If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the cities of Perugia and Assisi in the landlocked province of Umbria in central Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area might be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. These cities are hardly undiscovered, but that shouldn’t stop you from going. Be sure to read the companion articles in this series that present the city of Orvieto, and other sites in northern and in southern Umbria.
The city of Perugia is the capital of Umbria and a fine artistic center. This beautiful medieval hilltop city of about 160,000 is relatively unspoiled. It is quite a center of Italian language schools including the Università per Stranieri (Foreigners University) that houses more than eight thousand students. This university is within easy walking distance of most of Perugia’s tourist sights but you probably won’t want to walk from the train station location in the suburbs.
You may start your tour at the relatively unadorned Duomo (Cathedral of San Lorenzo) that dates back to the end of the Fifteenth Century. Actually there has been a Cathedral on this site since the mid-Eleventh Century. You may want to see a ring, said to be the Virgin Mary’s wedding ring which was stolen from a nearby town. Don’t be surprised that the ring is protected by more than a dozen locks. Of course there’s lots more to see in the Cathedral. The Duomo is right on the main city square, Piazza IV Novembre, which commemorates the Italian-Austrian armistice signed on November 3 (not 4), 1918.
Then it’s on to Palazzo dei Priori, a Thirteenth Century palace that became the center of foreign exchange. Make sure to see the frescoes, including some by Perugia’s number one Renaissance painter, Pietro Vannucci. You may never have heard of Vannucci, but are probably familiar with one of his students, Raffaello Sanzio, better known as Raphael. They say that Raphael once painted here. Most of this Palazzo now serves as the city hall and is closed to the public. This edifice’s fourth floor houses the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria devoted to Umbrian art ranging from the Thirteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Make sure to stroll down the Corso Vannucci from the Piazza IV Novembre to the Piazza d’Italia at nightfall before going for an aperitif and dinner.
Our last stop is a bit further away. It’s the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (National Archeological Musem) which has an excellent collection of Etruscan artifacts. Just in case you don’t remember your Italian history, the Etruscans ruled this part of the world until the Romans conquered them more than 2300 years ago. And don’t miss the San Domenico church next door.
Music lovers will find lots to hear in and near Perugia. For two weeks in late August and early September there’s the Festival delle Nazioni di Musica da Camera (International Chamber Music Festival) in the Città di Castello about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of the city. Then for ten days in September Perugia hosts the Sagra Musicale Umbra dedicated to traditional Umbrian music. But the best-known music festival is the Umbria Jazz Festival for 10 days in July. On a sweeter note, the third week in October means the Eurochocolate Festival.
Assisi is a walled town about 25 kilometers (16 miles) east of Perugia. This beautiful medieval town is one of the most important Christian pilgrimages. Don’t even think of bringing a car. This town honors St. Francis of Assisi, Italy’s patron saint and founder of the Franciscan order.
Start your tour outside the city in the caves of Monte Subasio where St. Francis and followers once lived. The church and monastery are located in woodlands. Bring some money to support those who live there. In the northeast section of town you will find the Amphitheater and other Roman buildings including a theater and a forum. Head west to the Duomo, San Rufino Cathedral where St. Francis was baptized. Then head south to the Thirteenth Century Santa Chiara church. Continue northwest to the Tempio di Minerva, remains of a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess of wisdom that became a Catholic church in the Sixteenth Century. Turn north for Rocca Maggiore, a fortress rebuilt during the Fourteenth Century that dominates the city. The view of Assisi and the Spoleto valley is magnificent. And if you are lucky, the fortress hosts art shows and various exhibits.
We have left the best for last. The Basilica of Saint Francis is has been a World Heritage Site since 2000. The Upper and Lower Basilicas were started in 1228, shortly after St. Francis’ canonization. Interestingly enough, the land was known as Collo d'Inferno (Hill of Hell). Here convicted criminals were put to death. The churches’ architecture is a combination of Romanesque and Gothic styles, and helped set the tone for many Italian edifices to come.
Don’t rush your visit. The complex includes a great collection of windows, frescoes, paintings, and more. For many people the high point will be the crypt where Francis is buried. By the way, there is a dress code, no bare shoulders and no bare knees.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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