PERUGIA, Italy — “Umbria is the green heart of Italy,” said our pretty titian-haired guide, pride written in her bright brown eyes. How bright green is her valley, dotted in the summer with crimson poppies and golden sunflowers, the gray-green of the olive trees, and the deep green of the cypress trees and the deeper green of pine forests embracing mountain slopes.
Umbria, in the center of Italy, resembles its neighbor Tuscany but is less touristy and retains its medieval charm. The lovely, delicate landscapes in the background of many of the Peruginos, Raphaels and della Francescas in the region’s churches and basilicas mirror the Umbrian landscape: green hills with distant walled stone villages and towns, church spires and castle towers soaring into a pale azure sky.
Umbria is the region of a hundred hill towns, of undulating landscapes, crafts and gastronomy. It’s also “a land of saints, of peace, of art and of wine,” said the mayor of Perugia.
The Umbrians are justly proud of their olive oil — “the best in Italy; it’s really true,” we were told at the little olive oil museum in Trevi, a hill town surrounded by 200,000 olive trees. While Umbria’s wines are not as well known as Chianti or Montepulciano, they are equally fine and include regional specialties such as Montefalco Sagrantino, a full-bodied, fruity red, and Grechetto, a delicious light dry white. There are four identified wine trails (strade del vino) in the region, enabling visitors to sample Umbrian wines while enjoying the stunning countryside.
The towns of Umbria, some perched precariously on steep hilltops, others in the fertile valleys and still others on gentle slopes, are primarily medieval, although some, like Perugia, are based on an Etruscan layout. Many, like Spoleto, Spello and Assisi, retain their city walls and fortresses. While the towns resemble one another, each has features that make it unique.
We — a group of American journalists — spent five glorious days in Umbria with Perugia as our base. Perugia, Umbria’s capital and largest city, is reached by a road flanked with plane trees, winding round and round the hillside. Escalators and an elevator in different parts of the town make it easier for pedestrians to get from the upper to the lower town. The town has two universities, one an American college.
The historic center of town is the Piazza IV November, the site of the cathedral, the Palazzo dei Priori, and the graceful 13th-century Fontana Maggiore, an exquisite circular fountain adorned with sculptures and bas reliefs by Nicola Pisano and his son, Giovanni.
The National Gallery of Umbria with its first-rate collection of religious art is on the upper floors of the Palazzo. Especially beautiful are the early, Byzantine-style altar pieces and a hauntingly lovely nativity by Piero della Francesca, with the Umbrian landscape as an almost third-dimensional background.
The little Collegio del Cambio, where medieval money-changers met, is also in the Palazzo dei Priori, but reached through a separate entrance. The walls and ceiling of the Collegio are covered with gorgeous Renaissance frescoes, the work of Perugia’s famous native son, Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino. Because he was always available to do a commissioned painting, irreverent Umbrians sometimes slyly call Perugino the world’s first important commercial artist. Commercial or not, the brilliant frescoes of the Collegio del Cambio, painted between 1496 and 1500 on religious and secular subjects, are stunning.
On the piazza side of the Palazzo, a wide, fan-shaped flight of stairs leads to the Sala dei Notari, the meeting hall of the lawyers, dating to the late 1290s. The room has a lovely vaulted ceiling and is decorated with 13th-century frescoes. Above the entrance are stone griffins, mythological creatures with the features and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion (denoting allegiance to the papal cause). The griffin is the guardian and emblem of Perugia.
The griffin is also the symbol of Perugia’s chocolate maker, Perugina, now owned by Nestle. The famous silver foil wrapped “baci” (kisses) are ubiquitous, sold in confectionery shops, grocery stores, bakeries and the Italian equivalent of convenience stores. The suburban Perugina factory can be visited and English-speaking tour guides are available, as are ample samples. Perugia hosts the Eurochocolate festival annually in late October when the area around the Piazza IV November is transformed into open-air exhibits, workshops and displays of chocolates. The 2005 festival runs from Oct. 15 to Oct. 23.
Another annual festival in Perugia is the summer jazz festival, when the town, indoors and out, resonates with music.
Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, is perhaps the best known of the Umbrian towns. It is the center of Umbrian spirituality and the seat of the International Center for Peace, which attracts people from many denominations.
We climbed the steep walk to the basilica, which sits atop a hill at the entrance to the town. The basilica has its own piazza flanked by columns along two sides.
The basilica has upper and lower churches; the former was badly damaged in the earthquake of 1997, but with the help of the inhabitants of the town, the glorious Giotto and Cimabue frescoes have been painstakingly repaired, fragment by fragment. Today, the basilica is again a magnificent work of art.
The Franciscan order was responsible for the founding of the 21 California missions in the 18th and 19th centuries. The 57 monks in residence take care of the basilica, and they run a seminary for young men studying for the priesthood who come from all over the world to study with the monks and at the university. At present, there are 15 nationalities at the seminary, many from as far off as China, Japan and the Philippines.
From the basilica, the cobbled streets lead steeply upward to ever more churches (some incorporating Roman ruins), tiny squares, medieval houses and lots of souvenir and artisan shops, for Assisi is known for its wrought iron and embroidery work. On our way down, I watched as a young woodworker carved a beautiful bird in olive wood in one of the shops.
In early May, Assisi’s upper and lower towns engage in the Festa del Calendimaggio. The two parts of town compete with one another with theater productions, concerts, songs and dances, culminating in a singing contest amid flowers, flags and candles.
Food is important in Umbria; a four-course dinner is normal with the local wine flowing throughout. Roast pork, often spit-roasted, is an Umbrian specialty. In Perugia, slices from a stuffed and roasted pig are sold sandwich-style from a cart. Beans and lentils are Umbrian staples, and, of course, pasta is a must at every meal.
The countryside is dotted with bed and breakfast private homes (called “agriturismo” in Italy). There are small hotels where guests are treated with personal attention; some have excellent kitchens and would make good bases for exploring the region. There are also castles, such as Castello dell’Oscano near Perugia, where guests can spend the night in style, or dine in one of the exquisite public rooms of the castle, as we did.
One of the small, elegant hotels is the Relais Todini, on a hillside facing the pretty little town of Todi. The hotel has an excellent kitchen, makes its own wines and offers guests an outdoor heated swimming pool, a tennis court and fabulous views of the town.
Todi is “the heart of the green heart of Umbria,” the town’s mayor informed us over lunch. It has become an in place for American artists and writers who discovered what the town criers announced in 1562, praising “the very perfect and healthy air of this town, the abundance of its precious wines, excellent meat, and all that is necessary to live.”
Ancient city walls surround the town and at its heart is the Piazza del Popolo, an exquisite medieval square where a 12th-century cathedral and impressive 13th- and 14th-century palaces flank the sides of the square. The Temple of San Fortunato sits atop a steep flight of wide stairs higher in the town. Its magnificent facade is unfinished, a mixture of Gothic and Romanesque styles.
BALCONY OF UMBRIA
Montefalco is called the balcony of Umbria because many of the towns of Umbria, the rolling hills, Mount Subasio (the region’s highest mountain) and the Apennines can be seen from its heights. It is said that the town was named for Frederick II, the 13th-century Italian-born leader of the Holy Roman Empire, who liked to fly his falcons on the nearby hills.
Outside Montefalco’s city walls is another charming small hotel in a green park, the Villa Pambuffetti. The villa is run as a family affair, and cooking classes in regional specialties are available to guests. Our lunch there began with scrambled eggs with black truffles and continued with spaghetti perfumed with more finely chopped truffles, which are ubiquitous in Umbria.
The pretty town of Spello, constructed with the same pink limestone as Assisi, is entered through a Roman gateway, the Porta Consolare. We climbed the narrow, steep stone streets to reach the main square, the Piazza della Repubblica, past the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, built on the ruins of a Roman temple. The church contains a series of frescoes painted by Pinturicchio, said to be the best of the artist’s work.
Spello celebrates the ninth Sunday after Easter, the feast of Corpus Christi (called Corpus Domini in Italy), with street carpets made of brilliant, fragrant flowers and grasses in many fanciful designs. The blossoms are collected by the town’s children and then transformed into floral, abstract, religious and allegorical designs. The carpets are laid out on the streets of the city and the priest is first to step on these delicate beautiful carpets. Visitors can see photographs of past festivals at the little Museo delle Infiorate.
Spello is home of the first genuine enoteca, or wine bar, in Umbria. Enoteca Properzio has numerous excellent Umbrian wines and olive oils, and the sandwiches of prosciutto and salami are worth sampling. The enoteca will arrange for wine classes.
Spoleto is a medieval jewel. We arrived at night and entered the town from the top after crossing the 10-arch Ponte delle Torri, lit only by candles and a full moon. The bridge over the Tessino once was a Roman aqueduct; it is 230 feet high and 755 feet long. Higher up on the hill, brightly illuminated, is La Rocca, the 14th-century fortress recently used as a prison.
As we walked down through the silent town, the cathedral and its piazza opened before us at the bottom of a long, wide candlelit staircase. The scene was pure magic. The Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds, founded by Italian-American composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, continues to attract world-class artists and international audiences every summer.
Bevagna, on the fringes of the Umbra Valley, may be my favorite of the Umbrian towns we visited. The Romans made wine in the region, built their villas on the hilltops surrounding the town and have left an amphitheater, a temple and thermal baths dating to the second century A.D. Some of the charming Roman mosaics of marine creatures have been preserved and can be admired by visitors to the baths.
The city walls are well preserved and incorporate some of the Roman fortifications of the first century B.C. The 12th-century Piazza Filippo Silvestri is one of the most harmonious squares in Umbria. A graceful fountain and a Roman column with a Corinthian capital, known as the column of San Rocco, adorn the piazza, and are surrounded by the cathedral, other churches and the 12th-century town hall. The town hall now houses a charming 19th-century theater, Teatro Francesco Torti, with a painted drop curtain representing a typical Umbrian country scene.
Every year, during the last 10 days of June, Bevagna celebrates the Mercato delle Gaite, when the town, in medieval attire, reverts to its past and revives all the traditional trades and crafts. The name refers to the four medieval districts of Bevagna known as “gaite.” Using historically accurate techniques, the townspeople ply their trades making rope, wrought iron, candles, paper and wickerwork.
There’s a gastronomical aspect to the fair, as well, and dishes based on medieval recipes are offered at the restaurants and inns of the town every evening. During the final two days of the festival, each gaite organizes its own market and the celebrations conclude with an archery competition in the main square.
Even without the fair, metalworkers and goldsmiths are at their trades in Bevagna throughout the year. In an ancient Roman theater, now resembling a cave more than a theater, master papermaker Francesco Proietti uses medieval techniques to make elegant, beautiful paper from rags.
Other towns similarly continue making traditional crafts: Todi is known for its woodworking; in Citta di Castello, where weaving dates to the 12th century, linen is still woven by hand in the bird’s-eye stitch. Examples of exquisite work from the 16th century can be seen at Tela Umbria in its workshop and museum.
Spoleto features lacework, embroidery, harnesses and saddlery.
The town of Norcia has a museum of folk traditions with exhibits of medieval trades. The town is famous not only for its goldsmiths, who have rediscovered the Etruscan technique of granulation in making gold jewelry, but also for the skill of its salami and ham makers, a tradition that also goes back several centuries. In Italy, an expert pork butcher is known as a “Norcino.”
Gubbio is known for the production and restoration of string instruments and now has a School of Master Luthiers and Bow Makers with students from Italy and abroad. Orvieto is famous for its magnificent multicolored marble cathedral, but it is also a city of numerous pottery workshops, dating to the 14th century when the municipal potters’ guild was founded. The pitchers designed by the Orvieto potters in medieval times are still reproduced. The town is also known for its ironwork, handmade lace and whimsical pinewood objects.
Deruta may be the pottery center of Umbria with its many factories and showrooms outside the center of town near the highway from Perugia. The exquisite majolica, for which Deruta is famous, was developed in Persia and Mesopotamia. The term “majolica” probably is derived from Majorca, the Spanish island from which the technique was imported in the 16th century.
At the Sambuco factory, a visitor can watch as pots are thrown and painstakingly decorated by hand. Deruta has a pottery museum that features both ancient and modern ceramics.
There are dozens of other towns dotting the Umbrian landscape, each with its special charm, crafts and gastronomy. As we were told by the region’s minister of tourism, in Umbria, “everything is mixed in perfect harmony.” It is, indeed, a region to soothe the soul and charm the heart.
Alitalia operates daily nonstop flights between Washington and Milan, and there are frequent flights from Milan to Perugia.
In Perugia, the Brufani Palace is part of the Sina Hotel Group. It’s a five-star hotel with charming large rooms, some with a beautiful view over the valley. The hotel has an indoor swimming pool. Piazza Italia 12, 06100 Perugia; phone 39/075-573-254; www.brufanipalace.com
Villa Pambuffetti Viale della Vittoria 20, 06036 Montefalco, Perugia, Italy; phone 39/0742-37-94-17; www.villapambuffetti.com; e-mail, email@example.com
Relais Todini, Collevalenza di Todi, 06050 Todi (PG); phone 39/075-887-521; www.relaistodini.com
Castello dell’Oscano, Strada della Forcella 37, O6070 Perugia — Loc. Cenerente; phone 39/075-584-371; www.oscano.com
Umbria Regional Tourist Agency, Via Mazzini 21, 06100 Perugia; 39/075-575-951; www.umbria2000.it; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
Italian Government Tourist Board, Rockefeller Center, Suite 1565, 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10111; phone 212/245-5618; www.italiantourism.com
Sambuco Mario & Co., Via della Tecnica, 06053 Deruta (Pg), Italy; phone, 39/075-971-1625; www.sambuco.it
Enoteca Properzio, 8/A Via Torri di Properzio, 06038 Spello (Pg); www.enoteche.it