Assisi and Italian Country Charm
In the Italian countryside, we'll connect with rustic, traditional culture: enjoying an agriturismo (farmhouse inn), seeing how prosciutto and pecorino cheese are made, and hiking to the bottom of deep and ancient wine cellars. We'll end in Assisi — the hometown of St. Francis — which retains its spiritual aura to this day. Like pilgrims, we'll explore its stony center before trekking to its awe-inspiring basilica, built on the tomb of the beloved saint.
These dramatic cellars lie just a few steps off Montepulciano's main square, right below Palazzo Ricci. Enter through the unassuming door and find your way down, down, down a spiral staircase. At the deepest point, you can peer into the atmospheric Etruscan cave, where a warren of corridors spins off from a filled-in well. Finally you wind up in the shop, where you're welcome to taste a few wines (with some local cheese); tastings are free for travelers with my guidebooks. Don't miss their delightful dessert wine, vin santo.
Giulio and Chiara run a fun-loving but tight ship — posing with slabs of red meat yet embracing more than two decades of trattoria tradition. Giulio — think George Carlin with a meat cleaver and a pen tucked into his ponytail — whacks off slabs of beef, confirms the weight and price with the diner, and tosses the meat on the grill, seven minutes per side. (You won't be asked how you like your steak.) They also serve hearty pastas and salads, other meaty plates, and a fine house wine. Reservations are required.
Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels
This huge basilica, built around St. Francis' humble chapel — towers above the buildings of Santa Maria degli Angeli — the modern part of Assisi in the flat valley below the hill town (open daily until 19:30, but closes for about two hours in the early afternoon). Modest dress is required — no shorts or tank tops.
The basilica rises where, in 1226, St. Francis was buried (with the outcasts he had stood by) outside of his town on the "Hill of the Damned" — now called the "Hill of Paradise." The basilica is frescoed from top to bottom with scenes by the leading artists of the day: Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini, and Pietro Lorenzetti. A 13th-century historian wrote, "No more exquisite monument to the Lord has been built." Modest dress is required to enter the church — no above-the-knee skirts or shorts and no sleeveless tops for men, women, or children.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're celebrating the traditions in Umbria and Tuscany. It's the heart of Italy! Thanks for joining us.
For me, the heart of Italy is Tuscany and Umbria. With farmhouse B&Bs as our springboard, we'll enjoy Italian culture, from village intimacy to the grand and saintly.
We'll check in on some aging prosciutto, stone grind some polenta, and dine with a noble family. We'll learn about — and taste — one of Tuscany's finest wines, and savor Florentine steak, before retracing the steps of St. Francis in Assisi.
Italy has many famous regions, including Tuscany and Umbria. Starting in Tuscany, we visit the wine regions around Montepulciano before crossing into Umbria and finishing in Assisi.
In Tuscany it's still possible to find your own sleepy fortified village. While tourists pack the more famous places, little off-beat gems like this remain overlooked, and are great places for enjoying the traditional culture.
Hamlets like these originated as communities of farmers who banded together on easily defensible hilltops overlooking their farmland. With today's tourism and relative affluence, it's easy to forget the fact that, until the last generation, this region was quite poor.
Today, while the poverty's gone, the traditions survive. Many rural families still preserve their own meats and enjoy firing up their wood-burning ovens on special occasions. And here in rural Tuscany, you feel an enthusiasm for tradition.
Gazing at these content sheep, you can almost taste the pecorino cheese — which seems to be a part of every meal.
At this farm, walls are stacked with rounds of pecorino, made from the unpasteurized — and therefore tastier — milk of the farm's sheep. Making cheese this way is labor-intensive and takes lots of patience. But, for these folks, it's well worth the trouble.
To be sure we get the most out of our visit, we're joined by my friend and fellow tour guide Roberto Bechi. We're visiting the noble farm of the Zanda family, where Nicola raises a couple hundred pigs. These pigs are a rare breed brought back from the edge of extinction by people who care about traditional agriculture…people who really love their ham. Now, like the pigs all eventually do, we move onto the prosciutto part of the farm.
Nicola artfully cures every part of the pig. The hind legs are destined to become fine prosciutto. He brushes on a coat of garlic and vinegar with a sprig of rosemary, sprinkles it with pepper, and finally cakes it in salt. Top-grade prosciutto is cured by hanging in a cool room for about a year. During the slow curing process, Nicola checks the progress employing a wooden needle and an expert nose.
And, like any proud farmer, he invites us into his home — not your everyday farmhouse — for a memorable taste.
Rick: From the farm to the table, with only a little bit of travel — 200 meters!
Nicola: 200 meters, but a lot of work.
Rick: A lot of work! How many months?
Nicola: About, uh…15 months.
Rick: And then the ham is waiting…?
Nicola: The ham is waiting about 12 months.
Rick: Oh, so more than two years.
Rick: Nicola, three different meats. Can you give me a little tour?
Nicola: This is ham prosciutto; we have soppressata — it's done with the heads of the pigs, and we have the salami here.
Rick: You like this?
Nicola: Oh, I love it.
Rick: This is from the head of the beautiful pigs I was just feeding…Is it good? You eat it, Nicola?
Nicola: It's fantastic.
Roberto: Try it! Try it!
Nicola: It's the best part.
Roberto: I think he likes it.
Rick: Yeah! It's like "prosciutto for beginners," and this is for the expert.
Roberto: For the expert.
Rick: The connoisseur.
Rick: With some good wine.
Roberto: Always with good wine.
Nearby is the vecchio mulino — or old mill. While this swan thinks this pool's made for him, it's actually a reservoir used to power the mill.
This mill — with its ancient grindstones — has been producing flour for generations. Until the 1960s, neighboring farmers brought their grain here. While locals know stone-ground corn makes the tastiest polenta…
…mills like these are a tough fit in our fast-paced world.
Aristocratic countryside elegance survives in Tuscany. But for these venerable manor houses to stay viable, many augment their farming income by renting rooms to travelers. We're staying in a B&B run by Signora Sylvia Gori. And, like so much of what she serves, the limoncello comes from her farm.
Signora Gori rents a few rooms in her centuries-old farmhouse. As is typical of agriturismos — as working farms renting rooms are called here — the furnishings are rustic, but comfortable.
To merit the title "agriturismo," the farm must still be in business — and the Gori family makes wine. The son, Nicoló, runs the show now — mixing traditional techniques with the latest technology in a very competitive field.
Signora Gori is proud to show us her home. As her family has for centuries, she lives in the manor house — and the family tree makes it clear: the Gori family has deep roots and goes back over 600 years.
Rick: So it says "famiglia Gori" —
Signora Gori: Gori family.
Rick: All the way back to…
Signora Gori: Millequattrocento. OK.
Rick: Millequattro — 1400.
Signora Gori: 1400.
The family room — the oldest in the house — is welcoming in an aristocratic sort of way. Under its historic vault, Grandpa nurtures the latest generation of Goris as the rural nobility of Italy carries on.
Upstairs is the vast billiards room. For generations, evenings ended here, beneath musty portraits — another reminder of the family's long and noble lineage. And grandma passes down the requisite skills to the latest generation.
Rick: If that was bowling, it'd be very good.
The kitchen, with its wood-burning stove and fine copper ware, has cooked up countless meals.
Signora Gori, happy to share the local bounty, invites us for lunch. Three generations gather on this Sunday afternoon with no hurry at all. The prosciutto and pecorino cheese provides a fine starting course — beautifully matched with the family's wine.
Pasta comes next — and the children prefer theirs bianco — with only olive oil. And the little one? She's still mastering the fine art of eating spaghetti. Food is particularly tasty when eaten in the community that produced it with a family that's lived right here for six centuries.
It's memories like these that you take home that really are the very best souvenir.
They call this a "zero kilometer" meal — everything was produced locally. It's a classic Tuscan table: Simplicity, a sense of harmony, and no rush…enjoyed with an elegant and welcoming noble family.
Tuscany is one of those regions where it just makes sense to sleep outside the city. And our farmhouse B&B provides a great springboard for a world of side trips.
A short and scenic drive south takes us through some of Italy's finest wine country. This is the land of two beloved local wines: Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The vineyards here produce some of the very best wines in the world. And travelers who call in advance are welcome to visit and tour the wineries. Beautifully tended vines soak up the spring sun as hardworking vintners hope that this year's vintage will be one to remember. And overlooking it all is the hill town of Montepulciano.
The town's sleepy main piazza is surrounded by a grab bag of architectural sights. The medieval town hall resembles nearby Florence's Palazzo Vecchio — a reminder that about 500 years ago, Montepulciano allied itself with Florence. The crenellations along the roof were never intended to hide soldiers — they just symbolize power. But the big central tower makes it clear that the city's keeping an eye out in all directions.
For centuries this town has celebrated its independent spirit. And today these young people carry on that tradition — and entertain their visitors — with a colorful ritual.
Being a wine-producing capital, Montepulciano is built upon a honeycomb of wine cellars. Palazzo Ricci sits atop a particularly impressive series of cellars. Joining a vintner, we descend a long staircase. Heading deep down into the hill that Montepulciano is built upon, the temperature noticeably drops, and eventually we end up at street level of the lower town. Climbing even further down, we reach gigantic barrels under even more gigantic vaults and a chance to learn about the wine that's aging here.
Rick: These are very big barrels.
Enrico: Yeah, of course. It's very big barrel. 10,000 liter. It's made of wood — the Slavonian wood.
Rick: 10,000 litters. How many bottles?
For this wine, it's the artful combination of aging in large, medium, and small oak barrels that gets the tannin levels just right.
Rick: Enrico: When was the first barrel of wine here in this cellar?
Enrico: From 1337.
Rick: 700 years.
Enrico: Of course. Sure.
Rick: My goodness.
And, for our last stop, a chance to taste some of the wine as it's aging. And I'm forever the attentive student.
Rick: So how old would this wine be here?
Roberto: Ah, one year.
Rick: One year.
Rick: So this is "baby" Nobile di Montepulciano.
Enrico: Baby Vino Nobile. Born an hour [ago].
Rick: Born an hour — it's a little tiny baby! And when it's finished how long — how old will the wine be?
Roberto: Ah, three years old.
Rick: Three years. And is this good? Can you tell when you taste?
Enrico: For me, the wine is how my son is. Very, very nice.
Rick: You love the wine like your son?
Rick: You love your son like the wine!
Enrico: Same. Same!
Rick: The same! That's good!
The people of Montepulciano seem to enjoy their red meat as much as their red wine. And this osteria is a carnivore's dream come true. Its long, narrow room, jammed with shared tables, leads to a busy kitchen with an open fire.
Giulio, his wife Chiara, and their staff serve their hungry crowd like a well-choreographed meat-eaters' ballet. Weight and price is agreed upon at the table.
Rick: You know what? That's good!
Then, it's leave it to cleaver. The meat is seared over embers for a just few minutes…before being cut from the bone.
Rick: I can smell it already! Oh-ho, look at that! Nice!
And in Tuscany, the correct way to enjoy a steak is…rare.
An hour's drive to the east takes us to the neighboring state of Umbria, famous for the town of Assisi and its beloved St. Francis, who had a huge impact on the medieval church.
The story of medieval Europe is the story of hard lives and a very religious world where people struggled and stressed about their relationship with God. Many thoughtful people entered monasteries and lived lives of quiet prayer and solitude in retreats like this.
Around the year 1200, Francis, a simple friar from Assisi, was one such person. He retreated to this hermitage for the solitude. And it survives to this day — with a handful of Franciscan friars living out his mission.
Behind a little chapel you'll find the tiny, dank cell where Francis himself would retire for private prayer. In this beautiful setting you can almost imagine the much-loved saint preaching to the birds.
Francis lived in the hill town of Assisi. While the Basilica of St Francis, where he's buried, dominates the town, we'll visit that later. His story starts here, in the valley below, in the Church [Basilica] of St. Mary of the Angels. It's a grandiose Baroque church. But stepping inside you realize it's built around a humble little chapel.
As a young man, Francis was living in a way that attracted followers. He went to the Vatican in Rome, asked for the pope's blessing to continue his work, and got it. Back in Assisi, he was given this fixer-upper chapel.
This is the actual chapel that Francis and his first followers rebuilt. And it was here, in 1209, that he established the Franciscan Order. Inside the chapel, pilgrims remember the very spot where Francis lived, worked, and died, and how — as it turned out — fixing up that little chapel was a metaphor for a Church in need of reform.
This chapel, so dwarfed by this enormous church, reflects the monumental impact this simple friar — a reformer well ahead of his time — had on Christendom.
With his teaching, Francis challenged the decadence of church government. He took Jesus' message of nonmaterialism and simplicity seriously, challenging the wealthy and powerful around him. His "slow down and smell God's roses" teaching drew a huge following.
Francis strove to be Christ-like. He taught by example. He lived without worldly goods and loved all of creation. A huge religious order grew out of his teachings, which were gradually embraced by the Church. In 1939, Italy made Francis one of its patron saints, and in 2013, the newly elected pope took his name…the first ever Pope Francis.
A visit to Assisi shows that Francis' message of universal love has a broad and timeless appeal. In fact, Assisi routinely hosts inter-faith gatherings. And even nonreligious travelers become pilgrims of a sort as they explore the town and remember Francis.
Any pilgrimage site will be commercialized, and Assisi — which enthusiastically cashes in on the legacy of St. Francis — is no exception. The town overflows with Francis fans and a flood of Franciscan knickknacks.
But most visitors are day-trippers. So, to enjoy Assisi at its peaceful best, see it early or see it late. While the town center may be congested, just a few steps away you'll find pockets of serenity. As you explore, gaze up. Balconies are tiny gardens. Medieval Assisi was densely populated — with several times the population of the town today packed within its protective walls.
The town's main square is an inviting place to relax. As in many European old town centers, it's pedestrian-friendly and almost traffic-free.
Assisi has been a spiritual center since pre-Christian times. The ancient Romans went to great lengths to make this first-century b.c. Temple of Minerva — with its stately Corinthian columns — a centerpiece of their city.
A Christian church was built into the ruined pagan temple in the ninth century. And its fine 13th-century bell tower soars above the crowds of the main square. But it seems most visitors are here for the story of St. Francis.
Francis was a big deal even in his own age. In fact, he was made a saint within a few years of his death. Immediately, pilgrims came from far and wide, making Assisi a thriving pilgrimage center, which it is to this day.
Assisi's main drag leads from the town center toward the basilica, which holds the saint's much-venerated remains. This 13th-century hospice gave pilgrims a place to rest. And along the way, pilgrims would stop here for a drink.
The street ends at the Basilica of St. Francis. This is one of the artistic and religious highlights of Europe. It rises where, in 1230, St. Francis was buried. For eight centuries it's been one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in all of Christendom.
From a distance, you see the huge arches that support the basilica. Above these were the quarters for the hundreds of friars who once lived here. The arcades that line the square approaching the church are where medieval pilgrims were housed and fed.
The destination of so many pilgrims is the tomb of Francis, which lies deep beneath the basilica. Its humble elegance befits the saint who preached simplicity. The saint's remains — in a stone box with iron ties — are one of the most important Christian relics anywhere.
Holy relics were the "ruby slippers" of medieval Europe. To the faithful, relics had power — they helped answer prayers, win wars — and ultimately they helped you get to heaven.
The basilica rises in two levels above the tomb. It's cohesive — an artistic and theological work of genius. With its fine art, it still functions as a splendid classroom. It was frescoed from top to bottom by leading artists of the 13th century.
In the lower basilica, Cimabue painted what's considered the earliest and most accurate portrayal of St. Francis. Below, you'll see five of Francis' closest followers — clearly just simple folk.
The series of frescoes above the altar is by Giotto, the most powerful storyteller of his day. Three scenes represent the vows of the Franciscans: obedience, chastity, and poverty. Francis kneels in front of Lady Obedience, Chastity is in her tower of purity, flanked by two angels, and Lady Poverty is in her patched wedding dress. Francis, about to marry her, slips a ring on her finger as Jesus blesses the union.
And high above is Francis on a heavenly throne. After a life of earthly simplicity, he enjoys glory in heaven.
In the 13th century, Giotto's art was radical — unprecedented in its realism. He portrayed holy people expressing emotion as never before. Here, in this Crucifixion scene, one angel turns her head sadly at the sight of Jesus, and another is in such anguish she scratches her hands down her cheeks. Mary, until this fresco generally portrayed in control, has fainted in despair. The Franciscan friars, with their passion for bringing God to the people, found a natural partner in Europe's first modern painter, Giotto.
The upper basilica, built a bit later than the lower, is considered the first Gothic church in Italy. It's brighter, illuminated by 13th-century stained glass — the oldest in Italy, and covered with frescoes by Giotto and his assistants. The nave shows 28 scenes from the life of St. Francis — a mix of documented history and folk legend.
Here Giotto shows a nearly naked Francis — the rich kid tossing his fancy clothes to his father — befuddling high society by trading a life of luxury for one of simplicity. But ultimately, even the pope recognized that Francis could restore a church and society in great need of reform.
In a land torn by war, Francis promoted peace. He preached by example and made the gospel's teaching more accessible to common people. Francis' message of nonmaterialism challenges the wealthy and powerful to this day.
And perhaps the most endearing scene in the basilica shows Francis preaching to the birds. Francis loved nature as well as humanity. The variety of birds represents the diverse flock of nature and humanity all worthy of one another's love.
Today, 800 years later, I find the message of St. Francis still relevant. Thoughtful travel causes us to consider things differently — from the art of fine living to the teaching of a medieval saint. It opens us up not only to our world — but to new ways of appreciating it. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.