Road tripping through Umbria – Italy’s Green Heart
By Donnie Sexton
Once you have crossed these magnificent cities off your bucket list, go local by exploring Italy’s green heart –Umbria . This agricultural-rich region, within an hour and half north of Rome, will seduce any visitor with its cobblestoned medieval villages and its abundance of locally produced food and wine.
The pace of life is slower and more affordable, and you’ll come to understand why Italians linger over the pleasures of the table.
Getting Around Umbria
You can move through the region on public transport (buses and trains), but renting a car or hiring a driver allows you the freedom to stop at will and explore.
The landscape is one of rolling hills covered with vineyards and olive orchards, dotted with ancient cities rising up from rocky outcroppings.
The third longest river in Italy, the Tiber River, cuts through the green heart of Umbria, becoming the lifeblood for local crops.
If you prefer to stay in one location and day trip from there, I would suggest either the city of Perugia or Orvieto. Both have a variety of lodging options coupled with vibrant plazas where the night scene is enchanting.
If a country setting is more to your liking, settle into one of the farmhouses that are part of the agritourism movement in Umbria. US-based Unique Italy is a great resource for helping plan all things Umbria.
Perugia is the capital of Umbria and home to one of the oldest universities in Italy, which was founded in 1308. This gem of a city has figured out how to make its historic city center, sitting high up on a hill, very accessible. A series of four escalators take visitors from the lower reaches of town up to the heart of Perugia.
Best of all, the escalators pass through the massive ancient stone fortress of the Rocca Paolina that has been preserved as a museum. There is no charge for roaming its fascinating labyrinth of corridors, alcoves, and arches.
A City of Stone
The hub of Perugia’s city center is Piazza IV Novembre marked by the dominating Fontana Maggiore, a beautiful example of medieval Italian sculpture.
The people watching is at a premium here, best done sitting on the steps of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, with a gelato or expresso in hand.
Strike out in any direction from the Piazza to explore the narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets, including working your way to traverse the Via dell’ Acquedotto, the ancient Roman aqueduct.
Today, the aqueduct links two hills within the city. It is simply mindblowing to try and wrap your head around what it must have taken back in the day to build Perugia’s magnificent stone palaces, churches, walls, and houses, given the lack of tools and equipment that we have today.
Don’t leave the center before treating yourself to the prize of Perugia – its chocolate, found in many stores throughout the city.
A solid choice for accommodations in Perugia is the beautiful Sangallo Palace Hotel , conveniently located below the city center and a quick three-minute walk to the start of the escalators.
Blessings in Assisi
A short drive from Perugia is the UNESCO city of Assisi and home of the legendary St. Frances of Assisi Cathedral.
Regardless of whether you are into visiting historical churches, this one is a must, built in honor of the ever so humble and beloved St. Frances.
A Franciscan priest might offer up a prayer or blessing for you prior to entering if you’re lucky, which sets the tone for a powerful spiritual vibe that emanates throughout the church.
Assisi is a top destination for pilgrims, so this is one of Umbria’s treasures where you’re going to see the masses arrive via bus tours. Plan your visit to Assisi to stop for a typical Umbrian lunch nearby at the Tili Winery .
Dominating the Etruscan stone city of Orvieto is the stunning Duomo, which was almost three centuries in the making. It’s as much an architectural gem as a house of worship.
Once you’ve wandered through Duomo, find your way around the corner to Via degli Artigiani and check out the Wizard of Oz (aka Giuseppe Rosella).
His shop is crammed floor to ceiling with his collection of “stuff” – everything from miniature pianos that play a tune with the wave of Giuseppe’s hand to Betty Boop paraphernalia to old prints and posters.
If you’re fortunate to be in Orvieto on Thursday or Saturday, the outdoor market is in full swing with not only food but household goods and clothing.
Orvieto is renowned for its ceramics. There is no shortage of shops with impressive displays, including vases that are four feet high to brightly colored tableware. Shipping the goods to your home is very doable.
A good choice for a base camp near Orvieto is the luxurious Altarocca Wine Resort . As the name implies, there is not only a winery on site, but this beautiful hilltop resort boasts a wellness and spa facility.
Discoveries on the Road
Once you established your base, strike out on the backroads to discover what makes the green heart of Umbria tick. Wineries and olive mills beckon. Talking with the farmers and producers of Umbria’s products provides an educational glimpse into life in this region.
Stop in whatever small village holds enchantment and explore. Grab the goods for a picnic lunch – locally cured meats, fresh from the oven baked goods, and local cheeses, complemented with regional wines.
A recommended stop while roaming Umbria is the Marfuga olive oil mill. A beautiful showroom, along with tastings and tours will entice you.
You may have the good fortune of meeting the owner, who will gladly talk about his family’s passion for creating award-winning products.
Umbria is truffle country. It’s amazing to think that these earthy brown tubers, not so attractive when pulled from the ground, can be so flavorful. Get in on the hunt at San Pietro a Pettine , where you can join master truffle hunters and their faithful dogs in sniffing out these delicacies.
Top off this unique experience with lunch on-site at La Cocina, where the truffle is artfully used in a variety of dishes, including galantine with truffle and pistachio, or quail eggs with white truffle.
Eating at a Snail’s Pace
The key to successfully exploring Umbria is adjusting your day to the Italian way of life. Stores tend to shut down around noon to 3 pm, while the locals settle in for their two-hour lunches, likely followed by a nap.
For Americans, the idea of sitting so long for a meal, when we can gulp down a burger in ten minutes that we picked up at a drive-in, is a challenge.
But Italians function on the premise that what comes from the earth or is a product of well-tended livestock, deserves to be savored slowly. Lovingly prepared food is a time to connect with family and friends. When you allow yourself to relax into these long lunches or dinners, you start to appreciate the quality of nourishment that comes from Umbria.
Behaving like an Italian is one of those life lessons that is a benefit of travel.
The Green and Generous Heart of Italy
Umbria has earned the right to be called Italy’s “green heart”, with its backdrop of vineyards, chestnut trees, olive groves and fields ripe with fodder for its livestock. But it’s not just a green heart. This region of Italy has a very generous heart.
You will be welcomed with arms outstretched and an invitation to share in the abundance of their good life. Details on all that Umbria has to offer can be found at www.umbriatourism.it
Donnie Sexton has moved on from a very long stint as staff photographer and media relations manager for the Montana Office of Tourism. Her path is now focused on feeding her addiction to travel and sharing her journeys in both words and photography. www.donniesexton.com