Florence, Italy: Assisi

Day trips are now too easy for me. Why pay for a night in a hotel when you can do all of the sightseeing in a day? Today’s trip was to Assisi.

I began the morning with a brutal start. Brett and Erin went with me, so we decided to meet at the train station at 8am. That meant that Brett and I both had to be ready and out the door at 7:45. I woke up at 7:37 and was dressed and outside on time! Then came the train ride: a 2.5 hour InterCity train; it obviously wasn’t the high-speed nice Eurostar type. The long train rides did let me catch up on sleep, though!

When we finally got to Assisi, we weren’t even close to the town. Assisi is built on a tall hill and the train station is almost 4km away in the valley below. Conveniently, the city is always well-prepared for tourists and pilgrims, so the bus taking us to the city pulled out five minutes after we arrived.

Our first stop was the Cathedral of San Francesco. Gorgeous doesn’t begin to describe it. At the top of the hill in the city, this cathedral is actually two different churches in one. It’s built onto the edge of the hill, so the view going up to it is breathtaking. At the top of these incredibly long columns (I’m guessing at least 100 meters in some parts) are arches that give uniformity to every side of the building. If you’ve seen “The Return of the King” (another must), this cathedral has a similar look to the hilltop castle with the great coronation scene at the end. Walking up to the cathedral the wind caused the running joke of the day: Brett’s and Erin’s umbrellas immediately turned inside-out. Erin’s was a nicer quality, so it was at least reparable. Brett’s, however, snapped in several of the linking metal bands. He made a valiant effort the entire day of trying to salvage it, but it never truly worked.

We started with the upper cathedral. The frescos were pretty (like normal), but the environment definitely wasn’t one of devotion. Most churches in Italy will charge admission for tourists while leaving it free for any locals or anyone wanting to pray in a specific chapel. The Cathedral of San Francesco kept it free for everyone, but paradoxically lost most of the atmosphere. There were two uniformed officers (not Italian police or military) who were walking around and using the loud speaker system to ask everyone to be quiet. Brett pointed out that hilarity of the situation.

The lower cathedral was different; the mood and ambiance of the place was great. My favorite part was the Cappeli Immaculata which had modern relief carvings of the Annunciation, Crucifixion and other scenes. These reliefs were obviously modern (one of the characters is wearing glasses while looking into the light), but they recreated SO MUCH of the intensity I can see in paintings of the same scenes by Fra Angelico in the Monastery of San Marco. These reliefs were both still incredibly relevant and reverent.

In the lower cathedral was the entrance to the crypt underneath the structure that holds the tomb of St. Francis and those of many of his followers. When we first walked down into the crypt Erin and I could tell there was a low buzz. We’re not sure if it was the acoustics, the breathing of the people in it, the ventilation system or simply that it was a holy place; it may have been a combination of the four). In any case, this buzz filled the void since absolutely no one was talking. There was a long line of people always passing the grave and after I’d gone around and looked, I sat in the back row and enjoyed the moment.

Finishing in the cathedral, we’d only been in Assisi for 1.5 hours, so we grabbed lunch. Then we went for our next target: a hill fort that was supposed to have some of the best views in town. With all of the views we’d seen we knew that they’d have to be incredible in the fort. After at least five wrong turns and detours, we gave up on the hill fort (yes, we had a full map and everything — it’s a medieval town!) and went to the next church: Sant Rufino. Erin and I are still arguing about whether it had a renaissance or baroque interior. I think it’s baroque; Erin thinks its architecture is renaissance with baroque altarpieces.

The next stop was Santa Chiara. We had a lot of hope for this basilica. It’s outside has a gorgeous front facade. The entire exterior is designed using pink and white marble. Inside was disappointing: most of the frescoes (I’m guessing somewhere around 90%) were painted over and white-washed off of the walls. It’s a tragedy. The interior looks so plain and bare that one looking at it in a book would never say it was in Italy.

After that, we decided to head back to Florence on the 3:23 train. 2.5 hours later and we made it back to our (semi-)warm apartments and the familiarity of Florence.

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