Let the journey begin with Rail Europe

The view from our terrace - UmbriaUmbria is referred to as il cuore verde d’Italia (the green heart of Italy). It is the only Italian region having neither a coastline nor a border with other countries. It is characterized by hills and historical towns such as Assisi (a World Heritage Site associated with St. Francis of Assisi), Orvieto and the capital, Perugia. With Assisi as our base, we planned to spend a week exploring this unique region. Luckily for us, there was a timeshare resort we could use just 15 minutes out of the town itself.

Piazza Commune AssisiAssisi, in central Umbria,  is a walled hilltop town. Formerly a Roman town, remains of their occupation can still be found in its city walls, the forum (now Piazza del Comune), a theatre, an amphitheatre, a villa and the Temple of Minerva (now transformed into the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva).

Now the site of pilgrimages made to any of seven saints associated with this town, Assisi is inextricably linked with St. Francis, the gentle, animal-loving saint who was born here and who later founded the Franciscan order. Thus the major attraction of the town is the Basilica of San Francesco, begun in 1228 and completed in 1253, in a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles.

Basilica San FrancescoLower Church of St FrancisThere are actually two churches, an upper and a lower, Reliquary of St Francis of Assisiand a crypt where the remains of the saint are interred. The churches are decorated with frescoes by numerous late medieval painters, such as Giotto. We were fortunate to attend mass there and also to visit the crypt (and sneak a forbidden photo!)

Another church of note (among many in Assisi) is the Basilica of St Clare, dedicated to and containing the remains of Saint Clare of Assisi, a follower of Saint Francis and founder of the Order of Saint Clare, or the Poor Clares. I managed to get a photo of it in the distance, in the fading light.Assisi view

Portico del Monte FrumentarioRocca MaggioreThe Portico del Monte Frumentario is an especially impressive building with a series of stone arches. It is a distinctive landmark on the hilltop as you approach Assisi. Further up Mount Subasio are two medieval castles, the larger called Rocca Maggiore, from where you can get great views over the landscape below.

Piazza Commune Assisi 2Other Assisi highlights include the town hall square, Piazza del Comune, with its Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, the crenellated Palazzo dei Priori, the Lion’s fountain and the clock tower. 

In order to preserve the town and also because many of the cobbled streets are narrow, the commune actively dissuades car access except for residents. There are car parks outside the town for visitors, who then can enjoy the fascinating old town on foot. We made a habit of leaving our car at the top end of town so that to start with, our walking was downhill. On our way back up we stopped for a snack or a gelato, to break the walk. Dinner at a restaurant near our resort gave us the opportunity to sample the Sagrantino de Montefalco, one of Umbrias best wines, which we enjoyed. We also managed to find a good wine bar in Torgiano where we sampled various wines and cheeses from the region.

Orvieto DuomoAnother of the charming Umbrian cities is Orvieto, with its famous Duomo, one of the masterpieces of Italian Gothic art. Banded in black-and-white marble,  the church is adorned with frescoes, stunning mosaics, bas-reliefs and delicate braids of flowers and vines on its façade. Begun in 1290, it took three centuries to complete. Unfortunately for us, the façade was almost entirely covered with scaffolding!

Orvieto dates back to Etruscan times and is a walled town perched high on a plateau atop huge tufa cliffs. Since the town is closed to non-resident traffic, a funicular and escalators are provided to get visitors up to the historic centre. A secret underground city with tunnels, galleries, wells, stairs, quarries, cellars, and rooms dating back to Etruscan times have been discovered.

12 sided tower of St AndrewPalazzo del Capitano del Populo OrvietoOther notable attractions here are the 12 sided tower of San Andreas church, St Patrick’s Well, the Papal Palace and the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo (Town Hall).

Palazzo dei Priori PerugiaPerugia, only 25km from Assisi, is Umbria’s main city – a lively university town with a fascinating medieval centre. Its walled historic centre is also situated high on a hill, serviced by escalators. This area is full of cultural and architectural masterpieces, with one of the most extensive museum collections in Italy. One of the universities, the Universitá per Stranieri, serves as an Italian language and culture school for students from all over the world.Palazzo dei Priori front

The Palazzo dei Priori houses Umbria’s foremost art gallery, the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria as well as other functions such as the Council Hall and the Tourist Office. Above the steps to the main arched doorway facing the Piazza are the city’s symbols, the griffin of Perugia and the Imperial Guelf lion. It is a favourite spot for locals to sit, but don’t try to eat while sitting there or the Carabinieri will move you along with a warning!

Corso Pietro Vannucci PerugiaPerugia has become famous for chocolate, mostly because of a single firm, Perugina, whose Baci (kisses) are widely exported. Perugia chocolate is very popular in Italy, and the city hosts a chocolate festival in October of every year. We found the Casa di Cioccolato and bought some supplies. The shops in the town also sold lots of textiles and ceramics.

Fontana Maggiore PerugiaOther places of interest in Perugia include the Piazza IV Novembre, the Maggiore Fountain and the gothic Basilica of San Lorenzo. The piazza was the central Etruscan square and the Forum under Roman occupation. The fountain that stands at the centre of the square is considered one of the finest still in existence. At the southern end of the city, the Giardini Carducci is a nice spot for taking in the panoramic views and cooling off in the evening breeze.View from Piazza Italia Perugia

Private Tour: Assisi Day Trip from Rome – $88.23Swap the big city bustle for medieval small-town charms on this private day trip from Rome to Assisi. In the company of your very own driver-guide, travel through the Umbrian hills to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed town of Assisi. See the Church of Santa Chiara, the birthplace and childhood home of St Francis of Assisi, as well as the town hall square and the Roman Temple of Minerva. After lunch (own expense), visit the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Enjoy personalized attention from a private driver-guide.
Taste of Italy Food Tour to Chianti and Umbria from Rome – $135.52Discover the foods, wines and hill towns of Tuscany’s Chianti wine region and Umbria on this engaging full-day tour from Rome! Accompanied by an expert local guide, travel through Tuscany’s rolling countryside and visit the lovely medieval town of Cortona, with time to explore its cobbled lanes and absorb its old-world atmosphere. Enjoy a tasty regional lunch at a rural farmhouse restaurant, and wind through the vineyards of Chianti to the hill town of Montepulciano. Here, sample some delicious local wines at a traditional cellar before heading back to Rome.

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