Assisi, home of St. Francis
Perched on a hilltop, the enchanting town of Assisi, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the birthplace of one of Italy’s patron saints, St. Francis (the other is St. Catherine of Siena who was born in Siena, Tuscany). Assisi offers a myriad of reasons to be included in an Umbrian itinerary: spectacular views from many different points, the elegant Basilica of Santa Chiara and the Roman Temple of Minerva on Piazza del Comune, to name a few.
Ultimately, the main reason to head to Assisi is all things St. Francis, especially the basilica named after him. Born into a wealthy family in 1181, St. Francis lived a privileged life until his year-long imprisonment during the war against Perugia in 1202. Following that episode, he undertook a path towards a life of poverty, and with time, gained enough followers to form the Franciscan Order. He was canonized two years after his death in 1228.
“The best way to fully appreciate the town’s special atmosphere is by exploring the little streets and alleyways before arriving to what I think is a true masterpiece: the St. Francis Basilica,” says Nila Halun, passionate sommelier and owner of Bibenda Assisi Wine Bar. “Believers and non-believers all have their reasons to fall in love with this basilica.” She also points out another magical place in the town – the quaint Via Nepis, once a place of meditation for St. Francis and the Franciscan friars. “Some say that their presence here is almost palpable,” Halun says.
Christmas in Assisi
St. Francis is credited for creating the first known presepio (nativity scene) in Greccio, south of Assisi, in 1220. It’s no surprise that Assisi becomes all lights and colours during the month of December with nativity scenes popping up in every nook and cranny. Merchants display their presepe in their windows; churches present their own as well. The essence of Christmas is truly captured with the life-size terracotta figures just outside of the St. Francis Basilica. Another not-to-miss event is the yearly exhibition of nativity scenes from around the world, which is organized by Porziuncola (a small church within the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels). December is also the time for Christmas markets, where artists, artisans and farmers of the region promote their products. The biggest markets are held in the squares of Piazza del Comune and Piazza Santa Chiara.
The Basilica and Monastery of St. Rita, Cascia, photo courtesy of Fondazione Santa Rita da Cascia onlus
Cascia, hometown of St. Rita
High up in the mountainous southeast portion of Umbria, a little treasure can be found: Cascia. With just over 3,000 inhabitants, a slow pace of life, charm and friendliness characterize the place. Given its elevated position, it has no shortage of breathtakingly picturesque views. But Cascia is famous all over the world for being the birthplace of St. Rita.
“Cascia is a purely religious destination, a place where people come specifically to admire the Basilica and Monastery of St. Rita,” says Paolo Sperini of Guide in Umbria, a sightseeing tour agency.
St. Rita’s modest life, first as an abused young wife and later as an Augustinian nun, spans from 1381 till 1457. She is known as the “Saint of the Impossible,” due to the tremendous family and marital challenges she overcame, as well as the extreme difficulty she faced in being accepted in the convent after her husband’s violent assassination. Canonized centuries after her death, in 1900, St. Rita remains the patron saint of marriage difficulties and abuse victims. Today, the beautiful Basilica of Cascia houses the St. Rita shrine, one of the most visited in Italy.
There lies her preserved body, which remains intact throughout the centuries. Following Cascia, Sperini says another mandatory stop on the Umbrian pilgrimage route is the nearby village of Roccaporena, the beloved saint’s birthplace. At Roccaporena stands the Sanctuary of St. Rita that can be visited throughout the year. Visitors are also welcome in the house in which she was born.