Umbria, just south of Tuscany and west of Le Marche, may be landlocked, but Lake Trasimeno (Italy’s 4th largest) adds a splash of water to the vibrant green countryside. Often overshadowed by Tuscany, we here at Hosted Villas know well that Umbria has many superb qualities that make it a worthy rival to its neighbour. Come and visit the hill town of Montefalco for its textiles and Sagrantino wine; Trevi and Spello for their delicious olive oil; Spoleto for its magnificent fortress and Duomo; in the plains, Bevagna for its Roman history; Perugia for Umbria’s National Art Gallery; and Foligno for a truly Italian experience off the tourist trail. Deruta is central Italy’s capital for ceramics, while medieval Assisi drips with history and faith. Farther afield, Gubbio, Todi, Orvieto are three further towns of great vivacity and charm, while Castelluccio on the Norcia plateau, on the rugged border with Le Marche, is a place of outstanding beauty and gastronomical surprises, such as its namesake prosciutto ham.
Before you come and visit for yourself, let us take you on a journey through the towns of Umbria.
Literally “the falcon’s nest”, Montefalco is often referred to as the “balcony of Umbria” for its spectacular views overlooking the plain. It was once a strategic Roman settlement and later an important battle site of Guelph and Ghibelline forces. A must-see in Montefalco is the church of San Francesco, now a museum housing works and frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli and Il Perugino.
This beautiful Roman town, sloping down along the hillside between Foligno and Assisi, has preserved its charm to the present day. You should explore Spello on foot; leave your car in the parking lot below or at the top of town and walk through the narrow, quiet streets. You can buy some of the best olive oil here. Not to be missed are the stunning frescoes by Pinturicchio in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore (left-hand side in the Cappella Baglioni -insert a 50c coin to illuminate the fresco). There are also two works by Perugino done in his later years. The next church up the road, Sant’ Andrea, also has some other works by Pinturicchio.
Assisi is one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, known and appreciated all over the world. Its location reminds a typical medieval village, perched on a hill overlooking the valley. There are many stunning views and panoramas, all of them unforgettable.
The city has much to offer from the historical, cultural, artistic and religious point of view. As it is the birthplace of Saint Francis of Assisi, one of Catholicism’s most venerated saints (one of the two patron saints of Italy), Assisi is a town with religion very close to its heart. Visitors shouldn’t be surprised to see monks in long brown robes roaming the streets or bands of pilgrims walking the country roads surrounding the town.
Walking through its streets, you will have the opportunity to admire the monuments, breathe the typical atmosphere of the place and, above all, taste the local gastronomy and wine, a great excellence!
Bevagna is one of the few Roman towns settled in the flat plain. To ancient Rome it was known as Mevania, an important commercial and agricultural center on the via Flaminia. On via Porta Guelfa, 2 you will see a well-preserved Roman bath-house mosaic. Ring the bell and an old woman will open the door so you can see it properly. The main square, piazza Silvestri, has remained true to its history with scarcely any buildings from later than the 13th century. Check out the Teatro Torti at the top of the stairs leading to the Palazzo dei Consoli. It has recently been restored, as has the theater in Montecastello di Vibio. The theater in Montecastello di Vibio is the smallest in Umbria with 60 seats, and Teatro Torti in Bevagna is not much bigger. Dating from 1886 this theater is home to many local and international shows. To visit this theater ask the personnel at the tourist information office just under the stairs that lead to it. If you follow the yellow signs for the Teatro Romano you can also see a medieval paper mill which still works today and is in operation during Bevagna’s medieval festival, La Gaita, which takes place in the second week in June.
One of Italy’s most famous ceramic towns. Known for its majolica, Deruta is one long strip of factory stores and workshops. Exit at Deruta Sud and follow the main road all the way through town. The old town of Deruta sits up on the hillside and has an interesting museum with a fine collection of majolica. While there are many artisanal visits you can take while in Deruta, here are two worth visiting:
At the northern end of town on the right is this big stone building with Grazie C&C written in ceramic. Ring the bell when you enter and the owner or one of his assistants will show you around the showrooms and then give you a tour of the factory. You can watch the artists painting the ceramics in their quiet and artistic studio. They do pieces for Nieman Marcus, Tiffany’s, and loads of other shops in the USA and abroad, and will ship your purchases.
Majoliche Rolando e Gioffredo
This shop is directly across the street from Grazie and right next to Sberna in a beautiful stone building owned by the Nulli brothers. In Grazie you can watch the artists at work but here at Nulli you can actually be the artist. Their workshop is downstairs and if you are so inclined they will outfit you in one of their aprons, immerse your hands in a bucket of water and sit you down with a ball of clay and let you have your try at the wheel. Great fun and a good way to see that it is not as easy as it looks.
Once the arch-rival of neighboring Gubbio, Perugia has blossomed as the modern day capital of Umbria. Thanks to the energy of a major university and a vibrant artistic and music community, a visit here offers a refreshing big-city change of pace from the charming sameness of the region’s hill towns. The two most famous landmarks are Pisano’s 13thC fountain (Fontana Maggiore) in the city’s main square and the Paulinian Fortress, Rocca Paolina, Pope Paul III’s massive prison designed by Sangallo in 1530. It hides an underground city and an Etruscan gate, not to mention a huge Etruscan arch made of travertine blocks without mortar. One might come to Perugia to shop (for there are some fine boutiques), to visit the National Gallery with its collection of Umbrian art from all eras or to attend one of the frequent music concerts. Food buffs can avail themselves of the permanent covered food market or the vibrant open-air version that takes place on Saturday mornings. Or you can simply do as the locals do until late at night and stroll the Corso Vannucci, rubbing shoulders with what seems to be the whole population of Perugia. When visiting Perugia take advantage of the mini-metro. Follow signs for the Stadio and then for Pian di Massiano and parking for the mini-metro, which takes you to the top of Perugia on via Oberdan.
From its hill-top position the medieval town of Orvieto gazes imperially over the Tiber Valley. The Etruscans found the steep-sided cliffs of this site to be such an effective natural fortress that they did not need the benefit of defensive walls. Their settlement, Volsinii, Velsina, or Volsinium, was a chief city in the twelve-city Etruscan Confederation. When the Romans destroyed Volsiniiin 280BC, the survivors fled to Lake Bolsena, and resettled on a site that eventually became known as the town of Bolsena. Their original residence became known as the Urbs Vetus(Old Town), precursor to the name Orvieto.
On the Piazza del Duomo stands the majestic cathedral for which Orvieto is famous. The cornerstone of this stunning building was laid in 1290; the edifice wasn’t completed until the 17th century. When the late afternoon sun illuminates the sumptuous façade of the Duomo, it becomes all the more beautiful. Begun in the Romanesque style, and completed as a Gothic structure by master architect Lorenzo Maitani of Siena, each doorway, every pillar, in fact every inch of the masterpiece is lavishly wreathed, encrusted, or painted. The intricate detail is a medley of mosaics, shining gems, and enamel pictures. It is said 152 sculptors worked on the building, including Maitani himself who contributed the most remarkable portions, the bas-reliefs and bronze figures.
In the Piazza, listen for Maurizio, the bronze figure in the clock tower, who strikes the hours. He has been at this job since the year 1351; even the workers constructing the Duomo scheduled their days according to Maurizio!