In the Wake of Catastrophe: 'Assisi Still Here and Beautiful'

Travel Weekly San Francisco bureau chief Laura Del Rosso visited Assisi, Italy, in the wake of a severe earthquake. Her report follows:

ASSISI, Italy -- The townspeople here who make their living from tourism -- and nearly all do -- want the world to know that the Sept. 26 quake did not destroy this medieval city. "Assisi is still here and still beautiful," said Ignazio Campoccia, manager of the Hotel dei Priori. "The only disaster was the basilica."

None of the hotels suffered major damage although some closed temporarily, deciding to repair surface cracks while occupancy is at nearly zero. The basilica of St. Francis, the towering structure that commemorates the saint who was born here, is two churches. The upper church sustained damage and may be closed for at least two years for cleanup and renovation. The lower church is intact and might reopen in a few weeks. The lower church is a major attraction because it contains St. Francis' tomb and Giotto's famous frescoes.

Five days after the quake that rocked Italy's Umbria and Marche provinces, the usually bustling Assisi was quiet except for relief workers, television crews and police. There were only two motorcoaches in the vast parking lot. "The town itself is a masterpiece," said Frances Abdon, Walnut Creek, Calif. "You don't get a feeling that there has been a disaster here at all."

Josit Kasabotis, a local guide for Trafalgar and Insight, said he hopes the quake will prompt more visits to the beautifully preserved city that surrounds the closed basilica. Insight returned to Assisi within three days of the quake, replacing visits to the basilica with a walking tour in town. Points of interest include a large fortress, a Roman forum and temple, a cathedral and winding narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants.

Tour guides say that the quake's impact on the basilica gives new meaning to a local legend. One of St. Francis' closest friends, Brother Leone, objected to the design of the basilica because it was too ornate. Legend has it that he put a curse on it, saying "sooner or later it will fall."

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Operators Steer Clients Away from Quake Damage--for Now

BOSTON -- Some tour operators are steering travelers away from Assisi in Italy until further notice, in the wake of the recent earthquake there, according to a sampling of operators conducted by Travel Weekly.

"We have rerouted tours from Assisi for the next few weeks until we hear from officials in the city itself," Steve Perillo, vice president of New Jersey-based Perillo tours, said. "We know the church can't be visited, and we hear there have been some problems with the roads."

In fact, Perillo said, the company is holding off on the production of its winter brochure for the moment until the situation becomes more clear. "Assisi is basically closed for awhile," said Mauro Galli, president of TourCrafters in Chicago. "We are having people spend more time in Siena and Florence until tourism is reestablished," he said.

Galli predicted, however, that the religious and historic importance of Assisi will prompt quick action on the part of government officials to restore and repair whatever is salvageable.

Not all those who plan to visit Assisi for religious reasons will be disappointed, according to Donna Adair, manager of Regina Tours. The Ohio-based company recently was purchased by Central Holidays Tours to handle the religious portion of its travel to Italy. "We have three large groups going to Assisi next week, and we are still going," Adair said. "They cannot visit the basilica of St. Francis, but some other churches are open, and a number of hotels are up and running," she added.

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