Umbria: The Insider’s Italy

Jul 1, 2007
2007 / July 2007

Known as il cuor verde d’ Italia (the green heart of Italy), a phrase taken from a poem by Giosuè Carducci, Umbria is the only Italian region that does not have coastline or share a border with a foreign country. The area is heaving with ruins and history rivaling more popular Italian destinations, and has been hailed by satisfied visitors since antiquity. As advertised, apart from August and September, Umbria is fantastically green, in addition to the yellow, red, pink, purple and blue accents provided by wildflowers in the spring.

Despite what has until recently been an understated public relations effort, tourism is one of the primary contributors to the Umbrian economy, centering around key cities such as Perugia and Assisi and intimate medieval towns like Bevagna as well as its emerging wine region, spiderwebbing out from epicenters such as Montefalco, Torgiano and Orvieto. With tourism stronghold Tuscany looming immediately northeast and Rome more than two hours away by train, Umbria is routinely overlooked by tourists, which is why the few who make it to this timewarp of rolling hills, speckled with castles, fortresses and watchtowers, are so pleased they came. Promotional efforts are taking root, but that’s not likely to change Umbria’s deliberately unhurried approach to life.

Perugia, the region’s capital, is one of the best-preserved medieval hill towns in a region known for its medieval hill towns. Mind-bending history is literally traceable from the foundations up. Look at any building in the historic city center and just tick off the epochs as your eyes tilt from base to rooftop, crossing clearly discernable architectural phases: Etruscan, Roman, Medieval and finally Renaissance. As in many parts of Italy, Americans will be stunned speechless to learn that these antique but robust structures are utilized as everyday apartments and retail space. They continue to stand up to the same high-impact, bustling urban abrasion they have endured for more than two millennia with little more than superficial scratches to show for it.

Perugia is also Umbria’s social hub and nightlife center, pulsating with the energy of students from two universities, including the Università per Stranieri (University for Foreigners), established by Mussolini to “spread the superior Italian culture around the world.” Forget driving here — Perugia’s tight-knit streets range from barely passable to impassable — and instead explore on foot these first-rate wandering grounds, lush with museums, churches, ruins, plazas and gelato shops.

Assisi, established as a fortified settlement around 1,000 B.C., still exudes the spirit of its most famous son, St. Francis, founder of the Franciscan order and one of Italy’s two patron saints (St. Catherine of Siena being the other), even 800 years after his death. Despite waves of visitors that often outnumber the town’s residents, Assisi remains a tranquil and divine locale, complete with saintly churches, Franciscan sites and charming day hikes in the surrounding area, including the 11-mile trek that follows St. Francis’ route to Gubbio. The city is still recovering from devastating twin earthquakes in 1997. Many historic sites sustained extensive damage, but the major attraction, the Basilica di San Francesco, partially reopened in 1999.

The time-travel sensation invoked by such off-the-beaten-path towns as Bevagna, Montefalco and Brufa are comparable to ancient cities all over Italy, with one exception: You’re likely to be the only person standing there to catch that wicked history buzz. These and Umbria’s other obscure towns are thin on visitors and locals alike — bordering on abandoned in the low-season — so it’s not uncommon to snap pictures of completely empty streets, capturing vistas of cobblestones, arches and architecture without so much as a single wayward camera-wielding tourist tainting the scene. Try that in Tuscany!

Though increasingly organized, Umbrian wineries are still untamed enough that few have established visitor hours. Turning up without a reservation is ill-advised, as the only person on site may be the family matriarch, with her hair in curlers and a cake in the oven (true story). Winemakers such as Caprai, Còlpetrone and the inescapable Lungarotti, which also runs outstanding wine and olive oil museums in Torgiano, are deservedly renowned, but there are innumerable smaller wineries in the region worth visiting. Tours can be easily arranged through Strada del Sagrantino (http://www.stradadelsagrantino.it), Strada dei Vini del Cantico (http://www.stradadeivinidelcantico.it) or any number of local tourism offices. Alternatively, reserve a room and car well in advance for Cantine Aperte (“Open Cellars”) — annually on the last weekend in May — an Italy-wide winetasting fest, when drop-in visitors are welcome most everywhere.

Though a car will get you nowhere fast in the historic centers of most towns, one is virtually required for a comprehensive tour of the remainder of Umbria, particularly if you plan to visit wineries, stay in countryside villas or just cruise at a leisurely pace past the nearly uninterrupted assortment of scenic monasteries, valleys and rivers, not to mention Lake Trasimeno, Italy’s largest lake. Sequestering yourself in one of the many gander-worthy hilltop towns is just as worthwhile, giving you ample time to absorb the dazzling architecture and to sample the endless selection of eateries and enotecas (wine bars).

Over-achieving vacationers are suitably covered in Umbria as well. Classes in local ceramics (http://www.schoolofceramics.org) and cooking (http://www.cordonbleuperugia.com), seasonal truffle-themed outings, condensed sommelier training, horseback tours, golf and even defensive driving courses in stock cars (this is Italy, after all) are all on offer, but food, wine and prolonged repose take precedence here. Leading by example, Umbria is a hotspot for the Slow Food movement (http://www.slowfood.com), a philosophy in opposition to fast food, and by association fast lives. It endorses local food traditions and people’s interest in the food they eat — and presumably how they eat it (read: slowly). Umbria is world-renowned for its copious number of Slow Food-approved restaurants, as well as boasting several “Slow Cities” (http://www.cittaslow.net) — cities that satisfy criteria in upholding “slow lifestyles” — including Orvieto, Montefalco, Torgiano, Todi and Trevi.

Apart from the youthful, streetcentric nightlife in Perugia, there’s very little in Umbria to keep you up past the typical Italian bedtime (midnight), particularly if you choose to avail yourself of the utter peace and tranquility of an agritourism stay. There are countless, privately owned countryside villas seeding Umbria, many of which can be perused at http://www.umbria2000.it Honor.able mention goes to Lungarotti (of wine-making fame), which runs two gorgeous agritourism villas “in the heart of the Torgiano vineyards” (http://www.poggioallevigne.com) that can accommodate two to 10 people. Or seriously splash out at Todi Castle (http://www.todicastle.com), an honest-to- goodness castle available for rent. Enjoy your stay, your majesty.


LODGING

BRUFANI PALACE

Arguably the top hotel in Umbria. Poorly executed amenities like the moribund fitness area and sparing business center are entirely overshadowed by exquisite Old Europe décor, doting service and views of Perugia and the distant countryside that photography will fail to capture. The glass-bottom pool revealing Etruscan ruins below is stunning. The on-site Italian restaurant “Collins” flaunts a first-rate chef and a sommelier-designed wine list.WiFi and data ports in all rooms. $$$$
BRUFANI PALACE
Piazza Italia 12
06100 Perugia
tel 39 75 573 2541
http://www.brufanipalace.com

TRE VASELLE

This hotel is equally known for its restaurant of the same name, roundly hailed as Umbria’s top eatery. Like many structures in Umbria, this large 17th-century home-turned-hotel is still outfitted with many original components. Extraordinary aesthetic effort was put into its lovely rooms — understated and uniquely decorated with antique furniture and clever trompe-l’oeil — while basics like soundproofing (non-existent) and a practical desk were overlooked.WiFi in all rooms. Closed February and March. $$$$
TRE VASELLE
Via G. Garibaldi 48
06089 Torgiano
tel 39 75 988 0447
http://www.3vaselle.it

VILLA PAMBUFFETTI

Family-owned and warmly operated, this 18th-century villa sits on its very own park just a few minutes’ walk from the Montefalco city walls. The owners are happily fixated on food and wine, which is made abundantly clear at mealtime. The property invites sustained leisure in the park, by the outdoor pool, or in one of the social areas with copious books to peruse. Request the tower-top room, with a 270-degree, unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside. $$$$
VILLA PAMBUFFETTI
Viale della Vittoria 20
06036 Montefalco
tel 39 74 237 9417
http://www.villapambuffetti.com

VILLA ZUCCARI

Ten minutes from Montefalco by car, this recently converted family estate is located on a gorgeously tended 10-acre property, with an outdoor pool and onsite restaurant. Rooms are an interesting mix of immaculately modern — some rooms have whirlpool tubs at the foot of the bed — with the occasional antique furnishing to remind guests of the villa’s legacy. Balcony views are unforgettable. $$$$
VILLA ZUCCARI
Loc. San Luca
06036 Montefalco
tel 39 74 239 9402
http://www.villazuccari.com


DINING

RELAIS BORGO BRUFA

This exacting “wellness center” resort, which offers weekly stay packages, has a public restaurant that can cure all ills. Pasta dishes that seem simple on the menu are distinctly elaborate on the tongue, seafood is coaxed to flavorful peaks without being “fishy,” and the beef is on par with anything money can reasonably buy outside Argentina. Food is prepared with health and nutrition in mind, yet is metaphysically succulent enough to relax the most acute muscle spasms. While there, indulge in a stunningly affordable skin or body treatment. $$$
RELAIS BORGO BRUFA
Via del Colle 38
06089 Brufa di Torgiano
tel 39 75 985 267
http://www.borgobrufa.it

RISTORANTE LA LANTERNA

A hands-down local favorite, La Lanterna’s kitchen has been under the same locally renowned chef for nearly 20 years. Classic, rustic Umbrian cuisine (roasted pigeon) and creative Italian dishes (ravioli with orange cream sauce) are served with a straight face, giving diners no indication of the singular indulgence they’re about to enjoy. $$-$$$
RISTORANTE LA LANTERNA
Via Ulisse Rocchi 6
06100 Perugia
tel 39 75 572 6397

RISTORANTE IL COCCORONE

Little Montefalco maintains fine-dining credibility largely through the efforts of Il Coccorone. The visually pleasing, open wood-fired oven with meat sizzling away is a nice attraction, but the rest of the menu is where it’s at, including the simple yet magically delicious bruschetta that one only seems to find in obscure, unsung Italian eateries.
RISTORANTE IL COCCORONE
Largo Tempestivi
06036 Montefalco
tel 39 74 237 9535
http://www.coccorone.com

RISTORANTE SIRO
One wouldn’t think that the diminutive town of Torgiano could fill a sandwich shop with any regularity, but for both lunch and dinner Siro is packed. Traditional pasta and meat dishes are copious, colorful and competently prepared, or just get the belly-distending, two-person mixed appetizer platter and skip straight to the tiramisu.
RISTORANTE SIRO
Via Giordano Bruno 16
06089 Torgiano
tel 39 75 982 010


DIVERSIONS

Wine tasting is blissfully unavoidable in Umbria. Caprai (http://www.arnaldocaprai.it), founded in 1971, is credited for bringing Sagrantino out of the countryside and into the world limelight with its award-winning “25 Anni” vintage, “destined to be Italy’s next great red wine” according to Quarterly Review of Wines magazine. A one-hour tour with tasting and light meal costs about $13. Còlpetrone (http://www.saiagricola.it) offers two-hour tours and an unspoken all-you-can-eat/drink light meal and tasting for about $16. Lungarotti (tel 39 75 988 6659, http://www.lungarotti.it) has tours and tastings ranging in price from about $9 to $46, depending on the amount of touring/drinking/eating you’re up for. Urbani Truffles (tel 39 74 361 3171, http://www.urbanitartufi.it), supplier of 70 percent of the world’s truffles via 10,000 freelance truffle hunters, accepts visitors for aromatically unforgettable factory tours. See how each and every truffle is hand-checked, smelled, weighed, washed, inspected, graded, trimmed and sorted. No wonder they’re so expensive! The Perugina chocolate factory (Via Pievaiola San Sisto, tel 39 75 527 6796) provides possibly too much information about chocolate production, though you’re awarded copious free samples for your time. Visit http://www.umbria2000.it for themed self-tour itineraries revolving around crafts, food, wine and nature, among others. Small group tours can be arranged through Guide in Umbria (tel 39 75 573 2933, http://www.guideinumbria.com), located in Perugia.

For travelers in search of history, the Basilica di San Francesco (Piazza di San Francesco, tel 39 75 819 001) in Assisi, built between 1228 and 1253, transfixes religious and artistic pilgrims alike. In addition to the overall lavishness of the upper church, the 28-part fresco circling the walls is one of the most famous pieces of art on the planet — though historically attributed to Giotto and his pupils, its true origin is now in question. The more modest lower church features architecturally innovative (for the time) stained-glass windows designed by craftsmen from Germany, England and Flanders, as well as the crypt of St. Francis himself.

Festivals abound in Umbria: Umbria Jazz is one of the most important jazz music festivals in the world (July; http://www.umbriajazz.com); Calendimaggio in Assisi is a re-enactment of life during the medieval and Renaissance periods, including theater shows, choruses, dances, processions, archery and flag-waving displays (May; http://www.calendimaggiodiassisi.it); Perugia hosts the Eurochocolate festival — need we say more? (mid- to late-October; http://www.eurochocolate.com); the Festival of Two Worlds is an American/ European artistic display of theatre, dance and music (late June – early July; http://www.spoletofestival.it). For a complete listing of festivals, visit http://www.regione.umbria.it.


INFO TO GO

Tiny Umbria International Airport (PEG), seven miles outside Perugia, is what passes for the area’s air transport hub, with sparing service to Milan, London, and Tirana, Albania. The airport has car rental desks, including Avis and Hertz, and bus service to Perugia’s train station and Piazza Italia ($3.30 one way). Flying into Rome Fiumicino (FCO) is infinitely more convenient. From there you can board direct bus service to Perugia (http://www.sulga.it; $30 round trip; 3-3⁄4 hours each way).

Umbria has thin intercity bus service connecting its towns. Plan travel with public transportation carefully or rent a car in Perugia through Europcar (http://www.europcar.com), Avis (http://www.avis.com) or Hertz (http://www.hertz-europe.com).

More ambitious people rent cars in Rome and drive themselves to Perugia.Though this is a gorgeous drive, it can be quite an undertaking, particularly just after a trans-Atlantic flight.

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