In St. Francis’ Hometown, a New Kind of Pilgrim


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New Age retreats like the Ananda Center attract visitors with yoga classes and spa treatments.

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Andrea Wyner for The New York Times

ASSISI, Italy — For centuries, pilgrims have trekked to Assisi to walk the same steep and narrow lanes on which a rag-cloaked radical monk named Francis preached an antimaterialistic message 800 years ago, rocking the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

Francis, who with Catherine of Siena is one of Italy’s two patron saints, is a global figure for hundreds of millions of Catholics, and the current pope took his name in homage. The saint’s hometown, perched on the broad slope of Mount Subasio, attracts four million to five million tourists annually.

But lately, those visitors have included a new sort of pilgrim.

Besides church groups spilling from tour buses and flocks of brown-robed Franciscan brothers, the town has attracted non-Catholic tourists, of the sort who hope for rejuvenation in the ashrams of India or in an ayurvedic essential-oils massage. They come, drawn by the same mystical essence that more traditional religious pilgrims believe can be felt in the woods around Francis’ hometown.

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“Assisi is one of the special places where you can tune into a spiritual energy,” said Katharina Daboul,who sometimes manages the Simple Peace Hermitage, a meditation center here.

Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian guru who introduced yoga to the West, ranked Francis with Buddha and Jesus in his multicreed pantheon of spiritual guides. Yogananda said he had seen a vision of Francis while giving a speech in the 1950s. After that he came to regard him as a spiritual icon and eventually visited Assisi. Francis, who was born in Assisi and died there 44 years later in 1226, was in many ways the original hippie. A nobleman, he gave up all his earthly belongings to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. In the centuries since, many pilgrims have followed a path he took up the scraggy woods of Mount Subasio. But until recently, most of them were Catholic.

The new breed of tourist has found in Assisi a hive of ecclesiastical commerce. On sunny Sunday mornings, bells toll as nuns in crisp habits and monks in brown robes crisscross the bleached piazzas in their sandals and socks, sending doves soaring above the sunflower and hayfields of the surrounding valley. Trinket shops sell wood carvings of the tau symbol with which Francis signed his letters; ceramic tile refrigerator magnets of angels; and posters of Francis, who was canonized two years after his death.

These tourists are looking for inner peace more than they are looking to buy knickknacks. And some are paying for services out of reach of the impoverished masses that the current pope champions. Several spas have opened in the area since a government incentive began covering some construction costs for hotels that add them.

The Rev. Enzo Fortunato, a spokesman for the Basilica di San Francesco, a big tourist draw in Assisi, said he had noticed the influx of a newer type of pilgrim and was unsurprised by it. “Francesco’s Assisi has always represented the welcoming of diversities,” he said.

Assisi’s New Age retreats are not all spartan refuges for peace-seekers packing yoga mats. In a Roman quarter on the northern edge of town, well-off travelers can book a luxurious room with a restored fresco on the wall at the Nun Assisi Relais Hotel and Spa Museum, a converted 13th-century convent that opened in 2010.

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Assisi, Italy, was the home of St. Francis, a medieval monk and mystic.

Credit
Andrea Wyner for The New York Times

The hotel’s owner, Massimo Falcinelli, initially planned to transform the shell of the convent, but had to change course when workers unearthed a Roman bath complex. Like so many religious sites in Italy, the convent had been constructed on pagan ruins, in this case a temple and bath. Mr. Falcinelli decided to combine the baths — and the theme of healing water — into his hotel.

The former convent kitchen is now the wine bar, and the chapel is a meeting room. Down a staircase is a restored ancient spa.

The Romans called the water from Subasio’s springs “magic water,” and Assisi is what the Romans called a genius loci, “a place with a special atmosphere for health, a place that raises your soul to a higher level,” said the hotel manager, Chiara Mencarelli.

At the Nun Relais, Konstantin Mirzajev, a Russian engineer who lives in Prague, described his experience as a guest there: “When I am in the spa, looking at the stone arches of the Roman Amphitheatre, I feel like an ancient Roman. I feel like I have traveled back in time, through centuries, and can taste the luxury the Romans knew so well.”

Asked about touches of the lavish in a place known for shunning it, the Rev. Stephen Platten, an Anglican bishop from London who often visits Assisi, said, “I just think people shall enjoy themselves. Then I hope the luxury does not anesthetize the people and take them into their own bubble far from St. Francis’ message.”

While these newer spiritual attractions mostly coexist with the traditional community, one retreat, the Ananda Center, has had a more complicated integration. Opened in the 1990s by a group of Yogananda followers on four mountaintop acres, it now includes a yoga school, guesthouses, a real estate agency and a farm.

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Raphael’s portrait of Francis.

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Corbis

About 150 people live in terra cotta cottages on the grounds. The retreat has a holistic healing center that offers massages and spa treatments, and a meditation temple. Visitors come from all over Europe to study yoga, and their numbers swell into the hundreds during the high season from June to August.

Yogananda wrote that Hinduism and Jesus taught similar lessons, but the Ananda Center was accused by the local authorities of being a cult and a criminal enterprise. The police raided the retreat in 2004, arresting and jailing seven of the sect’s leaders. They were soon released. Prosecutors charged them with slavery, brainwashing, organized crime and coercive behavior, but a judge threw out the charges.

Ananda’s relations with the local Catholic establishment remain chilly. “The church sees us as competition,” said a Californian in a blue robe, who goes by the name Shivani Lucki. She added that for the moment, the center has been existing in harmony with the authorities.

A little closer to Assisi, but several steep miles up a narrow gravel path called the Alle Porte del Paradiso (Paradise Door Lane) is the Simple Peace Hermitage, a more rugged, smaller player in the local retreat business. It has been heralded by travel publications as being one of the top 10 meditation centers in the world, for its views of the Umbrian countryside and its proximity to the spiritual walks of Assisi. The retreat is a spare, stone farmhouse nestled behind rose and lavender bushes.

The retreat was founded by Ruth and Bruce Davis, writers from California who led nondenominational English and German-language tours to Assisi for years. “They were drawn by our background in spiritual psychology and following the footsteps of St. Francis,” Ms. Davis said of the tour groups.

The newcomers have not displaced the more traditional retreats. St. Anthony’s guesthouse has been operated since 1931 by an American order, the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement. Behind iron gates perched on a steep ledge with panoramic vistas of Assisi and the St. Clare Basilica, visitors first pass under the word “Atonement,” then are ushered by Sister Susan, one of five nuns living in the guesthouse, into an austere sitting room decorated with portraits of Christ.

Sister Susan had nothing bad to say about the nondenominational tourists and their retreats. “We are open to people of all traditions — strangers or seekers,” Sister Susan said. “This is a safe place to rest, retreat or pilgrimage. Or just to be.”



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