Beautiful, Resplendent Assisi: City Of Peace
Or, Don’t Judge a Holiday Destination by its Cover Story.
When I decided to travel to the City of Peace, I didn’t know it was one of the top 5 tourist destinations in Italy. I didn’t know it was the place that Saint Francis (San Francesco) had earned his charitable reputation, and I didn’t know that many people arrive on foot, at the end of a pilgrimage. I’d been hanging out in Sicily for a few months, at a similar latitude to North Africa, avoiding a very cold winter in Europe this year. I had little intention of discovering the mainland so soon, but when I heard about a travel blogging conference in Umbria, it was too close not to go and investigate. I was looking forward to taking some pictures of Assisi, Italy.
I’d been quite fortunate finding some budget accommodation right next to Assisi train station, in Santa Maria degli Angeli. You can’t get a train to Assisi as it’s perched on a hill, but you can catch a bus or walk the 3km. The owner of the hostel I’d been staying at in Catania had a good friend that had moved to Assisi to settle down and have a family. The couple were half way through converting the upstairs of their house into a pilgrims rest. It was perfect for me – roomy and private, and having to go downstairs for the bathroom wasn’t a problem.
The conference itself was at the lovely Valle di Assisi resort another kilometre in the opposite direction. I borrowed a bike from the hotel to flit to and from the venue in the sunshine a couple of times a day, and ate up the talks, the food, and the warm sociable evenings.
Tourism in Assisi markets itself as a relaxing and rustic experience, catering for people who want to absorb the religious history from a pleasant base. Buses of visiting school children, foreign students from nearby Perugia, and of course foot-sore pilgrims, are all part of the mixture that come to gaze at the magnificent buildings.
So, I thought I’d found the measure of idyllic Assisi, and of sleepy Santa Maria too. Walking towards Assisi, I’d chatted briefly to a grandmother about the view I was photographing, she pinched my cheeks before continuing on. Inside San Francesco’s Basilica, I tried to photo a couple of monks discreetly, but they saw me and insisted we be in pictures together. After touring the cathedral at dusk in Santa Maria itself, I emerged in front of a group of Nuns, chanting as they made slow processions around the square. It was all very peaceful.
You can imagine my surprise when a couple of local girls asked me if I’d like to go clubbing in Santa Maria. I’d met them at the conference, and they were studying Tourism in Perugia, but living close by. After several confirmations that Yes, they really did mean a disco-like thing, and it was only 15 minutes walk from the Basilica, I was curious. Not only was there a club, but I felt like I’d been transported to Ibiza. It was huge, crowded, dimly lit, expensive, there were lasers and strobe lights – and it seemed to hold more people than the town of Santa Maria itself could. Cue an interesting night out. I only regret not taking a photo of the leather jacket that came out with us, proclaiming a love of ‘Death F***ing Metal‘. :)
I stayed in town a few more days, before heading to Florence and Rome, so that I could get some work done. Twice I ate with the family I was staying above, and in between being fed with lasagne and Limoncello, I learnt that Alessia had made her own pilgrimage to Assisi before she came to live with Fabio, and how they both love their motorcycles.
On my last day I went looking for a few essentials from a supermarket, and Santa Maria presented me with its last surprise. Wandering past the train station, following half understood directions in Italian, I came to a long low building with a curved roof. It wasn’t the train station, that was the other side of the road. Could it be a swimming pool? Or was it some kind of run of shops, with the supermarket attached? Peering through a tinted window, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Inside was a boxing ring, and a decent looking one. Either side of it, and in other corners, were more boxing rings. And between those, were weight benches, punch bags, swiss balls, gym mats, you name it. I’d stumbled across a National Boxing Centre, and a full one. There were hordes of boxers inside, working out and sparring and watching each others technique. It wasn’t just a local boxing club, it was an actual National Boxing Centre. Like I say, I just couldn’t believe it. It did explain the sweaty beefcake I’d seen jogging every time I went past the train station though, and even the head coach of Team Ireland’s Olympic squad concurs that ‘the facilities were top class’.
I’ve been looking for my next somewhere-pleasant to stay a few months, and I seriously started considering Santa Maria and Assisi. It ticked a lot of boxes – good food, nice weather, night life, some form of martial arts, great photography fodder.
I didn’t stop this time round, wanting to see Rome and Florence before a very important date back in the UK (a 5th birthday!), but it was a great example of why travel at your own pace and without solid plans can be so rich. You just don’t find those delicious slices of life when following a strict itinerary.
See more of my pictures of Assisi Italy here.