Our first impressions of Assisi - visited on a day trip from Rome more than 10 years ago - were so indelibly stamped on my mind that we promised ourselves that, one day, we would return. Furthermore, St. Francis is surely one of our best-loved saints, given his deep love for the natural world and compassion for the poor. When we heard that an eight-day Parish pilgrimage/holiday to Assisi and Rome was being organised, we, therefore, jumped at the chance of joining the16 other parishioners who were intending to go.

 Arriving in Assisi late in the evening of the15th May after the flight from Bristol, followed by a two-and-a-half hour train ride to Santa Maria degli Angeli, we weary band of pilgrims, after bump-bumping our suitcases over the cobblestones, were very happy to discover, when we arrived around 10.00pm, that our hotel, the ‘Domus Pacis,’ was down a quiet side-street. 

Fortunately, we were only a short bus ride from Assisi, so the next morning we were all aboard, as it wound its way up the hill and into the town. The first place on our itinerary was the Basilica of St. Francis. However, since our arrival was signalled by a heavy downpour of rain, most of us dived into the nearest café, whilst a few brave souls toughed it out and trudged up the hill to the Basilica. Even in the rain, we could appreciate what a magnificent building it was: built in the warm pink and cream stone local to the area, it was completed in the13thC, the remains of St. Francis having been taken there from the Church of St. George in 1230.

 We decided that, first of all, we would join the queue of people waiting to go down to the Crypt to see where St. Francis lay, and thankfully we didn’t have to wait too long. There seemed to be an atmosphere of timelessness about it, which felt strange, as it had been hewn out of the rock only in the early 19th century. St. Francis had been entombed in a stone sarcophagus embedded in the solid rock below the main altar of the Lower Basilica. It was quite an awesome feeling to be there, so close to him, and many people stopped to say a prayer before moving on.

 The two ‘churches’ above the Crypt, the Lower and Upper Basilica, are equally impressive with their richly ornamented and intertwining arches. What we found so fascinating in the Upper church were the 28 frescoes that highlight significant events in the life of St. Francis. There are also many other art treasures, including the work of the 13thC Florentine painters, Cimabue and Giotto.

 In the nearby Basilica di Santa Chiara where it is possible to see the body of St. Clare, we also found it moving to see on display the coarse woven habit and sandals worn by St. Francis for so many years since deciding to live a life of poverty, as Jesus had done.  He found the guidance that he was looking for in the Gospel: ‘Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff …’ and was then able to draw up a Rule of Life for himself and the eleven followers he had gathered to serve with him, equally dedicating themselves to a life of poverty and to helping the poor.

Francis was later, in 1212, to invite Clare, a young woman who greatly admired him and wished to follow a similar Rule of Life, to San Damiano, as she had attracted a group of likeminded women to join the new Order that she had created, known as the Poor Clares.

The following day was warm and sunny, with blue, cloudless skies, when we set out in a couple of mini-buses for the convent of San Damiano. As we climbed steadily up into the hills and around numerous hairpin bends, far below us there were some incredibly beautiful views of the green and fertile valleys of the Umbrian countryside. Just short of the top of the hill, the road became a rough track, so we all piled out and walked the rest of the way, before descending a steep, stone path, bordered on either side by extensive olive groves.

Nestling in the valley and surrounded by mountains, we discovered that San Damiano contains more relics associated with St. Francis than any other church in the world.  We walked down a short flight of stone steps to enter the tiny chapel, which was built in the 8th or 9th century and subsequently given by the Benedictines to St. Francis.  There is a beautiful painting of the Madonna with Child and St. Francis, with the sponsor of the painting kneeling – the work of an anonymous artist of the 14th century - to the front of the church, and on the right, an interesting fresco illustrating two episodes in the life of St. Francis: ‘The Father of St. Francis with a club in his hand, pursuing him, with the city of Assisi in the back ground’ and  ‘St. Francis in prayer before the Crucifix.’ 

The first episode relates to the period in St. Francis’ life, when as a young man in his twenties, he began to tire of the privileged life he had led as the son of a wealthy merchant and even of the good times he had spent with his friends. In his search for a more meaningful way of life, he became interested in following a military career and went to southern Italy. However, he soon came to realise that this was not what he was called to do, so he returned to Assisi to pick up the life he had led before. But this did not satisfy him, either. Having tired of his life of pleasure, he was attracted by the idea of living a life of poverty. He began to pray, earnestly, for guidance, as he wanted to share all his possessions with the poor.

One day, whilst he was praying before the crucifix at the church of San Damiano, which was then almost derelict, there came an answer to his prayer: ‘Francis go and repair my church, which you see is falling into ruin.’ At first, St. Francis thought that he was being asked to repair the fabric of the church, and in order to raise money, he hastily took some cloth from his father’s store, also his horse, selling both of them. His father must have been so incensed that he was determined to give Francis a beating.    

 It was only later through thought and prayer that St. Francis came to understand that he was being called upon to restore the spirituality of the people. In the meantime, he returned to his father all that he had given him; his clothes and possessions, as well as his inheritance. All wealth had now become distasteful to him, as it was his desire to share the life of the poor, with God’s guidance.

 Finally leaving the church of San Damiano and returning up the steep and stony path, one or two of the group said they felt they were experiencing something close to what it must have been like to be a pilgrim in times past!

 There was just one other place to visit that was a ‘must’ on our list - Le Carceri – a hermitage on Mount Subasio, given to St. Francis as a retreat by his generous benefactors, the Benedictines.  A group of us caught the bus from Assisi, which took us up part-way up the mountain, after which we needed to continue on foot. It was such a perfect day that we were pleased to get out and walk. Having spent some time in one of the tiny chapels there, and taken in the incredibly beautiful view framed by one of the windows, we stepped outside Le Carceri to enjoy yet another panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.  We had only walked a few yards along the level path leading from Le Carceri, when we came across the first of a series of life-like sculptures of St. Francis, suggesting ways in which he would have spent his time in this natural paradise. The path finally opened out into a small grotto, when we came upon a group of about 10 Franciscan brothers of different nationalities, but whose common language was French. It was clear that they were about to celebrate Mass and, to our surprise, they asked if we and some other visitors who were there, would like to join them.  Everyone opted to stay for the al fresco Mass (in French), which, in those surroundings, was a very moving experience. The spirit of St. Francis seemed to be all around us.

By following in his footsteps and sharing our thoughts and feelings about Assisi it seemed that its peace and beauty of had made a deep impression on everyone.

Going on such a pilgrimage had been an entirely new and very special experience for my husband, Terry, and I and one that we shall never forget!