In the heart of Italy, the Italian province of Umbria lies north of bustling Rome and southwest of its better-known neighbor, Tuscany. Despite its close proximity to these popular tourist destinations, Umbria remains relatively untouched by tourism and time has graced the medieval hill towns with a patina of quiet beauty.
With the most fertile land in Italy, excellent food and wine are simply a way of life. You’ll find the freshest prosciutto, the creamiest cheeses and the best gourmet truffle oil in rustic little shops in every town. You can share a strong espresso or wonderful local wines with villagers and for a while slow down and live like they do in this abundant haven.
Perugia is the capital of the province and is an important center for art. The National Gallery in the Palazzo dei Priori houses important works by Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca and Perugino. The town’s main square, the Piazza Novembre IV, has the Gothic cathedral and the 13th-century marble and bronze Maggiore Fountain. The chapel in Piazza San Severo has frescoes by Raphael and Perugino. A well-preserved Etruscan arch that dates to the first century AD was built right into the medieval wall fortifications and the view of the surrounding countryside from the vantage of the Carducci Gardens is stunning. While you probably only need one day to explore Perugia, this small hill town is a good base from which to discover the surrounding region by car.
Chocolate connoisseurs will want to visit Perugia in October when chocolate producers from all over the world descend for the Eurochocolate show. Umbria’s own chocolate is the Bacci “kiss” made with hazelnut and wrapped in a distinctive blue foil which can be enjoyed by chocolate lovers year round. In July, Perugia hosts the Umbria Jazz Festival, one of the most famous jazz festivals in the world, and since 1973 has drawn musical icons like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Miles Davis.
In December, the equally famous Winter Jazz Festival is held in Orvieto. This little town is perched on a rocky precipice in southern Umbria, which is an important wine making region. Be sure to try their famous white wine, Orvieto Classico. The town is home to another Gothic cathedral with a unique gabled façade and the Well of St. Patrick, known as Pozzo di San Patrizio. Visitors can also tour the caves that run underneath the town and its maze of serpentine medieval streets.
In the northern part of the province, Gubbio is yet another charming hill town that has not changed much since the middle ages. The cobblestone streets are steep, with portals and fountains tucked into corners throughout. Here, every May 15, the men of the town hold the Race of the Ceri (Candles) in which they run through the streets carrying huge wooden poles (candles) with statues of saints balanced precariously on top. There is also a well-preserved Roman amphitheater that is still used for classical plays in the summer.
Assisi was home to St. Francis, founder of the Franciscan order of Friars and is a major religious pilgrimage destination, second in Italy only to the Vatican. The Basilica of San Francesco d ‘Assisi is a World Heritage site composed of a monastery, the upper and lower church, both graced with renowned medieval frescos by Cimabue and Giotto. Two medieval castles are also fascinating to visitors. Assisi holds numerous festivals throughout the year that draw thousands of pilgrims and visitors and advance reservations are a must during these celebrations.
In a country legendary for art and history, Umbria is a jewel that offers some of the best of Italy. The serenity of the timeless hill towns, the simplicity of village life and the marvelous culinary delights make it a place like no other. Do yourself a favor and experience the distinctive charms of Umbria.