There are few people over whom Italy fails to cast its spell - of all European countries, it seems to offer a mix of food, history, culture, landscape and architecture so spellbinding that hardly anyone who visits fail to return. Considering its relative compactness, too, it’s remarkable for its wealth of desirable destinations: so many areas have such a gorgeously glowing reputation that it can make choosing one single place to visit a comparatively tough task.
Tuscany has long held travellers in its thrall, overshadowing its neighbour Umbria with glamorous ex-pat tales of farmhouse restorations and ancient frescoes springing up behind stripped wallpaper - but that’s actually quite happy news for the rest of us, as it means that this glorious region remains relatively undiscovered and infinitely more charming.
Placed bang in the centre of the country, Umbria is known as the ‘green heart of Italy’ - a name which suits its verdant, rolling hills, which are peppered with pinkish towns that cling to hillsides in glorious feats of gravity defiance and glow rosily at sunset. Explore these on foot to fully appreciate their steep, winding loveliness, where just the turn of a corner brings you face to face with either beautiful medieval architecture, a breathtaking vista, or a sight as simple as local store owners standing outside, with faces turned up to the sun … sometimes even all three.
Visitors to Umbria are understandably drawn to legendary sites like Assisi, but we took the bold move of avoiding it altogether, preferring instead to delve into villages with names less instantly recognisable: Todi, Cannaro, Scheggino, Monte Castello di Vibio… The appearance of each is picture-postcard “Umbria” but don’t allow this sense of quasi-familarity to fool you into thinking that you already ‘know’ these places .. each has its own unique highlights and charms, whether it’s a cramped alcove under some stairs in which St Francis was housed on his travels (Cannara) or the gloriously ornate Teatro della Concordia in Monte Castello di Vibio - the smallest theatre in the world, so ornately decorated and trinket-like that not being able to scoop it up and thrust it in your pocket doesn’t quite seem to make sense…
What to do
Eating is, of course, one of Italy’s most irresistible siren-songs - no mean feat, when its other enormous appeals are taken into consideration - and Umbria is an ideal place to sample much of what the country has to offer, especially as so many specialties are produced within this area. Head to Urbani Tartufi for the most wonderful truffle products, stay at agriturismo Zafferano e Dintorni in San’Anatolia di Narco to experience life on a saffron farm - or time your stay to coincide with Cannara’s annual late-summer Festa della Cipolla (Onion Festival) where visitors have the opportunity to sample completely onion-based menus at a variety of locations, as well as to enjoy the atmosphere of the produce markets lining the streets. Many of the restaurants in the region proudly showcase the best of Umbria’s edible specialities: at Il Rientro in Collemancio (not far from Cannara and itself the site of Roman and medieval monuments) we feasted on homemade pastas and pizzas delicately flavoured with truffle and onion, plus prosciutto shaved into impossibly thin slices in front of us, alongside sharp, creamy cheeses and a hearty lentil-based soup.
Umbria is also steeped in culture and there is no shortage of museums and galleries to visit, as well as richly decorated churches - the church at Montefalco , in particular, is stunning. The Museum of Wine in Torgiano provided fascinating insights into the history of one of our favourite tipples; nearby, The Museum of Olive Oil was similarly interesting - all the more so as we’d just had a mind-blowingly good lunch at Lungarotti, where we’d supped amply on both. Of course, wine and food can eventually take their delightful toll, leading you to either want to work it off with some physical activity or collapse in a blissed out stupor - for which the adults-only Borgobrufa Spa Resort is marvellous, not least because its heated pool leads (literally) swimmingly outdoors, where you can take in the most wonderful views of the surrounding terraced countryside while you drift around in the soothingly warm water. For those with a thirst for adventure, Umbria’s landscape, which soars to high points in the Appenines and swoops down to low-lying lakes and valleys, provides the perfect setting for a number of outdoor pursuits, from mountain biking and hiking, to rock climbing and white water rafting.
Where to stay
There’s no end of choice when it comes to accommodation in Umbria - many old buildings have been refurbished for this very purpose, often with a faithful attention to the preservation and restoration of original features. We wanted a rural setting with proximity to Perugia, where the thrum of a lively student population blends effortlessly with awe-inspiring antiquity: enter Castello di Monterone , a medieval castle, with sweeping panoramas of the verdant Umbrian countryside beyond its crenellated edges. Each of the castle’s 18 rooms boasts exquisite details and unique character, while suits of armour and other curiosities dot the warren-like maze of public spaces. The restaurant is very good - head to the terrace for the best atmosphere and view, and take time out from exploring in the rose garden, or with some genuine chill-time in the pool, spa and wellness facilities.
*During my stay I was hosted by Regione Umbria, www.umbriatourism.it.
All words and opinions are my own.
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