I’d heard of medieval Assisi before, through learning about its infamous St Francis: A peace-loving man who loved nature and could be considered an early pioneer of environmentalism and minimalism. The saint was born into a wealthy family but rejected this for a simple robe and a life spent in nature, contemplating God and spreading his love to others.
At that point I didn’t know that Assisi is a real place that still exists in modern Italy, or that it is exquisitely charming. I also didn’t know that the first week of May in Assisi involves a festival where the whole town dresses up in medieval costumes and has a big party (more on this below).
We took the train from Perugia to Assisi and arrived in about 20 minutes. From the train station, we took bus C to the centre and began our explorations.
Things to do in medieval Assisi:
1. Rocca Maggiore
This 14th century hilltop fort sternly presides over the town. A climb to the top provides some fantastic views of the town and the surrounding countryside, but the tiny winding staircase may be nerve-wracking for anyone with claustrophobia.
The building itself is nice, but the real highlight apart from the views had to be these hilarious chastity belts that were located in the cellar downstairs. Made me feel very grateful to be living in the 21st century!
2. All the churches
Basilica di San Francesco
This is the main attraction of the town as the site dedicated to the saint that put Assisi on the pilgrimage map. It has been frequented by devotees for nearly 600 years.
It is a large complex made up of two churches in honour of St Francis.
The lower church is dark and very active with monks running around performing duties and tourist groups wandering through.
The brighter upper church is painted with colourful frescoes depicting the saint’s life and scenes from the Bible.
It all seems very excessive and fancy for someone who preached about forgoing worldly pleasures for the divine…
If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men. – St Francis
You can enter the crypt to see the tomb of St Francis, which has only been discovered and restored recently, after laying untouched for hundreds of years.
Basilica di Santa Chiara
The second most important church in the town is the Basilica of Saint Claire.
It’s no secret that I love a good female religious figure, representing the girl power and now worshiped by men.
Continuing with the girl power theme, the facade of the church is a pretty stripy pink.
Although she was a follower of St Francis, she accomplished a lot on her own. In particular, she founded the Order of the Poor Ladies – a monastic order for women. She also penned the list of rules for the ladies to follow. They lived simple lives of poverty by living in silence and prayer, going barefoot and observing a vegetarian diet.
You can visit her crypt in the church and see the famous byzantine crucifix that supposedly spoke to St Francis once.
Duomo di San Rufino
Another 13th century church famous for its association with the saints. St Francis and St Claire were baptised here. The facade is decorated with fantastical animals which are fun to have a look at.
Piazza del comune
The main piazza of the town was blocked off for the performances of the festival, but it has some roman ruins and, like every Italian piazza, it’s perfect for chilling, picnicking and observing passers-by.
Festa di Calendimaggio
We were lucky enough to be in Assisi for their springtime celebrations to welcome in the new season. In Assisi, this tradition is many hundreds of years old.
We didn’t plan to be here at the time of the festival, but we were a bit confused as to why everyone we saw was dressed up in medieval costumes, from the tiny babies to the greying adults. There was no lack of enthusiasm and excitement as they all embraced their heritage in these elaborate outfits. It seemed like it was only the handful of tourists who had missed the memo.
The festival began with a big welcoming arrival of all the characters. The musicians played traditional songs while the royalty and peasants interacted and danced.
This was followed by contests in the traditional games of crossbow and tug of war.
The reenactments of medieval life really made the town come to life and painted a picture of what it would have been like 500 years ago.
I can’t finish this post without mentioning the Italian boys in their medieval outfits. There were some very sculpted bottoms on display in some far too transparent tights. I was just waiting for my handsome knight to lift me on his horse and make me his princess.