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Assisi Travel guide

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Assisi is located in the middle of Italy in a very convenient position, at short distance from some of the most beautiful cities in Italy.

In Assisi there is an airport (Perugia-Sant' Egidio) with twice a day connection to the International airport of Milano-Malpensa. Due to this link a number of convenient connections to the major European cities are active (Paris, London, Frankfurt, Geneve, Madrid, ...).

Assisi is famous all over the world, thanks to its favourite son, St. Francis.

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The main characteristic of the city is its medieval structure that has remained intact over the centuries. The town sits on the slopes of Mount Subasio (424 meters above sea level) lying along overlapping natural terraces. Outstanding architecture, convenient geographical position as well as its mild and dry climate make it an ideal tourist spot all year long.

Assisi foundation goes back to the Umbri, a local population that settled here before the Etruscans and, successively, the Romans. Well preserved ruins (like the beautiful Temple of Minerva) are spread all over the city.

Assisi is more than just a home to the celebrated church. A stroll through the main square, Piazza del Comune, gives you an idea of this central Italian town’s rich history. You’ll find the Roman temple of Minerva, the Roman Forum (look under the square — really), and a Romanesque tower, alongside banks for changing money and plenty of shops for spending it. In the past couple years, the earthquakes did more damage to the town’s tourist industry than to the local buildings. But now the that the basilica has reopened, it’s back to business.

One of the artistic highlights of medieval Europe, the basilica is frescoed from top to bottom by Giotto and other leading artists of the day. One 13th century historian proclaimed, "No more exquisite monument to the Lord has been built”.

The church has three parts: Upper basilica, lower basilica and the saint’s tomb. The upper basilica, the part most damaged by the earthquakes, is newly restored. A bright Gothic gallery of frescoes shows 28 scenes from the life of St. Francis.

Who was St. Francis? A hometown boy who made very, very good. Eight hundred years ago, this simple friar from Assisi challenged the decadence of church government and society in general with a powerful message of non materialism, simplicity, and a “slow down and smell God’s roses” lifestyle. In an Italy torn by fighting between towns and families, Francis promoted peace. A huge monastic order grew out of his teachings, which were embraced by the church. After his death in 1226, he was speedily made a saint by 1228.

Avoid Assisi in summer, when the town bursts with splash-in-the-pan Francis fans and monastic knickknacks. But even then, those able to see past the tacky monk mementos can have a good experience. With a quiet hour in the awesome basilica and a meditative wander through the back streets, you can dissolve the tour buses and melt into the magic of Assisi.

Climb the fortress that crowns the town for a good look at a 14th century fortification and a fine view of Assisi and the Umbrian countryside. If you’re counting lire, the view is just as good from outside the castle. Enjoy a picnic of fresh-from-the-market produce surrounded by the same Umbrian hills and serenaded by the same bird song Francis enjoyed.

Assisi - History

Of Umbrian origins, the settlement became a Roman municipium under the name of Asisium. Until the 13th century the extension of the town coincided with the Roman one. Bishop Rufinus evangelised the inhabitants in 238 A.D. Taken by Totila in 545, it then became part of the Longobard and Frankish Duchy of Spoleto. In the 11th century a free commune is constituted: being of Ghibelline faith it always lived in opposition to the Guelfish Perugia. In 1198, taking advantage from the absence of the imperial vicar, Conrad von Lutzen, the inhabitants of Assisi attacked his fortress.

As Perugia tried to interfere with the liberation struggle of Assisi, the latter marched against Perugia and was beaten in a battle at Ponte San Giovanni. Among the prisoners taken by Perugia was a certain 22-years-old Giovanni di Bernardone, called Francesco. He was born in the winter between 1181 and 1182 as the child of a wealthy textile tradesman, Pietro di Bernardone, whose family came from Lucca, and his Provencal wife Pica.

After the captivity in Perugia, Francesco decided to make a reputation for knighthood participating in the crusade of Walter de Brienne, but an illness forced him to renounce already at Spoleto. In the meantime, in Assisi in 1197 was christened the future emperor Frederick II, three years after his birth on the market square of Jesi (near Ancona). Francesco decided to change his life, renouncing to the riches and the eases of his family fortune and praying at San Damiano had the vision which ordered him to restore the Church (1205).

In 1208, Francesco who had in the meantime received as a gift from the Benedictines the chapel of St. Maria degli Angeli, called as well the Porziuncola, founded his order of the Grey-Friars. After his encounter with Chiara di Favarone di Offreduccio, daughter of a noble Assisi family, in 1212 he founded for her a second order, the Clarisse's. Finally, in 1221 he founded in Cannara the Third Order (a lay-order). In 1224 he received at La Verna the stigmata and in 1226 expired at the Porziuncola. Only two years later he was proclaimed saint and the day after Pope Gregory IX laid the foundation stone of the church and the convent planned by Brother Elias, a companion of the Saint. Also St. Clare was canonised two years after her death of 1253 and a year later begun the construction of the church in her honour.

Notwithstanding the presence of these two eminent religious figures the future history of Assisi did not show many traces of it. In 1316 it enlarged its town-walls, incorporating the convent and church of St. Francis, the Benedictine convent of St. Peter and the town quarter Borgo Aretino. The decline of Assisi begun after the black death in 1348. In order to assure the Pontifical dominion over Assisi, Cardinal Aegidius Albornoz erected in 1367 the Rocca Maggiore on top of the ruins of the former imperial fortress. Since the 14th century and until the 16th century the two major Assisi families, the Nepis (of the upper town=Parte de Sopra) and the Fiumi (of the lower town=Parte de Sotto) continued to fight each other bitterly, although the town was dominated for long periods by several seigniories (Biordo Michelotti, Broglio di Trinci, Galeazzo Visconti, Braccio Fortebraccio, Francesco Sforza, Jacopo Piccinino). Only under the reign of Pope Pius II Piccolomini (1458-64) the domination of the Church over Assisi has been definitely restored.

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