Tuscany gets all the press, but Umbria has its own special perks. Here are a few of my favorite reasons to venture into the “green heart of Italy”.
Country roads with lush scenery and no tolls
Driving in Italy may sound intimidating, but if you rent a car at an airport outside of a city, such as Bologna, or Pisa, it can be fairly easy. If you don’t know how to drive with a clutch, you will pay more for a rental car. Once you get away from the big cities, driving is fun. In Umbria, there are hundreds of beautiful country roads that wind past the orderly vineyards and olive orchards or climb the green hills leading to historic hill towns. Stop for wine or olive oil tastings or explore a walled village.
Colorful & historic hill towns—
without the crowds
If you’re willing to drive in Italy, you can stay near wonderful small towns like Montefalco or Bevagna and easily see the rest of Umbria. We stayed outside of Montefalco, located up on Martani Hill above Foligno, with views of Assisi on one side and Spoleto on the other. The small five sided piazza in the center of town is known as the Balcony of Umbria because of those wonderful views. Close to sunset, you can spot Assisi with its bright reflections on the large Basilica of St. Francis. On a clear day in spring, it’s magical.
If you don’t want to drive, Spello would make a fine option. It’s close to the train station for easy travel to other parts of the region. You could even walk to Assisi along the St. Francis Trail.
These small towns have shops selling the products from the region—all made locally. A specialty of Montefalco is their fine linens. The Pardi family has two shops in town that are worth a visit. The tablecloths and linens have beautiful designs that date from the fifteenth century. But, they’ve also added some more current designs to their selections.
Spello and Deruta are known for their ceramics—you could spend a day exploring the shops in Deruta, alone. Norcia is the place to go for amazing prosciutto and other meats, such as cinghiale. If you wander as far as Casteluccio, you’ll find tasty lentils. We had the best lentil cake ever, when we stopped for lunch.
All of these towns have wonderful food. For my favorites, check out my restaurant page. I even have a few listed for Perugia—not really a town, but a beautiful and interesting hilltop city.
Wine, Olive Oil & Truffles
The Sagrantino, San Giovese and Torgianno Rosso wines are all respected varietals found in Umbria. It’s easy to find a cantina open for wine tasting & purchasing wines directly. For olive oil, look for the word, Frantaoi and stop for a taste. You can also find plenty of free tastings in the individual towns, which also offer tasty tapenades with truffles and olives. Fresh truffles, a tasty fungi found in the hillsides, are only available in the spring and fall. When in Umbria, if you see tartufo fresco on the menu, be sure to try them.
The St. Francis Trail
There are several nice walks along the Saint Francis trail. We’ve walked from Assisi to Spello, up and over Mount Subasio in five hours. We’ve heard that there’s a nice trail near Gubbio, another picturesque town in northern Umbria.
Just recently, we walked across the aqueduct in Spoleto and tried the Giro dei Condotti, which overlaps the Franciscan Trail and then turns left for a shady and flat walk with great views of Spoleto’s castle. St. Francis and his crew covered a lot of ground. We even found traces of his visits on Isla Maggiore, in the middle of Lake Trasimeno.
Assisi is in Umbria—not Tuscany
Even though Assisi is on everybody’s itinerary, it’s worth fighting the crowds. Most of the tour groups stay close to the basilica and don’t manage to walk uphill to the higher parts of town. The basilica opens early, so check the website and try to avoid the popular visiting times of 10–3. Explore the other less popular churches and you can even walk up to La Rocca for amazing views of the town and valley. For a longer, and more uphill climb, try the short hike to the Hermitage, Eremo dei Carceri for a peaceful retreat from the crowds. For a wonderful cooking class in the area, check out Madonna del Piatto. It’s also a nice place to stay.
Another advantage to having a car in Italy is the opportunity to stay at an Agriturismo, a type of farm stay. It’s not impossible to find an Agriturismo closer to a town, but most require a drive along a country road. For this trip, we found Villa Mustafà, about two miles outside of Montefalco. The historic villa is surrounded by vineyards and olive trees, with views of hill towns in the distance. Like most Agriturismos, Villa Mustafà is a historic building that has been completely renovated. You almost always find a bit more luxury and comfort at a very good price.
After a day of touring the countryside, it was great to return to the peaceful gardens of the villa. Each morning we had an amazing array of homemade cakes, fresh fruits and yogurt. Paula, our wonderful hostess even made an amazing herb omelet with her farm fresh eggs. There are different types of agriturismos—some have swimming pools and spas, while others allow you to participate in the activities of the farm. But whatever type you choose, you are more likely to interact with your host and the other guests, which makes it a fun experience.
Italian is Spoken
If you’ve studied Italian, and you hope to get some practice, visit the smaller towns of Umbria. Most of the locals appreciate your effort and will continue to speak Italian, even though they know some English. Many of the shops aren’t that busy, so you can actually stay awhile and have some fun conversations with the owners.
The piazza is also a good place to start up a conversation with locals.
Life is moving at a slower pace
Umbria doesn’t have that many large museums or an active night life. This is where you come to relax and enjoy the food, wine, the friendly people and the picturesque countryside. However, there are times when music festivals and celebrations will liven up even the quiet villages. Montefalco has its wine weekends, Spoleto is known for its famous dance and music festival, Perugia hosts the Corsa dei Ceri in late May. To learn more, check out these websites—and take the roads less traveled that lead to Umbria.
Lonely Planet: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/italy/umbria
What to See in Umbria: http://www.umbria-italy.org