Assisi, located in Central Italy, will always be a precious place for me.
I felt an immediate connection when I first visited 31 years ago, on a high school trip, and I knew this place would be etched in my heart. The town was much smaller then, and I can still taste that large bowl of spaghetti that was served to me in a tiny restaurant with two tables. I was fascinated with the kindness of these strangers and knew that one day I would return.
Obviously, Assisi has changed, with too many tourist shops and tourist buses filled with pilgrims from all over Europe, but the small town feel and peacefulness is still here. It helped that I didn’t have an Internet connection for the three days I was here.
Upon arrival at this hilly medieval town, I lost my bearings and couldn’t figure how to get to the convent where I was staying. I asked a nun, who telephoned another nun and then a second nun, who greeted us on the street and took us to another convent, where I was led to the third floor and up a set of stairways, which led to the roof, where I ended up on another street, pulled my suitcase down a hill and there was my convent.
Assisi is the home town of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I really do like St. Francis. Who wouldn’t like someone who loves animals and promotes kindness, charity and love?
The Basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built between 1228 and 1253. I like the simplicity of this place. There is no glitter and gold, just simple seating, beautiful artwork and silence. After spending 8 days in Florence – too many days – I was glad to leave its grandeur and extravagance for the peace of Assisi. I didn’t realize how stressed I had been in Florence until I left. Unlike Venice, I didn’t swoon over Florence. I found the museums and art galleries overwhelming, I ate until I felt sick and I only stayed in hopes that it would get better. I mean, I never met anyone who didn’t love Florence. I didn’t realize how much I was not myself until I arrived in Assisi, where I immediately felt happy and safe.
Assisi is located 5 km uphill from the nearest train station. As I made my way, the skies were a dark grey. Under different circumstances, I would have been put off, but I unexpectedly felt like a heavy weight had been lifted. Perhaps it was the endorphins from the long, steep climb, but I felt I was where I needed to be.
I really love taking long solitary walks in nature. The farther I am from people, the calmer I feel. Every single day, I still remember with excitement my 29-day hike on the Camino de Santiago in 2014. I had a very similar experience in Assisi.
There is an ancient hermitage in a steep forest gorge at Monte Subasio, a 4 km hike above Assisi. The local name is “Eremo delle Carceri” which means Hermitage Jail. In the 13th century, a few hermits, including St. Francis, would come here to live in caves and meditate in the forest. Soon, others followed and found their own isolated caves.
Despite the 30+ degree heat, the idea of hiking in the forest to look for caves really appealed to me. It would give me time to focus on my walking, think about where I had been and where I was going, and most importantly, I wanted my recent anxieties to come to the surface so that I could understand what was going on in my head.
Imagine being in a densely wooded forest, surrounded by fresh, clean air, remnants of medieval buildings, and slippery slopes leading to various caves. There is only nature. Nothing else. The forest is alive: birds singing, twigs breaking, a stream gurgling and the wind blowing through the trees.
At no time was I worried about getting lost. Monte Subasio is a protected regional park and the routes are very well labelled. I wandered aimlessly for just over an hour.
In Assisi, I learned to slow down and not worry about checking everything off my list; I learned to pause and breath, even for just 30 seconds; I learned that I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. I learned to just be. Assisi is my safe space. Every time I feel lost, overwhelmed and inconsolable, I will think of Assisi.
What a gift.