Umbria: A pocket guide
A few years ago, Umbria was known, if at all, as Tuscany’s less alluring sister. Not any more. These days, Italy’s “green heart” is every bit as celebrated as its neighbor. The reasons are simple: The region has all of Tuscany’s attributes and a few more, with its own opaque light and romantic landscape, fewer crowds, and arguably better food. Umbria mistica (mystical Umbria) some have called it, or la terra dei santi (the land of saints), after the hundreds of saints born here, including Saint Valentine and the two fathers of Western monasticism, Saint Francis and Saint Benedict. True, Umbria doesn’t have the big set pieces of Florence and Siena, but it is a region where the food, wine, art, culture, and architecture are the equal of any in Italy, and its sublime hilltop towns, whether famous or lesser-known, are more intimate and easier to visit. Each has enough to keep you busy for several days, and each has a history and atmosphere quite unlike the next: Norcia, with its truffles and legendary truffle festival, hams, and cheeses, is a gastronomic center par excellence. Orvieto’s duomo is one of the country’s finest cathedrals. Spoleto’s summer music festival is one of Europe’s major cultural events. Gubbio is famous for its wolf, tamed by Saint Francis, and for the running of the Ceri. Perugia was described by a Renaissance traveler as “the most war-like city in Italy,” while Assisi (only a few miles away) is known as the “birthplace of the apostle of peace,” the city where the fabulous Basilica di San Francesco, with frescoes by Giotto, marked a turning point in the history of Western art; its basilica and the tomb of Saint Francis still take one’s breath away. Umbria has the same glorious pastoral scenery as Tuscany—the olive groves, vineyards, and cypress-topped hills—but its high mountain landscapes are superior to those of Tuscany. For those looking for villas, the three regions with the most luxurious private properties, palazzi, and estates are between Citta di Castello and Perugia (closer to Tuscany and up in the hills); Lake Trasimeno on the Umbrian–Lazio border with Rome; and near Todi.