With its magnificent natural settings and historic monuments, allowing one to relive the most important and fascinating episodes of the past, Umbria offers visitors an extremely rich spiritual heritage. The area is dotted with silent convents and monasteries, majestic cathedrals and country churches. In the medieval era Umbria was considered to be an extremely important spiritual centre, second only to the Holy Land; this was due to the presence of many religious orders, abbeys and hermitages, the fruit of the preaching and lifestyle chosen by its numerous saints. In particular St Francis of Assisi and San Benedetto da Norcia radically changed the concept of monastic life, creating two monastic orders dedicated to discovering God, prayer, manual work and the care and cure of the poor, recalling and putting into practice in their lives the teachings left to us by Jesus Christ. There is no city in Umbria which does not have evidence, legends or anecdotes relating to the life of these Saints.
Assisi is an example of how the Franciscan reform revolutionised Umbria. Before the death of the Saint the hill today known as the Hill of Paradise, where the famous basilica of St Francis constructed in 1226 lies, was once called the Hill of Hell as the result of frequent beheadings. To discover the lifestyle and teachings of the Saint it is possible to visit the places where he spent his life.
The convent of San Damiano, situated around two kilometres from Assisi, is one of the places where one can breathe pure poetry; according to tradition God spoke to Francis through a crucifix, asking him to construct the church of San Damiano. The Carceri hermitage immersed in the forest on Mount Subasio is also evocative: here we can still see the ancient holm-oak tree where St Francis is said to have talked to the birds resting on its branches.
The abbey of Santa Maria degli Angeli, near Assisi, is one of the most important sanctuaries in Italy; St Francis came together with the first monks in its chapels and it was here that he ordained Santa Chiara, who founded the order of Poor Clares. It is also the place where St Francis chose to die. The spacious solemn interior contains the Porziuncola chapel, while in the crypt once can see the walls of the foundations and the remains of the floor of the Common Home where the monks came together with St Francis. Nearby one can also visit the Chapel of the Roses, which houses the famous thornless rose garden. The presence of this unusual rose garden is said to result from a miracle of St Francis, who on a cold winters night threw himself naked among the thorns to restrain an impulse to abandon the monastic life; on that occasion the flowers, as if reluctant to harm the body of St Francis, renounced their thorns forever.