The Pearls of Umbria. Perugia and Assisi.

The Pearls of Umbria. Perugia and Assisi.

Italian Umbria is always in the shadow of Tuscany . Too bad, because Umbria is just as good: beautiful views, charming towns and magnificent monuments. An added advantage is less tourist hustle and bustle, which means lower prices and more peace . In this somewhat underappreciated, unknown Umbria you’ll find unusual stories from ancient times, modified by the first centuries of Christianity and culminating in the teachings of St. Francis. The cuisine is as good as in Tuscany. You can taste excellent local products, including delicious truffle delicacies. Finally, you’ll find lots of quiet churches where, after a long walk, you can enjoy contemplating fascinating works of art. And all this without the madness and crowds of tourists of the neighbouring region.

Perugia

Pearls of Umbria. Perugia and Assisi - Photo 2

Perugia

Perugia, the region’s capital, is old, atmospheric, full of alleyways. And rich in centuries of experience. But it is not an experience of wars or coups. Great events have avoided this city on the hill. Although in the Etruscan period it occupied a leading position , in addition the city was the seat of the medieval popes . However, the region was periodically affected by earthquakes. The last one was a few months ago, but the most dramatic one was in Amatrice, 70 km from the city. It killed around 300 people and destroyed the town. The last time tragedy struck the region of Perugia was in 1997, and although no trace of those tragic events is visible anymore, the inhabitants have not forgotten it. They know the ground could shake beneath their feet again. Let’s walk to the market. It is not as you might have seen it in other cities. It is futile to look for symmetry here. Here is the Pallaso dei Priori, the seat of the municipal authorities and the cathedral (14th century) . All made of light stone. Even the street, whose sidewalk is so smooth that it reflects the direct rays of the sun and is very easy to slip on. Between the two buildings is the Fontana Maggiore, the last work of Niccolò Pisano, together with his son Giovanni Pisano. They wove here a fairy tale with bas-reliefs where pagan deities, nymphs, allegories of the months, science and art spin in a merry-go-round with Catholic saints.

The pearls of Umbria. Perugia and Assisi - Photo 3

Perugia

We walk a little through the narrow streets. After walking along Via Guglielmo Calderini, we come to the small Piazza Giacomo Matteotti. It’s here where the vendors offer local delicacies . Truffles with a strong characteristic smell dominate the stalls. They are added to artichoke pâtés, tomatoes and everything else. There is also the phenomenal truffle oil, which you can buy in tiny bottles for a few euros. On a cold winter evening they remind you of the taste of Umbria. Around the stalls are numerous shop windows . Mostly bakeries and pastry shops . You can have a small cup of espresso with one of the many flavored meat sandwiches . You will need energy because we still have a long way to go. Via Volte della Pace, which runs uphill from Via Alessi, first takes a staircase hidden in the wall of a building. Time stands still for a moment and it seems that soon the torches will be lit and we will meet the bard serenading his beloved at her window. Then, in the Chapel of San Severo, we can admire the only preserved fresco by Raphael in Perugia. From here it is not far to Arco Etrusco. It is a monumental building whose shade delights everyone in the area, especially when the sun is mercilessly burning. Its history goes back to antiquity. The first building was probably built in the 4th or 3rd century B.C. and was later rebuilt by the Romans. There is an inscription on the gate that commemorates the naming of the city Perusia Augusta, in honor of the Emperor Octavian Augustus. In the 15th century a lodge was added to the facade of the arch. Then we have a pleasant wander through the densely populated streets. However, the further north one goes, the lower the buildings become. But their walls become more and more colorful.

The Pearls of Umbria. Perugia and Assisi - photo 4

Perugia

It is a must to walk along Boulevard Giuseppe Garibaldi, which will lead us to two unusual monuments located almost at the end of this street. The first is the Tempio Sant’Angelo . This small church is built in a circular pattern. It was probably built in the 5th century on the site of a pagan temple. The church can be accessed through a beautiful garden with a well-kept lawn, on which here and there sit the young people of Perugia . They use this quiet place to read or just sunbathe. The church has a special atmosphere of peace and divine spirit. The extremely diffused light that falls on the ancient columns makes you think of the history of the spread of Christian culture in the Apennine Peninsula . From here it’s only a few steps to the charming Porta Sant’Angelo . It’s a striking example of medieval architecture. It’s probably the most picturesque building of its kind in the city. Inside is an interesting museum dedicated to the city’s fortifications. From here you can continue west. There, still within the walls, you can admire the Church of St. Francis and the Oratory of San Bernardino. However, it is better to go down via Zefferino Fainy , and then walk along the charming promenade that has been transformed into the former aqueduct . The inhabitants of the houses along it try to decorate the balustrades with bright flowers, which makes the place very cheerful and friendly.

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Assisi

The Pearls of Umbria. Perugia and Assisi - photo 5

Assisi

Many tourists, not necessarily Catholics, go to St. Francis. He is considered a Christian saint who is most often visited by atheists. This is not surprising – the story of this man’s life is so fascinating, and his attitude to the world is so gentle that you want to get to know him better. Entering the city from the port of San Pietro . On the left you can see the place of pilgrimage. However, there are few people here. Life goes on lazily and sleepily. The atmosphere does not feel extremely sublime – rather light and calm. Maybe it is a merit of a philanthropist, who testified with his life that it is possible to live in harmony with everything that surrounds us? And the monumental building, erected in honor of a poor man, doesn’t even look fake. It is enormous in its simplicity, it fascinates with the white stone and the ornamentation of the rosettes placed above the porticoes of the upper and lower temple. Inside there is a lot of noise and bustle, but no artificial atmosphere is felt. Groups of schoolchildren on a tour, priests, families, single tourists all marvel at the beautiful frescoes by Giotto. The frescoes are so magically colorful and so well known from thousands of sketches that every familiar detail is pleasing to the eye. Visitors point their fingers at Francis’ Sermon to the Birds or the Trial by Fire before the Sultan .

The Pearls of Umbria. Perugia and Assisi - Photo 6

Assisi

St. Francis also guards his church. When a major earthquake struck the city in 1997, the church was only slightly damaged by the collapse of some of the vaults of the transept and nave. True, four people died on that occasion, but when you compare it to the destruction elsewhere, it’s a miracle that there were so few casualties or damage to property. St. Francis Street is a pleasant street with unobtrusive souvenir stores and restaurants . There are many tiny chapels on the roofs of buildings that are worshipped by the inhabitants every day. The streets rise higher and higher. After the uninteresting Piazza del Comune with the town hall and the Tempio Minerva, turn left into Via San Rufino.

The Pearl of Umbria. Perugia and Assisi - photo 7

Assisi

After a short ascent you will see the church of S. Rufino. It is named after one of the first bishops of Assisi. Its Romanesque façade is one of the most magnificent in Umbria. But its interior is not impressive – inside the church is empty and dark. This time let’s walk through the labyrinth of streets. Through charming streets we come to a beautiful square with an open view, on which stands the church of St. Clara . It is a disciple of St. Francis and the legend of their unusual relationship still exists today. It is said that Clara, following her mentor, decided to renounce the world and join the convent. It was not easy, she came from a wealthy family and her family intended to marry her off. However, she secretly met Francis, who became her spiritual father. But one day she ran away from home and took her religious vows. The church itself is a building from 1265. It was built on the site of the former church of San Giorgio, where Francis and Clara were buried.

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The Pearls of Umbria. Perugia and Assisi - photo 8

Assisi

This is almost the end of a visit to Assisi . However, you should definitely visit the church of St. Damiano . It is already beyond the city walls. From the church of St. Clara, you turn right towards Porta Nuova and then a bit downhill. At first you pass a lovely olive grove and then, at the end of a steeply descending road, the small buildings timidly appear. Only as you get closer can you see that you are in a small ancient monastery.

The Pearls of Umbria. Perugia and Assisi - Photo 9

Assisi

This is the church and monastery of San Damiano. The place where, according to legend, in 1205 Francis, while praying, met and talked to Jesus Christ. In 1212, St. Clare and her followers settled there and the construction of the first convent of the Clarisse began. It is worth going inside. From the threshold, the filigree of the place is striking. A tiny chapel with a copy of the famous crucifix, then the choir and the living quarters … Finally we pass through the cozy street of St. Clara. To this day, it pleases the eye with beautiful flowers. And the surrounding monasteries give it an unusual charm. This is the end of our tour of the pearls of Umbria. Charming and fascinating places. Yet it is surprising that these places are underappreciated and still so rarely visited.

Practical information

The Pearl of Umbria. Perugia and Assisi - Photo 10

Practical information

Country: Italy . Geography: Umbria is located almost in the center of the Apennine peninsula. It borders Tuscany, the Marche and Lazio. The Tiber River crosses the region from north to south. Transportation: Perugia and Assisi are served by Perugia San Francesco d’Assisi – Umbria International Airport. From here you can fly to Munich (Lufthansa/Air Dolomiti) and year round to Bucharest (Wizz Air) and Bari (Mistral Air). However, the best way to get here is by plane to Rome (to one of the airports) and then by train from Termini or Tiburtina stations. The cheapest train ticket one way is about 12 euros (travel time 2.5-3 hours). On the way to Perugia you pass Assisi where most trains stop. The journey between Perugia and Assisi takes about 20-30 minutes. It costs about 3€. Currency: euro. When crossing the border: passport . Travelling around Umbria: no restrictions . The easiest way to travel between major cities is relatively cheap trains . Unfortunately, their big disadvantage is the timeliness . Near Perugia, two roads intersect: the north-south axis (SS3bis / E45) and the east-west axis (SS73 / SS318), connecting the A1 (Milan-Bologna-Rome-Naples) and the A14 (along the west coast from Bologna to Bari). Additional information: A day trip from Rome to both Perugia and Assisi is easy to arrange on your own. If you want to spend more time in Umbria, it’s worth stopping in Umbria or Todi, where accommodation is much cheaper than in Assisi.

Assisi sights

This small town is popular with Italians and visitors because it is the birthplace of San Francesco and his successor, Santa Chiara. In honor of the saints, the Assisi people have built two beautiful churches, another attraction of the city is the cathedral named after St. Rufino, the patron saint of Assisi.

History

View of Assisi

Assisi traces its history back to a modest settlement in 1000 BC. In the 5th century BC. Umbria was inhabited by the Etruscans, who were engaged in the development of the city. A century later, Etruscan domination was replaced by Roman rule, and the settlement was given the Latin name Assisium. By the 3rd century A.D. the inhabitants of Assisi had converted to Christianity thanks to the efforts of Rufinus of Assisi who later became the city’s bishop. During the Visigoth invasion of Italy, the city was also pillaged and many of its historical monuments were destroyed.

Assisi was conquered by Friedrich I of Hohenstaufen (German: Friedrich I Rotbart) during the Second Italian Campaign in the 12th century. During this period the construction of military fortifications around the city began. The next significant period for Assisi was the 13th and 14th centuries. The activities of Francis of Assisi and Clara of Assisi and their successors gave a strong impetus to the construction of sacral structures.

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Panorama of Assisi historical monuments

The city would later go through many twists and turns due to the wars in Fragmented Italy, Napoleon’s invasion in the 18th century and its annexation to the United Italian State in 1860.

Attractions

Piazza Municipio

The Piazza del Comune (Piazza Municipio) is the heart of Assisi’s social life. The central town square is a couple of hundred meters from the cathedral, at this point many attractions are concentrated.

Archaeological research in the Piazza del Comune suggests that in Roman times it was the site of a forum where town meetings and political debates were held. The modern square of the Municipality gained its status in the 13th century, when the buildings and services that played an important role in Assisi’s life began to be built along the perimeter of an ordinary town square:

Assisi - Temple of Minerva

  • The ancient Temple of Minerva (Chiesa di Santa Maria sopra Minerva), dating back to the 1st century B.C., was preserved for posterity.
  • In 1282, the map of Assisi acquired a new landmark, the Palace of the People’s Captain (Capitano del Popolo) built for the needs of the military of the time, later transformed into the town hall. The medieval tower, crowned with a crenellated crown, has been in the possession of the Franciscan order followers since the 20th century.
  • The Palazzo dei Priori, built in the 13th and 15th centuries as a residence for the Fathers, today houses the municipality. The walls are decorated with the coats of arms of the Church of the 14th and 15th centuries. The building is decorated with a decorative gallery and medieval ceiling frescoes. Curiously, one of the frescoes, the face of the Madonna and Child Jesus, belongs to the artists of the workshop of Giotto di Bondone.The palace also houses the Pinacoteca (collection of paintings) of the city.

Assisi - Piazza Municipio

  • An undoubted public favorite is the fountain in the form of a three-stage bowl guarded by lions . The fountain is said to have been organized between the 16th and 17th centuries by the architect Giovanni Martinucci.

St. Francis Basilica

The Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi is about 1 km from the city center, but it is certainly the main attraction and the destination of many pilgrims. The church was built shortly after the death and canonization of Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. There is no more popular attraction in the city than the cradle of the Franciscan order.

The snow-white temple, surrounded by galleries and a bell tower, is a harmonious blend of Gothic and Italian architecture. The layout of the Church of San Francesco in Assisi has a multilevel structure: the crypt, the lower church and the upper church. The church’s tiers are amazing due to the painstaking work of artists and sculptors of the 13th and 14th centuries: Cimabue, Giotto, Pietro Lorenzetti, the master of St. Francis, Simone Martini. The frescoes by Giotto and his disciples illustrating the life of St. Francis are particularly heartfelt.

A beautiful view of Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis opens from the rosary.

The Cathedral of Saint Rufinus

The Cathedral of St. Rufino (Cattedrale di San Rufino) is consecrated in the name of a 3rd-century Christian preacher who, according to legend, was the city’s first bishop. Historians speculate that San Rufino stands on the site of an ancient Romanesque temple.

Assisi - Cathedral

Church chronicles do not give an exact answer to the question of when the temple appeared. Some sources say that the relics of Saint Rufinus were placed in the cathedral at the beginning of the 5th century, others insist on the 8th century. What is known for certain is that in the 11th century the cathedral, after a grandiose reconstruction, received the status of a cathedral.

San Rufino experienced at least five major reorganizations, and each of them left their mark on the appearance of the church. The entrance to the cathedral is decorated with stucco in the form of plants and animals, dating back to the early Middle Ages. The interior decoration is created in the Renaissance style, most of the decorations were made in the 16th century by Galeazzo Alesi. Among the interior of the church stand out the statues of the saints: Francis and Clara. Also on the vaults of the cathedral you can see frescoes from the 17th century and decorative stucco from the 19th century.

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Assisi - The Crypt of San Rufino

From the cathedral building, you can enter the church’s museum, which contains valuable 14th-century paintings, 15th-century murals, and elements of older church buildings. In the church itself you can admire unique relics: the terracotta sculpture “Mourning” of the 19th century, an organ of the 17th century, the “Communion” chapel of the 17th century, richly decorated by the baroque artist Giacomo Giorgetti.

Of particular interest is the crypt of San Rufino, in which the remains of the saint rest, surrounded by ancient stones that were once part of the temple. The entire complex is part of the Diocesan Museum (Museo diocesano e cripta di san Rufino).

  • Address: Piazza San Rufino, 3
  • Opening hours: from 10:00 to 13:00 and from 15:00 to 18:00.
  • Tickets cost 3.5 euro, concessions: 2.5 euro.
  • Web site: www.assisimuseodiocesano.com

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

The Pontifical Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli is on the outskirts of Assisi at the foot of the hill, 3 km from the city.

Assisi - Santa Maria degli Angeli

The impressive size of the church was built in the 16th century in addition to an earlier structure, the bell tower, dating back to the 9th century. The bell tower has the name “Porziuncula,” in honor of the summer feast of absolution founded by St. Francis. At one time the monk spent much time in prayer within the walls of this bell tower. Also in the basilica a young Umbrian aristocrat, known in Catholicism as Saint Clara, took her tonsure.

There are some relics of great interest inside Santa Maria degli Angeli: a 13th century crucifix by Giunta Pisano, the face of St. Francis by Cimabue and the chapel where Francis drew his last breath.

  • Address: Via Porziuncola, 1
  • Opening hours: Monday through Friday 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 3 to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; Sunday off.
  • Website: www.porziuncola.org

New Church

Assisi - New Church

Not far from San Rufino you can find another church, the New Church (Chiesa Nuova), dating back to the 17th century. Legend has it that in the 13th century there was a house where the St. Francis family lived on the site of the church. The building, made of brown brick, is of modest size. The cozy baroque church is decorated inside with frescoes depicting Francis of Assisi as well as the Evangelists. Another unquestionable decoration of the place is the sculpture depicting Francis’ father and mother, installed outside the church in 1984.

S. Clara Basilica

The Basilica di Santa Chiara is situated on a hill and therefore the surrounding square offers great views of the lower town and the surrounding area.

The Basilica was built in the 13th century to commemorate Clara, a faithful follower of St. Francis. This church was the first resting place for the body of the deceased priest, later reburied in San Francesco in Assisi. Next to the church is the cloister of the Clarisse for girls.

The extensive white and pink building of the Basilica of S. Clara has a marked tendency toward the Gothic. The arched peak of the church’s tympanum, the openwork circle of the rose window, and the horizontal division of the building into three parts present an imposing and yet touching picture. The church is adjoined by a bell tower, which in its height surpasses even the bell tower of St. Francis Church!

Assisi - Basilica of Saint Clara

Inside, the chapel of St. George, numerous frescoes depicting the life of St. Clare and St. Francis, as well as biblical themes, are interesting to look at. The frescoes in the main altar of the basilica by Giotto are of undeniable value. Saint Clara herself rests in a sarcophagus beneath the main altar; in the 19th century a crypt was built for this purpose.

  • Address: Via Santa Chiara, 49
  • Church hours: 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4:30 to 8 p.m.; Monumental complex hours: 9:30 to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays.
  • Ticket price: full ticket 6 euros, reduced ticket 4,5 euros.
  • Official website: www.monasterodisantachiara.com
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The Abbey Church of St. Peter

Assisi - St. Peter's Abbey Church

The church of St. Peter (Abbazia di San Pietro) appeared in the 10th century and its modern appearance began to take shape in the 13th century. This modest building has at its core a three-nave Romanesque basilica, decorated with some elements typical of the buildings of the Order of St. Benedict. Notably, all of the city’s other churches are under the patronage of the Franciscan order.

Although San Pietro was well restored in the mid-20th century, its building suffered damage during a major earthquake in Assisi in 1997. After a long restoration, the church was not reopened until 2002.

The facade of the building is paved with slabs of pink sandstone quarried from the local mountains of Monte Subasio. Three round carved windows are placed above the entrance to the building. Above the dome of the church, the small square tower of the bell tower is visible. The interior decoration of the church is quite laconic: the altar, with the crypt underneath and the decoration of the apse have been damaged during the earthquake, the vaults are decorated with partly surviving frescoes and sculptures from the 14th century. The “Communion Chapel” is the most ornate with Gothic architecture and paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Great Fortress

The sights of Assisi have on their list another curiosity, the Great Fortress (Rocca maggiore), which is perfectly visible from anywhere in the city.

Assisi - The Great Fortress

The fort, standing on a hill, has stood above the city since the conquest of Umbria by Charlemagne (11th century). In the late 12th century the fortress on the hill was badly damaged and remained in a deplorable condition until the 14th century. Cardinal Egidio Albornoz reconstructed the fort, increasing its area with additional towers and fortifications.

Assisi - The Great Fortress, a mock everyday life

In the following centuries, the Great Fortress underwent many more reconstructions until it was no longer needed in the 17th century. The labyrinths of narrow corridors, numerous spiral staircases and rooms fell into disrepair. In such a “preserved” form the curiosity survived to this day. The trapezoidal monolith of the fort attracts tourists, promising unforgettable views of Assisi and the surrounding valley.

  • Address: Piazzale delle Liberta Comunali
  • Opening hours: from November to February from 10:00 to 15:45; in spring and autumn months the opening hours are extended to 19:00 and in summer to 19:30.
  • Ticket prices: full ticket €5.5, reduced ticket €3.5.

St. Damian Church

The Church of Saint Damian (Chiesa di San Damiano) is located a few kilometers from Assisi, south of San Rufino.

Assisi - Church of Saint Damian

The landmark appeared on the city map in the 11th century . In the 13th century, Francis of Assisi saw that the temple was in disrepair and heard a voice from above that commanded him to restore the house of God. To fulfill the covenant he received, the young man spent all his savings and sold goods from his father’s shop. Even the threat of permanently severing relations with his family did not stop Francis.

Frescoes in the Church of St. Damian

During the 13th century, there was a convent of the Clarisse Sisters, organized by St. Clara, near the Church of St. Damian. In memory of those times, a statue of the saint at the entrance to the temple has been preserved. The church building is quite compact, being a single-nave basilica decorated with ceiling paintings from the 14th century. There is also an unusual relic in the temple – the “money window” in which St. Francis once hid the money raised for the renovation of the temple.

  • Address: Via San Damiano, 85
  • Opening times: from 6:15 to 12:00 and from 14:00 to 19:45 (in winter until 17:45).
  • Entrance is free.
  • Website: www.assisiofm.it

How to get there

Assisi - Railway Station

Assisi is conveniently located for tourists traveling by rail. Trains coming from Perugia, Florence and Rome (cost about 10 euros) are sure to stop at the town station. The map of Assisi says that the train station is 4 kilometers from the city, so travelers should take the local bus line C. This route is great to get to the city, to the Basilica of San Francesco or to get to the area around the cathedral.

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