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  • Writer's pictureMark Tedesco

Exploring the Enchanting Town of Assisi: A Highlight of Our Italian Adventure

PART 90: It might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we are taking and what we are learning along the way.

We are loving every minute of it, and what was once a dream is now our life!

We live in Tuscany in the Fall and then back again in the Spring, and in California for the rest of the time (in a previous blog I explained why we live in Italy only part of the year).

Step 1: As we explore towns in Italy, we are discovering some gems that are worth sharing. Some of these are well known tourist magnets; others are lesser known but always amazing.

This week, let's explore Assisi in Umbria.

Step 2: Our visit

Spending Christmas in Italy can be both rewarding and tough. It's rewarding because Italy has unique ways of celebrating the holiday, which are quite different from those in Southern California. However, it can also be tough because our family is far away, and our local friends are occupied with their own celebrations.

To overcome the challenge, we have decided to meet up with our friends from Puglia and Rome after Christmas. Meanwhile, we planned to spend the holiday itself in Assisi.

Step 3: History

Assisi, a town founded by the Umbrians around 1000 BC, was conquered by the Etruscans about 500 years later, and then it was taken over by the Romans after the Battle of Sentinum in 295 BC. It became a part of the Duchy of Spoleto during the early Middle Ages. In the 12th century, it became an independent Ghibelline commune and had a lot of battles with Guelph Perugia until it was annexed to the Papal States in the 16th century.

Francis, born in 1182 in Assisi, was a carefree young man who dreamed of becoming a knight. After being captured and imprisoned for a year, Francis returned home as a broken man. He decided to go to war again but had a vision telling him to return home. This was a turning point in his life.

Francis began to beg for stones and repaired the chapel of San Damiano with his own hands. Francis then went to live among lepers and ministered to them, realizing that he and the poor were building the kingdom of God. He expanded his brother's/followers' ministry beyond Assisi and even went on missionary journeys preaching conversion and forgiveness. Francis also tried to be a peacemaker between Christians and Muslims during the Fifth Crusade. He revered all created things and had a harmonious relationship with animals and nature.

The remains of St. Francis and St. Clare were discovered in 1818 and 1850, making Assisi one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Italy and the world.

However, what's less known is that during World War II, Assisi played a crucial role in hosting over 300 Jewish refugees from September 1943 through June 1944. These refugees were disguised as friars and nuns and hidden in underground basements. Thanks to the bravery and sacrifices of the locals, the local refugees were never deported to Nazi concentration camps.

Step 4: Assisi and Francis and Clare

If anyone tells me that they are planning a visit to Assisi, I always recommend that they watch the movie starring Mickey Rourke first:

Whether someone is religious or not, having a basic understanding of the history of St. Francis and Clare can provide a better context to what they see and experience in Assisi. The video shared above provides an objective view of the lives of these two figures without being overly preachy.

Step 5: Sights.

  • Basilica of St. Francis

The church was built between 1228 and 1253 and has three parts: the upper basilica, the lower basilica, and the saint's tomb. In the lower basilica, Giotto, a follower of St. Francis, painted a fresco of the Crucifixion that was considered revolutionary because it was so realistic and showed holy people expressing emotions. The saint's tomb is located beneath the lower basilica and is beautifully simple, just like the saint's message.

  • Basilica of St. Clare

The Basilica di Santa Chiara, also known as the Basilica of St. Clare, was constructed in the Gothic style during the 13th century, shortly after St. Clare's death. St. Clare was one of the first devotees of St. Francis and established the Order of Poor Clares, a religious order for women in the Franciscan tradition.

The remains of St. Clare are preserved in the crypt within the basilica. The Chapel of San Giorgio houses the Crucifix, which is believed to have spoken to St. Francis.

This cathedral is a stunning architectural masterpiece. It features three flying buttresses that run along one side of the church.

  • Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

The basilica was built in the 16th and 17th centuries and houses the "Porziuncola" chapel, where St. Francis began to understand his mission to return to the origins of Christianity and to teach by example rather than just words.

St. Francis passed away in the Chapel of the Transitus here.

The basilica also has the Courtyard of the Roses, Rose Garden, and Chapel of the Roses. The Ancient Friary on the upper floor served as living quarters for the first friars.

  • Church of St. Damian

The Church of St. Damian, also known as the Convento di San Damiano, is an ancient church that dates back to the 8th century. During St. Francis's time, the church was in disrepair. While praying at the church, Francis heard a voice through the Crucifix to repair his house. He understood this to mean the Church of St. Damian and began renovating it with his own hands, but later, he realized that "house" referred to more than repairing a building.

Subsequently, St. Clare established the Order of Poor Clares here, and just before his death, St. Francis wrote the Canticle of the Creatures on this spot.

Step 6: Cool things.

  • Strolling

Via San Francesco is the road that connects Piazza Del Comune with the St. Francis Basilica. It is lined with small stone buildings, housing boutique shops that sell food, souvenirs, and religious artifacts. It is a cool walk that crosses the historical town.

  • Ristorante Bar San Francesco

This is where we had breakfast every morning. It has great food and coffee, views, and a unique atmosphere. We met an expat from Texas who moved to Assisi after he turned 80. He said it was the best decision he ever made.

  • Piazza del Comune

Assisi's main square is a must-visit spot for anyone exploring the city! Piazza del Comune is a large, open area surrounded by some of the area's most historic and significant buildings. You'll definitely want to check out the Temple of Minerva, the oldest building on the square and dates back over 2,000 years! Next door is the cool Torre del Popolo tower from the 13th century.

  • Carceri Hermitage

The Carceri Hermitage, or Santuario Eremo delle Carceri, is a peaceful retreat high in the mountains above Assisi, where St. Francis used to meditate. Hidden away in the forest, this sanctuary comprises small stone buildings, chapels, a cloister, and the grotto of St. Francis. A visit lasts 30 to 45 minutes and is free to enter. It's a 15-minute drive from Assisi.

This turned out to be the highlight of our trip. Being out in nature, wandering among the trees, you could almost touch the spirit of St. Francis. It was amazing.

We stopped in the chapel on our way out, and my partner noticed that a nun sitting across from us was sitting in the pew texting with her volume on. I had to stop him from walking over and yanking her veil!

  • The projections

As we strolled through the streets of Assisi on Christmas Eve, we were drawn towards the basilica. As we approached, we heard music. Soon, we were standing in front of a concert of lights and music, as images of the story of Christmas taken from Giotto's and other Renaissance artists' paintings danced on the basilica facade, set to classical music. We were spellbound by its beauty, and we felt deeply moved as we stood there gazing at the Christmas story unfolding before us.

  • Expats

I was eager for some English, so I asked at the basilica about a Christmas service in my mother tongue. On Christmas morning, I walked down to the basilica, into the monastery, and found myself inside a brightly lit chapel used by English-speaking expats for Sunday services. The service was peaceful, and the expat community seemed closely knit. Afterward, I stayed and chatted with several of them about how they moved to Assisi and how it was unfolding. It was amazing to hear their stories.

  • Intimate moments: The Tomb

For me, THE highlight of Assisi is the tomb of St. Francis. Surrounded by his closest friends, it is the simple tomb of a poor man who is honored through the centuries because of his peace and the love that he exemplified.

I walked over to the basilica on Christmas Eve at around 10 pm; the church was open as there would be a midnight mass a little later. I spotted the entrance to the tomb area below; I slipped down and couldn't believe that I was the only person there. I was grateful that I had a quiet, intimate time with the saint of Assisi.


Assisi is a magical place, no matter one's background or belief system. Something in the atmosphere speaks of beauty and peace. I encourage anyone to go there with an open heart.

Step 6: Links and sources:

More next time.

In my book "She Seduced Me: A Love Affair with Rome", I bring the reader into the stories, past and present, that make the city unique. Amazon US:

And also, on Amazon Italy:

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May 13
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Wonderful post!

Mark Tedesco
Mark Tedesco
May 13
Replying to

Thank you!


Tony McEwing
Tony McEwing
May 13
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I was in church this morning and our rectors were talking about St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare. St. Francis I had heard of, of course, and knew a number of things about his life. But I had never heard of St. Clare until this morning in church. So to come home later today and read this blog about the two of them and learn even more about them and this wonderful place, for me, was a perfect cap to the day!

Mark Tedesco
Mark Tedesco
May 13
Replying to

Wow, that's an amazing coincidence! The movie that I recommend in the blog, "Francesco", also covers Clare, who she was, and their friendship.

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