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Assisi / Umbria, Italy

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Did You Know…?

  • Assisi was the birthplace of three canonized saints, St. Francis, St. Clare and St. Rufinus.
  • Cimabue’s 13th century fresco of St. Matthew broke into 120,000+ pieces during Assisi’s 1997 earthquake.
  • Umbria is Italy’s only region with no coastline.
  • The so-called Peace Prayer of St. Francis was written in the early 1900s, author unknown.
  • Cunard Line operated a liner called Umbria (1884-1910) known for size and speed (7,718 gross tons, 19 knots).

The uncrowded Tuscany?

Umbria, a region in central Italy, is sometimes described as Tuscany without the crowds. It abuts Tuscany, and, like its neighbor, it has scenic hills and valleys, hilltop towns with medieval or older origins, Renaissance art, tasty food and popular wines. But, the crowds in places like Perugia, the capital, are generally smaller than in, say, Florence.

On the other hand, Umbria’s best-known town is Assisi, birthplace of St. Francis and Italy’s No. 2 pilgrim destination after Rome. So, Assisi sees crowds, especially during annual festivals.

Travelers to Umbria have rich choices for sightseeing. Also, for a change of pace, Umbria’s hills are good for hiking and biking. Further, the Mount Subasio and Mount Cucco parks are in the Apennines, which form the region’s eastern border.

As to the sightseeing:

  • Assisi is a dramatically situated medieval walled town where the top attraction is the basilica dedicated to St. Francis and the artwork inside. A 1997 earthquake severely damaged Assisi and the treasures in the basilica, which dates from the 13th century. Most have been restored, but some were too badly damaged. Another basilica is dedicated to St. Clare, and the Duomo is dedicated to Assisi’s St. Rufinus. Other attractions include a medieval fortress, historic town center and picturesque streets, plus regular events such as a spring festival with medieval costumes, dances and songs.
  • Perugia, also a hill town, is a place for art museums and an annual jazz festival. It boasts Etruscan elements, a medieval fortress and Gothic cathedral.
  • Gubbio, a medieval site with steep cobblestoned streets, offers enchanting views of Umbria’s countryside from its hillside perch. Its annual and slightly nutty Candle Race is a unique way of honoring Gubbio’s local saint (Ubaldo).
  • Orvieto gives its name to a local white wine. The town sits on a rocky precipice and is known for its Gothic cathedral, caves that run under the town and wintertime jazz festival.
  • Spoleto, a festival town that gave its name to a U.S. festival, is still another alluring Umbrian hill town. Spoleto’s historic heart is a Renaissance site that also encompasses an ancient theater and other Roman leavings.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Spend a night at Vallingegno Abbey, where St. Francis, founder of the Franciscan order of friars, is said to have slept. Or choose any of a number of other Umbrian convents and monasteries that have been converted into hotels.
  • Hike in Umbria. If a religious pilgrim or just interested in the route, follow the Franciscan Trail of Peace from Assisi to Gubbio. The route, ideally covered in two days, is about 30 miles long.
  • Paddle a canoe or kayak on the Nera River.
  • Come to Gubbio in the spring to run alongside contestants in the annual Candle Race. For this (uphill) run, local teams carry three statues atop pillars weighing 800 to 900 pounds each. The goal is the Basilica of St Ubaldo, about 1,000 feet above the city. On a different day, ride the funivio (like a ski lift, but one that some regard as quite scary) to the basilica.
  • In summer, come to Perugia in time for the Umbria Jazz Festival. Or, make that Orvieto in late December/early January for the Winter Umbria Jazz Festival.
  • Sign on for a cycling tour of Umbria, or chart your own, as a way to see the region’s variety of terrain, architecture and food. As to that last point, sample the boar.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Schedule an Assisi visit to coincide with Calendimaggio, the annual celebration of spring during which locals don medieval costumes and recreate traditions of centuries past.
  • Plan a walking holiday in Umbria. Or, join a guided walking tour.
  • Sample the area’s wines, including these labels: Assisi Grechetto and Sagrantino di Montefalco. And, remembering another specialty, visit one of the area’s oil presses and sample local olive oils.
  • Appreciate the architectural charms of places like Orvieto and Spoleto. In Spoleto, beyond La Rocca, an old fortress, cross a 14th century footbridge that spans a grand gorge for spectacular views of the town and its environs.
  • See St. Clare’s remains in Assisi’s Basilica of St. Clare.
  • Attend the summertime Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds, dedicated to arts of all kinds. The two worlds are Europe and America; also, the two worlds of the classical and avant-garde music on the program.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Marvel at the Dunarobba Fossil Forest, a forest that existed 3 million years ago, where tree trunks today form a lunar landscape.
  • Allot plenty of time for the attractions of Assisi that are associated with St. Francis, including the basilica that contains his tomb plus, outside the town walls, the hermitage (Eremo delle Carceri), where St. Francis retreated in prayer.
  • Peruse menus for local specialties, especially truffles. Look for the black truffle, served with pasta or with game, especially around Norcia and Spoleto, or white truffles, particularly in the Tiberina Valley, Orvieto and Gubbio.
  • Take in the art at Perugia’s National Gallery of Umbria. This includes works by Pietro Vannucci, AKA Perugino, who was Raphael’s teacher.
  • Plan your itinerary with photography in mind, in order to capture the dramatic settings of many Umbrian towns and villages.
  • Buy souvenirs in Assisi that recall your visit to the birthplace of St. Francis. Not that kind of shopper? Head to the outdoor markets held on varying days in Umbrian towns. In Perugia, look for ceramics.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Italian Government Tourist Board at www.italia.it and choose your language if necessary.