Living La Dolce Vita in Central Italy
What traveler could resist falling in love with spectacular scenery, outrageously delicious food and warm-hearted people?
Venice, Florence and Rome are must-sees for any first-timer to Italy, but there is so much more. Equidistant from Florence and Rome is an extraordinary assortment of historic and enchanting hill towns in Italy’s “green heart” — Umbria.
Occupying 3,260 square miles, with little more than a million people, Umbria is the only completely landlocked province of Italy. This earthquake-prone mountainous terrain cups several river valleys, and is home to the country’s largest inland lake. Throughout Umbria, Italy’s dramatic history is on full display. The hallowed city of Assisi, and Gubbio, a mother lode of Umbrian history, can occupy a tourist for days. Spoleto, Trevi and Spello, which rose to prominence along Rome’s Via Flaminia trade route, are flush with character. There is Deruta, famous for ceramics, Montefalco, celebrated for its wine, Orvieto with its grand cathedral and, with an eagle’s view of the valley, the glorious Todi.
Providing layer upon layer of historic richness, Umbria’s picturesque capital city, Perugia, retains traces of the prehistoric era, the settlement of Etruscans, the occupation of Romans, and a prevalent medieval aura. I first visited Perugia in 2016 and was taken then with the town’s dusky-dark history — its web of ancient streets built with paving stones that have survived a brutal past. Perugia has been razed by the Ostrogoths, the Romans, and even by a Pope. There is something mystical and ephemeral about Perugia that asks for deeper understanding. The sense that you can never know it completely makes time spent there even more compelling.
The Umbrian Jazz Festival has been staged in Perugia since 1973. It is the city’s largest annual event, along with the Eurochocolate Festival, held in October. With jazz and Perugina chocolate beckoning, my husband and I rented an apartment last summer in the university section of the city. Owned by a professor and her civil engineer husband, who had renovated the residence, the apartment was originally a 13th-century convent for Benedictine nuns. Our living room balcony afforded a view of Perugia that stretched for miles to the valley below, while our kitchen window framed San Francesco delle Donne church, which has history dating back to 1212. We soon discovered that the church had been transformed in the early 1920s into a fascinating textile museum and workshop that we later toured with its third- and fourth-generation owners.
Our daily walk into town for 10 days of jazz took us across the Via Appia, an aqueduct completed in 1280. Another path led through Perugia’s massive walls via the 3rd Century BC Etruscan Arch, also known as the Arch of Augustus. The labyrinth of streets that bend around the Centro Storico (historic center) are lined with ancient houses, barrel-vaulted restaurants and specialty shops. The sights and smells of this ancient city were heady and foreign to us, a reminder that even though jazz is a familiar American experience, we were far from home.
Perugia was a hellish place in the Dark Ages. The Via dei Priori near the main Piazza IV Novembre was said to have run with blood. That narrow street was where I found my favorite Perugia restaurant, Osteria a Priori. Incorporating an extensive wine bar of more than 200 bottles of local wine, along with upstairs and outside dining, the osteria serves locally sourced food — everything homemade. Tagliatelle with a ragu of chianina beef (an Italian breed of cattle) was spectacular. And if you’re in Umbria, be sure to try a dish that highlights local black truffles. For the best view while dining in Perugia, go for dinner or an apertivo at Ristorante del Sole. You can even see the lights of Assisi from your table.
Perugia was the home to several popes throughout history. Four were elected there. The people of Perugia, however, weren’t always fans of the Holy See. They fought the tax on salt that was imposed by Paul III, and were severely punished. To this day, the region still makes its bread without salt.
Food and wine are a bargain in Italy. The key to great meals is fresh, locally sourced ingredients, cooked simply and thoughtfully to allow ingredients to shine. A porcini mushroom pasta soars with flavor, and Italy’s creamy gelato and tiramisu should be enshrined. Another desert option is slightly sweet biscotti dipped in Sangrantino di Montefalco wine.
Umbria’s capital city is well connected by rail and a decent bus line. We visited 16 different towns, each with its own fascinating story. Much is known about 2nd Century BC Umbrian life and values due to the discovery of the Eugubine Tablets, which are displayed in Gubbio’s Palazzo dei Consoli. Built aside Mount Ingino, Gubbio is a site for Roman ruins and well-preserved medieval houses. We wandered into a house that appeared to be a museum, but found no one. A hand-made sign invited us to take a look. The building contained three floors filled with authentic torture devices from the Middle Ages! The Palazzo Ducale with its archeological underground is another must-see stop in this beautiful mountain town.
A day trip to Lake Trasimeno is a welcome break from trekking up hill-town steps. Hannibal defeated the Romans on its shores in 217 BC. The fortress of Castiglione del Lago was nearly impenetrable in its day. You can get a great view of it from the ferry on your way to Isole Maggiore, where St. Francis once stayed.
Assisi retains a feeling of serenity even when it’s overrun with tourists. The Basilica of San Franscesco, where the frescoes of Giotto and the tomb of St. Francis are located, is worth the trip alone, and I also enjoyed visiting Santa Chiara. There are many good restaurants in Assisi, but I’ve returned to the family-owned Trattoria Pallotta, where everything tastes like it came out of my Italian grandmother’s kitchen.
Spoleto is famous for its annual music festival, and although we missed the event, we stumbled upon an outdoor opera dinner party staged down the center of four or five contiguous blocks. There is much to see in Spoleto, including the ten-arch, 755-foot Roman bridge, a breathtaking duomo and a 1st-century AD Roman theatre. It was 105 degrees when we visited, but among our best meals in Italy were our lunch plates of summer-fresh panzanella and farro grain salad, prepared and served by the kindly owner who had guided our dining choices.
In the shadow of Mount Subasio is the well-manicured town of Spello. Flowers spill onto walkways from the porches of pink-stone houses, and much Roman history is intact here, including Spello’s gateways. Surprisingly, as with Trevi, tourists by the hordes have not discovered it yet.
Known as “the balcony of Umbria,” Montefalco was a challenge to visit without a car. We traveled by train to the rail hub Foligno and then took a bus up the vineyard-covered mountains to Montefalco. Similar to the towns of Todi and Orvieto, Montefalco’s perch over surrounding valleys offers spectacular views. Don’t pass up a tour of the Museo Comunale complex and its exquisite art. The popular restaurant Coccorone was closed, but we enjoyed a lovely meal and Montefalco wine at Oro Rosso, where the fourth-generation owner, Antonia, and her young son treated us like family.
Other cities to explore if you are interested in wine are Orvieto, for its white Classico, and Torgiano, home to Rubesco Riserva. The wine and olive oil museums in Torgiano are excellent. If you are traveling by car, combine a trip to Torgiano with a stop in Deruta. Shop for ceramics in Deruta’s historic square or along the main road, and visit Deruta’s ceramics museum and ancient kiln.
My advice to would-be travelers is to learn a little of the language and travel light. Whether you visit Umbria for jazz, history, chocolate, or a great dish — ceramic or otherwise — make time to gain a feel for the region. In your unhurried moments, take in the subtle and warm ambience of Umbria. It spoke to me, and I listened.