The first decision you have to make is how you will get to Assisi, normally a choice between driving yourself or going on a tour bus. Going by car can be substantially cheaper than by tour bus, especially for several people or a family traveling together. If you live in Italy you may have your own car, and if you donât live here, car rentals are reasonably priced. Your only other travel expenses will be for gas, tolls on the superhighways (if you use them), and for parking in one of the big public lots on the fringes of the town. Don't plan on just parking on the streets inside the walls of the town -- driving and parking are strictly controlled.
Going by bus is a much less stressful option. Let someone else drive, bring your book or knitting, and, most importantly, watch the beautiful Umbrian countryside roll by -- always keeping a lookout for wonderful hillside villages and hilltop fortresses and castles that you probably won't see if you self-drive. The bus trip can even be faster than driving yourself, because the driver will already know where he's going.
Unless you really enjoy a day-long uphill climb, start your tour of the town from its eastern end, that is, near Porta Nuova. There is a big parking lot just below Porta Nuova (the 17th century "New Gate") near Santa Chiara (St. Clare) basilica, and there are escalators from there up to Largo Properzio just outside Porta Nuova. On most days they are running constantly, but, if they look like they are stopped, just step on the foot-pad at the base of the escalator and it should start automatically. You go up one escalator, take a right turn and immediately mount the second, which will take you up to Porta Nouva.
There is a short upward grade from Porta Nuova along Via Borgo Aretino. A Borgo was a fortified neighborhood, designed to put any attackers at a decided disadvantage. As might be expected from its position at the eastern extremity of Assisi, this neighborhood is a later extension of the town. An earlier arched gateway, Porta Pucci, at the top end of Via Borgo Arentino, marks the previous extent of the town, near the back end of the St. Clare Basilica. St. Clare and its outbuildings formerly formed the eastern bastion of the city.
As of September 2001, repairs of the damages to St. Clare basilica from the 1997 earthquake were almost completed. The façade is newly cleaned, clearly showing, for the first time in centuries, the bands of characteristic local pink limestone. The interior of the church is ready for visitors. Most of the frescoes on the interior walls are missing, but that is the result of centuries of miscare, not of the 1997 earthquake. A stairway takes you down to the crypt where the body of Clare, partially restored with wax in 1986-7, is displayed. Back upstairs, to one side of the nave, is the chapel of San Damiano, actually a pre-existing small church, to which the basilica was attached in the 14th century. It is in this chapel that the crucifix, which was said to have spoken to Francis of Assisi, is displayed, and it was to this chapel that the remains of Francis were carried after his death in 1226, there to remain until the crypt of the Basilica of St. Francis was completed in 1230. (Another church of San Damiano, where several important events in the lives of Francis and Clare occurred, lies outside the walls, south of Porta Nuova. The Porziuncula chapel in the Church of S. Maria Degli Angeli and the Carceri Hermitage are also outside the walls at some distance from Assisi.)
The downhill walk through town to the St. Francis Basilica, less than a kilometer, can take either less than an hour or, if you decide to shop and have lunch en route, several hours. Side trips can add more hours. Whatever you choose to do, you exit Piazza S. Chiara at its northwest corner on Via S. Chiara. You will quickly pass under another archway, the gateway on the western side of the S. Chiara bastion, at which point the street changes its name and becomes Corso Mazzini. Corso Mazzini leads down to Piazza del Comune, the social and political center of town.
Stretching along the southern side of Piazza del Comune is the Palazzo del Priori, actually an assemblage of several contiguous structures: the section that is closest to the 1762 fountain (by Giovanni Martinucci) is from the early thirteenth century; the middle section is later 13th century; and the third section is 15th century. All three sections were restored in 1926. The buildings now house municipal government offices and the town museum. You can go south from the Piazza del Comune to the big church of Santa Maria Maggiore by going down through the big arch that pierces the Palazzo dei Priori, past the museum entrance under the arch, and past Chiesa Nuova and San Antonio.
On the northern side of Piazza del Comune is the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, with the same name as the Church behind the Pantheon in Rome because it, also, is built on the ruins of a Roman temple of Minerva. This site, in fact, predates the Roman temple by several centuries having been a sacred place since before the time of the Etruscans. There was a healing spring sacred to the "Umbri" (what the Romans called the locals), then an Etruscan temple of Minrva (without the "e"), then a Roman temple of Minerva (the Romans added the "e" when she became part of the Roman "Trinity" -- Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva). After St. Rufino brought Christianity to the town in the 3rd century (and was martyred for his efforts by outraged locals) it became the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. What you see today is the Roman temple façade with the Christian church inside the temple cella or chamber. There are earlier remains displayed inside, but the spring is long gone, diverted, no one knows where, by some long past earthquake. The stairway up to the temple/church platform is a rare inter-columnar style (steps between the close set pillars), which indicates that the Piazza has always been too narrow for a standard monumental temple staircase.
Next in line on the north side of the Piazza is the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, built in 1282 as the residence and headquarters of the commander of the local militia. Later authority figures, Podestas and Papal Vicars, inherited the place in turn. Today it is the seat of the International Society of Franciscan Studies. Between the church and the Palazzo is the Torre del Popolo, also built in the second half of the 13th century and already rebuilt on a grander scale in 1305. The clock is 15th century.
The Corso Mazzini, on which we entered the Piazza, is the southernmost of the three streets that fork from the eastern end of Piazza del Comune. The northernmost leads back uphill to the Cathedral of S. Rufino, which is the seat of the Assisi Catholic diocese -- the San Francesco complex is Franciscan headquarters, but the Bishopric is at San Rufino. The first San Rufino church was built in the 4th century, and it was expanded and rebuilt completely by Giovanni da Gubbio starting in 1144. Even before it was re-consecrated in 1253 the church got the "new" heightened and embellished façade that you see today. Look for the grotesque medieval animal carvings. The bell tower, or campanile, stands atop a Roman water cistern, and its base, at least, dates from the 11th century. North of the Cathedral, right up against the northern defensive walls, are what little is left of the Assisium Roman amphitheater, which was a class-A minor-league venue on the Roman gladiatorial circuit. If you really feel ambitious, you can continue past the amphitheater to Rocca Minore at the notheastern corner of the town walls. As the name implies it is the smaller of two fortresses, both of which are at high points on the northern wall. A few blocks east of S. Rufino is Parco Regina Margarita, with a modern outdoor theater built on the remains of a Roman theater.
Back at the Piazza del Comune, there are two streets that bracket the small official city hall building on the western end of the Piazza, and both lead westward to the Basilica of St. Francis. The northern route, Via San Paolo, takes you through a residential area of medieval and renaissance structures. The southern way, Via Portica, is a street of shops and restaurants with several interesting sites along the way. The street changes its name twice, in the Italian urban fashion, before it becomes Via San Francesco and reaches the basilica of St. Francis. The intervening sections, between Via Portica and Via San Francesco, are Via Fortini and Via Del Seminario. An arch crossing the street, a relic of fortifications of the town center that existed before the huge San Francesco complex was annexed, marks the beginning of Via San Francesco. But before you get there you will pass, on the southern side of the street, your left as you are proceeding west, the entrance to the underground remains of the "Roman Forum". It's not really clear that this was the main forum of the Roman town, but it certainly was an important public area in ancient times, complete with monumental buildings and statuary.
These and streets that branch off to the north and south are lined with shops where Umbrian maiolica pottery, Assisi needlepoint, and local handicrafts are available (and foods! -- ask for "rocciata", an apple, nut, and raisin coffeecake). The buildings date from the 13th to the 15th centuries but they have been continuously modified and restored and only true experts can tell which parts of their fabrics are ancient and which are restorations.
At Via San Francesco #3 is the portico of a 14th century hospital, which became the "Monte Frumentaria" (a pawnbroker that gave grain and other farm products instead of money) in the 17th and 18th centuries. Adjoining that is the Oliviera Fountain built in 1750. Further down Via San Francesco (#11) is the Oratorio dei Pelegrini, where exhausted and ailing pilgrims were housed starting in the 15th century. This building was only partially open and was still undergoing major post-1997-earthquake repairs in September of 2001. It has fine late 15th century frescoes by Pierantonio Mezzastris. Number 14 on Via S. Francesco is the 13th century "House of the Maestri Comacini", and the stairs that lead off around the back of the building go up to the Vicolo San Andrea, the entry to the most authentic Medieval part of town, inside the San Giacomo Gate. (From inside this gate you also can begin the long but gradual uphill climb to the Rocca Magiore, the bigger of the two fortresses defending the town's northern wall -- if, that is, you want to avoid the much steeper climb from Piazza del Comune. Either way, its only recommended for fortress-lovers.)
Via San Francesco finally ends at the Piazza Superiore di San Francesco, at the western end of which stands the basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Even for non-Catholics and non-Christians, the primary attraction in Assisi is the basilica and convent of St. Francis, which occupies the entire western end of the town. Construction of the Basilica began in April of 1228. Just two years after the death of Francis, Pope Gregory IX laid the cornerstone of this church on the day after the Saint's canonization. It took only 25 months to finish the fabric of the Lower Basilica, which is actually, in fact, the basement or substructure of the Upper Basilica. Unlike some other multiple level churches in Italy, where a new structure was built on top of a pre-existing church, the upper and lower churches if St. Francis were designed as an integrated whole with the lower part to be used until the upper part was finished. The plans and architecture were apparently by Brother Elias, the successor of Francis as the head of the Franciscans. It took another thirty years to top out the Upper Basilica, which was dedicated in 1250. Even at that, thirty years was a remarkably short time for the construction of a major church in those days. Pious legend attributes the speed of the building effort to local enthusiasm for the Saint, but it also reflects a quick and large infusion of cash, mostly from the Papacy.
Then it took another 100 or so years to decorate the inside with the famous frescoes, which are the major artistic attraction of Assisi. The lower church has frescoes by Cimabue (Cenni di Pietro), Giotto (Ambrogio di Bondone), the Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and Simone Martini. The Upper Basilica houses the famous fresco cycle of the life of St. Francis, which historically has been attributed to Giotto. That attribution is increasingly being questioned in light of recent stylistic and chemical analyses, and the cycle is now thought to have been done by Pietro Cavallini and his students. (You won't hear that from any Assisi source or guide, however -- the city's artistic reputation is based largely on the Giotto attribution.) The Old Testament frescoes on the ceiling of the upper church are most often attributed to Cimabue, but the Cavallini salon may have painted them also. It was the frescoes and the ceiling vault nearest the main door that fell and crushed two monks and two art experts in the second jolt in the September 26, 1997, earthquake sequence. There are other Cavallini frescoes in the upper church and some by Jacapo Torriti. The adjoining Franciscan monastery houses an extensive collection of illuminated manuscripts, but it is not always open to the public.
You can enter the Upper basilica directly from the Piazza Superiore, view the art works, and exit either back to the Piazza Superiore, through the front doors, or through a doorway to the right of the altar and down a stairway and through an outside courtyard, which has an entrance behind the altar of the lower basilica. Stairways off the sides of the lower basilica take you down to an even lower level into the crypt where St. Francis was laid in 1230. After viewing the lower basilica you can exit from the end away from the altar into the Piazza Inferiore di San Francesco, which is, in reality, a long porticoed ramp sloping away from the basilica. Rest rooms are on the left-hand side of the downward slope (and down three flights of stairs -- the elevator wasn't working. There are also restrooms on the street above and to the left of the portico.)
At the bottom of the Piazza Inferiore a gate pierces the portico, and on the other side of the gate is Via Frate Elia, named after that same Brother Elias who was the first successor of Francis as head of the Franciscan Order, and who was the first great Franciscan fundraiser and builder. This street is also lined with shops, and about halfway down on the left side of the street is a store that sells Assisi and Umbrian food specialties, and local pastas, olive oils, and wines.
Via Frate Elia feeds into Piaggia San Pietro, which opens into Piazza San Pietro in front of St. Peter's, another of Assisi's major churches -- still being repaired in September 2001. Via Borgo San Pietro runs north of the church, changes names to become Via Sant'Appolinare and ends at the church of Sant'Appolinare (not coincidentally, the site previously occupied by a Roman temple of Apollo.) As the "Borgo" name of the first part of the street implies, this whole section was another late neighborhood addition, extending the fortified boundaries of the town to the southwest.
At the lower end of the Via Frate Elia is the Porta (Gate) San Francesco and right outside of the gate are the parking lots at the lower (western) end of town. Tour buses that drop passengers at the upper end, below Porta Nuova, usually pick up their passengers at these lower lots. Taxis are available to take people back to their private cars if they leave them in the upper parking lots. There are restaurants inside and outside the St. Francis gate where weary travelers can get a beverage or a meal.
The town knows how to handle visitors -- it receives more religious pilgrims than any other place in Italy including Rome. There are public restrooms near the major churches and every restaurant has smaller facilities (but it's bad form to use them if you're not a customer -- buy a drink or sandwich first.) All of the town and the major sites are wheelchair accessible, but roundabout routes may be needed to avoid stairways -- the town is built on a spur of Mt. Subasio, after all. The main route through town described above is a straight shot for wheelchairs, and the side trips require only minor detours. The crypts below the churches are generally not wheel chair accessible, but the churches (including both levels of St. Francis) and their artwork are. Most of the churches have coin operated telephone handsets that give you a description of what you are seeing in a choice of languages, and some give you a concurrent slide show on a small video screen. There are plenty of maps and guidebooks available in many languages and in various levels of detail all over town or they can be purchased in bookstores in Italy's major cities or you can use the Internet to assemble your own.
Fodors offers a good basic online "miniguide" to Umbria "with Assisi" at http://www.fodors.com/miniguides/mgresults.cfm?destination=umbria@605, and there are thousands of other Internet links to Assisi. Use the following link to access the first of more than 200,000 Assisi links with the Google search engine: http://www.google.com/search?client=googlet&q=assisi.
The Umbria Blue Guide (3rd Edition, 2000) is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0393320162/qid=1001241887/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_6_1/002-4613557-9431214.
Go to http://www.mmdtkw.org/Veneto2001.html (September) for links to other Assisi articles.