‘Where are all the birds?’

I was rather surprised by Assisi. I expected the home town of St Francis, who was declared the patron saint of ecology by Pope Paul II in November 1979, to be a haven for wildlife. I expected to see birds everywhere — after all, he was famous for quieting noisy swallows and preaching to flocks of unruly marsh harriers and gentle turtledoves. I even expected to see a tame wolf or two, calmly stalking about the narrow streets and squares of the famous Umbrian town. Yet wildlife is conspicuous in Assisi simply by its complete absence.

But in most other aspects, Assisi remains much as St Francis left it some eight hundred years ago. It is situated half way up the slopes of Mount Subasio and reaching it requires a long, circuitous climb. The whole town is one big monastery, its medieval character sometimes blending and sometimes contrasting with its Roman origins, evidenced in the remains of the ‘municipium’. The prime focus of the town is the Basilica of St Francis which consists of two churches, one on top of another (the lower one is said to date from 1228 to 1230; and the upper one from 1230 to 1253), and a crypt, dug in 1818, where the body of St Francis is kept.

The full splendour of the Basilica is obvious as one approaches it from the town’s coach stop. Walking uphill on Via Father Elia and entering the colonnades of Piazza Inferiore, surrounded on three sides by a portico dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth century, one is suddenly confronted with a magnificent structure that appears to be sitting comfortably on a cliff face. Monks in black habits, some hiding their faces under cowls, rushing here and there, made me think I was inside The Name of the Rose. As I stood there looking at the lower church’s ornate twin portal, surmounted by three rose windows, and the monks going about their daily chores, I almost expected one of them to come and introduce himself as ‘William of Baskerville’. Inside, I discovered the lower church is laid out in the shape of a double ‘T’ and is encrusted with the words of renowned thirteenth and fourteenth century artists.

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