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Named for Italy's Patron Saint
Located in the Umbria region, the heart of Italy, Assisi overlooks the Umbrian valley with its rich farmland and exquisite medieval villages from its hillside perch atop Monte Subasio.

The site of this charming city was occupied as early as the middle Bronze period by the Umbri, with the city itself being built around 600 B.C. by the Etruscans and later "romanized" by the Romans as they moved up the Italian peninsula. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, the city was occupied by the Goths (500 – 600 A. D.) after which it became part of the ducal holding of the Longobardo family of Spoleto during the latter half of the sixth century A.D. Becoming an independent "comune"—that is, governed by a town council instead of a noble family—in 1000 A.D., Assisi was in an almost constant state of war with its neighbor Perugia for the next hundred years.

Famed for its Architecture
It was during this time that Saint Francis was born into the rich merchant family of Pietro di Bernardone (1180 A.D.). Like many of his peers, young Francis fought in the war. In 1202, he was captured by the Perugians and held prisoner for some months. His time in the Perugian prison, coupled with a period of life-threatening illness, caused young Francis to meditate on his way of life. Publicly renouncing his wealth and status, Francis began a life of penance and poverty. Several years later, he and Saint Clare of Assisi established two religious orders based on the philosophies of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Two years after his death in 1226, Saint Francis was canonized. He is the patron saint of Italy, ecology and nature and the basilica dedicated to him remains one of the most beautiful and beloved basilicas in Italy.

The Basilica di San Francesco and the Basilica di Santa Chiara are just two of the extraordinary sights to be seen while taking a stroll along the beautiful streets of this enchanting city. Another not-to-be-missed sight is the Temple of Minerva/church of Santa Maria della Minerva, located in the Piazza del Comune. The faccia—the “face” of the building—dates back to 100 B.C. and is an excellent example of Roman religious architecture while the interior of the church itself, which dates back to 1212 A.D., is a beautiful example of medieval religious architecture and design. Immediately to the left of the temple is the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo—the “Palace of the Captain of the People”—with its stunning 12th century tower.

Across the piazza you will find La Volta Pinta, a nicely restored fifteenth-century fresco in a covered archway leading to the exclusive apartments now occupying a medieval complex that housed three different religious orders between the fourteenth and twentieth centuries. Around the corner from this complex you’ll find the Museo del Foro Romano—the “Roman forum museum”—where you can take a walk underneath the present-day Piazza del Comune on the Imperial Roman piazza that was in front of the temple. You can see the two piazza level entrances and the sacrificial altar along with the community fountain. There is an excellent collection of Roman archeological finds in the museum’s sister location further down the street. Up the street from the Piazza del Comune is the Duomo di San Rufino, the cathedral dedicated to Saint Rufus, the third-century bishop of Assisi. This cathedral is one of the finest examples of Romanic architecture to be found in Italy.
Assisi's periphery also offers extraordinary examples of pre-medieval and medieval history and architecture. La Rocca Maggiore and La Rocca Minore are the twin 12th century fortifications that made up the early defenses of the city. They are linked via the perimeter wall of Assisi. Just inside the wall itself, you can find an Imperial Roman amphitheater.

A short drive west will take you to Santa Maria degli Angeli—"St. Mary's of the Angels"—where there is a church within a church. The larger church was originally built in the 16th century, renovated in the 19th century, and again in 1997 following the latest earthquake. This church is a beautiful example of baroque architecture; however, within this church exists one of the most unique sights to be seen in Italy—a completely independent church with its own bell tower, pews, and alter under the basilica of St. Mary's. Known as La Porziuncola, this small church was built in the 9th century by the Benedictine fraternity for Saint Francis to be used as his residence. The anterior faccia has a beautiful gothic fresco; another lovely fresco can be found behind the alter. The interior of the church is extremely simple, following the principles of Saint Francis: poverty, obedience, and chastity. Every year at the beginning of August, pilgrims from all over Italy make a pilgrimage to the La Porziuncola.

After the tragic earthquake of 1997, many of Assisi's historic buildings required renovation and restoration to ensure their preservation. Four years after the disaster, these buildings were restored to their original splendor.

Thinking of taking up residence in Assisi? You can buy a beautiful 1,100-square-foot apartment in the historic city center for between $275,000 and $500,000; villinos—houses between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet—range from about $500,000 to $1 million. It's also possible to rent apartments for about $500 to $1,500 per week.

Umbria Facts
From the awe-inspiring view of the Spoleto castle, the incredible mosaics of the Duomo di Orvieto, the tranquil beauty of Assisi, the youthful vibrancy of Perugia, to the subtle loveliness of Todi and Gubbio, Umbria is a must-see stop for any trip to Italy. Only one hour from Rome's Grande Ricordo Annulare (GRA) on Autostrada A1, Umbria offers everything a visitor can dream of: black truffles, excellent olive oil, exceptional wines, fantastic restaurants, beautiful hotels, fine architecture, wonderful shopping, and stunning views.

Spoleto, the home of the Spoleto Jazz Festival (June – July), has some great restaurants and shopping. One of our favorites is "Due Querce" (phone: 0743/520415) that can be found just about six kilometers outside of Spoleto proper. The various homemade pastas with truffles are absolutely the best of the best and the wine list offers some of the choicest Umbrian wines.

Wine lovers won't want to miss Montefalco, the home of the famous Italian red wine, Sagrantino. While you're there, don't miss having a meal at "Il Falisco" (0742/379185).

The hillside town of Trevi is famous throughout Italy for high-quality olive oil and black truffles. You can purchase both all along the Flaminia—the main highway running through the middle of Umbria. Good-quality black truffles are priced at about $50 per gram while olive oil is about $10 per liter.

Assisi is one of our favorite destinations in Umbria. Make sure to stop into "Carla" (075/816591)—one of the most fantastic biancherias (linen shops) that we have ever seen. The owner, Carla Turi, has searched throughout all Umbria and found some of the most unique and beautiful tablecloths, napkins, drapes, pillow covers, bed covers, and sheets that are available. All her merchandise is handmade in Umbria from Umbrian materials. One of the most exquisite items in her inventory is a natural linen table runner and napkin set.

Another Assisi shopping find is "Stedav Lavorazione Artigianale Ceramiche" (075/815375 or 075/813655). Owners Stefano Abeltino and Davide Ciammarughi design and produce extraordinary ceramic pieces. Each and every piece is completely done by hand in one of the two locations in Assisi.

After a day of strolling through Assisi's charming medieval streets and incredible churches, you'll want to enjoy a fabulous meal. The "Pallotta" hotel and trattoria (075/812649) is the place to do it! Owned and operated by the Balducci family, everything on the menu is truly a taste experience. Their "Strangozzi alla Pallotta" is incredible, but our favorite is the "cappelli" with truffles. These small, round filled pasta are served with shaved fresh black truffles—absolute heaven in this saintly city!

About 1/2 hour north of Assisi is another of our favorite towns—Perugia. Famous for its "Baci" candy, Perugia is also the home of one of the oldest universities in the world. Because of the numbers of university students, Perugia has a college-town atmosphere, Italian style. As you walk through the main piazza in front of the Duomo, make sure to have a caffe and a pastry in "Sandri" (075/5724112). If you happen to be in Perugia around Easter, definitely get one (or more!) of the Easter eggs made in this pastaceria (pastry shop). The building itself is an architectural treat; all the frescos are 15th century originals. For dinner, don't miss "Osteria del Gambero" (075/5735461). This sophisticated restaurant serves upbeat Umbrian cuisine and has a wine list to satisfy the most discriminating palate.

Should you decide that Umbria is the place for you, many real estate agencies have English-speaking agents who will be happy to help you find that perfect villino or apartment and then facilitate the Italian escrow process. Nice villinos in the region range from $400,000 to $900,000. If you're in the market for that perfect castle, plan to spend between $2 and $5 million.

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Story by Erin O'Neal
Photography by Michael Vlassis and Erin O'Neal

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Print Date: 6/24/2022
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