Assisi sits on a hillside like a shining white mirage, spread out horizontally on a green backdrop with the impressive Basilica of St. Francis on the left. Approaching it from the bottom, we stopped to take some pictures and had an entertaining encounter with a local, who despite his age of 84 (or was it 94?) rushed out of his house for a chat when he saw two young women. I only understood about half of what he said, but it was a fun moment.
Unlike our previous stop, Assisi is very built entirely of white stone and also features plenty of greenery. On this Saturday, it also seemed oddly packed with cars. Upon arriving at our lovely lodgings at Quo Vadis, just a few hundred metres from the central square, we found out why. We were in town on the final day of the Calendimaggio of Assisi, probably the town’s most important festival of the year. It is a re-enactment of a centuries-old feud between two parts of the city which raged during the 15th to 17th centuries.
Having been revived in the 20th century as a sort of medieval festival, it involves most of the population dressing in incredibly authentic and elaborate costumes and participating in any number of ancient games, contests and performances during the first weekend after May 1, finally ending with the announcement of the winning faction.
And here we were on the very last day, somewhat bewildered and fascinated by the goings on.
We decided to enjoy dinner at our hotel, buying a range of goodies at the local shop.
Exhausted from a whole morning of walking in Siena, we missed the evening processions but did go out again shortly before midnight and the declaration of the winners. The town square was packed with people and there was a strong feeling of suspense.
Finally, the lord mayor of the town emerged to the sound of trumpets and proceeded to make the big announcement, at which point the victors (the red team) roared and cheered and lit torches while those defeated wept and looked very mournful. Indeed, it is a very serious affair and left me wondering whether perhaps, by taking it so seriously, it might not reignite the former feuds. Judging by the sounds of partying that lasted into the very late hours, I guess not.
In the morning we walked up to the castle on the hill above the town…
…and then wandered through the maze of little streets, littered with debris from four days of festivities.
On the central square, which features the ancient Temple of Minerva originally dating back to the 1st century BC, a clean-up was underway and the tourists were out in hordes.
In fact, the city seemed to have been handed over by the locals (probably still sleeping off the night’s partying) to the flocks of visitors who flowed like a river down towards the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.
We flowed along with them and straight into the upper church, from which I was promptly evicted by a guard for having forgotten to put my shawl over my shoulders. Our shorts got some disapproving looks too. I behaved better when we subsequently went into the lower basilica, making sure I only showed skin from the knees down. The lower church is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is breathtakingly beautiful. There is not a single statue or three-dimensional form of decoration, but it is covered from floor to ceiling in spectacular frescoes, which are all the more tangible because of how low the naves actually are. Photography is forbidden, but I have borrowed a few pictures to share.
Perhaps it is St. Francis’s concept of the poverty of Christ and the Church (as an organization) that makes the church (building) dedicated to him so very devoid of the usual ostentatious riches. It is a marvel to behold.
Lunch was made up of a very typical panino con porchetta, sliced directly off the bone at a shop that seemed entirely dedicated to pigs, both wild and domesticated.
The day was getting very hot again, and we straggled slowly back up (everything in Tuscany and Umbria seems to be on a hill), collected the car and drove through the vast distance of 15 km to our next stop, a sort of miniature Assisi that we ended up seeing rather little of, but which we enjoyed tremendously.