High in the hills of Umbria lies the town made famous by a saint, a basilica full of frescoes and a certain earthquake. By Steve Davison

WHY GO NOW?

Umbria, Tuscany's lesser-known neighbour, is an area rich in history, picturesque countryside and lovely hill towns. One such town is Assisi, birthplace of Saint Francis and the Order of Franciscan Monks. Now is definitely the time to go for two reasons: first because Debonair have started direct flights to Perugia, the capital of Umbria, only a short distance from Assisi, and secondly because following the earthquake of 26 September 1997, which damaged the upper church of the famous Basilica di San Francesco, tourist numbers have not yet returned to their former dizzy heights. Although the world-renowned Giotto frescoes are still under repair following the earthquake (expected opening is now some time in 2000), do not despair; Assisi still has plenty to offer. A bonus could include timing your visit to coincide with one of Assisi's many religious festivals. Early August (1-2) sees the Perdono (Pardon of St Francis), with pilgrims flocking to the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli for absolution. And in early October (3-4) Assisi holds its major religious event, the Festa di San Francesco, which draws pilgrims from all parts of Italy and beyond.

CHECK IN

Assisi has a wide range of accommodation covering all prices, though it is advisable to book in advance. For a good low cost option try Hotel La Rocca (3) (Via Porta Perlici 27 2, 0039 075 812284). This is a fairly small one-star hotel, situated near to Rocca Maggiore, a short walk from Piazza del Comune. Most of the simply furnished rooms are en suite and some of them offer great views of Assisi. Single rooms cost L47,000, while doubles are L70,000 (rooms with no facilities are cheaper). For luxury, and a great view, try the Subasio (4) (Via Frate Elia 2, 0039 075 812206). This four-star hotel, situated close to the Basilica di San Francesco, is probably the best in Assisi. The rooms, which are furnished in a "Florentine Renaissance" style have played host to such distinguished guests as Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin. All rooms are en suite, with singles at L150,000 and doubles L230,000-L350,000. For low-cost hostel accommodation, about L23,000 to L27,000 for B&B, check out the fairly new Ostello della Pace (5) (via di Valecchie 177, 0039 075 816767), a 10-minute walk downhill from Porta san Pietro.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Assisi, often referred to as the "Jewel of Umbria", lies only 25km from Perugia, the capital of Umbria. The compact town, dominated by the huge outline of the Basilica di San Francesco, rests on the lower slopes of Monte Subasio, in the broad Vale of Spoleto. Life in Assisi centres on the Piazza del Comune, from which radiate numerous narrow and steep cobbled streets; the Basilica di San Francesco and Duomo (Cattedrale di San Rufino) are short walks away. A small, but helpful, tourist office (1) (0039 075 812534) which has maps and leaflets on Assisi, is to be found in Piazza del Comune. The main bus station and car park are located near the top of the town at Piazza Matteotti (2), while the train station (0039 075 8040272) is 5km away at Santa Maria degli Angeli. Regular buses operate between the bus and rail stations.

The town, without doubt, owes its world famous reputation to one man - St Francis, without whom Assisi would just be another typical Italian hill town. The son of a wealthy family, St Francis began a life of meditation after a long illness in 1202. Four years later he publicly renounced his father's wealth and started to lead a life of poverty and penance. Many soon followed his example, including Saint Clare (Santa Chiara), who founded the Poor Clares or Franciscan nuns. St Francis laid down a series of principles to which his community was expected to conform, and still do: poverty, chastity and obedience. It was only after St Francis's death that work started on the beautiful Basilica di San Francesco; his body has rested here since 1230.

BRACING BRUNCH

The Ristorante-Bar Metastasio (14) (Via Metastasio 9, 0039 075 816525) has one of the best locations in Assisi, with a stunning view from the terrace across the Vale of Spoleto. The restaurant is ideal for an early lunch-time stop-off, with a good selection of salads and pizzas.

TAKE A RIDE

From Piazza Matteotti catch the half-hourly bus (0039 075 5731707) to Assisi's rail station down in the valley. Here can be found the huge, domed Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (15), with its Baroque interior. Inside hides the Porziuncola (Little Portion), the chapel that St Francis made the centre of the early Franciscan movement.

AN APERITIF

The beautiful medieval Piazza del Comune (10), dominated by the Torre del Popolo and the stunning Roman Tempio di Minerva, is the focal point of Assisi. Try Caffe Central, with tables close to the attractive, lion- topped fountain and people-watch while sipping a caffe macchiato or some delicious, deep red Sagratino di Montefalco.

Assisi's hub: Piazza del Comune

BEAM DOWN

Several airlines run daily scheduled flights to Bologna, Pisa, Florence and Rome, but only Debonair (0541 500 300) goes to Umbria, with its new route from Luton to Perugia (return via Rome). For other airports try British Airways (0345 222111), Alitalia (0171-602 7111) or Meridiana (0171- 839 2222). GO (0845 60 54321) offers low-cost flights from Stansted to Bologna. Transfer to Assisi by bus, train or hired car.

DEMURE DINNER

Assisi has many restaurants to choose from; however, make the effort to find one offering local cuisine. One such place is Ristorante MedioEvo (11) (via Arco dei Proiri 4, 0039 075 813068), situated a short walk down from Piazza del Comune. Dine on typical Umbrian cooking with a hint of international cuisine in the medieval, 13th-century, vaulted room. A meal for two here should typically cost L120,000. Or try La Fortezza (12) (Vicolo della Fortezza 2, 0039 75 812418). This popular restaurant, with vaulted ceilings, offers good Umbrian dishes including grilled meats and black truffles - try the cannelloni all'assisiana, meat-stuffed pasta in a tomato sauce: delicious. A meal for two costs about L110,000.

SUNDAY MORNING CHURCH

Situated a short walk from Porta Nuova is the picturesque San Damiano (13) church (daily 10am-12.30pm and 2.30pm-6pm), nestled among olive groves and cypress trees. It was here that St Francis heard the voice of God through the crucifix, now housed in the Basilica di Santa Chiara (which is itself well worth a visit), telling him to "repair God's house". In his later years, St Francis came here to write his most celebrated prayer, Canticle of the Sun (or Canticle of the Creatures). If time allows, pay a visit to the Cattedrale di San Rufino (Duomo) on your way back to Piazza del Comune.

The Eremo delle Carceri monastery

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

No visit to Assisi is complete without a look round the Basilica di San Francesco (9) (daily, 6.30am-7.30pm). The Basilica, which consists of two churches built one on top of the other, is one of Umbria's greatest buildings and contains some of Italy's finest art. The Lower Church, entered from Piazza Inferiore, dates from 1230 and was built to house the tomb of St Francis. Inside are frescoes by some of the masters of the 13th and 14th centuries: Simone Martini, Cimabue, Giotto and Pietro Lorenzetti. Be sure to see the famous painting of St Francis by Cimabue. Accessible from the Lower Church is the Treasury (Apr-Oct, Mon-Sat, 9.30am-12pm and 2pm-6pm, L3,000), which has a collection of paintings and other religious artefacts. The crypt houses the simple stone tomb of St Francis, hidden from view until excavations in 1818. The Upper Church, completed in 1253, is renowned for the fresco cycle depicting the life of St Francis, by Giotto. Sadly, this is closed for restoration after the earthquake in September 1997. Reopening is planned for some time in 2000 - check with the tourist office.

The town seen from Rocca Minore

Fountain, Piazza S Rufino

TAKE A HIKE

Situated at the high point of the town, well away from the main tourist trail, are Rocca Maggiore and Rocca Minore. The Rocca Maggiore (6) (open daily, 10am-sunset), was built by Cardinal Albornoz who arrived in the town to assert papal authority in 1367. The castle, which is best viewed from Porta Perlici, offers great views over Assisi and the Vale of Spoleto. Down in the valley can be seen the large dome of the 16th-century Santa Maria Degli Angeli. The smaller Rocca Minore (7), accessible from Porta Cappuccini, is beautifully set among olive groves.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

There are many places in the centre of Assisi that offer reasonably priced lunches. For a good selection of pizzas head for Il Duomo (8) (via Porta Perlici 11, 0039 075 816326), only a short stroll from the Piazza san Rufino and the Duomo. A light meal for two should cost around L60,000. For a quick dessert, go in search of one of the many gelaterie and try some delicious Italian ice-cream.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

For something special visit the small Franciscan monastery of Eremo delle Carceri (16) (open daily, 6.30am-dusk). The monastery, which is hidden among dense oak woods on the slopes of Monte Subasio, about 4km from Assisi, can be reached either on foot, following a signed path from Porta Cappuccini through the woods, or by road. The present buildings were built after St Francis's death by his followers, especially St Bernard of Siena, on the spot where St Francis used to pray in solitude. Even today the monastery exudes a tranquil air.

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