Umbria is the green heart of Italy, a realm of medieval hill towns dotted with cypress trees standing sentinel over vineyards and olive groves. It is Italy’s only land-locked region – where soft-contoured hills are bordered by the Apennines in the east in a vision of rural charm.
The capital Perugia is a venerable university town with a lovely medieval centre, although it was originally an Etruscan settlement. It has the region’s most fabulous art gallery, the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, full of treasures including works by Fra’ Angelico, Piero della Francesca and Pinturicchio. The adjoining Collegio del Cambio is smothered in frescoes by the local 15th century painter Pietro Vannucci. Known simply as Perugino,he was Umbria’s greatest painter whose frescoes are masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance.
The intact Arco Etrusco (Etruscan Arch) is the gateway to Perugia’s centre and labyrinth of alleyways so narrow that, it’s said, lovers can lean out and kiss across them. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the town has also given the world its chocolate baci (kisses). And in October, lovers of chocolate throng the Corso Vannucci for Eurochocolate, a nine-day celebration of the delicious cocoa bean.
Ancient walls surround medieval Orvieto, sitting on an outcrop of volcanic cliff. Long since extinct, those volcanic outpourings made these lands so fertile, producing Orvieto’s famous white wines. The tradition of winemaking goes back to Etruscan times and this is one of Italy’s most ancient towns. Of the Umbrian hilltowns, Gubbio and Spoleto are probably the loveliest, almost perfect in their settings and containing treasure troves of art. Spoleto’s aqueduct, the Ponte delle Torri is an extraordinary feat of engineering where it’s possible to walk across the top 230 m (755ft) long and 80m (262ft) for breathtaking views.
And then there is Assisi, the place of pilgrimage to see the shrine to San Francesco (St Francis). The birthplace of the medieval playboy turned pilgrim then patron saint of Italy became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Although the Basilica and some frescoes were seriously damaged in the earthquakes of 1997, restoration is complete and Giotto’s famous fresco cycle, Life of St Francis (1290-95) is a miracle of luminosity. Second only to Rome‘s St Peter’s as the world’s most important site of pilgrimage, the setting of this pink-tinged medieval town in the lee of Monte Subiaso is utterly divine.
In case you experience withdrawal symptoms from the sea, Lake Trasimeno is a summer holiday playground with plenty of opportunities for swimming, trekking and horse-riding. This is Italy’s largest non-Alpine lake whose capital is the attractive medieval town Castiglione del Lago. Here and at restaurants dotted around the lake, you can feast on the locally caught fish such as trout, eel and pike – perfectly complemented by glasses of the crisp white Orvieto wine.
North of the lake is the lovely medieval town, Gubbio, where the skyline is pierced by the campanile (belltower) of the Palazzo dei Consoli. Within are seven pieces of bronze inscribed with Etruscan and Roman characters. These priceless slabs are known as the Eugubine Tablets dating from 250-150 BC. Gubbio’s ancient origins are reflected in its buildings seemingly as ancient as time, set in a glorious position clinging to the mountainside. Known once as the ‘city of silence’ it is also a picturesque medieval town and, many say, Umbria’s finest. But, in this region, you really are spoilt for choice.
Where to eat
Il Giglio d'Oro gets my vote as the best restaurant in Orvieto. The food and service are excellent but the position is special. It stands next to the magnificent Orvieto Duomo where you can sit outside, enjoy the delicious food and views whilst soaking up the atmosphere Tips from To – Tuscany
What to drink
Drink vintage Sagrantino at the Montefalco in Spirito Divino - great views of Umbria too. Spiritodivino is a wine shop, as well as a restaurant/B&B, all in a wonderful 15th century building in Montefalco (Perugia). Tip from Italian Country Cottages
If wine tasting in Montefalco, ensure you try the dry full bodied wine made from the sagrantino grape which isn't available anywhere else in the whole of Europe. Tip from Headwater Holidays
Where to go
Take a gorgeous drive along to Bevagna, near the cities of Foligno and Assisi, one of the few Umbrian towns not on a hill. Tip from Italian Country Cottages
Umbria's Festivals - Three of the Best
Perugia is the venue of one of Europe's biggest and best festivals - the Umbria Jazz - when world-famous artistes perform in the ancient piazzas and streets in early July. http://www.umbriajazz.com/
Try to get to the annual 900-year-old race at Gubbio, the 'Corsa dei Ceri', is second only to Siena's 'Palio' for medieval spectacle. Enormous wooden candles 'ceri' are borne aloft in frenzied races, culminating in much feasting and drinking. Whether Christian festival or pagan ritual, there is no mistaking the very, er, phallic aspect of the 'ceri'. www.ceri.it/