Umbria, unlocked and overlooked, offers backroads surprises

by Arlene Wills, Lynnfield, MA

Of the 20 regions of Italy, Umbria, which lies very near the center of the peninsula, is the only region without a sea coast. Relatively small in area (only about 1,500 square miles) and with less than one million inhabitants, it’s often overlooked by travelers in favor of Tuscany, its better-known neighbor to the west.

Where Tuscany’s cities, villages, villas and fields show more obvious signs of prosperity, in Umbria aspects of the working man’s life are more apparent. There are fewer destination cities, and the hill towns are mainly empty of souvenir shops and restaurants posting tourist menus.

The hills are higher, most covered with trees of chestnut and oak, the lower slopes silvered with olive trees. The mood here is quieter, gentler, more serene.

While getting around by train or bus is possible (though the schedules are infrequent), traveling by car is really the way to go. Roads are well maintained and well marked, distances are short, traffic is light, and with a good map a week or two of day trips can take you to just about all of Umbria. By extending your visit, however, you will extend your pleasure by exploring the back roads and hidden villages.

Where to go

The Tiber and Nera rivers traverse the area, and Lake Trasimeno, the fourth-largest body of water in Italy, is near the Tuscan border. On the western side of the border is Cortona — worth a visit although heavily touristed by readers of Frances Mayes’ book “Under the Tuscan Sun.”

The two main destination cities of Umbria are Perugia and Assisi. Perugia is the region’s capital, with a big industrial and commercial area. It is known for its Perugina chocolates and the equally famous University for Foreigners, the students of which fill the squares at all hours and in all seasons.

But the chief reason travelers come to Perugia is its historical center, with reminders of its past Etruscan and Roman occupations. Head for Piazza IV Novembre, said to be one of the most beautiful squares in Italy, to feast your eyes on the Gothic and Renaissance buildings and wonder at the Palazzo dei Priori, one of the largest and most magnificent city halls around.

Getting into the city isn’t as easy as simply driving there and finding a parking space, however. In an effort to control traffic along the city’s narrow passageways, car parks were established in 1983 around the base of the hill town, with escalators and steps leading up to the center of the city. Once there, a whole day is hardly long enough to enjoy its historical, architectural and archaeological offerings.

Like Florence in Tuscany, the city of Assisi has art treasures of worldwide acclaim. The Basilica di San Francesco is the main monument, built in tribute to Saint Francis, the founder of the Franciscan order. His body is interred in the chapel and there is a large collection of magnificent frescoes by such important artists as Cimabue and Giotto in the Basilica.

Tragedy struck Assisi in 1997 when two earthquakes (and aftershocks over 11 days) shook the city. The quakes were felt as far away as Rome and Florence. Many surrounding towns were heavily damaged, and in Assisi the roof of the Basilica collapsed, bringing down with it the beautiful fresco by Cimabue that over 300 art restorers have been meticulously repairing ever since. Some works were shattered beyond help, falling in thousands of pieces.

The whole church has now been reinforced with steel arches and strips of Kevlar, the bases supported by huge steel braces. At this writing, nearly all of the restoration has been completed in Assisi, but in the outlying towns and villages money is scarce and a return to normalcy is slow.


Among the lesser-known cities in Umbria, Orvieto draws its share of visitors for several reasons. It’s a medium-sized city, 1,035 feet high on a plateau made of tufa, a soft limestone material that hardens when exposed to air. Authorized vehicles can drive up to it, but, like in Perugia, visitors have to park down below and take a funicular to reach the center.

Arriving at the Piazza del Duomo, I was left breathless by the sight of the imposing cathedral, its face adorned with marble bas reliefs, statues and richly figured bronze doors. Stop in one of the sidewalk cafés circling the piazza for a gelato and you can admire the exterior and people-watch.

“Underground Orvieto” is the name of the guided tour that takes visitors below the city to examine a few of the 1,200 man-made caves that were dug in the tufa rock from Etruscan to medieval times. Used for wells, wine cellars, olive pressing, tunnels, quarries and dovecotes as well as for defense, the caves maintain an underground temperature of 60°F, making it ideal for wine and oil storage.

I found the tour interesting and would recommend it, not necessarily for the findings (they’re all staged) but because it was fascinating to see that a whole city rests “on air.” Tours take about an hour (easy walking). Tickets (about $8, or less for students and seniors) can be bought at the tourist office directly across from the cathedral for tours starting at 11:00,

12:15, 16:00, and 17:15. Be sure to sign up for one in English.

Near the upper end of the funicular is another major draw, the famous Pozzo di San Patrizio, an intricate well built in 1527 by order of Clement VII for an emergency water supply in case of attack.

Measuring 200 feet deep and 42 feet wide, it’s in the shape of a double helix. Two spiral staircases of 248 steps each never meet and were designed so that the donkeys fetching water could have room to go up and down at the same time. Our 58-year-old son Richard tackled this stair exercise not once but twice in a row. We waited for him at the top.

Day trips from Umbertide

Beyond these three major cities, there are dozens of other delights in Umbria. The two weeks we spent there in September-October ’06 were by no means enough to see and do everything in one visit.

Day trips from our rented villa in Umbertide brought us to Caprese, in nearby Tuscany, to the house where Michelangelo was born. We were the only visitors.

Near Anghiari, we followed an “Olivo” sign that led to a farmhouse where, in season, the family’s olives are pressed. This was not a big olive cooperative but a simple old building set up for the purpose.

The woman in the doorway called for her son Francesco, who gave us a private display in faltering English of each step of the process. Later, on the shaded porch, Francesco brought out baskets of bread chunks and saucers and a large selection of their herbed olive oils — sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano and other, unidentifiable flavors.

We dunked and sampled them all as more bread kept coming, followed by condiments made from the fruits of the signora’s orchard, seen beyond the olive trees. We’d been to wine samplings before but had never experienced an oil tasting.

Spello, Bevagna, Preggio, Montone, Spoleto, Todi: these are some of the villages we discovered in our wanderings, each with an enclosing wall, flowerpots, stone stepped alleys and laundry drying above in the windows.

It’s said that Italy has over 200,000 churches, and each little village seemed to have at least two or three. On weekends the men of the town often could be seen congregating in the central piazza in animated games of cards or bocce, while the women, in black, went about their marketing and housekeeping.

One day we went to Bovara to see the Olivo di Sant’Emiliano, reputed to be the biggest and oldest olive tree in Italy. Rumored to be about 1,700 years old, it’s still producing fruit and has a trunk over 27 feet in circumference.

Vineyards were heavy with ripening grapes at the time of our visit. November is when olives are picked, so we were early for that, but late September is porcini season. Most of the cars parked along the roadside belonged to seekers of the elusive funghi, and we saw men and women with their baskets and sticks entering or exiting the woods. The market stalls were full of their finds, and local family restaurants featured these favorite mushrooms on their nightly menus.

With a car, nearly every back road opened up to spectacular views. From the paved road my eye followed a strada bianca (“white road,” actually a light-colored dirt road) that twisted and dipped its way to a farm in the distance. It was fun to pass fields between forests, turn a bend, then drive up to a walled village we had spied on the hill.

If you park and walk the narrow cobblestoned alleys, step into a church or museum or stop for a gelato at an outdoor café in the piazza, you can often begin a conversation with a “townie,” although, be warned, in the rural areas of Umbria not many people speak English. Even in some of the cities we found this to be true.

Unlike Tuscany, Umbria is still relatively undiscovered. You won’t find a lot of souvenir shops, postcards, T-shirts or fancy restaurants. There’s also little evidence of hot nightlife. But you will find friendly people willing to help and to show you they’re glad you came.