The Heart of Italy

By | Category: Travel destinations
the convent and basilica of St Francis of Assisi

the convent and basilica of St Francis of Assisi

Umbria in the middle of Italy, bordering on Tuscany, is an area of undulating hills with villages and towns accessed by winding roads.  Going off the beaten track, Natasha Blair went in search of gems of historical significance that are waiting to be discovered. She found an added bonus was the small local restaurants serving typical regional food.

A must on a visit to the region is a trip to Assisi to see the churches of St. Francis of Assisi who lived between 1181 and 1226. Perched on a hill, your first view is of the Franciscan convent, a long building still in operation with the churches of St. Francis next to it, with towering above the ruins of a castle known as Rocca. Although my visit was out of season there were quite a few people there. The reason, our guide Romana told us, was why we had made an early start to avoid the crowds. Entry to the churches is free but having a guide is definitely worthwhile. I had previously not been a lover of religious art, but was pleasantly surprised to find that when the paintings were explained, I could really appreciate what they portrayed. Frescoes, pictures painted directly onto the walls date back to the thirteenth century when they were used to tell stories to the people, the majority of whom were illiterate. Later chapels with stain glass windows were introduced which, while damaging some of the artwork, provided light into the church. Our guide pointed out the differences in period.  Byzantine painters used a lot of gold while their subjects showed no emotion. In contrast, in these churches Giotto, the Renaissance artist used strong colours, and painted three-dimensional frescoes, which showed emotions. The way the building is constructed is also interesting as it is in three parts, a Franciscan church above the crypt with, on top of it, a Papal church. The ceiling of the latter had been partly destroyed by an earthquake in 1997, but has since been restored.

the chapel at Narni

the chapel at Narni

It was only in 1979 in Narni in the most southern part of Umbria that a chapel with original frescoes dating back hundreds of years was discovered under the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  Excavations revealed a room dating back to the Italian inquisition with a hidden door that led to a cell. On its walls, we saw words carved out by one of its prisoners. Audio guides can be hired, although guided tours need to be booked in advance. www.narnisotterranea.it

Originally built on two hills, Todi dates back to pre-Roman times. It can be accessed via a free vernacular, which took us up to the old town.  Coming out of the lift, leads to an area where there are panoramic views of the surrounding valley with more hills in the distance. The town (in Italy so many towns have cathedrals that having one doesn’t give them the right to be called a city) developed in three successive periods pre-Roman, Roman and Medieval each of which built a circular wall. Some of the walls still remain. In the historical centre, Palaces of the People, the Mayor, Justice and the Priors as well as the cathedral all face onto the Grand Piazza.

a creation by Buri

a creation by Buri

The centenary of the birth of the artist Alberto Burri is being celebrated in his birthplace, Citta di Castello.  The town is considered the region’s finest example of architecture of the Renaissance period. Little cobbled streets that you wouldn’t think cars could go through but they do, lead to the medieval town hall square with its Bishop’s palace and tower. The church dates back to 500 AD although its interior covers several periods with frescos from the eighteenth century. At night as part of the celebrations the square is floodlit with a copy of one of Burri’s paintings projected onto the tower. His early paintings and sculptures can be seen in the Palazzo Albizzini while his later and bigger pieces are on view on the outskirts of the town in an exhibition space that was formerly a tobacco factory.  The town’s art museum also has a painting by Raphael.

a floodlit Citta di Castello

a floodlit Citta di Castello

The civic museum in Gubbio has interior winding stone steps where we were able to climb virtually to the top of the building to a covered outside terrace. Here we had vistas of the lovely countryside around us. The area was known in the 1500s for its lustro pottery and the technique is still carried on today. Italy is full of legends. In Gubbio, there is a fountain that anyone can run around three times to become a citizen. The only problem is that it is said that the people of Gubbio are mad!

Wine is grown in various parts of Italy and regional restaurants tend to support their local vineyards. We visited the family owned Goretti Winery just outside Perugia. This hilly area of Umbria is known for its rich, full-bodied white and red wines. The estate in located in the centre of the area classified as “DOC Colli Perugini” dominated by a fourteenth-century tower, which is used for food pairings with their wines when there are a group of people.  These, however, need to be arranged in advance but wine tastings, stopping at the shop on their estate, are possible on weekdays and Saturday mornings. Goretti also produce a range of cosmetics based on winetherapy, a trend in anti-aging skin care developed naturally from wine, grape leaf and grape seeds. www.vinigoretti.com

In Italy, expect your food to be cooked in olive oil that has been grown and pressed locally. Butter is never put on the table. Typical food of the area includes prosciutto, ultra thin slices of pork cured in various ways; bruchetta, olive oil-coated oven baked bread flavoured with garlic, often topped with bright red, ripe chopped tomatoes; and slices of pungent truffles, (a type of mushroom famously sniffed out by dogs) both white and black, added to an omelette. Tozzetti, long thick crunchy biscuits baked with slivers of almonds, are generally served with coffee or a sweet dessert wine.

For more information about Umbria, click here.

 

 

 

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