As far as day trips from Rome go, certainly one of the most popular and beautiful is the full day tour to Assisi in Umbria.
The town is located about 100miles from the capital and can be reached by car or bus in about 2 hours; unfortunately connections by train are slower. I have been to Assisi several times and I must say that it is one of my favorite places to visit in Italy. It is located in Umbria which is known as the “green heart of Italy” The region is landlocked and this may be one of the reasons it has remained very genuine and traditional.
Assisi is a small and very well preserved medieval hill town with typical long and narrow streets adorned with flowers. The streets are often steep and there are many steps to climb, but the unique scenarios are worth the effort. How can this small town with less than a thousand inhabitants be so famous all over the world? Its fame is owed to a great character of history: St. Francis. The story of Saint Francis is one that holds much fascination for me as it does for many people that know it.
Francis was a young well educated nobleman born in Assisi in 1182. He lived a privileged life. He was in many ways a playboy of his time. He dreamt of becoming a knight. He got his chance when there was a call for a crusade to the Holy Land. He left Assisi on his way to the crusade but did not get very far as one night he had a dream that God told him to return to Assisi. He did and this was the beginning of his transformation. Francis gave up all his worldly processions social standing and association with his extremely wealthy family to live a life of absolute poverty and service to God and others. He went on to be the founder of the Franciscan Order of monks.
The basilica of Saint Francis is the center piece of any visit there even for those who are not catholic or even at all religious. This is due to its artistic treasures that are found there. The life of Saint Francis and stories from the old and new testament are depicted in amazing frescoes from the most famous 13th century artists: Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini, and Pietro Lorenzetti. This pictorial display was for the benefit of the people who could not read or write so that they would know the story of the great saint.
Saint Francis died in 1226 outside the city walls alongside the poor and outcast people to which he dedicated his life. Just two years later in 1228 he was canonized as a saint and the work on the Basilica began. The Basilica is actually two basilicas, the Lower basilica finished in 1230. When it was finished the body of Francis was brought there and buried there although it was hidden for fear it would be stolen. IN 1239 the Upper Basilica was began and it was completed in 1253. Francis could never imagine nor would he have wanted such a magnificent monument to his memory but his followers and the Pope wanted to honor him. In 2000 the Basilica was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
A day trip from Rome to Assisi has much more to offer besides the Basilica of St. Francis. There is the beautiful church of St. Clare who was a follower of Francis. The church holds her tomb and also the beautiful 12th century wooden cross of San Damiano. It is believed that this cross spoke to Saint Francis. You can also visit the family home of Saint Francis where the saint spent his youth. Also very interesting is the “piazza del Comune” or city hall square. Here are the city hall, the Palazzo Vallemani which is art gallery where you can find frescos of the school of Giotto. You can also see in the square the church of Santa Maria built on the site of the ancient Roman Temple of Minerva where you can still admire its original façade.
This beautiful square comes alive in the first week of May with a medieval festival called Calendimaggio. For three days from Thursday to Sunday Assisi is divided into two sections as it was in the middle ages; the upper part (noble area) and the lower section (popular area). The two sections compete with each other in singing and dancing contests. Everyone is dressed in medieval garb and the atmosphere is lively colorful and festive with activities going on all day and into the late evening. It’s a great time to visit Assisi.
Your Assisi tour can also include some Roman History. As mentioned above the façade of the Santa Maria Church belongs to the Ancient temple of Minerva it is one of the best preserved examples of Roman sacred architecture. You can also visit the Civic Museum where you will find vestiges of Ancient Rome and Umbria. From the museum there is a passage that leads underneath the main city Hall Square where you can visit the well preserved ruins of a Roman Forum.
For those who are traveling in Italy with kids you can include a stop in the beautiful museum dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci. The exhibit “The Genius and machines”, highlights the inventions of the Italian genius. The interactive machines are reproduced after a singular work of study from the original drawing and project of Leonardo; it is definitely very interesting and fun activity to add in your family tours Italy.
A favorite stop for me when visiting Assisi is the magnificent Basilica of Santa Maria Degli Angeli which is actually located at the foot of the hill of Assisi. This basilica is very important and definitely conveys a calm and very spiritual feeling. Within the basilica you will find the Porziuncola a little church that Saint Francis restored with his own hands and which became the center of his religious family. You can also visit the small room where St. Francis died on 3 October 1226 now called the “Cappella Del Transito” or Chapel of the Transition. From the sacristy of the Basilica you can reach the rose garden and Rose chapel. This area is the last remains of the forest in which Francis and his followers lived. It is said that here he spoke with Turtle Doves and it is very interesting to see today doves resting in the hands of the statue of Saint Francis. Nothing disturbs them not even the hundreds of people that walk by them everyday.
You can end your day in Assisi by taking in an amazing panoramic view from the Rocca Maggiore. This well preserved fortress was built in 1365 on the ruins of an old Roman military structure. It became the symbol of the papal power. A short walk along a path from the city center will bring you to the fortress where you can enjoy a beautiful view over most of the city and hiss and valleys of Umbria.
Assisi is truly one of the most beautiful places in Italy, an amazing Italy attraction which can be visited all year round. If you want to enjoy the magic atmosphere of the town you may want to avoid the times of the main religious festivities such as Easter or the day of St Francis on October 5th. Also visiting mid week is a much calmer time. The medieval festival of Calendimaggio in May is a wonderful experience so if you are planning an Italian vacation during that time don’t miss it.