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ST. FRANCIS' 800-YEAR-OLD SPIRIT STILL PERVADES ASSISI, ITALY

We woke early, leaving our Generation Y daughters still sleeping in the hotel room, intent on exploring the alleyways of Assisi before the daily onslaught of bus-borne day trippers arrived.

Very early or very late in the day, we were told, it is possible to roam the serpentine streets of this medieval city and imagine that your Reeboks are treading the same cobblestones that touched the sandals of St. Francis 800 years ago.

Our first stop was the Chiesa Nuova, the 360-year-old Baroque church built on the remains of the family home where St. Francis is believed to have spent the first 24 years of his life.

We were standing in the nave of the church listening to a recorded explanation of the site when a hunched figure in bedroom slippers came shuffling toward us from the gloom of the sacristy.

It was a portly Franciscan friar, barely 5 feet tall, probably in his mid-70s. In the style of his order, his hair was tonsured and he wore a brown robe, tied at the waist.

"Italiano?" he inquired, seemingly sizing up our intentions. What he really seemed to be asking was: tourist or pilgrim?

"Non parlo bene l'italiano," my wife replied in elementary Italian.

But the mere acknowledgment of his mother tongue and our evident interest was enough to convince the priest to lead us on a impromptu personal tour -- in Italian, only louder.

We couldn't catch all Brother Vincent was telling us, but it was surprising how much of the life of St. Francis came through in hand gesture, intonation and the occasional recognizable word.

The old friar showed us the old closet where, legend says, St. Francis was imprisoned by his enraged father for selling off family possessions to give to the poor. He escorted us into a courtyard where Jesus is said to have appeared to St. Francis.

After leaving us alone to meditate for a moment, he collected us to show us a glass case that displayed a wooden staff and coarse-fibered cloak, presumably once worn by Italy's patron saint. Then he pressed into our hands a holy card, engraved with a jug-eared, sad-eyed portrait of St. Francis.

"Cimabue," said Brother Vincent, pointing to the picture, wanting to be sure that we knew the original fresco was done by a 13th century Florentine master who was a contemporary of the saint and a precursor of the Renaissance.

So it is that the history of art, the history of Italy and the history of the Catholic Church are woven together in Assisi.

The people of Assisi have made their hometown a shrine to their most famous citizen and his tumultuous times. Just as Florence exemplifies the Renaissance in Italy, Assisi is a town rooted in the High Middle Ages.

The rosy limestone walls of the town form a tonsure halfway up the slopes of Mount Subasio. At the summit is Rocca Maggiore, the 12th century fortress/castle that, variously, protected or subjugated the citizenry in the constant warfare that marked the Italian Middle Ages.

The town dates back to ancient times. Centuries before the birth of Christ it was a prosperous Roman city that boasted a forum, an amphitheater and many temples and villas. Vestiges of this legacy are still evident in the Piazza del Comune, the town's main square, where six fluted Corinthian columns stand sentinel at the site of the former Temple of Minerva, now a Catholic church.

Christianity came to Assisi in the third century A.D., when the Gospel was preached by Christian martyrs including Saint Rufinus, who became the town's first patron saint.

After the fall of Rome, Assisi was sacked by the Goths, later the Franks and eventually subjugated by an ambitious German nobleman. The citizenry of Assisi was ultimately freed from foreign domination by Pope Innocent III at about the same time that Francis was born in 1182.

The son of an affluent, Francophile cloth merchant, Francis was regarded as something of a playboy and a spendthrift in his youth. He initially embarked on a military career and got his first bitter taste of battle in fighting with the neighboring Perugia, where he was taken prisoner and held in captivity for a year.

Soon after he returned home, he began to hear a voice that directed him to a higher calling. He renounced his birthright, to the consternation of his family, and pursued a life of poverty and self-denial. His example inspired others to do the same and before long he had gathered disciples around him that formed the nucleus of the Franciscan order.

Today, the religious and architectural centerpiece of Assisi is the unusual basilica that was built over St. Francis' tomb. The basilica is actually two churches built one over the other in a schizophrenic effort to honor the legacy of a saint who inspired popes and cardinals yet chose to be buried on a hill where criminals were executed.

The lower church is Romanesque, and most in keeping with the selfless spirit of St. Francis. This austere church is actually an assemblage of small chapels.

For pilgrims the most important is the crypt that houses the tomb of St. Francis. Masses are said here almost continuously in various languages, though the faithful are often distracted by the chatter of tourists, who are always popping in for a closer look at the stone column behind the altar that contains the body of the saint.

The upper church is Italian Gothic and has a totally different spirit, airy and sunlit. The walls are decorated with a gallery of 28 frescos by Giotto depicting scenes from the life of the saint. In them you can see the drama and realism of form that made Giotto the Michelangelo of his pre-Renaissance era.

The walk up Via San Francesco from the basilica to the central square is a test of your sensibilities and an assault on your sense of time and place.

Souvenir shops featuring potbellied ceramic friars stand cheek by jowl with buildings that trace their ancestry to the 13th century. Pizzeria patrons are greeted at the door by a suit of medieval armor. But, all things considered, commercialism is held remarkably in check by the pervasive religious spirit of the place.

All roads lead ever upward to the fortress, which offers spectacular wind-swept vistas of the tile-roofed town and the verdant Valley of Spoleto beyond. From here, on a clear day, you can also catch a glimpse of St. Francis's vision of man and nature living in harmony.

Travel information

Assisi is located in the central Apennines, 110 miles northeast of Rome, and can be reached by road or rail. The train station is on the Foligno-Terontola line and is located about three miles from the center of town, connected by bus and taxi.

Contact the Italian Government Travel Office, 630 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10111; (212) 245-4822.

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