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- SIGHTS & LANDMARKS
- THINGS TO DO
Assisi is a small medieval town of about 25,000 people perched on a hill in Umbria, the heart of Italy. Famous as the birthplace of St. Francis, Assisi holds religious, historical, and artistic significance. Periodical exhibits and fairs enrich the visitor's experience.
Around 1000 BC a wave of immigrants settled in the upper Tiber valley as far as the Adriatic Sea, and also in the neighborhood of Assisi. These were the Umbrians, living in small fortified settlements on high ground. From 450 BC these settlements were gradually taken over by the Etruscans. The Romans took control of central Italy after the Battle of Sentinum in 295 BC. They built the flourishing municipium Asisium on a series of terraces on Monte Subasio. Roman remains can still be found in Assisi: city walls, the forum (now Piazza del Comune), a theatre, an amphitheatre and the Temple of Minerva (now transformed into the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva). In 1997, the remains of a Roman villa were also discovered containing several well-preserved rooms with frescoes and mosaics in a condition rarely found outside sites such as Pompei.
In 238 AD Assisi was converted to Christianity by bishop Rufino, who was martyred at Costano. According to tradition, his remains rest in the Cathedral Church of San Rufino in Assisi.
The Ostrogoths of king Totila destroyed most of the town in 545. Assisi then came under the rule of the Lombards as part of the Lombard and then Frankish Duchy of Spoleto.
The thriving commune became an independent Ghibelline commune in the 11th century. Constantly struggling with the Guelph Perugia, it was during one of those battles, the battle at Ponte San Giovanni, that Francesco di Bernardone, (Saint Francis of Assisi), was taken prisoner, setting in motion the events that eventually led him to live as a beggar, renounce the world and establish the Order of Friars Minor.
The city, which had remained within the confines of the Roman walls, began to expand outside these walls in the 13th century. In this period the city was under papal jurisdiction. The Rocca Maggiore, the imperial fortress on top of the hill above the city, which had been plundered by the people in 1189, was rebuilt in 1367 on orders of the papal legate, cardinal Gil de Albornoz.
In the beginning Assisi fell under the rule of Perugia and later under several despots, such as the soldier of fortune Biordo Michelotti, Gian Galeazzo Visconti and his successor Francesco I Sforza, dukes of Milan, Jacopo Piccinino and Federico II da Montefeltro, lord of Urbino. The city went into a deep decline through the plague of the Black Death in 1348.
The city came again under papal jurisdiction under the rule of Pope Pius II (1458–1464).
In 1569 construction was started of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. During the Renaissance and in later centuries, the city continued to develop peacefully, as the 17th-century palazzi of the Bernabei and Giacobetti attest.
Now the site of many a pilgrimage, Assisi is linked in legend with its native son, St. Francis. The gentle saint founded the Franciscan order and shares honors with St. Catherine of Siena as the patron saint of Italy. He is remembered by many, even non-Christians, as a lover of nature (his preaching to an audience of birds is one of the legends of his life).
Assisi was hit by two devastating earthquakes, that shook Umbria in September 1997. But the recovery and restoration have been remarkable, although much remains to be done. Massive damage was caused to many historical sites, but the major attraction, the Basilica di San Francesco, reopened less than 2 years later.
Transportation - Get In
Take the A1 freeway and exit at the SS75. Follow the signs to historical Assisi and park in one of the public lots just outside the city walls.
You'll have to take a local connection at Terontola (coming from Florence) or Foligno (coming from Rome) to Assisi/Santa Maria degli Angeli. The station is at the bottom of the hill, about three miles from the center of town. Bus line "C" (ASSISI - P.ZZA MATTEOTTI-FS-P.ZZA GARIBALDI) will take you the rest of the way.
Transportation - Get Around
Historical Assisi is very small and easily explored on foot. But go slowly, or the hilly streets will put you out of breath before you know it. During the hotter summer months take an occasional rest in one of the cool churches or enjoy an icecream break (or two). It is advisable to begin your tour at the top of the town (which is the oldest part), so you can enjoy the city going down the hill.
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The many shops display a variety of local arts and crafts, including paintings, sculptures, ceramics and reproductions of medieval weapons and tools. Embroidery and chocolate manufacturing are also typical of the area. Religious items are best purchased at the gift shop behind the lower level of St. Francis basilica. Don't let the shop keepers "over - price" you...!
- Trattoria degli Umbri, Piazza del Comune 40, . Closed Thu. Simple home style recently renovated restaurant, central location.
- Il Baccanale, Assisi centre, Via del Comune Vecchio 2 (near the Piazza Matteotti parking lot.). A beautiful wine shop offering wines from all over Italy, exotic coffee, sweets and preserves.
- I monaci (near Teatro Metastasio).
- Osteria Otello (in front of Chiesa Nuova). Good prices.
- Finnegans Pub (in front of Piazza Matteoti). Very nice pizza, good prices.
- Paradiso (on the road to San Damiano.). Nice to seat out in the summer.
In Santa Maria degli Angeli:
- Ristorante Basilica, Via Protomartiri Francescani 11 (opposite the apse of church), . Closed Tue. Reliable family business well known among locals, delicious fried appetizer, pizza available for dinner.
- Terra Umbra, Via Patrono d’Italia 10. The best gourmet shop for all Umbrian foods. Offers olive oil tasting, chocolate, cheese, cured meats, truffles. Pick up your picnic stuff here.
- Tavola Rotonda. A really "local" place, quite full all year around.
directions=in a small back street near the Farmacia Comunale
In town you find several little ice cream and pizza shops, you need to look around for quality.
Sights & Landmarks
Definitely take the time to walk among Assisi's medieval houses and shops. Most of the cobblestone streets and alleys will take you to the basilica of St. Francis. Please be quiet as you visit this multi-level structure as it still is a place of prayer for many. It's a good idea to rent the audio guide to appreciate the artistic and historical significance of this unique church. The walls and ceilings of the upper church are embellished with frescoes of the Giotto school; the lower sanctuary contains the tomb of St. Francis (Official site of the Basilica).
There are many things to see and experience in Assisi and sadly many times the usual visitor stays just for a couple of hours or for the morning. If you are only capable of a short visit these are the things you must see:
- Starting at Piazza Matteotti cross the street and go down towards San Rufino Cathedral, that has probably the most beautiful façade of all the churches in town. If you have some time to spare visit the museum.
- Following Via San Rufino (walking down in front of the Cathedral) you arrive to Piazza del Comune, the center of the town. There is a small fountain known as the "lions fountain". There are two main attractions on the Piazza: the "Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo" with the clock tower and the beautiful church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (St. Mary over Minerva), with its impressive roman columns. Assisi, being an old roman town, had its own temple dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. With the arrival of Christianity the temple was transformed into a Catholic church and the Virgin Mary was promoted above pagan wisdom. The church was completely remodeled in the early 1990s and stands in stark contrast to the exterior. In Piazza del Comune you find also the Tourist Information Center.
- From the "Lions Fountain" find the street called "Corso Mazzini". Here you will find many interesting shops of all sorts. At the end of the street you'll find and archway and after that you will see the lovely St. Claire's Basilica, where the original crucifix, that spoke to Saint Francis, is found. There is a lovely piazza in front of the Church, with wonderful views of the valley. Morning and Evening prayer is beautiful here, with the choir of cloistered Poor Clare nuns singing.
- Re-tracing your steps you can go back to Piazza del Comune, passing on your left a little street that takes you to "Chiesa Nuova", a very spiritual little church built over to what is said to be Francis' original home.
- From Piazza del Comune you have two options to reach Saint Francis' Basilica:
- a) the street to your right is "Via San Paolo", and it will eventually lead you to the Basilica. This is a slightly longer way to get there and not so crowded, sometimes there is no one around, even on busy days! After you walk a little on Via San Paolo turn to your left when you see some steps and a fresco on the wall, follow the steps down until you get to the small church of St. Stephen (Santo Stefano). This is a real jewel, not known to many and skipped by the majority of "running pilgrims". Even if for 5 minutes it is a must see.
- b) the street to your left from Piazza del Comune is called "Via Portica". This is the usual and shorter way to go to the Basilica of Saint Francis. There are plenty of shops. On your left you will eventually find the Metastasio theater, with an continual exhibit about St. Clare. After a short while you pass an archway and arrive to "Via San Francesco". A little walk and to your left you will see a little chapel called the "Oratorio dei Pellegrini" (the Pilgrim's Chapel). It only opens for a few hours during the day when it is open there is almost always Eucharistic adoration. Inside this room you will find some of the most beautiful frescos of the town. In this same street to your right you can find some very interesting museums.
- At the end of the street you will find the Basilica of St. Francis, with everything to discover. Start at the upper Basilica. Make sure you make it to the lower church and down the stairs to the Tomb of Saint Francis. This is one of the most spiritually powerful places in Assisi.
- When you finish your visit of the Basilica you will exit on the lower part, in front of Piazza San Francesco. Walk down the Piazza, cross the archway and walk down Via Frante Elia. When you arrive to the bottom of the street to your left you will see a big Church, San Pietro. This is another "must see" of the city that is many times ignored. Differently to other churches in town, the interior is more beautiful than the exterior.
- After your visit cross "St Peters Gate" and you will find a big parking lot and a bus stop. If you left your car at the top (Matteotti) you can take a bus back, or if not you can catch a bus to the bus station.
Assisi offers many other things to see and do. If you have more time, these are some hints:
- San Damiano - not in the city centre but easily accessible from Porta Nuova, near St. Clare's Basilica. This is one of the most "franciscan" places in town and it is definitely worth the small detour from the centre. If you are staying in for some days they have a lovely 7h30 am morning mass, with beautiful music.
- Santa Maria Maggiore Church - near "Piazza del Vescovado", in a little hidden angle of the town, a beautiful well kept Church (don't be cheated by its unassuming façade). Going down the hill a little look for the monastery of St Quirico - early in the morning and at 6 pm the Poor Clare nuns have morning and evening prayer - differently to the Poor Clares in Sta Chiara (who are hidden from view), you can actually see the sisters during prayers and at the end even exchange a couple of words.
- Oratorio San Francesco Piccolino - from Corso Mazzini you follow some little steps and arrive to a very little chapel where the legend says Francis was actually born.
- Rocca Maggiore - a lovely site with wonderful views. A good climb so be prepared for a walk. The structure has been recently done up and besides the wonderful arquitecture and the views you can also see an exhibition based on the Calendimaggio, the spring festival of the city.
- On the "back" of Piazza del Comune you can, if you have some time to spare, you can find a lovely and basically unknown area of the town, with beautiful houses, lovely views, some shrines for Our Lady and one or two cats having a nap. Look for the unconsecrated Church of Sta Maria delle Rose.
- Eremo delle Carceri.
- Church of Santa Margherita - among the little streets infront of St Francis Basilica. You have lovely views of the Basilica from the small Piazza.
Things to do
The basilica of St. Francis, completed in 1253, is only one of many beautiful churches in Assisi. The cathedral of San Rufino, the basilica of Santa Chiara, and the Chiesa Nuova are also worth a visit. Take the time to hike up to the top of the hill above Assisi and explore the castle - "La Rocca" - where Frederick Barbarossa spent his childhood. From here you can overlook the town and the valley below. Visit the tiny church of St. Stefano, go up a few stairs, and look back downwards for the most picturesque spot of this beautiful little town. The little church of San Damiano is located outside the walls of the city, halfway down the hill. According to the saint's biographers, it was here that St. Francis received his message "to rebuild the church."