Italy's St Francis in his home city of Assisi in Umbria

  • The patron saint of animals was a bonafide Italian, hailing from Umbria
  • He was born in the picturesque city of Assisi in either 1181 or 1182
  • His memory is recalled in an enormous basilica - one of Italy's finest 

Saints are meant to be, well, saintly. So when I heard about Saint Francis throwing himself into the rose bushes to quell his lustful urges I was pleasantly surprised - human after all.

If you didn't know, Francis is the Patron Saint of just about everything, from animals to Italy. He is a spiritual superstar.

In Assisi, where he was born and grew up, he is everywhere.

Umbria in excelesis: The Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi enjoys a spectacular location

Umbria in excelesis: The Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi enjoys a spectacular location

He stares at you from shops, shrines, statues, restaurants and churches. Thanks to him, Assisi is twinned with Bethlehem, Santiago de Compostela and San Francisco.

Assisi is in Umbria, a few miles from Perugia to which you can fly direct from the UK. Perched high above the valley floor, on the flank of Monte Subasio, it is a spectacular sight, with pink-stoned medieval buildings glowing in the sun around the huge Basilica of St Francis.

I am here on a trip called Secret Italy organised by Voyages Jules Verne.

An English art collector named Roy, who has lived in a converted stable on the outskirts of Assisi for 15 years, is our host for the week and he knows his stuff.

On our first day, we explored all the places in Assisi connected to Francis, and there are quite a few.

At the Basilica, we were shown around by a monk. It is remarkably peaceful given the hordes, but in 1997 that peace was shattered by an earthquake. The Basilica has since been strengthened to withstand all but a huge tremor.

Typically of St Francis he had asked to be buried on Colle d'Inferno, the hill of hell, where criminals were executed, although after his death it was immediately renamed Colle del Paradiso.

The joy of being based in Assisi? Easy. As we watched the tourist coaches disappear at sunset, tranquility returned. We saw some extraordinary things during our week, but the pregnant Madonna, in Monterchi, by Piero della Francesca, was my favourite. It may be irreverent, but to see Mary looking fat and fed up like most women in their last month of pregnancy made my day.

Arezzo was a close second. It is a beautiful city, where the highlight was seeing our guide being shouted at by an irate nun for blocking the pavement.

Being chauffeured around all week in our personal taxi was made even better by Roy's amusing commentary. I returned refreshed and ready to go on Mastermind with St Francis my specialist subject. 

Travel Facts: Plan your own escape to Italy 

Voyages Jules Verne (020 3553 3722, vjv.com) offers the Secret Italy package from £1,095 per person based on two sharing. Includes seven nights' B&B, return flights, transfers, two lunches, entrance fees, excursions plus guide. 

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