Travel: Ancient Assisi still in the pink

The walls in Asissi are pink!

The walls in Asissi are pink!

Originally published in the Toronto Star on September 24, 2009 .  ASSISI, Italy–As you might expect from a place that five Catholic saints have called home, Assisi doesn’t have much of a nightlife. There’s no nightclub, no movie theatre and the young people in evidence are prone to grab their guitars and spontaneously burst into hymn.  In short: for art, alcohol and high animal spirits, stay in Rome. For a day or two of tranquil views of Van Gogh-like landscapes and the occasional brush with a Franciscan friar, come to Assisi.

Assisi was built entirely from Subasio limestone, so it sits conspicuously pink, visible for kilometres around, on the steep slopes under Mount Subasio in Umbria.

The pink hue is muted, but it’s everywhere – on the walls, on the cobbled footpaths – even the clayish soil is pinkish, so it’s all a little like Barbie’s medieval Dream House.

The city really is steep, so the faint of foot will be relieved to learn that it is served by an escalator, which slithers its way from level ground up to Rocco Maggiore, the medieval castle perched at the summit of Assisi.


The castle is mostly in ruins but the view is fantastic.


The jewel of Assisi is the Basilica San Francesco, which is nearly 800 years old. Four people died here in a 1997 earthquake, but restoration efforts have been heroic and the Basilica is good as new.


It is notable for its unearthly blue ceiling painted with golden stars and its vivid frescoes by Giotto and Lorenzetti. St. Francis and his followers receive top billing in most of these frescoes, but there are also some really heart-rending images of Christ before the Crucifixion.


The Lower Church of the Basilica is a dark, spooky crypt where the tomb of St. Francis was discovered in 1818, and where the fantastically devout gather for a good communal cry.


The monks of the order who stroll around the place still dress in loose, sober brown robes tied at the waist with rope.


Admission is free, and thousands of people visit each year for spiritual respite and relief.


The other main attraction of the town is the Basilica di Chiara (St. Clare), a gorgeous church fashioned from alternating stripes of pink and white stone.


St. Clare is a very romantic figure in the pantheon of saints, having hacked off her beautiful hair and run off to live with St. Francis at the age of 17.


The surrounding piazza affords the most spectacular view of the Umbrian countryside: a panorama of silver olive groves, golden wheat fields and the pink-roofed surrounding villages.


When you’ve finished marvelling at the Basilicas, there’s little to do except wander the impossibly narrow streets, dipping in and out of cafes.


It’s also entertaining to survey the souvenir shops, where no item is too crass to emblazon with the image of St. Francis.


There are Francises everywhere: fat little St. Francis on a salt and pepper shaker, cherub-faced St. Francis on a cookie jar, completely inexplicable St. Francis in a snow globe.


Aside from the tourist dens, Assisi also contains several beautiful art and mosaic galleries.


For a sweet snack, there are innumerable gelatarias and bakeries. Gran Caffe is one of the most beautiful, with its vaulted medieval pink ceiling, pastel frescoes and sumptuous array of delicacies, some local (huge, fluffy meringues, warm roccociati and mostaccioli) and some not (fluorescent candy vampire fangs).

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