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It's not hard to tell when you're approaching the popular Umbrian town of Assisi - its thirteenth-century basilica stretches along the hilltop, dominating the horizon for miles around.

Although this area was once known by people in the Middle Ages as 'the hill of hell', nowadays thousands of people - art historians, holidaymakers, and religious pilgrims alike - arrive in the town every year, to visit the basilica where St Francis of Assisi (or San Francesco di Assisi, to give him his original Italian name) is buried.

The vast building is actually made up of two churches, one set above the other, and they are very different in style. The upper church is Gothic and slender, while the lower one, which you enter via a thirteenth-century archway, has a much more austere, almost squat aspect.

Here in the lower church, the magnificent frescoes - including works by Giotto, Lorenzetti and Martini - captivate visitors, irrespective of their religious beliefs.

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The remains of St Francis were not actually discovered until excavations were carried out under the altar in the early 1800s. In 1820, Pope Pio IX canonized Francesco and ordered the building of the neoclassical style crypt, and it is here that countless people now come to pay their respects to San Francesco.

Although the Basilica of San Francesco is the main attraction for visitors, there is yet more to discover in this town where the Franciscan Order was born. By contrast, for example, the Lyrick Theatre (Teatro Lyrick) in Via G. D'Annunzio offers a varied programme of dance, music, drama and comedy all year round.

As with anywhere in Italy, it goes without saying that you can also enjoy some of the finest food and wine to be found. In Assisi, the regional specialities include delicious mushrooms and that prized delicacy, the truffle. Extra virgin olive oil too is particularly fine here, owing to the landscape's many thousands of olive trees that give Umbria its silvery green shimmer.

Reaching Assisi is fairly easy, with a variety of options. The small Sant'Egidio international airport is about 10km away, although there is no bus connecting it with the town. Alternatively, the train is a good option. Travelling from Florence, for instance, you can take one of the regular daily trains, just changing at Terontola or Cortona. From Rome, again take one of around ten daily trains, this time changing at Foligno. Remember though, the train stations in Umbria are at the foot of the hills, while the towns cling to the sides... and the Basilica of San Francesco is at the top.

Keeping the St Francis connection, you might also like to take in Isola Maggiore, the largest of the three islands on Lake Trasimeno, which is within easy reach around 50km away. St Francis chose to spend Lent on the island in 1211, recognising its closeness to nature and how perfect it was for quiet reflection. Today, Isola Maggiore is gently evolving into a simple cultural retreat, and creative writing workshops take place there each Spring and Autumn, as well as the annual Isola del Libri book festival.

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This wild, untamed and hauntingly beautiful region is fairly close to Rome and yet is surprisingly infrequently explored by foreign tourists. Get off the tourist bandwagon and explore this exciting area on foot. This is the perfect part of Italy for a hiking holiday, whether you are looking to scale the Apennine Mountains, follow trails between idyllic, hill-top villages, or simply take a gentle stroll in a beautiful valley or through fragrant wild-flower meadows. 

The scenery, friendly locals and outstanding trails of this region will make for a memorable holiday. If you are thinking about visiting Rome but have been put off by the summer crowds, why not visit this region for some time as well, combining a hectic city visit with a more laid back countryside vacation?


Whether you walk independently or take a guided tour, there is much to see and do here. This region does, after all, boast not one but three national parks! There is the Gran Sasso, which contains many of the Apennines' highest peaks, the Majella National Park, another dramatic mountain range, and the National Park of Abruzzo, which is an important place for the preservation of native flora and fauna, which includes bears, wolves, chamois and wild boar. 

Throughout Abruzzo, you will find a large number of exemplary mountain hikes and valley trails to suit most fitness levels, though this is a rugged region with more steep gradients and challenging walks than gentle rambles.

The dramatic peaks of Gran Sasso offer the greatest challenges to mountain walkers in the area. These are a bulky massif comprising two parallel mountain chains flanking the Campo Imperatore Plain that stretches for 27km at over 2000m above sea level. The National Park has a huge number of hiking trails that allow you to explore this dramatic region.

In the Abruzzo National Park, you can base yourself in the central village of Pescasseroli, which will allow you to strike out on one of the trails that radiate out from this hub. Get away from the tourist village and you will swiftly find yourself in the glorious scenery of the Apennines.

In the Maiella Mountain Range, there are about 500km of walking trails to be enjoyed. Here, you can also see the cave paintings in the Grotta Sant'Angelo and you can explore one of the deepest natural caverns in Europe that is open to the public, the Grotta del Cavallone. You can also ascend to the highest peak of the massif, Monte Amaro, which is 2793 m high.

There are many dramatic landscapes to be experienced in the varied and wild region of Abruzzo. Be sure to bring a camera to capture the sublime and breathtaking views you will get from high in the mountains and of course always be sure to arm yourself with the right gear and a good map - as is usual in Italy, signposting can be patchy and it can be easy to miss an indication. That said, even if you do get lost once in a while, you are sure not to mind when you are surrounded by such natural beauty.

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