Umbria: Jagged Mountains to Rolling Hillsides

Olive groves in Umbria

In 1996, a best-selling book titled Under the Tuscan Sun, which recounted how the author restored an abandoned villa in Tuscany, established that area of Italy as a popular vacation destination for Americans.  Umbria, Tuscany’s next door neighbor, hasn’t been so glorified. Yet that often-overlooked region encompasses scenic, artistic and other treasures that reward those who seek them out. For starters, Umbria – pronounced Oom-bria by those who live there -- boasts a setting of magnificent landscapes. The jagged Apennine Mountains lead to rolling hillsides that flatten into lush valleys blanketed by wild flowers.

A number of hills are capped by villages of stone buildings and winding cobblestone streets that have looked over the setting for centuries. These ancient enclaves share similarities including a central square and churches adorned with architectural touches outside and art treasures within. However, there are enticing differences, and each has its own unique claims to fame.

The two best-known towns are Assisi and Spoleto, and for very different reasons. St. Francis was born in Assisi in 1182, and in his roles as a Roman Catholic friar and preacher he founded several religious orders.   His birthplace retains much of its Medieval character and the town’s basilica houses frescoes that depict chapters of his life which are among the most important works of art in Italy. Spoleto tells another story.   Each summer, its jumble of narrow Medieval streets is overwhelmed by people during the annual Festival of Two Worlds, this year from June 30 to July 16.   This multi-faceted cultural buffet includes opera and jazz, ballet and modern dance, theater, visual arts and more.

Narrow lane in Spello

Other less well known villages also have attractions that warrant a look-see.   The approach to Orvieto alone is worth a visit. It rises up from the almost vertical faces of volcanic cliffs, and the ornate façade of its 13th century cathedral is one of the most elaborate in the country.

Perugia, the capital of Umbria, has its feet firmly planted over a span of centuries. It’s home to several institutions of higher learning, including the University of Perugia which was founded in 1308. It also hosts a number of annual festivals and other events.

In contrast to the graceful piazzas and magnificent art-filled cathedrals common to the hill towns of Umbria, one of my favorites turned out to be a tiny enclave hidden at the end of a gravel road.   Poreta was a miniscule 13th-century village of a few dozen dwellings surrounding a modest sized castle. The fortress was abandoned after an earthquake damaged it and the houses that were huddled nearby. The townspeople built new homes, using the stones from their destroyed properties.

The brooding castle ruins look out over a valley as they have for centuries. About 150 people live in the reconstructed houses whose walls crowd the narrow lane so tightly that only one car at a time is able to pass. In ways, this nondescript hamlet transported me back in time and atmosphere at least as much as soaring cathedrals and bustling village squares.

While petite Poreta is frozen in time, most of Umbria reveals intriguing tangible evidence of Etruscan, Roman and Medieval influences – often in the same locale.   The Etruscan civilization lasted from about the 8th century BC until its assimilation into the Roman Republic beginning in the 4th century BC.

Major evidence of Etruscan influence is found in Orvieto and Perugia.  In Todi, walls construed during Etruscan, Roman and Medieval eras still are visible. Spoleto offers a treasure trove of Roman reminders including the remains of a house with a mosaic pavement and a restored first-century amphitheatre. The ruins of a Roman amphitheatre (circa 32 AD) also grace Terni, and remnants of one of the largest amphitheatres built by the Romans stand outside the city walls of Gubbio.

Trevi 1

A memorable Medieval setting is encountered in Trevi, whose ancient center of alleyways, porticos, vaulted passages and churches is partly surrounded by the original 13th-century defensive walls.   Its hilltop position offers commanding views over the surrounding plains, and the groves of trees which surround the village yield some of the country’s best olive oil.

Along with countless architectural and art treasures that abound throughout Umbria, being part of Italy it’s no surprise that the region clings proudly to a well deserved culinary reputation. Pondering the list of specialties that grace restaurant menus can be a mouth-watering experience, and explain why the area is referred to as Italy’s cuore verde (“green heart”).

Food typically is hearty country cuisine simply prepared to enhance the flavors of its ingredients. Meat and pastas are staples. Prized locally grown truffles, more of the black than white variety, are added to a variety of dishes. The olive oil produced in Umbria is considered among the best in a country which is known for the high quality of that product. Montefalco wine, which became my favorite go-to beverage, is named for the delightful little hill town which is surrounded by vineyards.

The hard-to-resist temptations of the table add to the sensory onslaught which envelops visitors to Umbria, and are part – but just a part – of what makes a visit there as memorable as it is enjoyable.

I traveled to Umbria with Untours, which offers “Independent travel with support” and more than met my expectations. I received an avalanche of pre-trip material that helped me to, as the company promises, “live like the locals.”   In addition to basic details about sightseeing, shopping and getting around, I received insider tips about everything from Umbrian culture and good restaurants to food shopping and recipes of local dishes.

The fact that I was put up in a comfortable furnished apartment at a farm added to the feeling of immersion in the setting.

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