PWk: Prod, Tlk: GS2, Datacash: Live
Landlocked Umbria, known as Italy’s ‘green heart’, is full of olde-worlde charm and tradition. Fairytale medieval hilltop villages, where time seems to have stood still, overlook rolling hills, cypress trees and a rural landscape of olive groves, vineyards and sunflower fields.
Peace and tranquillity is the norm in Umbria and I love nothing more than hitting the winding roads – even in peak season, the roads are quiet and distances between places are manageable. I love the drive over Mount Subasio, admiring the picturesque Umbrian settlements like Spello with its medieval houses or Spoleto with its Romanesque churches and medieval fortress. Visit Montefalco for its amazing views and charming little back streets in its walled centre. Enjoy an evening aperitivo in Todi’s charming town square and watch the stunning sunset views.
A trip to Assisi is always a must on my Umbrian itinerary. Tucked on the slopes of Mount Subasio, it is home to the famous Franciscan monk, St Francis, and where you can visit the Basilica di San Francesco. Pilgrims from around the world come to view his tomb and admire the beautiful frescos adorning the walls and ceiling. Medieval and pink-stoned, Assisi is a delight to wander around with its quaint narrow streets with numerous cafes, restaurants and shops.
Not far from Assisi is the region’s main town of Perugia. It’s not as big as most other Italian towns, but its young student population gives it a lively atmosphere, especially in the evenings when musicians will keep you entertained. A wander in the historic centre is a great way to catch up on some retail therapy while admiring medieval and Roman architecture, before you enjoy a well-deserved break in one of the many cafes and restaurants which line the piazzas.
For a change of scenery, I like to go to Lago Trasimeno, where you can relax by the shores of quaint fishing villages, take a dip in the lake and explore this undiscovered area of Umbria.
Umbria is known for its excellent robust country cooking and truffles dominate many local dishes, from pasta to speciality cheese. Try strangozzi al tartufo – a typical Umbrian long-shaped pasta served with shavings of black or even the prestigious white truffle. Wild mushrooms and rich game dishes are popular, such as pappardelle with wild hare ragu, and main course dishes of rabbit, wild boar and pigeon are not uncommon.
Cured meats and sausages are especially delicious in Umbria and a trip to the gastronomic town of Norcia is not to be missed. Delis are packed with its local specialities of prosciutto, salamis, wild boar sausages and coglioni di mulo, as well as local cacciotta cheese, pecorino di Norcia and formaggi farciti (various filled cheeses).
Pulses, lentils and grains have always been an important part of the Umbrian diet and many have now DOP recognition; try small, highly prized Castelluccio lentils, cicerchie (a type of chickpea), or local bean fagioli dell’occhio. Made into soups and stews, these simple, traditional ingredients have become dishes fit for a king. There are even vegetables unique to the area like black celery from Trevi or Cannara onions.
And, of course, each dish would not be complete without the region’s excellent olive oils and bread – try torta al testo, a traditional flatbread cooked on a type of hot griddle pan. Testo bread can be eaten plain during a meal to mop up the delicious sauces or filled with local cheese and ham as a snack.
Wine plays an important part in Umbrian cuisine. Although its most famous is Orvieto white from the vineyards of Antinori and Lungarotti, the red - Sagrantino di Montefalco - is an excellent accompaniment to many local dishes.
Umbria hosts lots of annual festivals, like the jazz festival in Perugia during July and the Spoleto festival at the end of June which celebrates traditional and contemporary arts. For chocoholics, Eurochocolate in Perugia in October is a must. And, of course, always check with the local tourist office or your Citalia concierge for local sagre (food festivals).