In 1223 Greccio, then known as Grecciae, was a small village perched on a rocky bastion dominating the vast plain of Rieti. Founded in the first half of the XI century, presumably on the ashes of a former Greek colony, "curtis de Greze", from which probably derives its current name, already in 1016 there is certain information about its existence from chronicles of Farfa's Regesto, and other citations of the toponym appear later, with different variations, until 1091, when the name of "Grecciae" seems to stabilize, and the country knows a good development, favored by the abundance of flat land and good pastures. But it would still remain a country like many others, one of the countless beautiful old villages that dot the Apennines, if in 1209 had not inspired the young Francis of Assisi, who came here in search of peace and meditation. Francesco remains enchanted by the quiet and beauty of this valley, and makes it his second home. He dwells in these places for a long time, and he founds four Sanctuaries, in Greccio, Fonte Colombo, Poggio Bustone and La Foresta, thus surrounding the Rieti plain with these jewels of art and faith that are worthy of the appellation of "Valle Santa" (saint valley). But it is in Greccio that the Saint remains more bound, inspired by the goodness and friendliness of the population and the beauty of the place, and here decides to give life, helped by a local nobleman and the entire population, to the first representation of the nativity: "I want to represent the Child born in Bethlehem, and somehow see with the eyes of the body the discomforts it was in for the lack of what was needed for a newborn, as it was laid on a crib, and how it lay on the hay, between the ox and the donkey". Thus, assisted by the nobleman Giovanni Velita and by the friars, Francesco sets up the first crib, and his follower and biographer, Tommaso da Celano, tells how "the night shone as full day, delicious for men and animals, the crowds flocked to cheer again joyous in front of the renewed mystery, the forest resounded with voices, and hymns of joy echoed among the cliffs".
So that distant night of 1223, gives history one of the most loved traditions in the world, and assures the small village of Greccio a luster that continues over the centuries, and which still attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world.
Today Greccio is a small village, extraordinarily well preserved, where the tradition of the crib is part of daily life, for the entire population, Francis the Saint is "one of us", and his spirit is breathed in the streets, in the alleys and in the homes. Frescos with the episodes of his life decorate the walls of the old houses, and a large museum preserves a rich display of artistic cribs, which also includes an extraordinary collection of nativity scenes from every corner of the planet, confirming a universal love. At Christmas time, the whole village is transformed into a huge crib, the representations of the nativity flourish everywhere, the main square hosts a crowded crib art market, and in the square below the Sanctuary is staged the evocative representation of the living nativity recited by the population , dressed in vintage clothes.
Truly magnificent the ancient village, which retains the characteristic cast structure of its medieval origins, and overlooks the great Piazza Roma, surrounded by beautiful, carefully restored houses. On the highest part of the hill, dominates the village and the surrounding landscape the beautiful Church of S. Michele Arcangelo, enriched by valuable sixteenth-century paintings and stucco decorations attributed to Gregorio Grimani, built in 1636 during the construction of the Chapel. Also noteworthy is the Baptismal Font, the high altar, a beautiful gilded silver goblet and a 17th century monstrance. But also the Church of S. Maria del Giglio contains beautiful decorations and precious stuccos, as well as tempera paintings dating back to the first fifteenth century. Along the narrow lanes and squares, you can see the "Path of Artists", which runs through the historic center guiding the visitor to discover 26 mural frescoes on the life of St. Francis, and just outside the village, the International Crib Museum, made inside an old church dating back to the 15th century, which preserves precious scenographic representations.
But the jewel of the municipal territory is undoubtedly the Franciscan Sanctuary, located a few minutes from the town. Legend has it that Francesco, intent on founding a monastery in Greccio, entrusted a burning brand to a child of the village, asking him to hurl it away, and that the ember, like a comet, traveled the two kilometers that separate the village from the Sanctuary, thus indicating the place where it would rise.
The Sanctuary, which still preserves intact the cave where the first crib was set up, is one of the most important historical assets for Christianity and for culture in general, linked as it is to the figure of Saint Francis, and to the tradition of representing the Nativity. It is the oldest of the Franciscan sanctuaries, and does not find similar not only in Italy, but throughout Europe, for its historical artistic as well as cultural and religious importance. Built around the cave, it still preserves both the chapel that constituted the first nucleus of the Sanctuary, and the small church of St. Bonaventure, built in 1228, the year of the canonization of the saint, both the dormitory built around 1260, and other places of worship and extraordinary historical value, such as the Cantina di S. Francesco, the Pulpit of S. Bernardino da Siena, the dormitory cells of the friars, still preserved in its original state, like all the oldest parts. In addition to architectural jewels, the Sanctuary preserves priceless art treasures, such as the wooden choir surmounted by a wooden crucifix from the 1400s, the unique dormitory of St. Bonaventure carved in wood in the same period, a Madonna with Child by Biagio d'Antonio, a canvas dating back to 1400 that reproduces the famous portrait of the Saint, frescoes from the 1300s, 1500s and 1600s. In the most modern wing are kept artistic and precious cribs, as well as everyday objects that belonged to the Saint .
As from the village of Greccio, from here you can enjoy an extraordinary view of the Valle Santa and Monte Terminillo.
So, once you have seen the village and its Sanctuary, it is worthwhile to end the tour with the visit of the other three Franciscan Sanctuaries, each of which hides its particularity, or devote to the other attractions of this valley, which in addition to nature and the landscape includes numerous archaeological areas with prehistoric pile dwellings, monuments from the Roman era, well-preserved historic centers, villages, hamlets and rural villas of great value, typical products such as wheat, flour, oil, wine, cheese and other specialties, traditions ancient still alive that are renewed in the many religious festivals and popular festivals.