I am not sure when I first heard about St. Francis. As a Jew, I would not have heard it in synagogue, but in school they taught both the Old Testament and the New. I have always loved the stories. Who would not? He talked to the animals. He lived in a cave, surrounded by them. He worked with the poor and protected them. So when the new Pope took the name Francis, it reminded me of our visit to Assisi on the western slopes of Italy’s Mount Subasio, in the Spoletine valley.
We visited Assisi in the Jubilee year for the church and the new millennium for the world. It was three years after the devastating earthquake, so we were not sure how much we would see. As we drove towards it we could see the ruined castle Rocca Maggiore at the top of the hill. On the slopes of the mountain, the pinkish Subasio stone Basilica of San Francesco shone in the sun. I remember thinking of the biblical phrase, “a city on the hill”.
We drove past Assisi toward Armanzane and followed the curved, narrow mountain road up the hill to our hotel. I was very relieved that they had a restaurant and that we would not have to drive that road in the dark. The 4-Star Le Silva Hotel is built on the ruins of an ancient 10th century country estate. Overrun by trees and thorny briars it was cleared and renovated in 1983.
We arrived under blue October skies and gazed at the view of the hills, fields and woods. We heard three different versions of what it had been; a monastery, a rest stop for pilgrims, or a manor house. The rooms, named after saints, are scattered around the building, up stone steps or down. Sitting rooms with fireplaces are placed close to groups of rooms.
Our room had a window that overlooked the entrance walkway and one in the bathroom that overlooked the fields. There was a Juliet balcony above the front door with views of the mountains. White sheers and dark green drapes hung from black rods to block out any evening light. Antique furniture stood on stone floors. An iron cross, a picture of pilgrims and a brown framed antique mirror were the only decorations on the whitewashed walls. I was sure it had been a resting place for pilgrims and that I was the most recent occupant of that peaceful space.
The next morning we drove into Assisi and could see winding stone streets running between white and pink stone buildings, with the same ancient views of the fields and mountains that St Francis and St Claire had seen. We parked in the car park and set off on foot to explore. Not just a town of churches, although you can see one or part of one from every angle, Assisi is a working town. It has shops, homes and citizens going about their daily lives while the tourists visit. We visited the Basilica of San Francesco. It is a glorious building with magnificent works of art but we only visited the tomb where Saint Francis is buried.
I was much more interested in the Hermitage on the outskirts of the town. It is built in the woods where St Francis and his followers meditated, prayed and slept in the caves. It is still used, but admittance into the Eremo chapel is for prayer only.
We wandered on stone paths that wound through the Holm oaks. It was under one of these oaks that St Francis spoke to the birds. The path had circular tree stumps that act as benches to sit on and meditate. We saw twig and leaf crosses placed in the stone walls. It was a very quiet, cool and peaceful spot.
After our walk around the Hermitage we drove a few miles to the white marble Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which is also the name of the small town it stands in. The church dome can be seen for miles around. It was built over a little stone prayer chapel St Francis used. This chapel sits in the middle of the Basilica, in front of the altar. Chairs surround it for services. We walked in during High Mass. They use a screen and video camera. The music in that huge space was angelic, which was fitting, as it is the church of the angels.
We loved our stay in Assisi. As I was reading my notes about the trip I found this little tidbit. St Francis was not actually named Francis. He was named Giovanni (John). He was called Francis because his mother was French and this was a way to honor her. Whatever his name and the new Pope’s name, Assisi will stay in my memory as a spiritual place of beauty.
Planning a trip to Assisi? Here are some other hotel recommendations in Assisi
Written by Guest contributor Ann Lonstein for EuropeUpClose.com
Ann Lonstein is a freelance writer living in Minnesota. She took her first plane ride when she emigrated from South Africa with her husband and infant son. She has not stopped flying since, and has visited many countries around the globe.
Ann can be reached at her blog, www.everyjourneytraveled.wordpress.com