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Episode #202: Amazing Assisi – Hosting Travelers for Centuries

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Nestled in the picturesque hills of the central Italian region of Umbria, Assisi stands as a timeless testament to history, legend, and architectural splendor. This medieval town, perching on the slopes of Mount Subasio, is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site but also a destination that captivates the hearts of all who wander its cobblestone streets. Home to the iconic Basilica of Saint Francis and steeped in the legacy of its revered namesake, Assisi is a place where the past seamlessly intertwines with the present.

Show notes

At Untold Italy we cannot fathom why Umbria isn’t as busy as Tuscany but at the same time we like it that way. It’s a beautiful, and peaceful corner of Italy where people just get on doing what they’ve always done for centuries. We just wrapped up our first Untold Italy small group tour there and our guest Barbara hit the nail on the head when she said that she didn’t feel like she was a tourist but like she was a local visiting family and friends. This is how we feel and why we choose to vacation and celebrate special moments there ourselves. Despite Umbria being so much quieter than Tuscany, there is one place in Umbria that has seen a constant stream of visitors throughout the year and that is Assisi. In this episode, we are joined by Isabella Bellucci, a local guide from the Umbria region to tell us all about the beautiful town of Assisi and what you can expect on a trip there.

untold italy umbria tours

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Isabella was born in Perugia and studied foreign languages – graduating in linguistic mediation. She’s a translator and interpreter in Russian and German and worked for large corporations until 1999 when she decided to combine her passion for foreign languages with art and become a tour guide. She’s been working as a tour guide since 2001 and loves it
  2. After 22 years of being a guide, she’s still very passionate about what she does. She loves meeting people from all over and showing them the beauties of her region – sharing the art, culture, food and wine
  3. Most famous for being the birthplace of St Francis, the patron saint of animals and ecology, Assisi has been a destination for pilgrims for many centuries
  4. Assisi is nestled right in the middle of Umbria. It’s been described as an island with the sea. There is no sea, but they have a beautiful lake and lots of rivers. It can be said that they have a green sea because they are surrounded by rolling hills, mountains and fields
  5. While most of Umbria is missed off the main tourist trails, Assisi is visited by four million tourists annually. It’s the native town of the very famous Saint, St. Francis, and also of St. Clare
  6. Assisi can be described as the spiritual and mystic heart of Italy because the most important saints were born there – as well as St. Francis and St. Clare, there is also St. Benedict, St. Scholastica, St. Rita and even St. Valentine was born there
  7. Assisi has always been on the pilgrim route, welcoming visitors for centuries who want to see the body of St. Francis
  8. Assisi is also the place where the best and most talented artists worked between the 13th and the 14th centuries, such as Giotto from Florence, considered by many the forerunner of the Renaissance
  9. Assisi was founded by the Umbrians, from which it is named. The Umbrians are considered the oldest people to settle in Italy
  10. They founded cities such as Spoleto and the famous Roman colony of Narni. Assisi later became a Roman municipality
  11. Famous travelers going on the Grand Tour, the customary, traditional trip through Europe for the wealthy (from the 17th to the early 19th century), including people such as Goethe, used to go to Assisi to admire one of the best-preserved Roman temples – the Minerva temple, which is still found in the main square of Assisi
  12. Assisi has a lot of Roman ruins, such as two Roman houses decorated with magnificent mosaics. This is why Assisi has been described as the Umbrian Pompeii
  13. Assisi is famous for the presence of the body of St. Francis. St. Francis was the founder of the first Mendiccan order in the world –  the Order of the Franciscan Friars
  14. He was a very rich man. He belonged to the bourgeoisie – the middle class. He wanted to raise his social scale, so he joined the army in 1202. But he was taken prisoner and ended up staying in jail in Perugia for a year. When he came back home he didn’t know what to do with his life and he popped into an abandoned church where he heard Jesus’ voice who told him not to sit in his house, it is in ruins – go and rebuild it
  15. He misunderstood these words initially and went about physically rebuilding churches. Then a few years later, he got the real meaning of these words – that he had to moralize. He had to rebuild the Catholic Church. So he became the first reformer of the Catholic Church, moralizing the spiritual church
  16. The church was experiencing a very deep spiritual crisis and needed to be renovated, so he renewed the Catholic Church. He was immediately made a saint after he died and the top of his tomb, they built a shrine full of art. So it’s not only the venue of a religious revolution but also of an artistic revolution
  17. This is where famous artists such as Cimabue, Simone Martini, and Pietro Lorenzetti broke out with Byzantine art. So Assisi is also a place to head for art lovers, not only for pilgrims
  18. The Basilica is made up of two imposing churches. There is the lower part that was built in only two years
  19. Francis died in 1226 and he was made a saint two years after. The day after his canonization Pope, Gregor IX, blessed the cornerstone of that basilica, which was finished, the lower part, in just two years – in1230, when Francis could be buried in there
  20. They then had to interrupt the building because the followers of St. Francis were excommunicated.  When Francis died, he had appointed as his successor, a friar called Elias from Cortona who was friends with and had very tight connections to the the worst enemy of the Pope – the German Emperor, Frederick II of Swabia
  21. Frederick was actually a great guy. He was a good Christian and was the only one who conquered Jerusalem without using weapons or any violence, but thanks to his diplomatic skills. He knew Arabic, and he had in his entourage, in his court, Jews, Muslims, and Christians peacefully living together and with the same rights. Isabella is still a little in love with this man who died in 1250
  22. Frederick II was the Germanic Emperor and the Pope hated him. When the Basilica was finally finished, within 25 years, they built two huge churches, one on top of each other. The Basilica of St. Francis is a Papal Basicilla one and belongs to the Vatican State, so many popes held services there
  23. Even if you are not religious, it’s a very moving place to visit
  24. The different parts are completely different from each other. The lower part is Romanesque, narrow and very dark. It symbolizes the death. The upper part is very high, and elongated, with lots of light
  25. It’s an important place also for art lovers. It’s a museum where you can see the evolution of art
  26. Isabella likes the lower part where Francis is depicted next to the Virgin Mary, and Mary is making a gesture – where she’s pointing. Like many Italians, she is speaking with her body
  27. If you compare it to somewhere like St. Peter’s in Rome or some of the other big churches, it feels a lot more personal. It feels a lot more intimate whoever or whatever you believe in – it has a sense of peace
  28. During the Fifth Crusade, St. Francis wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to live with Muslims. He didn’t want to convert anybody. He is beloved by everybody, by all religions and the non-religious.  He used to preach universal values such as peace, respect for everybody, for nature and for animals
  29. Assisi is the symbol of peace in the world. In 1986, John Paul II invited the Dalai Lama and the representatives of all religions in the world to Assisi. They all went there and prayed together for peace
  30. Another St. of Assisi is Clare – Chiara in Italian who was originally a noblewoman
  31. Noble women had only two options in their lives. They could either get married or become a nun. When Clare was only 19, she gave up all her worldly goods, renounced her father’s inheritance and decided to go in the footsteps of St. Francis. She wanted to help the poor, visit the lepers and the sick, just like Francis and the Franciscans. But as she was a woman, she had to accept a compromise with the Catholic Church – she had to be cloistered, meaning she was not permitted to stay outside her monastery
  32. There is still a monastery dedicated to St. Clare with 38 nuns living in it in Assisi
  33. It’s not actually an Italian tradition, but in Spain and in South America, when people get married, they pray to St. Clare to have good weather for the wedding

Visiting Assisi

  • Assisi is right up on the hill. Right below the Basilica is a big parking lot where you arrive by bus or car. From there, it’s just 5 minute walk up the hill. Or you can arrive by train and then take a taxi or a bus all the way up to the Basilica of St. Clare, and then you can do the visit from the very top all the way down – walking downhill
  • Isabella suggests starting from the top of the town, the Roman district – Perlici
  • If you look at Google Maps, you don’t get this sense of the height or the levels of the town but it is pretty steep, so if you start at the top, you can walk downhill and maybe stop off for your mostaccioli cookie (more on that later) or some gelato along the way
  • You can take a train from Rome – there are very fast trains that can get you to Assisi in 2 hours. From the train station, you then take a bus or a taxi, so, in 2 hours and a half, you are in the heart of the city
  • Assisi is a typical Umbrian town – a hilltop town made of stone and cobbled streets. It is a wonderful place just to explore and stroll around – wandering around the narrow alleys and streets. People are really proud of their environment, and they love to plant pot plants with lots of colorful flowers like in the nearby Spello (hear more about Spello in episode 65)
  • And so you have this beautiful town, which I think is pretty unique in Umbria as well, with the Roman ruins and the basilica. It’s got a lot of things happening there. You could easily spend half a day exploring – at least
  • If you like hiking, you could also walk to the highest part of Assisi – up to the Hermitage of the Prisons, which is a spiritual place where Francis used to go to meditate. There’s a nice hiking trailer where you can stop and enjoy the views – you can see olive groves, vineyards, sunflowers and poppy fields
  • As well as the religious You can tour Roman ruins such as the two Roman houses painted with frescoes and decorated with mosaics. You can also visit the Roman Forum, the Minerva temple, and the area where the amphitheater was
  • There’s a huge castle – a Papal fortress, which has just been renovated that you can either walk or take an electric minibus to
  • Inside you can do a tour of the castle and see amazing views of the valley. You can see all the way to Spoleto and Perugia
  • This is where the Pope’s troops lived until 1860 because things were under the power of the Pope until 1860
  • As is common in history, the people of the city were often fighting. There would even be internal fights – like the rivalry between Romeo and Juliet’s families. In Assisi, the upper part was always fighting against the lower parts
  • They now reenact these rivalries in a medieval festival called Calendimaggio, which takes place on the first weekend of May. People  dress up in medieval costumes, there are parades, there’s a choral contest, they elect the most beautiful woman, Madonna Primavera, and they reenact typical medieval daily scenes
  • There’s a jury that each year elects which is the best part of the city – the upper and the lower part. A great rivalry! Tuscany is very strong on the Renaissance side of things. Umbria is very medieval

Eating in Assisi

  • Mostaccioli are cookies from Assisi that are a must-try on a visit there. These are the cookies Francis wanted to eat just before he died
  • Francis had a woman friend called Jacopa de Settesoli. He had a very special relationship with her and when he was dying he wrote her a letter, where he referred to her as Frate Jacopa (Brother Jacopa). He asked her to come to the Porziuncola Chapel and bring him some linen tissues that he wanted to be covered with and the mostaccioli he liked so much
  • Jacopa de Settesoli is the only woman who could be buried inside his grave
  • The mostaccioli are made with must. The must is from when you squeeze the grapes before the fermentation, you have a grape juice that is called mosto in Italian
  • During the grape harvest, when you have this grape juice, you make the mostaccioli
  • You can still find them in many bakeries – there are 2 or 3 bakeries in Assisi and Sensi (Vicolo degli Esposti) is one of the best
  • There are lots of nice restaurants in Assisi to enjoy local dishes
  • Katy and her family stopped off in Assisi and had dinner overlooking the sun setting over these beautiful hills. Because you’re up so high, you can see everything – it’s just a stunning view
  • Umbria has a great reputation for cured meat – salami, flavourful prosciutto, and sausages. These are known as Norcineria. The tradition comes from Norcia, the native town of St. Benedict, and that’s where they start curing meats. Prosciutto from Norcia is different from parma or other ones
  • Norcineria is really famous in Italy. Italians will go out of their way to get this particular cured meat
  • You can taste the Norcineria with cheeses and olive oil. Umbrian olive oil is considered one of the best
  • Umbria is also famous for its Porchetta – the delicious stuffed, roast pork. Isabella nearly forgot to mention this and was worried she would be excommunicated as an Umbrian as porchetta is a cuisine synonymous with Umbria. It’s the ultimate pork roast you’ve ever had in your life. Discover more about Porchetta and other delicious Umbrian dishes in episode 117

Visiting Umbria

  • Umbria is an amazing region that’s so undervalued outside of Italy. This is part of the reason we love it so much, because when you go there, you don’t feel like you’re part of a mass tourist crowd – you feel like you’re experiencing life
  • Katy was told by someone that Umbria, because it’s landlocked, hasn’t had so many foreign influences involved in their cuisine or in their way of life. It could be said that it’s quintessentially Italian – the original and ultimate Italian. This is different compared to somewhere like Sicily which is amazing in itself but has been influenced by so many different countries over the years
  • Near to Assisi you have the lovely town of Perugia and there are vineyards all around you can visit
  • Not far from Assisi is a winery called Saio Assisi. They have created an amazing experience where you have a picnic in the vineyard –  overlooking the town
  • In Assisi city, you could also have some Italian classes – there’s a school where you can study Italian. There are not too many distractions there – so you can concentrate on your studies
  • Another great place to learn Italian is nearby Perugia. This is where they founded the very first university for foreigners in Italy in 1926
  • Isabella suggests not just visiting in summer, but also in winter. At Christmas, you see these beautiful churches illuminated with special lights and video mapping with famous frescoes painted by Giotto and Cimabue projected on the facade of old churches
  • Summer is often not the best time to go. Our tours in Umbria are in Spring and Fall because of the Spring flowers and then the olive and wine harvest
  • So many places like Switzerland, Austria and Germany are talked about for their Christmas markets, but Italy also does them brilliantly – and their illuminations and projections of beautiful lights onto the buildings
  • Katy found that Assisi at nighttime without the illuminations was pretty special in itself, so it must be even more so with the added illuminations
  • There are live nativity scenes –  where you have the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, etc
  • Christmas festivities start from around the 8th of December until the arrival of the Maggi on January 6th

Isabella’s Umbria

You can visit Isabella’s website www.tourguideumbria.com for many suggestions about Assisi and places to visit in Umbria – little villages as well as towns and cities because Umbria is considered the region of a hundred hamlets (Borghi).

untold italy umbria tours

About our guests – Isabella Bellucci

 

Isabella Bellucci has been a certified local tour guide in Umbria since 2001. Her passion for languages led her to study and travel in many countries around the world and she graduated in Linguistic Mediation. After a career in foreign commercial relations for some prestigious companies, she decided to unite her first passion of art, her language skill and her passion for her home region of Umbria by becoming a local tour guide.
She is an official member of the Regional and National Association of certified local guides in Italy (AGTU and ANGT) and is licensed to give her tours in English, French, German and Spanish.

You can find Isabella on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show
  • Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi – the mother church of the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor Conventual in Assisi
  • Perugia – the capital city of Umbria 
  • Spoleto – a city in Umbria dating from the 12th century
  • Narni – ancient hilltown overhanging a narrow gorge of the Nera River in the province of Terni, Umbria
  • Temple of Minerva – an ancient Roman building built in the 1st century BC in Assisi. Currently houses a church, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, built in 1539 and renovated in Baroque style in the 17th century
  • Porziuncola – small Catholic church located within the Papal Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi about 4 kilometers from Assisi
  • Pasticceria Sensi – bakery in Assisi
  • Hermitage of the Pristons – a monastic retreat known also as ‘L’Eremo delle Carceri’
  • Norcia – in the province of Perugia, Umbria. Known in English by its Latin name Nursia
  • Saio Assisi – winery near Assisi that offers picnics in the vineyard

Food & Drink

  • mostaccioli – famous cookies from Assisi 
  • norcineriaa pork butcher selling pork, salami etc, in Umbria, named after Norcia

Resources

  • St Francis of Assisi  – an Italian Catholic friar from the 1100s and one of the most venerated religious figures in Christianity
  • Clare of Assisi – an Italian saint and one of the first followers of Francis of Assisi. Her feast day is on 11 August.
  • Scholastica – a saint born in Italy in the ninth century, regarded as the founder of the Benedictine nuns. The twin of another saint – St. Benedict of Nursia, her feast day is 10 February
  • St Rita – after Rita’s husband died, she joined an Augustinian  community of religious sisters with various miracles are attributed to her intercession
  • Giotto – an Italian painter and architect from Florence during the Late Middle Ages
  • Pliny the Elder – named Gaius Plinius Secundus was a Roman author, naturalist, natural philosopher, and naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire. Died 79 AD
  • gents antiquissimae – the oldest nation
  • Goethe – born in the mid-1700s, was a German poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, politician, theatre director, and critic
  • Cimabue – 1240 – 1302 an Italian painter and designer of mosaics 
  • Simone Martini – born in 1284, an Italian painter born in Siena
  • Pietro Lorenzetti – Italian painter active between in the first half of the 1300s
  • Swabia – a cultural, historic and linguistic region in southwestern Germany
  • Elias of Cortona – among the first to join Francis of Assisi in his newly founded Order of Friars Minor
  • Jacopa de Settesoli –  a follower of Francis of Assisi. She is also called Jacqueline Marie de Settesoli, or Brother Jacoba
  • Calendimaggio – festival in Assisi on the first weekend of May

An Untold Italy Tour of Umbria

If you like the sound of Umbria and its medieval towns and cities, like Gubbio, we’d love you to join us on tour later this year as we explore Umbria during the harvest season. There’ll be delicious porchetta, local wine, and freshly pressed olive oil for which the region is celebrated. You’ll find all the details on our website at tours.untolditaly.com/umbria

Resources from Untold Italy

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