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Assisi is a small town in central Umbria about 20 minutes east of Perugia. In this article, Letizia, who lives in the countryside near Assisi, tells you how best to see Assisi in one day.

The first sight of Assisi, perched halfway up the slopes of Mount Subasio is extraordinary. Virtually untouched by modern architecture, with the soft pink of its medieval buildings shimmering against the greenery of the mountain, Assisi is an experience for the eye and the soul.

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View of Assisi on the slopes of Mount Subasio

The ruined castle looming over the city is the Rocca Maggiore, an imposing fortress rebuilt in the 14th century over an earlier fortification dating back to the time of Charlemagne.

The spectacular complex of the Basilica di San Francesco (Basilica of Saint Francis), recognizable by the massive arched buttresses of the convent, is located at the extreme western flank of the town. Saint Francis was born in Assisi in 1182, and the construction of his basilica began two years after his death in 1228. Between the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century, the basilica's walls were frescoed by the best known artists of that time; Giotto, Cimabue, Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti. The Basilica encompasses two churches built one above the other; the lower dating from 1228 - 1230 and the upper from 1230 - 1253. Saint Francis' body was buried secretly in an underground crypt while the basilica was under construction and over the next 600 years, the exact location was forgotten. The tomb was rediscovered in 1818 and is now open to the public.

Of the many words written about this outstanding monument, my favorite are those by Ian Campbell Ross in his book about the history of Umbria (Penguin, 1996):

"The Basilica of Saint Francis is unique. Nowhere in Italy there is so rich and complete representation of the art of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. One of the supremely important events in the history not only of Italian but of European art."

A day visit to the town should also include the Basilica di Santa Chiara (Basilica of Saint Clare) devoted to Francis' first "sister", the Romanesque San Pietro (Saint Peter), Santo Stefano (Saint Stephen), and Assisi's town cathedral, San Rufino.

Itinerary - A Stroll Through Assisi

A leisurely stroll through the town first is a good way to start. Take the opportunity to absorb the town's atmosphere, colors and lights first, so that you arrive at the Basilica di San Francesco late, when most of the crowds have left but the church is still open. But do not limit your visit to the evening, as all monuments are closed at sunset and you will miss the most important collection of medieval art in Italy!


View on Google Maps.View: https://www.google.com/maps/d/embed?mid=1BwKjfiI72amaX-0tzdAgahhNp8myKAXP
Google map of Assisi showing walking route


From the Porta Nuova parking lot ride the escalator up to the city gate. Via Borgo Aretino and Piazza Santa Chiara offer sweeping views over olive groves and the Umbra Valley. Even though there are tourists, this square is always animated by local life. Mothers come with their children who run after the pigeons. Pensioners sit on the stone benches to enjoy the spring sun. The Basilica di Santa Chiara dominates the square with the geometric simplicity of its facade. It's built with intensely pink stones.

Walk up Corso Mazzini to Piazza del Comune to enjoy the medieval palazzi and the beautifully preserved Temple of Minerva. It is an ideal spot to sit on the stone steps and do some people watching while eating a gelato. Roman foundations are a common feature of many buildings here. Below the piazza is the excavated Roman Forum, which can be visited from Via Portica. It is not much of a site if one comes from the splendors of Rome or Pompei, but it makes a good stop in a rainy or hot day and it has the added charm to be completely underground. The Middle Ages are above your head but your feet are on the pavement of a once bustling Roman square.

Continue towards the Basilica di San Francesco by Via San Paolo, to the right of the Tourist Office. Make a detour to the signposted Romanesque church of San Stefano. This small church is wonderfully quiet and simple, in sharp contrast with the extravagance of colors, flamboyant architecture and ample spaces, often filled with people, that awaits you at the Basilica down the hill.

Now you are finally arriving at the Basilica di San Francesco. From the height of Via Cardinal Merry del Val, the sight of the Piazza Superiore is sudden and surprising. Most Italian monuments stand within the architecture of the city. Saint Francis stands alone and serene at the end of a green meadow. Even though I have seen it hundreds of times, I still find its beauty overwhelming.

I will not go into the details for touring the Basilica di San Francesco because this is well covered in the guidebooks. Remember, there is both an upper church and a lower church.

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Cloister of the Basilica di San Francesco and the entrance to the lower church.

After touring the Basilica di San Francesco most tourists head back to Piazza del Comune through Via San Francesco. Don't be discouraged by the cheap knick knack stores filled with miniature monks and plastic rosaries, there will be some interesting artisan shops further uphill (see list below). Step into the Oratorio dei Pellegrini at number 13. The small, square chapel was finely frescoed by Matteo da Gualdo and other artists in the 15th century. I just love the scene of Saint Antony talking to the camels who have brought him food for the poor.

Back in the Piazza del Comune, take the Via di San Rufino, a steep uphill walk leading to the lovely San Rufino cathedral. If you still have the time and energy, continue to the Rocca Maggiore. While the outisde is quite drab, the towers and a long walkway have been recently restored. The views from the octagonal tower are stunning, particularly at sunset.

Return to the parking lot and drive further up town to the Piazza Matteotti parking lot, then turn right following signs for Eremo delle Carceri (4 km/2.5 mi). The road exits the city walls at Porta Cappuccini and climbs to Mount Subasio, a natural reserve area with dramatic views. Park at the attended lot across from the entrance of the monastery. You will be asked to pay 1.50 euro in advance. The Eremo delle Carceri, literally the Hermitage of Prisoners, was an early retreat of Saint Francis and his followers. The name derives from the fact that the friars "imprisoned" themselves here, away from worldly temptations, in order to pray. Surrounded by thick ilex woods, the Hermitage is an oasis of peace where one can savor the true Franciscan atmosphere.

Another stop before you arrive at Assisi, or when you leave, is the town of Santa Maria degli Angeli, located on the plain below Assisi. This was an early center for the Franciscans. Visit the basilica (baroque from 1684) built to shelter the Porziuncola (the oratory that Saint Francis used).

Events

Assisi and the nearby town of Santa Maria degli Angeli host a variety of interesting traditional events throughout the year.
* Potentially crowded dates are marked with an asterisk.

Sant'Antonio: On the first Sunday after January 17th
The feast of Sant'Anthony Abbot, the hermit patron saint of animals, is celebrated in Santa Maria degli Angeli. The festivities start with a procession which leaves the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli after a morning Mass. The members of the guild of Sant'Antonio, the Priori, carry the statue of the Saint through the streets followed by people with all types of animals on leashes, in their arms and even a few carriages with oxen and horses. The procession ends back at the entrance of the Basilica where the animals are blessed and bread is distributed. Afterwards, the people will have lunch for a small fee in the local restaurants. A special meal is served: the Piatto di Sant'Antonio, pasta with a meat sauce, meatballs, sausages, veal, and some fruits, everything on one plate.

*Easter: A week end in March or April
Assisi is flooded with tourists and pilgrims during the Easter holidays. The most interesting event is the Good Friday Procession, which is attended by the town's religious guilds in colorful costumes. The evening Processione del Cristo Morto, a procession of hooded, barefooted penitents through the torch lit medieval streets is spectacular.

La Maggiolata: End of May
An unusual culinary festival occurring in private gardens throughout the old town center. La Maggiolata is a progressive dinner set in the little gardens and hidden cloisters of Assisi, offering abundant food, wine and entertainment. Each course of this long supper is served in a different garden and it is accompanied at each location by different musicians and singers.

*Calendimaggio: First Thursday, Friday and Saturday in May
A wonderful medieval celebration of spring, consisting of a contest of songs, games and plays between the Parte de Sotto and the Parte de Sopra neighborhoods, the upper and the lower parts of the town. On the last evening the Madonna Primavera, the most beautiful "Lady Spring", is elected. A jury decides which of the two contestants of the Parti has best interpreted the celebrations of the return of spring. Food stalls sell delicious porchetta (roast pork flavored with wild fennel) and wine. Tickets to the games and songs cost approximately 40 Euro per day.

Wall-Garden Competition: June
In the late spring, wander through the tiny alleys and you will notice splendid flowering balconies; Assisi holds a "wall-garden" competition each June.

Corpus Domini: End of June
The streets of many villages all over the area are carpeted with flower petals creating kaleidoscopic images which depict portraits of saints, sacred scenes, flowers and animals. The Corpus Christi procession eventually walks over these short-living works of art.

Palio of San Rufino: Last Saturday and Sunday of August
A Renaissance-style crossbow competition among the Balestrieri (crossbowman) of Assisi.

Cavalcata di Satriano: First Saturday and Sunday of September
A re-enacting of the last journey of Saint Francis from Nocera Umbra to Assisi when he was escorted by knights of the city of Assisi. The Saint had become very ill and rested at the hamlet of Satriano on the North side of the Subasio mountain.

*Feast of Saint Francis: October 4
A major pilgrimage day that draws visitors from all over Italy. Each year, one of the 20 Italian regions is responsible to renew the oil of the lamp that burns perpetually in the Tomb of Saint Francis. Later in the day you can attend shows of dances and popular songs of the chosen region. All bakeries sell mostaccioli, biscuits made with almonds, honey and grape most, and pancaciato, a small bread made with cheese, raisins and most.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception: December 7 and 8
In the evening of December 7, the vigil of the feast, villagers gather around a huge bonfire ("il focaraccio") which is lit both at the Rocca Maggiore (Assisi's fortress) and in front of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Children are given gifts of basic clothing items as a wish of good health during the winter. (See article, la Madonna Arrives)

Christmas and *New Year: December 25, January 1
Christmas is very quiet in Assisi as most businesses close up to celebrate the feast with the family. Many churches, shop and private windows display elaborate Presepi (manger scenes). Living manger scenes are enacted in nearby Armenzano, Cannara and Petrignano. Umbria is a popular New Year's holiday destination for Italians, so hotels and restaurants will be fully booked between December 30 and January 1.

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Cloister of the Basilica di San Francesco and the entrance to the upper church.

Recommended Restaurants and Other Eateries

My list is based on good quality/price ratio and reliability of service for simple, family style places.

Near Assisi

Osteria San Vittorino, Viale Giovanna di Savoia Regina dei Bulgari, 14, closed Wednsdays.
Lovely new restaurant, nicely decorated. The owners are incredibly friendly and they take good care to provide high quality local foods such as fresh porcini, Prosciutto from free ranging pig and truly special wines. Don’t miss the fabulous desserts.

Ristorante Basilica, Via Protomartiri Francescani 11/13, Santa Maria degli Angeli, closed Tuesdays.
A family trattoria just opposite the apse of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. They serve excellent tagliata, pizza and the best tiramisu in town. The food is always fresh, of reliably good quality, and the service, run swiftly by Claudio and Francesco, is professional and welcoming.

Ristorante de Elide, Via Patrono d’Italia, closed Mondays.
This is an institution run by the same family since 1960; it is always busy both with locals and tourists. They serve a huge “antipasto misto” that is a meal in itself. All food is good, but I advise to choose traditional recipes rather than the modern ones.

Terra Umbra, Via Patrono d'Italia 10/a. Open every day.
A small shop stocking delicious olive oil, every form of truffle preserves and flavored pecorino cheese, aged balsamic vinega and a selection of the best regional wines.

Pasticceria Pizzeria Bagnoli Via Patrono d’Italia 3/a.
This is an undescript little bar with a pink awning where you will find very few tourists, even though it is a few steps from the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The Bagnoli do not need any neon sign because all locals know that this is the best place to get a lunch time snack. The parents are in the back of the shop producing a continous stream of pizza, focacce, suppli and even the odd lasagna portion. Meanwhile, their charming son, Luca, is at the front serving and keeping everybody cheerful. At Easter time, try their great cheese bread.

Gio Gelato, Via Roma, 23, Bastia Umbra.
You can find gelato shops at every step in Assisi or Santa Maria degli Angeli, but the most popular with the locals is in Bastia Umbra. A good excuse to go to see some real village life.

In Assisi

Trattoria Pallotta, off Piazza del Comune.
Pallotta is an institution in town and deservedely mentioned by several guidebooks. They offer Umbrian specialties of reliable quality in a charming setting. It’s your chance to taste their famous roasted pigeon and plenty truffle based dishes.

Trattoria degli Umbri Piazza del Comune 40. Closed Thursdays.
Our favorite in town. Located Just on the same side of the stunning Roman Temple of Minerva but closer to the fountain, presently it’s the best choice for simple eating in the town centre. The owners Roberta and Andrea are warm-hearted and honest.

Shopping

Libreria Zubboli: Piazza del Comune 19.
A small bookshop with a good selection of beautifully decorated stationery they produce in their wonderful workshop which you can visit upon request. Walking maps of the Subasio Park and a few guidebooks in English are also stocked here.

Tessuti artigianali Umbri: Via Arnaldo Fortini, 2.
Beautiful fabrics, artisanally made, using only natural fibers (cotton and hemp or linen). Various household items with fruits, birds and geometrical patterns belonging to the Umbrian tradition.

Il Forziere: Via San Gabriele dell'addolorata 12 A.
Tiziano and Fulvio make stylish modern jewels with colorful stones. If you stay long enough, you can order something based on your own design.

I Colori del Tempo: Via Portica 6B.
Colorful silk scarves, pashminas and bags.

La Volta Antica: Via Fortini 22 A.
Fantastic selection of ceramics and adorable terracotta angels.

Basic Services

Santa Maria degli Angeli, the town just below Assisi, offers easier and often cheaper access than Assisi to various services.

Self Service Laundry: Lemon, in the area of Santa Maria degli Angeli train station, Viale Patrono d'Italia, 43. Open every day 8:00am to 10:00pm.

Gas Station: ERG on Via Los Angeles opposite the gardens of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Groceries:
1) Superconti Supermarket, Via D'Annunzio 25/A, coming from the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, turn right after the railway and drive straight on (approximately 1 km) until you see it on your left. Open every day

2) Conad city in Bastia Umbra is the largest and better stocked supermarket, Centro Commerciale Giontella, Piazza del Tabacchificio, 12/13, 06083 Bastia Umbria.

3) If you need fresh fruit and vegetables, you can find a market fruit stand in the parking lot behind the porticoed Palazzo dei Capitani del perdono, just off the village’s piazza. Open Mon-Sat. 8:00 to 12:30.

4) Macelleria il Castello offers fantastic Chianina beef from their own farm which is located only a few miles away in the valley. Via S. Bernardino Da Siena, 06081 Santa Maria degli Angeli. Open Mon-Sat.

Pharmacy: Farmacia Comunale, Via Los Angeles 17, just a couple of hundred meters after the ERG station. Open weekdays 9:00 to 1:00pm and 4:00pm to 7:30-8:00pm.

ATM/Bancomat: Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Via Becchetti 8/A.

Tourist Traps and Annoyances

No matter how careful you are, as in most touristy places in the world, there is a good chance that you will be overcharged for one thing or another. Do not let this spoil your visit, but use your common sense to avoid disappointment.
  • Only enter places that advertise their prices. Those who do not, will ask higher prices of tourists.
  • Make sure that what you are charged corresponds to the advertised price. Bar and cafes charge twice as much or more if you sit at the table rather than if you drink at the counter, so make sure that you are charged for table service only if you have actually used it. Restaurants and bars are obliged to advertise their prices (you will see the price list beside the bar).
  • Restaurants offering internationally known Italian dishes such as "ragu' alla bolognese" or "Salsa Alfredo" clearly cater only to tourists and the food is most likely going to be disappointing. Try to choose a restaurant offering regional dishes.
  • If taking a taxi, ask an estimation of the cost of your trip.
  • Try to negotiate prices of crafts and souvenirs; small shops might be willing to give you a discount in quiet times.
Practical Information

When to Visit
Unlike some other attractions in Italy, Assisi is not overcrowded with tourists every day of the season. However, if one wants to enjoy its mystical atmosphere, it is advisable to avoid peak hours of the day, major events (e.g. Pope's visits) and national holidays. From Easter to October, bus tour groups tend to arrive mid-morning or early afternoon, after 3:00pm. Many groups only walk the short distance between the San Pietro parking lot and the Basilica di San Francesco, then leave for the restaurants or for the next destination.

Expect crowds during some festivals and long week ends including the following dates: April 25, May 1, June 2, August 15, November 1.

Parking
The walled town is closed to outside traffic except for residents, so cars must be left in the parking lots at Porta San Pietro, near Porta Nuova, or beneath Piazza Matteotti.

During most of the year, it is usually possible to find a parking place in one of the reasonably priced, attended parking lots outside the city walls. Park at the well signed Porta Nuova and ride the escalator up to the city gate.

Make sure to read the parking signs carefully and park in the attended parking lots or in the few marked free areas. Parking violations are checked constantly and fines are a minimum of 42 euro.

If you have mobility problems, do not forget to bring your handicap parking permit from your own country. You'll be allowed to enter the town and park in the assigned places close to monuments.

Distances
Assisi is small but most streets are relatively steep. Walking uphill from the Basilica di San Francesco to the Piazza Matteotti or Porta Nuova parking lots can easily take 45 minutes. Frequent city minibuses run between the parking lots and the center of town, so you can save the long walk uphill back to the car.

The train station is 4 km (2.5 mi) from town, with a bus service every half hour.

Tourist Information
Main Tourist Office, IAT of Assisi: www.assisi.umbria2000.it
Located in Piazza del Comune in Assisi.
Every tourist office in Italy will mail a package of brochures with information about the district where the office is located. A similar package can normally be obtained from ENIT which has offices all over the world.

Recommended Tour Guides
Prices start from 95 euro for a half a day tour in English for a group of 1 to 15 people. More info and prices at www.assoguide.it

Claudia Sanvico, email: sanvico@tiscali.it
Daniela Moretti, email: danyguide@hotmail.com

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View of Assisi from Letizia's kitchen.
About the Author
Article by Letizia Mattiacci (madonna del piatto)

Letizia owns the Agriturismo and Cooking School Alla Madonna del Piatto, near Assisi and publishes articles about Umbria, its foods and traditions on her blog and in the American In Italia Magazine.

She has also published a colorful cookbook, A Kitchen With a View, which has deserved press mention in The New York Times and L’Italo Americano.

I am grateful to my friend Tharani, a big Assisi fan, for improving my English and to Ruurd de Jong for the pictures.
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