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One Day in Assisi
Letizia Mattiacci (madonna del piatto)
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.
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):
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!
Map of Assisi showing walking route, © Touring Club Italiano, Milano - click for larger version
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 (see my recommendations below). Remember, there is both an upper church and a lower church).
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).
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
*Easter: A week end in March or April
La Maggiolata: End of May
*Calendimaggio: First Thursday, Friday and Saturday in May
Wall-Garden Competition: June
Corpus Domini: End of June
Palio of San Rufino: Last Saturday and Sunday of August
Cavalcata di Satriano: First Saturday and Sunday of September
*Feast of Saint Francis: October 4
Feast of the Immaculate Conception: December 7 and 8
Christmas and *New Year: December 25, January 1
A grotesque figure above a door close to Basilica di Santa Chiara.
Recommended Restaurants and Other Eateries
Slow Travel Restaurant Reviews - Umbria: Lots of restaurant reviews by Slow Travelers for Assisi and the rest of Umbria.
Rebecca's Restaurant List for Assisi and Environs: Restaurant recommendations by Rebecca who lives near Assisi.
My list is based on good quality/price ratio and reliability of service for simple, family style places.
Agriturismo il Pioppo, voc. Pioppo Valfabbrica, tel: 075 9029400, closed Tuesday
Ristorante Basilica, Via Protomartiri Francescani 11/13, Santa Maria
degli Angeli, tel: 075 8044491, closed Tuesdays
Ristorante de Elide, Via Patrono d’Italia, tel. 0758040221, closed Mondays.
At Terra Umbra (run by Barbara) and Sapori dall’Umbria (run by her husband Roberto), one can find and taste the complete array of Umbrian gourmet foods. Terra Umbra stocks delicious olive oil, every form of truffle preserves, aged balsamic vinegar, superb chocolate. Go to Sapori dell’Umbria to taste “Renzini Lui”, a fabulous prosciutto from Norcia, aged at least 18 months, 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.
Antica Gelateria, Piazza Garibaldi, Santa Maria degli Angeli,
close to the Kodak shop, closed Tuesdays
Il Baccanale, via del Comune vecchio 2, tel: 075 812327, closed Tuesdays. Luana, the owner of this splendid enoteca/wine-shop, located just across the Matteotti parking lot, has finally provided some gastronomic novelty in our town. Wines, sweets and condiments from all over Italy are available. A free tasting of one of these yummy wonders is offered everyday, like a rare liqueur or, if you are lucky, some delicious espresso or chocolate-covered orange zest. http://www.ilbaccanaleassisi.com
Bon Pane, Piazza del Comune 42, tel: 075 812958, closed Sundays
Caffe' Minerva, Piazza del Comune 16, tel: 075 813410
Pizzeria Il Duomo, Via Porta Perlici 11, tel: 075 816326, closed
Trattoria Pallotta (tel: 075 812 649) and Ristorante La Fortezza (tel: 075 812 418), both off Piazza del Comune
Libreria Zubboli: Piazza del Comune 19
Il Telaio di Assisi: Via Borgo Aretino 11A
Il Forziere: Via San Gabriele dell'addolorata 12 A
I Colori del Tempo: Via Portica 6B
La Volta Antica: Via Fortini 22 A
Santa Maria degli Angeli, the town just below Assisi, offers easier and often cheaper access than Assisi to various services.
Self Service Laundry: Acquazzurra, close to the gardens of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, just across from the roundabout. 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.
2) Conad Cross, a large supermarket located on a parallel road to the E75 highway. Coming from the Basilica, drive straight on into via San Bernardino, pass all highway exits and turn sharp right in front of the FIAT Marchi shop.
3) Frutta da Anna. Everybody knows Anna and her smile. She has a great 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
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
Internet Access: Internet Corner, Via A. de Gasperi 5/C, tel: 0758041599
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.
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 (see below) and long week ends including the following dates: April 25, May 1, June 2, August 15, November 1.
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 35 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.
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.
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
See the Slow Travel Classifieds for lists of Tour Guides.
Claudia Sanvico, email: email@example.com
Daniela Moretti, tel: +39 075 5716114/+39 3358299984, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Religious Itineraries: Information for those who wish to visit the places sacred to Saint Francis, Saint Benedict, Saint Rita, and Saint Claire
Lyrick Theatre Santa Maria degli Angeli: A modern theater offering a seasonal program which includes plays, dance, and even opera.
Gazetteer of Assisi: Bill Thayer has some splendid pictures and a comprehensive list of links to websites on Assisi.
Umbrian Pork - Salt, Pepper and Time: Article by Letizia Mattiacci and Tharani Sivananthan, 2004
www.assisi.umbria2000.it: Map of Assisi
Google Maps - Assisi: Detailed map of Assisi. Click "satellite" to see image of town. Use the "+" and "-" buttons to change the scale.
I am grateful to my friend Tharani, a big Assisi fan, for improving my English. Thanks are due also to Teo di Luca, Hein Bijlmakers and Ruurd de Jong for the pictures and to Barbara Righetti of Terra Umbra (gourmet food shop, Via Patrono d'Italia 10/a, Santa Maria degli Angeli) for information on the festivals.
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