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Window on Italy - A Child's View of Assisi

Colleen Simpson

However many times I visit Assisi, there is always something new to experience and traveling with children opens one up to new possibilities. When my grandson, Kellen, who is just shy of seven years old, visited from Seattle, I determined to invent a child's itinerary of Assisi for his enjoyment. He and his best friend, Abby, along with two children staying with us joined to make up our posse of four children on a beautiful day at the end of May.

Any experience of Assisi starts with the story of St. Francis (Francesco in Italian). Children naturally warm to this story: Born about 1182, while his father, Pietro Bernardone, a rich cloth merchant, was away in France, he was baptized Giovanni, after John the Baptist. When Pietro returned he promptly changed his name to Francesco to honor the country of France that he loved so well. Francesco's mother, Pica, was a noblewoman from Provence, and Francesco was raised loving all things French: he spoke French and learned to sing in French!

Francesco enjoyed a high-spirited life, full of wealth and fancy clothing. Everyone loved him and he was raised in a very permissive time. He was charming, a dreamer and the born leader of his group of friends who loved to party and roam around Assisi singing French songs. They fashioned themselves after the famous troubadours of France who were romantic and adventurous.

Although Francis was good at business and his father hoped would manage his vast estates and business, Francis wanted something more. Assisi and Perugia were always at war with each other, and so Francis joined up one day with the army from Assisi to march on their enemy, nearby Perugia. He was hoping to become a knight and prove himself in battle. But that was not to be. Easily overwhelmed by the larger Perugian army, all the soldiers were killed. Only those thought to be of noble birth were spared in order to collect ransom. Because Francis was dressed in such fine clothes, they thought he was a noble person. Locked up and chained in a dungeon without warm blankets or much food, he spent a terrible year before his father eventually was able to pay for his release. Francis became very sick; some later thought he contracted bone tuberculosis. Sick in bed for many months, his mother nursed him back to health. This experience did not seem to change his behavior, for as soon as he was well, he returned to his band of friends, paying for large dinners and drinking.

But Francis still wanted fame and glory. Meeting a knight one day who was recruiting for the Fourth Crusade to the Holy Land, he decided to join. His father was very pleased with Francis and sold several properties to outfit him in battle clothes. It took many weeks to make his fine armor specially decorated with gold and a fancy cloak, to train his horse, and to outfit a squire who would travel with him. But Francis only made it one day’s ride away to Spoleto where he fell very sick with a fever.

Certain that Francis would delay his progress, the knight who had recruited him took advantage of his fevered dream in which Francis heard the voice of God telling him to return home. And so he returned home, humiliated and his father was enraged that he had spent so much money with nothing to show for it.

Everyone made fun of Francis from that day, and so he spent more and more time alone wandering in the countryside. He was sad and alone and wanted badly to know what his future held. He started to pray during the days and nights, and one day he came to the ancient, crumbling church of San Damiano, which was almost deserted except for one friar. Alone and in despair of ever finding his way in the world, he prayed before the ancient Byzantine cross over the altar. Francis had a vision of Christ speaking to him and he said, "Francis, repair my church." Certain that this was a sign from God, Francis took the words literally and decided to rebuild the tumbling down little church with his own hands.

San Damiano Altar

San Damiano Altar

He took some cloth from his father's warehouse while he was away in France and sold it to purchase some bricks. When he ran out of money, he sold his clothes and then starting begging in the streets. His father came home and discovered the theft and the complete change in his son and he was enraged! Pietro demanded that Francis appear before the Bishop of Assisi, but the Bishop loved Francis and was proud of how religious he had become. Francis had put some of the money in a sack, and so he gave the money to his father and then took off all his clothes and gave them to his father also! He declared that from that moment he did not have a father on earth. The Bishop wrapped his robe around Francis, but Francis left Assisi and walked to Gubbio naked, a journey of three days. He stayed with some friends who took a rough sack and fashioned a sort of robe for him and used an old rope for a belt.

From that day on Francis wore this robe and it became the Franciscan tunic. His actions set into motion a spiritual revolution for that time and place and Assisi has become a place of international pilgrimage, visited by millions of guests each year.

So the children's tour of Assisi begins with a visit to the Chapel of San Damiano, just outside the town walls, where Francis's conversion to a life of holiness began. Walking down the path in silence, the children listen for the birdsong and count the olive trees which grow in abundance. The week before, Kellen, Abby and we made up a song: "Fire in the Fields" for the splashes of spring poppies which bloom in profusion in fields and pathways, and this path is no exception. Yellow ginestre and red poppies offer a dramatic carpet of color in the olive grove. Slowly, we walk past the olive trees, which are hundreds of years old and pause to look at a bronze statue of Francis sitting quietly looking out over the panoramic countryside spread below Assisi. Looking much like it did over 800 years ago with farms and vineyards; we pretend we are in the time of St. Francis.

St. Francis Amidst the Olive Trees

St. Francis Amidst the Olive Trees

Outside the little chapel which Francis rebuilt by himself, I tell the children of his best friend, Clare, (Chiara in Italian) who later also became a saint. Only 14 years old, she had heard Francis preaching in Assisi and decided to leave her wealthy and noble family to join Francis in a life of poverty. Her father was a Count and he was very angry, because he had promised an old man that his daughter would marry him. So he dragged her back and locked her in his palace. Her sister, Agnes, found the key and they both left to go back to Francis. Francis cut Clare's beautiful long golden hair and gave her a rough homespun tunic to wear. He then built a place to live next to the chapel, where they stayed inside, called "cloistered", for the rest of their lives.

San Damiano Courtyard

San Damiano Courtyard

We enter the little chapel very quietly and then walk behind the altar to see the private chapel of Clare and the women who joined her order of the Poor Ladies, later called the Poor Clares. Clare wrote the rules for her order, the first woman to ever write a rule in the Catholic Church. The children love exploring the convent with its small doorways and steep stairs where Francis's sister-in-faith, Clare lived a cloistered life for over 30 years. We talk of living in her small quarters, never to go outside and wonder if we could give up the world like she did. Up the steep and narrow stairs we pass a tiny door and window to see her garden. Her garden is small, but beautiful. We enter the bedroom where 50 ladies slept alongside Clare on straw mats. The children are amazed at the story of this young girl who became so powerful that popes, cardinals and famous people came to visit her and ask advice. She was always Francis's best friend and made his clothing and took care of him when he was often sick. When she died within this convent, there were over 300 orders of Poor Clares all over Europe. It is an amazing story and even more amazing to see where she slept, the small dining room where fresh flowers are placed where she ate all her meals, and to think about how she lived.

Saying goodbye to San Damiano, we travel up the winding roadway to one of my most favorite places in Assisi, the Eremo dei Carceri, all the way up the side of Mount Subasio. Walking in the footsteps of St. Francis, we quietly stroll the forest path leading up to a monastery where Francis often stayed in a cave.

Children Walking in the Footsteps of St. Francis

Children Walking in the Footsteps of St. Francis

Francis loved to stay in caves, in the forest where he could talk to the animals and birds, and beside rivers or waterfalls. Francis loved nature and really wanted to stay all the time outdoors, but he often had to return to cities to preach. He composed a beautiful poem, "The Canticle to the Creatures" at San Damiano, which celebrates all of nature: the moon, the stars, the sun, the earth, water, fire, wind, and animals. I often read this poem to the children when we are in the forest grove where it is said that Francis preached to the birds.

The monastery is very beautiful, small and quiet and built right on the steep mountainside on the big boulders that jut out over a deep, deep ravine. The children look over the ledge and we cannot figure out how they brought up all the bricks to make the building. We think maybe they used little donkeys to carry all the bricks up and maybe used many of the stones from the forest.

Eremo dei Carceri

Eremo dei Carceri

We go inside the chapel and down some very dark and narrow stairs to the place where Francis slept on a rock, deep down under the chapel. The doorways are almost too small for us adults, and my grandson, Kellen, exclaims, "Nonna, this is just my size!" as he wriggles through the tiny space.

Emerging from this dark cave within the living rock where Francis made his bed, we come back up to the sunlight and a forest path that leads us past two bronze statues of Franciscan brothers who are measuring the distance of the North Pole Star. Famed in their day for learning, they were great astronomers.

Franciscans Watch the Stars

Franciscans Watch the Stars

Further up the path is a rough amphitheater made of stones where it is said that Francis often preached to the forest animals. Some people have made little crosses of twigs woven with blades of grass and propped them all around a wooden cross.

He Makes a Lovely Cross

He Makes a Lovely Cross

All the children, without a word, begin making their own crosses. We stay here for almost a full hour as each child makes a cross, sometimes two or three to add to the pile under the wooden cross. Each says a prayer for someone sick to get well. Children naturally know what to do when they enter this beautiful place.

Many Handmade Crosses

Many Handmade Crosses

So we leave as we entered, in silence and in a bit of awe at this place that Francis returned to often, for solace and quiet. He loved to be alone with the natural world, living outdoors in all kinds of weather with only his tunic and cloak to shield him from the rain and snow. His fellow Franciscans would sleep under the rock outcropping or in little grottoes in the massive boulders.

Only after these two visits to the places that formed St. Francis's contemplative life, do we venture down the mountain and inside the town of Assisi. We park at the Porto Nuovo and ride an escalator up and up, ending up just outside the new town gate.

Children's Playground

Children's Playground

There we discover a small but unique playground where the children get to spend some free time exploring the new climbing structures and interesting play equipment which takes a little time to master.

Our Favorite Toy Store With Pinocchios

Our Favorite Toy Store With Pinocchios

In the long street, Via Borgo Aretina, leading to Saint Clare's church, all of us have fun strolling along and looking at the wares displayed in front of the shops. One toy shop stops us all in our tracks, with hundreds of Pinocchio's in every size and form. Our guest, Maya, cannot resist demonstrating how to play the castenets.

Maya, Lady of the Castenets

Maya, Lady of the Castenets

When we arrive at the Piazza Santa Chiara, with its incredible panoramic view of the valley below, the pigeons have an irresistible attraction and must be chased around the large fountain. And of course, that gelato stand is another irresistible attraction. Citing the truism "it is always gelato time," we are all rewarded with our first, but not our last, gelato of the day. Everyone has a hard time choosing among so many wonderful and exotic flavors and tasting is encouraged before a final choice is made. However, I remain true to my favorite of this summer, red grapefruit.

Saint Clare's early Gothic church dominates this piazza, made of horizontal bands of Assisian pink and white stone with its flying buttresses. The campanile is the tallest in Assisi. The dimly lit church has no side aisles and is remarkably free of frescoes. Where once there were beautiful frescoes, there are now stark white walls which actually lend an added sense of serenity. At the end of the nave is the transcept with the altar and several original 13th century frescoes by an unknown student of Giotto. I explain that frescoes always tell a story in pictures and so we spend some time figuring out the story of Saint Clare told here.

Next to the nave is the Oratory of the Crucifix. This small chapel holds the original cross that was located in San Damiano that "came alive" to Francis. Written in many languages are the words Francis was fervently praying when he had the vision that was to forever change his life. Each of us takes the time to read Francis' powerful prayer.

Downstairs is a display of relics and the children are fascinated to learn that the tunics, cloaks, rope belts, and leather sandals worn by both Clare and Francis are perfectly preserved. It is just amazing to us all to see a glass case with Clare’s actual golden locks of hair within, just as they looked over 800 years ago. We all marvel at how rough and homespun their clothing was, and a perfect testament to their life of chosen poverty. We don't dwell too much on the fact that Clare’s body is displayed in the crypt, with artful wax covering her mummified face, so the effect is not too distressing.

Piazza de Commune Fountain

Piazza de Commune Fountain

Assisi is a series of small streets that wind their way up and down culminating at the end at the magnificent Basilica of St. Francis. But along the way is the fun for children. We choose the high road along the Corso Mazzini and emerge into the Piazza de Commune dominated by a large fountain and Minerva's Temple. We stop for yet another photo op at the fountain and the temple, with its graceful columns, dating to Roman days.

Temple to Minerva, Assisi

Temple to Minerva

The children continue to be very interested in the age of so many of the sights they are seeing. In this case, we talk about two thousand plus years for Minerva's Temple and the many uses of this historic place, now consecrated as a Catholic church.

We leave the Piazza and decide to explore the low road that will inevitably lead us to the Basilica of St. Francis, for we have more discoveries to make along the way. The sound of music flowing from a tiny doorway is hard to resist and so we follow it to enter a dimly lit shop. To our surprise, we find a mustachioed woodcarver plying his craft to the accompaniment of his favorite opera arias. He explains to us that his great-grandfather was a woodcarver and he, himself, started carving at his grandfather's studio when he was ten years old. This sweet discovery takes over an hour of our time as we linger in his shop asking him all sorts of questions and just generally soaking up the unique atmosphere.

Showing the Children How He Carves

Showing the Children How He Carves

The children are just fascinated and it fascinates us that the children could remain mesmerized for so long. It is serendipitous moments like this that cannot be repeated, planned or sought out. One hour more or less and we might not have heard the music or he could have been at lunch. He works only on commission, carving picture frames, sculptures, arm chairs and walking sticks out of pear wood, his favored hardwood for carving. We left wishing we could have purchased some small item as a memory of this amazing experience.

Finally, we reach what is the ultimate goal for every visitor to Assisi, the massive monument erected to honor St. Francis within a few short years after his death. For me this huge Basilica de Francesco is an anticlimax, as I love the places where the saint's presence is most apparent, the forests and caves of his contemplative life. But this is a "must see" with all the fabulous art works, fresco cycles, and the column of stone where Francis's body lay hidden for so many years for safekeeping.

I think the children tolerate the grownups' need to experience this great monument to a saint who challenged his own small world and ended up being the patron saint of Italy, the environment and of all creatures. We encounter his name wherever we turn in California, Latin America, so many places. But I do think for the children and me, our Saint Francis lives in the forest, among the rocks and caves and along the streams that he loved so well.

We leave Assisi for the day, stopping only one more time as we retrace our steps back to our car. We need to indulge in one more of life's sweet pleasures!

Italian Pastries

Yummy Pastries!

Resources


Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Colleen's Window on Italy - Introduction" for more information.

Colleen Simpson lives most of the year in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests.

© Colleen Simpson, 2011

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