By Christine Potter
It was a prescription for an excellent vacation: two weeks exploring Umbria, that landlocked Italian region east of the more travel-tried Tuscany, and staying in a rental villa surrounded by the beautiful Umbrian countryside.
Umbria has everything that Tuscany has except a coastline: ancient cities oozing with history and art, wineries and cuisine ranging from home-style to haute, all sorts of outdoorsy opportunities, and gorgeous scenery. Lakes provide water sports and swimming.
CFB PotterOur accommodation (for two couples) was a self-catering country home, a typically Umbrian stone villa, set amid rolling, hilly farmland, near the unassuming little town of San Terenziano.
Views stretched across undulating fields of sunflowers, lavender, and golden grain, harvested throughout our stay in van-Gogh-like wavy lines.
Our priorities included visits to Perugia, Todi, and Assisi and the rest of the time we simply explored the region finding little-known hill towns, or we relaxed around the villa.
It rises like a beacon from the surrounding hills, Perugia, and its ancient city walls swoop in a dramatic curve from the hilltop to the base.
We drove up, up, up until parking signs directed us down, down, down again to park inside the walls. How, I wondered (conscious of wonky hips and wobbly knees) were we to get back up to the town? Well, Perugia has it covered. Parking is inside massive vaulted underground chambers, dating to the original Etruscan builders. A series of long escalators carried us painlessly to the top, bringing us out by the lively centre square.
Open-top tour buses leave from here and are well worth riding to understand the town. How the bus drivers navigate the steeply winding, narrow, cobbled streets and arches (the old city entrances) is a mystery.
B RoveranPerugia, Umbria’s capital (and capital of its namesake province) has many points of interest, among them the splendid Piazza IV Novembre with its dramatic Fontana Maggiore, a 13th-century fountain said to be one of the most beautiful of its period.
The exotic Town Hall (built between 1293 and 1333) and Piazza Italia are must-sees on Corso Vanucci, the main street. On the Town Hall wall facing the Piazza you’ll see a griffin (Perugia’s heraldic emblem), a 14th-century bronze lion, and chains, all commemorating the 1358 victory over the Sienese.
Check out the terrace by the Prefecture – it yields beautiful views across the Umbrian plain and the Tiber valley, and on a clear day you can pinpoint Assisi and other towns.
Of course there are art galleries – as in any self-respecting Italian town – and the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria is one of the most important. Another is the Archeological Museum, with Roman and Etruscan antiquities and a fabulous collection of bronzes and jewelry.
A mere 20-minute drive from our home-away-from-home, Todi became our “go-to” town for serious shopping, while San Terenziano provided all our daily essentials.
Again, parking is at the bottom of a steep hill, and the old town centre is at the top. Again, transportation is well thought out, with an elevator as an alternative to the steep path. And again, the view from the top is simply grand and on a hot day (as July tends to provide) the topside terrace is a great spot to sit and enjoy an ice cream or a cold beer.
Todi’s Piazza del Populo, originally a Roman forum, is lined with beautiful medieval buildings. It’s built over Roman cisterns, themselves open to visitors. The Palazzo on the square is one of Italy’s oldest public buildings (but restored in the 19th century). Another grand building, the Palazzo del Capitano, houses Todi’s Etruscan-Roman Museum and the Pinacoteca art museum.
Todi’s Duomo, begun in the 12th century, was built over a Roman temple. Its central rose window and the 14th-century altarpiece and frescoes are well worth a visit. Behind it is a Roman house with a remaining mosaic floor.
If you’re looking for a pleasant walk visit Tempio di San Fortunato on Piazza Umberto, a 13th-century church and burial place of Jacopone da Todi, medieval poet and mystic. Next to the church, a walkway leads through gardens and past the castle ruins to great viewpoints.
B RoveranBy now it was a given that all towns on our must-see list would be at the top of hills. Assisi is no exception. The huge basilica dedicated to St. Francis (his tomb is open to the public) was started just two years after the saint’s death in 1228. What would the 13th-century monk, who renounced his worldly goods and initiated the Franciscan Order, think of his home town now?
The basilica is Assisi’s focus of course, and entering the crypt (where the saint is buried) I saw a monk at a desk handing out personalized blessings. Why not? The blessing is now framed and a treasured (inexpensive – by donation) souvenir.
Pilgrimages are made here not just to honour the saint, but to honour the art – Assisi has a rich collection of late 13th- and early 14th-century works.
To get a sense of the peace inspired by Saint Francis, drive from the parking lot about four kilometres towards Eremo delle Carceri. This is a nature reserve and monastery, and a retreat of the saint and his followers. It’s a haven.
These three highlights were among many others, which included “finding” the hill towns of Montefalco and Torgiano, and the lovely Castiglione del Lago on Lake Trasimeno, where the water was oh-so-refreshing and a lakeside café provided great food.
And after a day’s exploring, our villa was just so nice to come home to.
More information about Umbria and Italy from www.italia.it/en
CFB PotterWe found Villa Canalicchio on the internet and rented it from the owner. We were lucky. It was as lovely as it showed on the site. But next time I would go through a travel agent – for the security, and for advice. An agent might have warned us that in July, temperatures can be fierce and that we’d not regret an extra $200 or so a week to have a swimming pool attached. Temperatures during our stay reached 40-plus, and a pool would have been the icing on the cake.
The nearest village, San Terenziano (1,000 pop.) is in the midst of agricultural land producing wine and olive oil. Todi is about a 20-minute drive and Perugia about 45.
When we chose to cook dinner for ourselves, eating al fresco overlooking the lovely Tiber valley, the local stores had everything we needed. When we chose to dine out, the family-run Agriturismo La Casella provided affordable and delicious meals, much of which was produced on their own farm.
In the little town, Da Anna is a family-run restaurant with no claim to superb cuisine but service is fast and friendly, and the pizzas and home-cooked Umbrian dishes are good.