Umbria is the center of the world… at least that's what Umbrians like to claim. Their argument goes like this: their province sits in the center of Italy, and Italy, according to all Italians, is the center of Europe and Europe is the center... well you get the idea. But there is good cause for Umbrians to be boastful. Often overlooked amid the craze for Tuscany, the villages and countryside of Umbria are every bit as interesting and far less crowded.
Umbria is known as the green basket of Italy for its rich agricultural production and healthy, rustic cuisine. Not only is it green with pastures, dense forests and verdant valleys, but it is also dotted with exquisite hill-top villages that contain some of the greatest artistic and architectural achievements in Italy.
Orvieto, Todi, Assisi, Perugia… each town has its unique character and traditions. In Assisi, admire the great frescoes by Giotto; Perugia offers chocolate indulgences and a lively university scene; Deruta is famed for its ceramics, and Montefalco for its exuberant sagrantino wine and fine linens. The ancient Roman town of Spello hosts a flower festival each year in June during Corpus Domini, where the main streets are literally paved with a carpet of blossoms. Bevagna holds a week-long medieval festival called Mercato delle Gaite, where the citizens dress in period costumes and demonstrate the crafts associated with that era, such as basket weaving, candle making, silk production and paper pressing, and taverns serve food prepared from medieval recipes. Nearby, Spoleto hosts an international music festival that attracts the greatest voices from around the world, as well as dance companies and theatre productions.
The architecture of Umbria is outstanding. Todi is unique for the exquisite design of its main square (some say it has the ‘perfect’ piazza). In Orvieto, the Gothic duomo is breathtaking. Even the smallest villages reveal unexpected surprises – perhaps a painting by Piero della Francesca or Raphaël. Venture further east toward the Sibillini mountains and you can experience a secret part of Umbria that is rich in natural beauty, pre-Roman settlements and gastronomic specialties such as porchetta (roasted suckling pig stuffed with herbs and spices) and dark, earthy truffles. Norcia, Visso and Gubbio are all towns off the tourist circuit that are also worth exploring.
Along with its beauty and charm, Umbria also offers sumptuous culinary delights. You will find excellent yet simple dining, from the family-run trattoria to a few, choice 3-star restaurants. Umbria is probably best known for its hearty soups made with locally-grown legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and roveliga (a bean that the Etruscans cherished) and homemade pastas such as strangozzi e taglietelle. Truffles, wild boar and game, fresh, in-season produce and the highly acclaimed, peppery-green first-pressings of olive oil are impossible to resist.
Best gateway airport: Rome
From Rome, Todi can be reached in just under 2 hours by car (along the autostrada) ; Perugia is 2 hours and 15 minutes from Rome airport by car and 2 hours by train. Florence is approximately 3 hours by train from Todi and 2 hours and 30 minutes by car.