and some of the hair St Francis shaved from St Clare’s head when she embraced a life of poverty and devotion to God.

View from the church of St Claire (c) A. Harrison
View from the church of St Claire (c) A. Harrison

The Duomo

The Duomo, or Church of San Rufino, houses the font where both St Francis and St Clare, as well as the future Emperor Frederick II, were baptized. The portal is guarded by two Christian-devouring lions, plus a collection of animals carved into the frame, including griffins and winged crocodiles. Continuing the animal theme, the font is fronted by a winged ox and a lion.

Originally built around 412 AD to house the bones of St Rufus, (Assisi’s first martyr), a succession of bishops and their visions saw the church rebuilt in 1028 and again in 1134. Some historians believe it covers the site of Assisi’s ancient Roman Forum.

Within the crypt are remnants of early frescoes, a Roman wall, as well as a Roman sarcophagus used as Rufino’s original tomb (his remains are now beneath the altar). Through glass panels in the floor can be seen parts of these ancient ruins. Near the font is the stone knelt on by an angel whilst attending St Francis’ baptism – it bears, apparently, the imprint of the angle’s knee.

The pink and grey stone of Assisi (c) A Harrison
The pink and grey stone of Assisi (c) A Harrison

Walks Beyond Assisi

There are also places to visit outside the town’s gates. From the Porta Cappuccini, a signposted lane leads to the Eremo delle Carceri, a hermitage hidden amongst the forested hills. Caves were carved into the stones here centuries before St Francis was born. He often withdrew here to meditate and pray, and to preach to his disciples. It remains home to Franciscan friars, who happily show visitors the cell where St Francis prayed, complete with the rocky bed on which he slept. There is also the place where he caused water to gush from the rocks, the site where he tossed a demon back down to hell, and an ancient tree, supported by iron crutches, where he preached to the birds. (All these events are depicted in Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica.)

A fifteen minute stroll along the Via San Damiano is The Church of San Damiano. It was here the talking crucifix commanded St Francis to ‘go forth and rebuild my church’. It is also where, towards the end of his life, he composed The Canticle of the Sun. St Clare founded her order here, remaining as Abbess until she died. On the small balcony above the entrance she held aloft the Holy Sacrament, thus turning back an Saracen army which threatened Assisi’s.

Finally, in the new town at the bottom of the hill, is the domed Basilica di Santa Maria Degli Angeli, which marks the spot of the Oratorio di San Francesco. Here is the Porzuincola, or little portion, a small chapel used by St Francis. The stone cell is where he lived, and where he died in 1226. Here he converted St Clare. In the garden are descendants of the rose bushes into which St Francis threw himself whilst grappling with temptation; they became thornless after contact with his holy flesh.

A friendly lion outside a church (c) A. Harrison
A friendly lion outside a church (c) A. Harrison

Pax et Bonum

Most importantly, walk everywhere. Walk along the quiet street and winding alleyways, and find forgotten corner; enjoy the peace of the mountains, the rows of olives in the valley below. Rise early in the morning and watch the mist drift across the spires. Sit and sip a coffee while listening to the bells calling the faithful to Mass. And, like St Francis, take pleasure in the sound of the birds, and the beauty of the natural world which abounds around Assisi.

Rain sweeping over Assisi (c) A Harrison
Rain sweeping over Assisi (c) A Harrison

How to Reach Assisi

By Car

Assisi is only 27km from Perugia, which links to the A1 motorway between Rome and Florence by the SS3bis (also known as theE45). From Florence, take the Val di Chiana exit; from Rome, the Orte exit.

By Bus

APM buses run from Perugia and Gubbio.

Sulga runs buses from Rome (3 hours) and Florence (2.5 hours).

By Train

From Perugia, trains take 25–30 min. From Florence, take a Rome-bound train and transfer at Terontola / Cortona for Assisi. From Rome, trains connect through Foligno (2–3 hours). A bus runs from the station to Assisi. The driver is well used to tired travellers and pilgrims.

The Upper Basilica at sunset (c) A. Harrison
The Upper Basilica at sunset (c) A. Harrison

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Anne Harrison

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      • kenneth avery profile image

        Kenneth Avery 

        8 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

        Dear Anne --- I am so sorry. I just noticed that my first comment was THREE years ago. I can explain. I had a near-death health issue that required surgery--twice in different years. Not working, just writing and building birdhouses when my health will allow it.

        I did love this hub.

        Made me feel like the hub that I just published, "Peace in Her Storm."

        Write me anytime for Anne, you are a very talented writer.

      • Anne Harrison profile imageAUTHOR

        Anne Harrison 

        8 months ago from Australia

        Thank you so much, April

      • pan1974 profile image

        April 

        8 months ago from Columbus,Ga

        Beautiful hub.

      • Anne Harrison profile imageAUTHOR

        Anne Harrison 

        19 months ago from Australia

        Thank you Dolores - the surrounding countryside is beautiful

      • Dolores Monet profile image

        Dolores Monet 

        19 months ago from East Coast, United States

        What a wonderful trip into history and for spiritual inspiration. I'd love to see the surrounding countryside as well.

      • Anne Harrison profile imageAUTHOR

        Anne Harrison 

        3 years ago from Australia

        Writing another hub about the area around Assisi is on my to do list! I'm glad you enjoyed the hub.

      • Patsybell profile image

        Patsy Bell Hobson 

        3 years ago from zone 6a, SEMO

        How fascinating. I so enjoyed my armchair tour. I only wanted to talk to you more about the region and your experience. Great hub. You captured the area beautifully.

      • Anne Harrison profile imageAUTHOR

        Anne Harrison 

        4 years ago from Australia

        Thank you, tracykarl99, that's most kind of you. Please go to Italy, you will so love it!

      • tracykarl99 profile image

        Tracy 

        4 years ago from San Francisco

        A fascinating post and beautifully written. Will one day make a trip Italy and tour Assis myself, I hope. :)

      • Anne Harrison profile imageAUTHOR

        Anne Harrison 

        4 years ago from Australia

        Thank you all for your kind and supportive comments. I'm glad to have brought back fond memories - or encouraging others to visit! Thank you

      • profile image

        Kenneth Avery 

        4 years ago

        Hi, Anne,

        Just wishing you a peaceful day. And a cool day. Please drink lots of water if you are out and about.

        Where I live it is now 93 degrees at 12:10 p.m., cdst.

        So be wise and stay cool.

        And if you are not a follower of me, I still would love it if you would.

      • suzettenaples profile image

        Suzette Walker 

        4 years ago from Taos, NM

        This is such a beautiful hub. I have been to Assisi, but it was many years ago, sot this brought back such wonderful memories for me. I love all your photos also. Just gorgeous. I did not know all that about St. Clare. This was such interesting and informative.

      • ologsinquito profile image

        ologsinquito 

        4 years ago from USA

        What a beautiful story about one of our favorite saints. I like how you designed your article too. Voted up, shared and pinned.

      • Dolores Monet profile image

        Dolores Monet 

        4 years ago from East Coast, United States

        This is like a dream trip for me. How beautiful it would be to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis! And seeing St. Clare's embroidery and the old tunics would be awesome! Thanks for the armchair trip!

      • Anne Harrison profile imageAUTHOR

        Anne Harrison 

        4 years ago from Australia

        Many thanks for your thoughts, Kenneth. They are much appreciated,

        Anne

      • kenneth avery profile image

        Kenneth Avery 

        4 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

        Anne, my new friend, may I think this?

        You are most-welcome. No need to thank me. It is the truth. I am sorry and I am sensitive to your difficulty. Seemingly, we all are going through things, but on the positive, we ARE going THROUGH, not staying in these times that try us.

        If you need me, just email me and I will help you in any way I can.

        Take care.

        Kenneth

      • Anne Harrison profile imageAUTHOR

        Anne Harrison 

        4 years ago from Australia

        Dear Kenneth,

        Thank you for your most kind comments, which come at a difficult time for me and are most appreciated. My writing is what keeps me going.

        I look forward to reading your hubs,

        Anne (PS It's now 8 am, a beautiful sunny day - maybe 24 C, although winter is only a few weeks away!)

      • kenneth avery profile image

        Kenneth Avery 

        4 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

        Anne,

        Incredible stuff. Great read. I voted up and all the way. Loved your usage of graphics and lay-out design. I admire your talent so much. Just keep up the writing, never giving up for anything or anyone.

        When you get a minute, check out my hubs and then be my follower.

        I would love it.

        I wish you a pleasant day, or maybe night.

        Kenneth/ from northwest Alabama

      • Anne Harrison profile imageAUTHOR

        Anne Harrison 

        4 years ago from Australia

        Thank you, DDE. There are so many amazing places to visit.

      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 

        4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        Incredible photos and certainly a wonderful insight on St. Francis. You created an informative and useful hub. Voted up!

      • Anne Harrison profile imageAUTHOR

        Anne Harrison 

        4 years ago from Australia

        Thank you for your comments, I'm glad you enjoy my writing. St Francis has always held a special place for me, as has Assisi.

      • Alastar Packer profile image

        Alastar Packer 

        4 years ago from North Carolina

        St. Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio are two Catholic saints that are of great interest here, along with 2 or 3 female saints. This was an instructive history-travelogue hub and I enjoyed it, Anne. You have an pure style of writing that is easy-feeling and brings a reader into it, thank you.

      • Anne Harrison profile imageAUTHOR

        Anne Harrison 

        4 years ago from Australia

        Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my hub. I find st Francis the most inspirational of the saints

      • jhamann profile image

        Jamie Lee Hamann 

        4 years ago from Reno NV

        Great hub. St. Francis is my patron saint. Jamie

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