In the heart of central Italy is the small medieval town of Assisi. This gorgeous area of rolling green hills and a city upon a hill, is visited by curious travelers every day. While some come only to explore and take in this breathtaking part of Italy, many more come in a spiritual search that the city’s most famous resident, Saint Francis, began many years ago. Whether you plan to explore and travel through this part of the Italian countryside or pay homage to the Christian faith at the sites where ancient religious leaders once lived and worshipped, Assisi is by far a traveler favorite.
FESTIVAL AND EVENTS IN ASSISI
With the deep Christian roots in the town of Assisi, it is no surprise that many of the city’s festivals are religion based. The week before Easter, referred to as Holy Week, is usually marked with the “Deposition of the Crucifix” on Holy Thursday and a Good Friday procession starting at the Cathedral of San Rufino and ending at the Basilica of San Francesco. In addition, special music and festivities occur throughout the town.
During the Christmas holiday, the town has both live and inanimate nativity scenes throughout the city, and the day itself is marked with enthusiastic celebration. Nativity scenes are very special in Assisi because Saint Francis is believed to have created the first live nativity scene in the world.
The renowned ancient saints of the area are also honored with special events. Every year on August 11 Assisi celebrates Saint Clare, one of the city’s native saints and the founder of the first Catholic female order, the Poor Clares. The saint is honored with a procession through the town, a fair, and a remarkable fireworks display.
The following day, August 12, is also a day of celebration, in honor of Saint Rufino, the patron saint of Assisi and the city’s first bishop. Locals pay homage to Saint Rufino with a prayer vigil, a procession through the city, and a solemn mass in Assisi’s Cathedral.
Another event held in honor of Saint Rufino is the Palio di San Rufino, which takes place annually on the last Sunday of August. During this event, the different districts of the city compete as teams in a crossbow tournament while dressed in historical attire. The winner is awarded the Palio, a revered cloth painted by a renowned artist. During the event, the Flea Market of San Rufino also takes place, which is the reenactment of a historic town fair.
Every October 3 and 4, Saint Francis is honored with a special festival that features various components including religious events, conferences, and performances featuring local dancers and folk singing. Since Saint Francis is one of two patron saints of Italy, celebrations are held throughout the country and pilgrims come from all over Italy and the world to participate in the festivities. Some of the rituals in Assisi involve other parts of Italy as well. For instance, every year a different region is selected to produce the oil used to burn the votive candle in the crypt of Saint Francis. The oil is delivered during the Feast of Saint Francis and it fuels the candle for one year. Other events include the Transit Ceremony held at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli that celebrates Saint Francis’ passage from life to death as well as a floral procession, prayer vigils, and the distribution of olive branches among the faithful.
Another important religious celebration in Assisi is the Feast of Corpus Christi held on June 3. Each year, certain districts of the town participate in an infiorata during which the roads are covered with flower petals arranged into artistic compositions that depict decorative and religious motifs.
On June 22, locals in Assisi celebrate the Festa del Voto (Festival of the Vow) an event that commemorates Saint Clare’s actions in liberating Assisi from the attacks of the Saracens. The event features a procession that begins in the center of Assisi and continues to the Basilica of Santa Chiara, ending at the Sanctuary of San Damiano, which is the monastery where the Order of Saint Clare was founded.
On August 1 and 2, locals and pilgrims alike can receive Il Perdono di Assisi (The Pardon of Assisi), a plenary indulgence, which was originally granted by visiting the Porziuncola, but has now been extended to all Franciscan churches.
On the first Sunday following January 17, Assisi celebrates the Feast of Saint Anthony the Great. On this day, animals of all types gather in the streets near the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli for a procession in honor of Saint Anthony and to receive a special blessing.
In addition to the religious celebrations, there are also a number of lay events and festivals that occur throughout the year in Assisi.
Perhaps the best-known of these events is the Calendimaggio Festival. This event occurs on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of the first week of May and is a festival that joyfully celebrates spring’s arrival. It is generally marked with fabulous medieval costumes, music, and special activities like parades and athletic competitions.
At the end of May each year, there is a wonderful culinary festival known as La Maggiolata. This progressive dinner winds through the otherwise quiet alleyways, gardens and courtyards which are alive with music and dancing, providing an exciting and delicious atmosphere. Being a part of this journey evokes a magical spirit in the air.
If in Assisi on the first weekend of September, be sure to catch the Cavalcata di Satriano. This is an annual event that reenacts the final days of St. Francis. The saint was near death and in the nearby town of Nocera, but the people of Assisi wanted to bring him home, where they felt he belonged. This remembrance includes a procession retracing the final journey of the city’s beloved patron saint, including the message he shared with the people on that day.
Get a sense of the city at the Piazza del Comune, Assisi’s main square. Here tourists are able to see the Roman landmarks of the Temple of Minerva and the Roman Forum, the Palazzo del Comune, the Torre del Popolo, and the beautiful fountain. The square is perfect for sightseeing, people watching, and just enjoying a pretty day.
One of the most moving ways to find the solace in Assisi that Saint Francis experienced is to visit the Bosco di San Francesco, or Forest of Saint Francis. This quiet and shady area of trees and trails is said to have been traveled by Saint Francis himself. Almost two miles of walking paths and trails wind over Mount Subasio just behind the Basilica of San Francesco. Visiting the forest is a fantastic way to get some exercise and contemplate the world in the same way Saint Francis must have done all those years ago.
Inside the town of Assisi are a number of museums and art galleries that contain some of the city’s historical artifacts and art masterpieces. As is common throughout Italy, in many cases these museums are located within a church or other historic structure rather than a standalone museum.
The Porziuncola Museum is located inside the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. This site is a must-see on Christian pilgrimages for its historical value as well as its paintings of Saint Francis and stunning frescoes. Inside the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli it is also possible to admire terracotta sculptures and masterpieces by artists such as Cesare Sermei, Cimabue, Andrea della Robbia, and Giunta Pisano.
The Cathedral Museum and Crypt of Saint Rufino is a mid-twentieth century structure found within the walls of the Cathedral of San Rufino of Assisi. The museum has several exhibits that display archaeological finds, detached frescoes, detailed paintings, and other religious items.
The Museum of the Abbazia di San Pietro is located under the monastery itself. The abbey’s underground rooms often house special exhibits of ceramics as well as various art displays.
The seventeenth century Municipal Art Gallery found in the Palazzo Vallemani is home to quite a collection of historic frescoes and paintings. Visitors can expect to see art from Giotto, Puccio Capanna, and Pietro Perugino here in the gallery.
Within the religious complex that holds the Basilica of San Francesco and the Sacred Convent lies the Treasure Museum and the F.M. Perkins Collection. Here guests can admire fascinating tapestries, silks, clothes, paintings, sculptures, and gold works. Many of these displays were donated by Fred Mason-Perkins who is said to have converted to Catholicism in Assisi and then left the convent his collection of sacred art when he passed away.
A great family and nature-based activity is a visit to the Park of Mount Subasio. This mountain belongs to the Apennine Mountains and rises roughly four thousand feet above sea level. It serves as a sort of frame for Assisi and its neighboring cities. The park is home to other notable mountains including Mount Civitelle and La Sermolla, which don’t stand quite as tall as Mount Subasio. Visitors often enjoy wandering the area for some exercise and to possibly even catch a glimpse of the mountain’s pink stone, which was used in building many of the historical churches and structures found in Assisi. The park is home to a variety of wildlife including foxes, badgers, wild boars, wild cats and the occasional sighting of wolves.
The Karst phenomena in the park are particularly interesting. The mortari (or sinkholes) are a result of underground drainage systems and caves. The result is beautiful sunken impressions with steep walls and a rounded bowl shape at the bottom.
The kids will enjoy a visit to the fairytale worthy Rocca Maggiore Castle that sits upon a picturesque hill overlooking the small town of Assisi and beyond. The fortress was used as a lookout to aid in defending the town in the past. This original twelfth century castle was once destroyed by the people of Assisi in a rebellion, leaving it in ruins. However, later in the fourteenth century the castle was rebuilt using some of the existing pieces. The castle itself is gorgeous, but the surrounding area in combination with it is nothing short of breathtaking.
UNIQUE EXPERIENCES IN ASSISI
The town of Assisi is probably best known because of the works and mission of its very own Saint Francis. This man grew spiritually by leaps and bounds in the town and then made it his mission to share Christ with the world. His ties to the town are perhaps one of the things that helped it flourish, a unique characteristic that not many of its Italian counterparts share. Saint Francis’ legacy is not only in the retelling of his story, but also in the town he helped to put on the map.
No trip to Assisi is complete without a tour of several religious buildings tied to Saint Francis’ story. The buildings of the Basilica of San Francesco, Eremo delle Carceri, the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and the Porziuncola together earned the area the title of World Heritage Site as designated by UNESCO. The Porziuncola is a small church where Saint Francis founded the Franciscan Order. The church is located within the larger Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli and is a common stop on Christian pilgrimages. Eremo delle Carceri is where Saint Francis spent time in prayerful and thoughtful isolation. This is also where Saint Francis is said to have preached to birds. To tour these places and literally put yourself in Saint Francis’ shoes is a moving and spiritual experience for many visitors.
From exploring the rich history of St. Francis and experiencing the many festivals throughout the year, to discovering fascinating secrets of Mount Subasio Park, Assisi is a wonderful city with plenty of things to do and see.
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We fell in love with Italy, the local passion, history, the ease to move around and food / wine / gelato / pastries / espresso!ASSISI tranqu