Walk in the Footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi

Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, Umbria, Italy
Peter Zelei Images / Getty Images

Driving a car in Italy certainly has its entertaining moments, but walkers will find Assisi offers a variety of interesting pilgrimages, some of them off the beaten track.

Stazione Ferrovia (Train Station)

The train station for Assisi isn't actually in Assisi, it's over a mile away. You can take a shuttle bus from the station to Assisi, but for the walker, the road is flat (until it reaches Assisi, that is) and the summer's crop of sunflowers along with the hill town of Assisi as a backdrop makes for a wonderful walk, especially in the morning before the summer sun starts beating down.

Exiting the train station, you'll turn left and walk northwest toward the main road, Via Patrono d'Italia. Turning right on this road will take you to Assisi, which you will be able to easily see rising from the plain. But don't take a right, take a left and go into the town of Santa Maria degli Angeli and look for the Basilica. It's not much to look at on the outside, but there's a surprise inside.

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

The Basilica contains the tiny Porziuncola chapel, a church Francis is said to have restored by his own hands. Of course, with fame comes attention, and the exterior of the tiny chapel has been tarted up with a rather gaudy facade: marble-clad and decorated with 14th and 15th-century frescoes by Andrea d'Assisi.

Also inside the Basilica: the Cappella del Transito contains the cell where St Francis died in 1226.

The basilica is flanked by the Thornless Rose Garden and the Cappella del Roseto.

Done? Ok, now you're ready to head toward Assisi.

You'll notice the Hotel Trattoria da Elide on Via Patrona d'Italia 48 on the walk back. If it's lunchtime, this is a fine place to stop for some traditional Umbrian food.

You'll want to stop off and see the major sites in Assisi before heading out of town to the Eremo delle Carceri, or St. Francis' "Hermitage Cells" or maybe "Prison Hermitage." Below are a few notes.

The Basilica of San Francesco

The Basilica of San Francesco is what most folks come to see. Mostly restored after the earthquake of September 1997, it's really two Basilicas built on top of one another, an upper and lower. Both churches were consecrated by Pope Innocent IV in 1253.

Church of Santa Maria Maggiore

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore was the cathedral of Assisi before 1036 when the church of San Rufino took over the position, but what we see today dates back to the 12th century.

The nave, semi-circular apse and sacristy still have remains of frescoes from the 14th and 15th century. A Medieval sarcophagus lies to the right of the entrance. From a passageway leading from the crypt, the House of Propertius can be accessed. The house features Pompeian style wall paintings.

Every first Saturday of the month there is a guided tour of the Roman house of Propertius at 9.30 and 11 a.m. Booking is required. Info, call: 075.5759624 (Monday - Friday 8 a.m. - 2 p.m.)

Rocca Maggiore (The High Peak)

Found at the ends of Via della Rocca, Via del Colle, and the stepped Vicolo San Lorenzo off Via Porta Perlici in the north-central high point of Assisi. Visit the castle, the earliest remains of which date back to 1174, when it was a German feudal castle. The views from here are stupendous.

The Eremo delle Carceri

From the Rocca Maggiore walk toward the Rocca Minore (a single tower) and find the Porta Cappuccini, where there will be signs pointing you toward the Eramo, 4 km away, and a climb of some 250 meters.

You'll pass some vendor stations (yes, you can get a coffee or bottle of water here), then you'll hit a complex of buildings built around the cave of St. Francis. Much of this main complex was here six hundred years before Francis was born. No visit is complete without the (possibly) head-jarring peek into the tiny cave Francis was known to retreat to occasionally--and when you get out, look for the old tree carefully propped up, reputed to be the very tree holding the birds St. Francis preached to, but there is, of course, some controversy.

A few Franciscans still live here. Some will answer questions.

San Damiano

San Damiano is about 1 mile outside Assisi's Porta Nuova. A favorite retreat of Francis and his followers--St. Clare founded the order of the Poor Clares here. Entrance is free.

Where to Stay

Here's a well-rated guest house:

St. Anthony's Guest House
Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement
Via Galeazzo Alessi - 10
06081 Assisi, Prov. Perugia, Italy
Phone: 011-390-75-812542
Fax: 011-390-75-813723
E-mail: atoneassisi@tiscali.it

Sanctuary of La Verna--Where Francis received the Stigmata

North of Arezzo is a popular shrine in the mountains with some fabulous views of the countryside. The road from Michelangelo Caprese, where Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in 1475, winds up the wooded slopes of Mt. Sovaggio on the way to Mt. Penna, given to Francis by Count Orlando of Chuisi in 1213. Francis had a camp at la Penna in an area of strange rock formations in the forest known as La Verna, now a series of buildings from different eras that make up a sanctuary. It was here that Francis received the stigmata in 1224. Families still gather at the small Sanctuary, and some walk the the network of paths that web the mountains.

A walk through the forest leading to the summit of Monte Penna gives you a wide panorama view of the Tiber and the Arno valleys.

For more on La Verna, see: La Verna Sanctuary and Pilgrimage Site in Tuscany. Also see: La Verna Pictures.

Staying nearby La Verna

Simonicchi sounds nice. There is also Camping.

Assisi Endnotes:

You can hike 15km from Assisi to Spello (seven hours) and take train back.

The Basilica of St Francis is the only sovereign land owned by the Vatican outside Rome's Vatican City.

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