Umbria Holidays: Sample the Heart of Italy
Italian holidays in Umbria should begin in the capital, Perugia, which 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.
While visiting Umbria, holidays should also include a visit to the ancient walls that surround the medieval city Orvieto which sits 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 hill towns, Gubbio and Spoleto are probably the loveliest, almost perfect in their settings and containing treasure troves of art which are well worth stopping to see during your holidays. In Umbria, Spoleto’s aqueduct is an unforgettable sight. 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 breath-taking views of Umbria’s landscape.
Holidays in Umbria will usually eventually lead you to Assisi, a place of pilgrimage for many who come 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 and is a popular attraction in Umbria. Holidays to this region have the advantage of offering opportunities to see the famous Basilica and some frescoes that were seriously damaged in the earthquakes of 1997. Thankfully 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 and a must-see during your holidays in Umbria.
In case you experience withdrawal symptoms from the sea, Lake Trasimeno is a summer playground in Umbria. Holidays near the lake offer 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.
Head north of the lake and be sure to visit the lovely medieval town, Gubbio during your holidays. In Umbria, Gubbio’s beauty is typical, with its magnificent skyline pierced by the campanile (bell tower) 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 and is worth a visit during your stay in Umbria. Holidays that include a visit to this establishment will only be enriched by experiencing the excellent food, service and the restaurants particularly special location. 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 during your holidays. In Umbria, the cities of Foligno and Assisi are worth a visit, as they are 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. 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