Tuesday, 8 May 2018


Rich Victorians loved to tour Europe on a protracted culture fest. Today it’s over rather faster but there are strange moments of similarity to my recent experience.

It was a four night trip to Assisi birthplace of St. Francis and Clare and with Assisi itself an undisturbed medieval town.

It was the 20 hours of getting there and back that surprised my medieval  body. Whilst the journey was seamless and punctual - just a 1000 miles - in Chaucer’s time half a century after Francis, pilgrimages were undertaken with more freedom of spirit than we jetsetters experience today.

We hit the Calendimaggio in Assisi, a festival recreating medieval Assisi with constant contests between the two parts of the town – the Basilica of St Francis on the lower west side and The Cathedral of San Rufino on the higher eastern part of the town - singing, verbal sparring, drama and drumming.

Nearly everyone is dressed in elaborate medieval costumes and vast pantomimes of activity occur involving huge stage sets on wheels. You can’t move for knights, Saracens, virgins , nobles. It’s like being backstage at a grandiose performance of an ambitious Hollywood film.

After the last night the performers’ celebrations continued until after 4pm with raucous singing and increasingly drunken and erratic drumming throughout the streets. The next day Assisi was quiet with lots of pale faces, dark glasses and “postumi della sbornia” (hangovers).

These exuberant celebrations apart what did Assisi really provide?

First of all the eyes – a terraced hill town with gorgeous pink and white stonework overlooking a verdant plain below. It’s very old and feels it. Even modern commercialism has failed to spoil it.

Second the stomach – wonderful low-cost, inventive Italian food and wine.

Third the weather – pretty much non-stop drizzle, occasional heavy rain and mist.

Fourth, and tellingly, the spirit – it was impossible not to blown away by the sacred specialness of the place where the most extraordinary story of self-deprivation and focused holiness was being enacted in the early 13th century – think Robin Hood and you’ve got the timing about right. The parts of Assisi that took my breath away were San Damiano where Clare and her entourage of poor nuns were based – her own church with its extraordinary crypt Chiesa di Santa Chiara, the Hermitage where Francis and friends went on retreat – it’s quite extraordinarily mystic, over 1500 feet up high over a densely forested gorge  and the town’s cathedral San Rufino with its crypt which has Roman remains making even 1200 seem very modern.  The upper and lower Basilica and Francis’ tomb are the knockout landmarks but they moved me less as crowds of singing pilgrims and noisy schoolchildren marched down the hill towards them.

Peace, devotion, authenticity and quiet surprises were what I savoured most in Assisi.

It was worth the 20 hours travel to feel so liberated from the present. I didn’t even check the news or e-mails. Who cared about them when there was this?

1 comment:

John Scott said...

Excellent Richard, truly excellent.