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.
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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.
Brief history of Umbria
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.
The cuisine of landlocked, hilly Umbria relies heavily on rustic staples – pastas and roast meats – and in the past tended to be simple and homely. The region is also the only area outside Piemonte where truffles are found in any abundance, and their perfumed shavings, particularly in the east of the region, find their way onto eggs, pasta, fish and meat – but at a price that prohibits overindulgence.
Meat plays a leading role – especially lamb and pork, which is made into hams, sausage, salami and, most famously, porchetta, whole suckling pig stuffed with rosemary or sage, roasted on a spit. Game may also crop up on some menus, most often as pigeon, pheasant or guinea fowl. The range of fish is restricted by the lack of a coast, but trout can be caught from the Nera River and Clitunno springs, while the lakes of Piediluco and Trasimeno yield eel, pike, tench and grey mullet. Vegetable delicacies include tiny lentils from Castelluccio, beans from Trasimeno, and celery and cardoons from around Trevi. Umbrian olive oil, though less hyped than Tuscan oils, is of excellent quality – about 90 percent is extra virgin – particularly that from around Trevi and Spoleto.
As for desserts, Perugia is renowned for its chocolate and pastries. Cheeses tend to be standard issue, although some smaller producers survive in the mountains around Norcia and Gubbio.
Umbria used to be best known outside Italy for fresh, dry white wines. Orvieto, once predominantly a medium-sweet wine, has been revived in a dry style. The wine was beloved of the artists and architects of Orvieto’s Duomo: Luca Signorelli requested a thousand litres per year by contract. In recent years the pre-eminence of Orvieto in the domestic market has been successfully challenged by Grechetto, an inexpensive and almost unfailingly good wine made by countless producers across the region. Umbria’s quest for quality is also increasingly reflected in a growing number of small producers, many of whom have followed the lead of Giorgio Lungarotti, one of the pioneers of Umbrian viticulture (any wine with his name on is reliable), and in some outstanding reds, notably the Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG and the Sagrantino DOCG of Montefalco. The region has four wine routes (strade del vino): the Strada del Sagrantino, around Montefalco; the Strada dei Vini del Cantico between Todi, Perugia, Torgiano, Spello and Assisi; the Strada del Vino Colli del Trasimeno; and the Strada dei Vini Etrusco-Romano, in the province of Terni.
The most tempting destination around Perugia – whose surroundings are generally pretty lacklustre – is Lago Trasimeno, an ideal spot to hole up in for a few days, and particularly recommended if you want to get in some swimming, windsurfing or sailing. The lake is about 30km from Perugia and is easy to get to on public transport. It’s the biggest inland stretch of water on the Italian peninsula, though you wouldn’t think so to look at it, never deeper than 7m – hence bath-like warm water in summer.
A winning combination of tree-covered hills to the north, Umbria’s subtle light, and placid lapping water produces some magical moments, but on overcast and squally days the mood can turn melancholy. Not all the reed-lined shore is uniformly pretty either; steer clear of the northern coast and head for the stretches south of Magione and Castiglione if you’re after relative peace and quiet.
On the trail of Hannibal
Somewhere along the Lago Trasimeno shore towards the rambling village of Tuoro, probably at Sanguineto (“the Place of Blood”) or Ossaia (“the Place of Bones”), is the spot where the Romans suffered their famous clobbering at the hands of Hannibal in 217 BC. Hannibal was headed for Rome, having just crossed the Alps, when he was met by a Roman force under the Consul Flaminius. Things might have gone better for Flaminius if he’d heeded the omens that piled up on the morning of battle: first he fell off his horse; next the legionary standards had to be dug out of the mud; and finally – and this really should have raised suspicions – the sacred chickens refused their breakfast. Poultry accompanied all Roman armies and, by some means presumably known to the legionnaire in charge of chickens, communicated the will of the gods to waiting commanders in the field. Hannibal lured Flaminius into a masterful ambush, with the only escape a muddy retreat into the lake. Sixteen thousand Romans, including the hapless commander, were killed.
A hard-to-find drive and walkway have been laid out, starting and finishing just west of Tuoro on the road to Cortona, which take in salient features of the old battlefield; Tuoro's irregularly open Pro Loco office has some information on the site, walkway and drive, and occasionally offers guided tours.
Activities on Lago Trasimeno
There are plenty of things to do on Lake Trasimeno from operators based in Castiglione del Lago, including windsurfing (contact Club Velico), canoeing, waterskiing and horseriding (ask at the tourist office for recommended operators). You can rent bikes at Cicli Valentini.
The best of the little beaches is at the public lido on the southern side of Castiglione’s promontory, with pedalos for rent and boat trips, including regular excursions to the strangely rectangular island of Isola Maggiore, a fun ride if you don’t mind the summer crowds. There’s a pretty walk round the edge of the island, and one good, popular hotel, the three-star Da Sauro, Via Guglielmi 1, which also doubles as a fine restaurant.
Città di Castello
Città di Castello is a charming and relatively little-visited town 56km north of Perugia in the Upper Tiber Valley, with a sedate and ordered medieval centre that’s well worth a few hours. It’s also the focus for visitors staying in the many rented villas and farmhouses in the hills to the east and west. In late August and early September the town becomes busier than usual during its renowned Festival of Chamber Music, dedicated to a different country each year.
Once an important Roman centre – the gridiron of streets is virtually the only legacy – today the town preserves just a handful of fairly mediocre medieval monuments. Its main attractions are its museums and art galleries, along with some quiet, pleasant medieval streets.
The Valnerina is the most beautiful part of Umbria. Strictly translated as the “little valley of the Nera”, it effectively refers to the whole eastern part of the region, a self-contained area of high mountains, poor communications, steep wooded valleys, upland villages and vast stretches of barren nothingness. Wolves still roam the summit ridges and the area is a genuine “forgotten corner”, deserted farms everywhere bearing witness to a century of emigration.
Mountains in the region are 1500m high, creeping up as you move east to about 2500m in the wonderful Monti Sibillini, the most outstanding parts of which fall under the protection of the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini. It’s difficult to explore with any sort of plan (unless you stick to the Nera), and the best approach is to follow your nose, poking into small valleys, tracing high country lanes to remote hamlets. More deliberately, you could make for Vallo di Nera, the most archetypal of the fortified villages that pop up along the Lower Nera. Medieval Triponzo is a natural focus of communications, little more than a quaint staging post and fortified tower (and a better target than modernish Cerreto nearby).
Norcia for foodies
Meat-eaters would be daft not to try the deservedly famous local pork products. Anything that can be made from a pig, the Norcians apparently make – and supposedly better than anyone else. For this reason, alimentari throughout Italy who pride themselves on their hams and salamis will call themselves norcineria. If finances stretch, you could also indulge in the area’s prized black truffle. The season runs from January to April (though you may come across the lesser-prized white summer truffles too). Plenty of shops, an attraction in themselves, are on hand to sell you all manner of local specialities, not just truffles, but also hams, the famed lentils of Castelluccio and lots of rare mountain cheeses.
The Piano Grande
The eerie, expansive Piano Grande, 20km east of Norcia, is an extraordinary prairie ringed by bare, whaleback mountains and stretching, uninterrupted by tree, hedge or habitation, for miles and miles. A decade or so ago, it was all but unknown: now, in summer at least, it can be disconcertingly busy. It’s much photographed – especially in spring when it’s ablaze with wild flowers of every description – and was used by Zeffirelli as a setting for his Franciscan film Brother Sun, Sister Moon. The desperately isolated village of Castelluccio hangs above it at around 1400m, and although no longer the sole preserve of shepherds, it remains an unspoilt base and the ideal starting point for any number of straightforward mountain walks. To plan routes, get hold of the 1:50,000 Kompass map no. 666 or the more detailed 1:25,000 CAI maps (the latter are often available in Norcia’s or Castelluccio’s bars).
Note that there's no public transport into the area (save for one bus in and out on a Thursday, market day in Norcia), though you might try your luck at catching lifts in high season.
Narni claims to be the geographical centre of Italy, with a hilltop site jutting into the Nera Valley on a majestic spur and crowned by another of Cardinal Albornoz’s formidable papal fortresses. Commanding one end of a steep gorge (about ten minutes of fairly spectacular train travel), it was once the gateway into Umbria, the last post before the Tiber Valley and the undefended road to Rome. However, while the town retains a fine medieval character, the views from its heights are marred by steel and chemical works around Narni Scalo, the new town in the valley below.
The heart of the old town has all the standard fittings: the medieval piazzas, the warren of streets, a modest art gallery, the usual crop of Romanesque churches and a huge rocca, open for occasional events. There’s a Roman bridge on the outskirts, the subject of considerable local hype; when Goethe arrived in Narni in the middle of the night he was peeved not to have seen it but he was only missing a solitary arch in the middle of the river – just as easily viewed from the train.
Todi is one of the best-known Umbrian hill-towns, its central Piazza del Popolo widely held to be among the most perfect medieval piazzas in Italy, and the town itself to be the country’s most liveable. At heart a thriving and insular agricultural centre, Todi is also a favoured trendy retreat for foreign expats and Rome’s arts and media types. In the way of these things the visitors haven’t been far behind, but neither fact should deter you from making a day-trip: few places beat it for sheer location – its hilltop position is stunning – and fairy-tale medievalism. Many festivals and events are held in Todi throughout the year, including the increasingly popular Todi Festival (late Aug or early Sept).