In Umbria the medieval towns are situated like pearls on a string and gazing over the lush countryside
Umbria is located in the heart of Italy and we are soon entering a resting pulse mode as we an hour drive north of Rome part from the highway onto the picturesque winding roads with lush vineyards and fields of sunflowers. The landscape is hilly and on most peaks there are ancient fortress cities, all with a church tower that rises in the middle. We read intriguing names on the signs, like Spoleto, Assisi, Montefalco, Trevi and Spello.
We have an hour’s drive back to the small town of Torgiano, a little south of Perugia. Here my son has rented a house for three weeks and we will be visiting for a whole week and spending time with grandchildren and also experience Umbria, Italy’s lush heart.
We could have driven the highway almost entirely up to Torgiano, but we have plenty of time and have taken off on small roads towards Spoleto. From there we follow the valley up north towards Montefalco. The road from Montefalco to Torgiano through Bevagna is called La Strada del Agrantino, a route that points the way to the area’s famous wines, excellent olive oil and other food products produced in the area. This is Italian countryside, lush, idyllic and colorful. Whichever city you stop in, you can find good food, good wine and charming surroundings.
Umbria is a region in central Italy, north of Rome and east of Tuscany. Umbria has no coastline, but they have Italy’s 4th largest lake, Lago Trasimeno. The landscape is mountainous and valleys and The Apennines extends in the east of Umbria. The towns here have been at war with each other for hundreds of years and many suffered major damage during the earthquake in 1997. Today conflict is exercised in a more amicable way and it is difficult to see visible damage from the earthquake. On the contrary one is impressed by how well maintained these medieval towns are.
Umbria is named after the tribe Umbri who settled around 500 BC. The Umbris warred against the Etruscans and was eventually driven into the mountainous Apennines. Umbria later came under Roman domination. Umbria got its current borders in 1927 and consists today of the provinces of Terni and Perugia.
One week is all too short time to become familiar with all the beautiful fortified towns in Umbria, but we embark on a trip every morning and there are not many days before we both say to each other; We must return to Umbria. We must become better acquainted with the cities we have visited and we have to visit all the other lovely towns too.
Francis of Assisi’s prayer is well known to most and the story of the beggar monk who founded the Franciscan Order is well known. He was declared a saint already in 1228, just two years after his death. He was born in Assisi in 1182 and it was here he founded his monastic order, the Franciscans. Shortly after his death, the work began on Basilica San Francesco d`Assisi, which was completed in 1253. The church is a huge edifice and dominates the city skyline that can be seen from most places in central Umbria. Assisi is a landmark in Umbria and the town is a major tourist destination, but also an important pilgrimage.
Pilgrims and tourists make their mark on this beautiful city. In the narrow streets towards the Basilica of San Francesco d`Assisi the souvenir shops are located close together. The church is actually 2 churches, built on 2 floors and they both have some beautiful frescoes. The entrance is grand and so is also the impression of the church when you see the town from the fields while driving towards the city. Both the church and other nearby locations associated with St. Francis of Assisi was in 2000 put on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
But Assisi has much more to offer. On the top of the mountain lies the medieval castle Rocca Maggiore. The city has of course many other beautiful churches and a wonderful view over the valley of olive trees, vines and sunflowers. But in the midst of the tourist season, the town was a bit too fussy for us, so we decided to drive south to Spello for lunch.
A great medieval wall surrounds the town. We park the car outside the walls before we enter through one of several gates. The first thing that strikes us is the floral displays. We soon discovers that the citizens competes to have the most beautiful entrances and alleyways are beautifully decorated with flowers even though the sun rarely comes all the way down between the houses.
Having walked up the town, like most towns in Umbria Spello is also situated on a hill; we find several small restaurants with local food and wine. We begin to notice that local food is important in Umbria; here the focus is seriously on local products. We order some light food and the local wine. It’s siesta time and very hot so we are taking it easy and enjoying Italian delicacies.
Despite the heat wave we spend the days effectively trying to see as much of Umbria as we can. Do not visit Italy in midsummer if you have problems with the heat! Around 8:00 we are in the car and plan where to take our morning coffee. Today it will be in Spoleto. After parking the car in a big indoor parking garage, we take the escalators up to the top of the town. Spoleto has two escalator systems that save you a lot of climbing. You can always experience the city walking on the way back down.
Well up at the entrance to the castle Rocca Albornoziana, which today is a museum, we go past it and after about 100 m we arrive at a stunning view spot. An ice and coffee shop is a perfect place for our morning coffee. We enjoy our coffee and croissant with the locals. A group of pensioners have a lively conversation going on while others are deeply concentrated with today’s crossword.
Just around the corner from the ice and coffee shop we discover the famous viaduct Ponte delle Torro, an imposing edifice crossing over a deep gorge. Hotel Gattapone is close by with a majestic view and we think that this is the perfect pace to stay on our next visit to Umbria.
Back to the museum and castle entrance we decide to walk the last slopes to the top. We discovered afterwards that we could have taken an elevator. Rocca Albornoziana is a museum and has great archaeological collections and magnificent frescoes around the inner courtyard. Spoleto also has a large music/opera and art festival every year in July and then the museum is used as a showroom for contemporary art and concerts. The view from up here is impressive and you can see both the viaduct above and beyond the entire city on the other side.
We take the elevator down hill and arrive straight to the second escalator system. It is marked blue on the map you’ll find on signs several places in the city. Then we take another elevator up again and we are almost on the level for the great cathedral, Santa Maria dell`Assunta. Also called Duomo di Spoleto. Because of the festival, it is lively activity on the square in front of the church. A working team is preparing for a big concert this same evening. There are exhibition venues all over town and we choose to visit the exhibition with the Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero.
It is too early for lunch, but we are hungry and decide for a snack. If you really want to enjoy Italy, food is an important part and we might eat lunch 2 times to make the most of it. Per discovers a small delicatessen with some few tables outside. We do not need long time to decide on a lovely pate and a simple omelet, very tasty.
We walk crisscrossing the narrow streets and steep hills and occasionally we end up on a piazza and there is always a church on an Italian piazza. Spoleto charmed us and impressed us with its great infrastructure with escalators and elevators everywhere and they even had a Roman amphitheater.
It was the name that caught our interest first. We drove north on the highway after visiting Spoleto and saw a sign for Montefalco. We both wondered which of the towns on the various peaks it could be? I was absolutely sure it was the city on the right side of the highway. The town lay on a pretty sharp tip and perfectly matched to the name. On the left side was also a town on a peak, but this hill was lower and gentler and I did not think it fitted well to the name. That`s what may happens when you forget the map and the GPS`en on phones do not work because it has a flat battery.
But we like surprises so we took off from the highway and followed the signs to Montefalco. Quickly we realized that the city on our right side had to be Trevi and that we were heading towards the gently sloping hill where Montefalco lies with its ugly water tower as a dominant part of the silhouette. But when you get up on the hill and see the magnificent city walls it is a completely different impression. Montefalco is a beautiful city with strong agriculture and wine traditions. Each year, around Easter, the wine festival, Settimana Enologica is arranged in Montefalco.
Montefalco is focusing heavily on agriculture tourism and you can among many other activities join the truffle hunting or learn cooking at one of the local farms. Within its walls there are several good restaurants and we had lunch at the restaurant Il Verziere. Jazz is the background for both interior and food. You have to go inside to look at the interior if you’re nearby. The food was delicious and my favorite was probably the thin deep-fried potatoes.
Perugia is Umbria’s capital by approximately 160,000 inhabitants and a cultural center in Italy. Its history is ancient, dating back to the Etruscans and the city’s university is founded already in 1308. But the first thing that greets us is modern efficiency, escalators up to the city center. It is easy to park outside the old city center and in various stages; you are brought up to the top of the old city. Almost up, you will get a big surprise, at least, I did!
At the last plateau before you reach the center of ancient Perugia, the escalator stops in an underground ruined town with high vaulted ceilings and dim lighting. I had to turn the flashlight on at the phone to see where I went when I moved away from the main route into the darkness. Only then I discovered several contemporary sculptures placed between the columns. The place is part of the Rocca Paolina and a must when visiting Perugia.
Rocca Paolina’s fortifications was originally built by Pope Paolo III Farnese around 1540 on one of the city`s heights. An entire town was ruined in favor of the new fortress. Materials from both houses and churches were used to build the new fortress. But residents got revenge many centuries later; in 1848 they began demolishing the hated fort. Today there are only a few walls that can be seen from the outside, but you can see some of the remains if you take the escalator up to the old town.
Perugia is a fairly large city with modern shops and a rich cultural life. Each year in late June, they have a jazz festival. The main church is San Lorenzo Cathedral.
Trevi is easily spotted from the highway as it is located on a rocky hill and the church tower stands straight up at the highest point. Trevi is a small town surrounded by olive groves and vineyards. We swung upward to the top where there were plenty of parking spaces in the large square just outside the city walls. The town has preserved its medieval character and all new buildings and industry seems to be gathered together down in the valley. So in Trevi you can experience history and imagine that you are back to medieval times.
Further up the mountain there are small villages scattered on the hillside and the countryside is well suited for hiking. We drove further up to the village Coste where we found the restaurant Il Poggio. It is the one that’s situated farthest away from the main road. Here we met mother Anna and daughter Michela who makes delicious traditional Italian food with a refined twist. Moreover, it is inexpensive, probably the cheapest meal we had on our Italy trip.
I ate a pasta dish with mushrooms and saffron and the saffron put an extra finishing touch to the dish. Per ate a sort of puree of tomato and cheese for a starter. Michela told that it was her grandmother’s recipe. She always served this dish on hot days to the workforce on the farm. As a main course Per had boar with rosemary and juniper berries along with potatoes. And then a perfect ending with yoghurt and fresh fruit for dessert.
On our many journeys in the area we had passed Bettona many times and each time we said to each other; next time we must drive all the way up to the this small medieval town. From the house we rented in Torgiano we could also see straight up to the town and had it not been for the river, we could have walked right up to it. The last day we decided to have lunch in Bettona and take a little tour of the city in spite of the heat.
Bettona is a beautiful little town with Etruscan origins. The city wall is still intact all around the city and is in good condition. The city also has a restaurant recommended by the Michelin guide, but without stars. So of course we chose Taverna del Giullare for lunch. The place is part of Relais La Corte di Bettona and is located around 150 meters from the main square. The view of the valley is spectacular and the food is highly recommended.
Large vineyards situated on the gentle hills around the city dominate the town. Torgiano was the first area in Umbria receiving the DOC labeled “controlled place denomination” in 1968. Torgiano is part of the Strada dei Vini del Cantico and has a great wine museum, an olive oil museum and a contemporary ceramic museum. The town sits on a hill where the rivers Tiber and Chiascio meet. This contributes to a mild climate and fertile soil, perfect for growing vines.
At midday this is a quiet, almost sleepy town, but Thursday morning is market day. At night it can be a bit livelier and the city has its own path for fusball. We were lucky and got to experience a fusball tournament for the first time. Fusball is based on football on the table, but here the players are very much alive and tied to poles across the pitch as they are in mechanical football. It’s pretty fun to watch and you may quickly become seized by the game. Here in Torgiano there were many teams in the tournament and both women and men, young and old, participated on the same team. The same evening there was a game of football billiards on the square and they have a permanent small path there for this game. Torgiano is perhaps the quirky sports main center?
The landscape around Torgiano is incredibly beautiful and there are short distances to most cities centrally located in Umbria. Many of the vineyards here doing agricultural tourism and there are several Spa facilities. Lungarorotti is one of the largest wineries where you can participate in wine tastings and also get a good meal.
Wine Museum in Torgiano:
The Wine Museum in Torgiano opened in 1974. It was the big winegrower Giorgio Lungarotti who along with his wife Maria established a fund with the purpose of creating a wine museum in Torgiano. The museum is still a private museum dedicated to everything associated with wine making. The most impressive, I thought, was the large collection of ceramic wine containers from all historical eras.
Read more about Wine Museum in Torgiano here.