Among pilgrims and pagans, Susan Chenery finds the spirit of Saint Francis is alive in the hill town of Assisi.
It is a bit much to ask, I admit, as I clasp my hands and roll a mendacious eye towards the soaring frescoed arches in the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.
"Saint Francis, I know I shouldn't really be asking you this, what with your vow of poverty and everything," I exhort silently, "but do you think you might possibly see your way clear to speed up that cheque I'm expecting, just a tiny bit?"
Alas, from the crypt there is a dead silence. St Francis of Assisi obviously knows a fraudulent sinner when he sees one.
With its friars in rough brown robes, the occasional empurpled flash of a bishop, a sliver of a scarlet cardinal, the reverentially hushed tourists and the lush Giotto murals, this cathedral is the place from which the spiritual message of the Franciscan order is beamed out to the world: pace bene, peace and goodness.
And it is here among all those believers, among all the lingering prayers compressed down the centuries and floating around in here that my own inappropriate prayer appears to thud to the inlaid marble floor, unanswered. I fail to see the irony in taking an involuntary vow of poverty and I would certainly be drawing the line at chastity and obedience - those other Franciscan vows that make up the holy trinity.
From a distance, Assisi sprawls across the foothills of Mount Subasio; its stone buildings have been here so long they seem melded into the hillside, like molluscs on a sea rock. Up the winding road, through fields of sunflowers and olive groves and corrugated rows of corn, up past the ancient gnarled olive tree around which the road has been obligingly built, up above the clouds is the mystic town, saint central, the sacred site. Four saints are entombed in Assisi - that's a lot of sanctity for one hill town.
When the clouds part and celestial light beams down and touches the fertile plain, you can see why they thought God was up here putting on a show, helpfully providing the backlighting for countless renaissance artists.
The beguiling aerial views from the hill towns of Umbria are less about watching the biblical storms coming across the valley, though, and all about strategy. With the great arched Roman gates and the encasing walls, they could see the enemy coming and lock down the towns. Rising above Assisi like a giant exclamation mark is the fortress, Rocca Maggiore, built to guard the papacy: the slits for avenging arrows a forbidding reminder of ancient grudges; a counterpoint to the domes of the cathedrals below, shrines to holy men and women. Its smaller brother, La Rocca minora, sits on the next hill.
In the towers and castles, inside the stone buildings and pink houses, along the narrow streets and steep steps, live the Assisiani. They live and gossip in the wide piazza, watched over by the columns of the Temple of Minerva, built in pagan times of 294BC. They carry on their romances and feuds oblivious to the shops full of tourist tat, to the passing parades of priests and pilgrims, the coachloads of tourists, the Scandinavian choirs bursting into annoying Christian songs, the spiritual seekers with dreadlocks and incessant bongos.
There is Francesco, the cafe owner who works 18 hours a day but yearns for a spiritual life; the bar boy who would really rather be a rock star; the Moroccan baker who sends the sweet, rich smell of baking cakes into the street at six in the morning; Gina, the toothless octogenarian, who roams the mountain foraging for food; Antonio, the delicate butcher; Massimo, the pilgrim determined to suffer, wandering around in robes and bare feet, sleeping outside in the winter; Novella, whose elderly husband isn't quite right, selling her home-grown vegetables at her stall in the street, hands covered in garden dirt, wrapping still-warm eggs one by one in newspaper.
The foreigners who take up residence in Assisi can be fairly rugged individuals. They come for religious reasons, to live in the spiritual city sanctuary, not for la dolce vita. Already eccentric, they become more so when the involuntary vow of poverty kicks in with the unwelcome realisation that it is not possible to live on faith alone. Some amusingly unchristian behaviour can occur. Among the expats is Rosemary, a retired English doctor, in her alarmingly crumbling phallic tower with her dogs; and Mara, an American former psychologist who feeds the stray cats before dawn.
Australians Janet and Frank Scaysbrook have been regular visitors to Assisi since Caroline, a local character aged 84, called out to them from a garden shed where she was sitting on a box peeling an apple. "She said she needed brandy, lemons and cigarettes and encouraged us to drive illegally through the centre of town to get them." Since then, Janet says, "something has kept beckoning me back".
She thinks it's the mystery of the past. "In this materialistic world, there was something noble about a man who had spent his whole life being compassionate and caring for the poor. His very presence is still there. In spite of the hordes of people, they couldn't disperse the spiritual energy that was hovering above those beautiful pale pink stone houses."
Everything changes and nothing changes in Assisi. In the spring as the snow melts on the mountain you can hear the trumpets coming up the vertical roads, the drums beating out a rhythm unchanged in 1000 years. Here comes the butcher, the baker, the grocer, the waiter, your hairdresser - all in their mediaeval robes. Men get a whole lot more interesting once they get those tights and little boots on, let me tell you.
While the mediaeval and the modern mingle as a matter of daily life in Italy, Assisi welcomes spring with a cast of thousands in a week-long extravaganza: the Calendimaggio, which translates as the first day of the month of May - May day. From January onwards, there is talk of nothing else. The piazza fills with flowers, horses, cows, lutes, flutes, trumpets, leaping, singing and flag-throwing, as the Assisiani act out their history in music, dance, theatrical spectacles and re-enactments of battles between the upper and lower parts of town. At night, lit only by candles and liquid paraffin, they sometimes nearly burn down the town; last year, trees and a car went up in flames.
"I will never forget," Mara says, "the drummers marching down Via San Rufino with their drumsticks alight, pausing in their pounding now and then to blow out the flaming drumsticks. It seems as if half the population is dancing in the streets, the other half screaming in the stands.
"What I especially love about all this is that right here in hyper-religious Assisi there is this in-your-face, unrepentantly pagan celebration of spring and sexuality.
"Word has it that, yes, there are many romances and transitory couplings during this festival and no surprise that the drummers are notorious wolves."
Still, the message of Saint Francis - patron saint of animals and the environment, one of two patrons of Italy - resonates down the centuries.
"His message today is as relevant as it has ever been," Janet Scaysbrook says.
Francis was the original peacenik socialist; proponent of peace and love; lover of nature and all creatures; harbinger of equality. He founded the Poor Clare Sisters for his friend and follower, Clare, who has her own impressive pink and white Gothic stone basilica in Assisi. He could certainly give world leaders today a lesson in non-violent change: calling us to be "instruments of peace and healing by turning from weapons of violence to acts of love".
Even today, the animals of Assisi are blessed in a special service in January; this year, it was mainly dogs lunging at each other - and a parrot.
Franciscans today serve the poor, neglected, disadvantaged youth, the powerless, people in need and the elderly. Even so, you might have to wonder about Saint Francis' mental health: seeing visions, hearing voices, preaching naked, going barefoot in the snow, sleeping in holes dug in the earth, receiving the stigmata when his hands spontaneously burst into blood, sermonising birds. These day he would probably be given large doses of lithium and a nice comfortable padded room.
And so the bells ring out across the valley, the monks murmur in prayer, the sisters of Saint Clare sing their psalms every morning as they have done for 800 years. Assisi is perfectly symmetrical in its state of grace in this upliftingly beautiful place.
One day, when in another spot of bother, I try once more under the dome in the Basilica of Saint Rufino. "A sign," I ask anyone who might be listening up there, "come on, just a little-bitty sign."
Suddenly, from a high window on a deep winter afternoon, a blinding flash of red light floods in, runs down the arm of a statue high up on the wall and settles on its pointing finger.
The trouble is, I have no idea what it meant or where I was supposed to go.
Qatar Airways has a fare to Rome for about $1830 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax, flying to Doha (14hr), then Rome (6hr 30min); Sydney passengers connect in Melbourne. Malaysia Airlines has a fare to Rome from Sydney for about $1920, to Kuala Lumpur (8hr), then Rome (12hr 45min).
Take the train from Rome's Termini station to Assisi on the Perugia line (2hr).
The Calendimaggio is on May 5-7. Sentia Rome Tours sells packages of tickets, entrance fees and a banquet lunch for €200 ($274) and can arrange guides and lodgings; see sentiarometours.com.
Nun Assisi Relais & Spa Museum, opened last year, is an ultra-modern, five-star hotel built over a 13th-century monastery. The restoration plan changed dramatically when the remains of Roman baths were found in 2008. The hotel has a spa with solarium, tepidarium, the full Roman works. There are stunning views of domes and towers from each of the 18 rooms. In an interesting combination of the past and present, one room is two storeys to accommodate a large, 15th-century fresco that was discovered during restoration. Rooms cost from €290. Via Eremo delle Carceri, 1A; phone +39 075 815 5150; see www.nunassisi.com.
Brigolante Guest Apartments are in the foothills of Mount Subasio, part of an ancient castle that has been owned by the Bagnoli family for eight generations. Tastefully restored, self-catering apartments with stunning views accommodate two to four people, from €475 a week in summer. Car essential. Via Costa di Trex, 31; phone +39 075 802 250; email email@example.com.
Hotel Pallotta is a restored mediaeval house with eight rooms in the centre of town. Double rooms from €58. At Via San Rufino, 6; phone +39 075 812 307.
La Stalla was once a barn for livestock. Now, it is a restaurant serving good, rustic Umbrian food cooked on a smoking grill, with a roaring open fire, jugs of wine and happy locals. About 1.5 kilometres from the town on Via Santuario delle Carceri, 24; phone +39 075 812 317.
The world-class restaurant in Nun Assisi Relais & Spa Museum offers a witty take on traditional food, with inventive cooking and excellent wines. At Via Eremo delle Carceri, 1A; phone +39 075 815 5150.
Under vaulted arched ceilings, Medio Evo serves classical Umbrian food with surprising touches and good value. At Via Arco dei Priori, 4; phone +39 075 813 068.
Things to do
View the sublime Giotto murals within the Basilica of Saint Francis, painted between 1296 and 1304 and depicting the life of the saint.
Visit the Eremo delle Carceri, the hermitage, four kilometres up Mount Subasio from Assisi. This is the primitive retreat built around caves where Saint Francis rested and prayed. In one of the caves is the rock where he slept and the piece of wood he used for a pillow. Propped up outside is the tree where he delivered his famous sermon to his "little sisters", the birds.
Visit Santa Maria degli Angeli below Assisi, the cathedral built over the little chapel Saint Francis restored, his favourite place and where he chose to die.
Check the information centre in Piazza del Commune for details of recitals, festivals and gatherings.
Visit the nearby towns of Umbria, which are beautiful, mediaeval and hewn into hills and mountains. Spello is famous for its flower festival in June, when the streets are carpeted in elaborate flower designs. Spoleto is famous for its arts festival in June and July. Montefalco is known for the fabulous sagrantino wines, whose grapes grow on the hills around it. Cortona is the home of Frances Mayes, who wrote Under the Tuscan Sun about the town; it stages a classical-music festival, the Tuscan Sun Festival, in August. Perugia, the capital of Umbria, has a historical centre dating from 310BC, a lively meeting place and the site of epic battles.