The Gentle Hills of Easy-going Umbria Invite Exploration & Relaxation

August 14, 2020
Rather unspoiled by mass tourism, Umbria is an unassuming region of gentle hills commanding valley views, hill towns steeped in history and art, and kitchens serving wonderful meals with prized local gastronomic products like truffles and sausage. One of Italy’s few landlocked regions. and, with not even 1 million residents, one of its least populated, Umbria is too often overlooked by visitors bound for its better-known neighbor Tuscany.

But people in the know have long looked to Umbria for relaxing retreats and its pervasive air of gentleness. Many Romans have weekend homes there, and expats a few decades ago started buying up farmhouses near charming Umbrian towns like Todi, with its remarkably intact medieval historic, adding swimming pools to villas overlooking peaceful valleys and shopping for ingredients for local dishes their friendly neighbors have taught them to prepare.

While the region has no big urban centers exercising gravitational pulls on tourists -- like Florence or Venice or Naples -- Umbria’s towns invite days of slow-paced exploration.

Perhaps in keeping with Umbria’s easy-going character, three of its towns are particularly associated with peace or openness. Followers of this newsletter might recall our portrait of Assisi, the tranquil hill town with a mystical air and imbued with a spirit of simplicity and welcome befitting its namesake saint. That its basilica is home to Giotto frescoes, some of the art world’s most acclaimed works, enriches any sojourn there.

Then there is Perugia, famed for its university which draws foreigners from around the world and awes visitors with a 13th-century exquisitely carved fountain in a main square. Another Umbrian town of world renown is Spoleto, celebrated for its Festival of Two Worlds, with early summer offerings of music, dance and theater. The festival was begun in the 1950s by composer Gian Carlo Menotti with the goal of connecting the artistic and cultural worlds of Europe and the United States. Like so many of Umbria's towns, Spoleto has ancient Roman roots and fine medieval architecture, and, in its case, the fame of once having repelled an attack by Hannibal. Spoleto's Bridge of the Towers, an Italian landmark, crosses a deep ravine.

Another magical name in Umbria is Narni, a medieval town with vistas of castles on surrounding hills. The town boasts that its setting inspired C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia." With roots dating back more than 2,500 years, Narni's attractions include an ancient Roman domus, or residence and aqueduct.

While not as famed as Assisi, Narni is the birthplace of two saints -- twin siblings Benedict and Scholastica -- has a 16th-century castle and a gourmand's reputation for its prosciutto and black truffles, which top pasta, or is worked into a pate as an excellent spread for local bread.

And who could resist such as charmingly named town as Gubbio? Its ancient Roman theater is the venue for summer performances of the classics, while the town is popular with Italian visitors for its annual pageantry dating to medieval times.

For many tourists, Umbria means a day-trip to Orvieto from Rome. While easily reachable from Rome, the riverside Orvieto deserves a leisurely visit. Why rush through a town famed for its white wine and splendid decorative pottery? Orvieto's star attraction is a Gothic-style cathedral, imposing in its perch on a bluff. In the countryside outside Orvieto is a spectacular inn with origins as a Benedictine monastery.

Many of Umbria's most delightful sights are in hamlets and village a few miles outside the region's more visited towns. These are well worth an afternoon's detour, for it's in these off-the-main-path places where one frequently happens upon churches with stunning art and can savor some hearty Umbrian fare in a countryside trattoria or perhaps at an innkeeper's lunch table.

For a break from Umbria's magnificent art and churches, Umbria offers many possibilities to enjoy nature. Walks in the woods abound, and the region is home to one of Italy's much-visited waterfalls.