The biggest draw of this Italian region may be the lovely hilltop town dedicated to Italy’s patron saint, Francis of Assisi, but Umbria’s truffles, delicious flatbread called Torta al Testo, and Perugina’s Baci chocolates may tempt you just yet.

Posted by Pinky

Francis of Assisi is undeniably one of the biggest rock stars – if not the biggest one – in all of Christendom.

To understand his timeless appeal, let’s look back briefly on his life, shall we?

* He founded a religious order over 800 years ago that continues to exist today. It has since spun off into other groups, though the basic Franciscan teachings remain in all.

The Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

* The first Nativity scene was staged by Francis in 1223 in a cave in the town of Greccio. A tradition that we continue to this day.

* Francis was the first person ever recorded to have received the stigmata, or the physical wounds of Christ. (Years later, among those who followed was Padre Pio of the Capuchin order, an offshoot of the Order of Saint Francis.)

* His close circle of friends included Clare of Assisi, one of his first followers and who started the Order of Poor Clares, and Anthony of Padua, who was actually a Portuguese from Lisbon. They were like the celebrity BFFs of their time.

* Other than the Catholic Church, Francis is venerated even by the Protestant faith as well.

* Finally, Francis was said to have been followed by animals wherever he went, showing that even they could sense his holiness. He may share the limelight with St Catherine of Siena as Italy’s patron saint, but he is the sole patron saint of all animals.

Perhaps the biggest reason for Francis’ popularity, however, may be the fact that although he was born into a wealthy family, he gave it all up in order to follow a life of Christ-like poverty.

In other words, he walked the talk. Which was precisely why our current Pope chose to take his name.

What to See

The highlights of Assisi’s Franciscan tradition remain to be the Basilica and Tomb of Saint Francis located on one end of the hill, the nearby Basilica and Tomb of St Clare on the opposite end of the hill, and in the valley below, the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels built to enclose the small church of Porziuncola, the site where Francis first realised his vocation of poverty and from which the Franciscan order was born.

The small chapel of Porziuncola inside the Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Slightly further away is the Church of San Damiano, whose crucifix Francis was said to have been praying to when he received the message that he was to rebuild the Church. The original crucifix can now be found at the Basilica of St Clare while a replica stands in its original location.

What Makes Assisi Different

I’m not gonna lie to you. Assisi is primarily about its Franciscan heritage. But if that isn’t exactly your cup of tea, don’t let that stop you from considering a visit here.

Its hilltop location, main piazza (Del Comune), and delightful pedestrian streets somehow give this small town a charm that goes beyond the draw of St Francis.

The Temple of Minerva at the Piazza del Comune.

Unlike other pilgrimage destinations where the shrine or church is practically the only game in a small town that’s usually got nothing else to offer, Assisi is different.

Then there’s the business of food.

Umbrian Cuisine

In a region that prides itself of producing the freshest, top quality ingredients – from beans, black truffles, and vegetables, to meats and fresh water fish, to olive oil and cheeses, to breads and dried pastas – it’s no wonder that for a small town, Assisi is packed with restaurants that serve simple yet hearty, excellent food.

Even the regular, self-serve eatery we went to served a pretty good meal.

Truffles, anyone?

Of course, Assisi also has its fair share of restaurants that don’t deserve your custom. But the fact that they’ve even got a number of Michelin-rated restaurants goes to show how the Umbrians take their food seriously. And that’s great news for us.

Stay the Night

Accommodations in Assisi are aplenty. Again, for a small town, there’s quite the range of places to stay that are conveniently located up the hill.

As in most of Italy, however, summers are busy, so it’s best to book ahead.

There are accommodations down the valley, too, but I prefer staying up the hill as I find its old world appeal much more charming.

I suggest spending at least one night in Assisi after a day of touring either the Franciscan sites or the nearby university city of Perugia 30 minutes away by car.

Then, of course, enjoy a special Umbrian meal at one of many choices in town followed by a nice, leisurely stroll before returning to your hotel for the night.

So aside from the much busier, more popular Tuscany on your next trip to Italy, why not let Assisi and the rest of Umbria surprise you?

Assisi is a 2-hour drive from Florence and 2-1/2 hours from Rome. A nice way to break your trip between these two major cities. 

Photo Credits:

Porziuncula: Wolfgang Sauber