Often referred to as “the green heart of Italy”, Umbria is a predominantly beautiful and – despite the many visitors – largely unspoiled region of rolling hills, woods, streams and valleys. Within its borders it also contains a dozen or so classic hill-towns, each resolutely individual and crammed with artistic and architectural treasures to rival bigger and more famous cities. To the east, pastoral countryside gives way to more rugged scenery, none better than the dramatic twists and turns of the Valnerina and the high mountain landscapes of the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini.
Historically, Umbria is best known as the birthplace of several saints, St Benedict and St Francis of Assisi being the most famous, and for a religious tradition that earned the region such names as Umbra santa, Umbra mistica and la terra dei santi (“the land of saints”). The landscape itself has contributed much to this mystical reputation, and even on a fleeting trip it’s impossible to miss the strange quality of the Umbrian light, an oddly luminous silver haze that hangs over the hills.
After years as an impoverished backwater, Umbria has capitalized on its charms. Foreign acquisition of rural property is now as rapid as it was in Tuscany thirty years ago, though outsiders have done nothing to curb the region’s renewed sense of identity and youthful enthusiasm, nor to blunt the artistic initiatives that have turned Umbria into one of the most flourishing cultural centres in Italy.
Most visitors head for Perugia, Assisi – the latter with its extraordinary frescoes by Giotto in the Basilica di San Francesco – or Orvieto, whose Duomo is one of the greatest Gothic buildings in the country. For a taste of the region’s more understated charms, it’s best to concentrate on lesser-known places such as Todi, an increasingly chic but still unspoiled hill-town; Gubbio, ranked as the most perfect medieval centre in Italy, and Spoleto, for many people the outstanding Umbrian town. Although there are few unattractive parts of the Umbrian landscape (the factories of Terni and the Tiber Valley being the largest blots), some areas are especially enticing: the Valnerina, a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains and remote hilltop villages; the Piano Grande, a vast, featureless plain best visited in spring, when it's carpeted with wild flowers; and Lago Trasimeno, the largest lake in the Italian peninsula, with plenty of opportunities for swimming and watersports.
Umbria was named by the Romans after the mysterious Umbrii, a tribe cited by Pliny as the oldest in Italy, and one that controlled territory reaching into present-day Tuscany and Le Marche. Although there is scant archeological evidence about them, it seems that their influence was mainly confined to the east of the Tiber; the darker and more sombre towns to the west – such as Perugia and Orvieto – were founded by the Etruscans, whose rise forced the Umbrii to retreat into the eastern hills. Roman domination was eventually undermined by the so-called barbarian invasions, in the face of which the Umbrians withdrew into fortified hill-towns, paving the way for a pattern of bloody rivalry between independent city-states that continued through the Middle Ages. Weakened by constant warfare, most towns eventually fell to the papacy, entering a period of economic and cultural stagnation that continued up until the very recent past.