Umbria – authentic Italy

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the Fountain Maggiore in Perugia

the Fountain Maggiore in Perugia

Medieval hill towns are typical of Umbria. Perugia, the region’s capital is no exception. The university town buzzes with shops as well as cultural places to visit. It makes an ideal place to visit for a weekend away as flying time from the UK is only two hours.

Unless you live there vehicles are prohibited. I was dropped at the entrance to the escalators that, in stages, took me to the top, where the principal buildings are situated and where all the action takes place. Inside the hill are ruins of medieval houses and a mini museum relating to its history. A 16th century Papal fortress, now mostly destroyed, once dominated the hill. I exited onto the street via the remains of an Etruscan Gateway.  My guide, Gigi pointed out the Club Punta Di Vista which, he advised me was the best place to enjoy an evening aperitif as it not only had a great atmosphere but also panoramic views.

The renowned Renaissance artist Rafael trained here. Tearing myself away from the boutiques lining the street, I looked inside the town hall, originally the Palace of Priori, where there are two statues a Griffin, the Etruscan symbol and a Lion, the symbol of the Pope.  The building has its main entrance in the main square or Piazza as Italians call it, opposite the cathedral symbolising lay authority opposite religious power. Between the two, the Fountain Maggiore is the symbol of Perugia.

My visit took me into the countryside. Olive trees are everywhere although only on the lower slopes of the hills as apparently they only grow to a height of 400 meters. The Umbrian’s claim to make the best olive oil in the country as it only has about one per cent of acidity.

horse trekking is a popular pastime

trekking is a popular pastime

In this area, three National Parks the Sibillini Mountains, Gran Sasso and Maiella cover an area of 370,000 hectares. A train line once went over the mountains between Spoleto and Norcia and the railway line is now used as a biking route. The area is ideal for parachuting, hiking, and gliding too. In June/July, depending on the weather, the plains are covered in a fusion of colourful flowers with around 1,800 different species of fauna. The Southern part of the region grows lentils, saffron and beans, and trout is fished in the River Nera. Sheep, cows, and wild horses graze in the fields. Shepherds with large white Maremmano dogs guard the sheep against such predators as wolves who prowl at night. Visitors can hire donkeys either to ride or for trekking purposes to carry items. I led Louvelleta who carried our picnic of locally made Pecorino cheese, prosciutto, and Orvieto Classico, the local white wine. Although mostly countryside, in the middle of nowhere, Castelluccio di Norcia perched high on a hill is the highest village, at 1,400 metres in the Apennines.

Gabrielle cooking spaghetti and truffles

Gabriella cooking spaghetti and truffles

Just outside Città di Castello, the hometown of the artist Alberto Burri I visited the farm run by Isabella Dalla Ragione. Isabella has set up a foundation for the preservation of rare fruits. This was a really unique experience and is a dream location for anyone who has ever thought of holidaying in a lovely old farmhouse. Her home used to be a hermit’s cottage complete with frescoed chapel. In the courtyard a chicken was sleeping in the sun while several cats and a ‘Heinz 57’ dog greeted me on arrival. Passionate about her work Isabella cultivates numerous varieties of fruit trees and plants that were dying out. She has also linked up with Gabriella Bianconi to run cooking lessons, and Vincenzo and his two dogs Camilla and Pepe to truffle hunt. Isabella gave me a tour of her property which includes vineyards, fig trees, and trees where yellow cherries which apparently are sweeter than red, were just beginning to ripen. June is black truffle hunting season, and Vincento and his dogs joined us. Truffles are found around the base of a tree. Apparently where they grow is quite distinctive, as it tends to be pebbly. Between them the dogs sniffed out several truffles that Gabriella who had joined us, then showed me how to use in cooking. Apparently, truffles need to be very fresh, less than a week old although they can be frozen. She grated rather than sliced the truffle, which she then cooked in extra virgin olive oil with a clove of garlic, and mixed with al-dente spaghetti. Sharing our meal at a long table in Isabella’s yard while sipping the local wine, with her animals lazing in the sun, was sheer bliss.

Langarotti wine tasting accompanied by lunch

Langarotti wine tasting accompanied by lunch

With so many vineyards, visiting a winery or at least getting to know the wines of the area was a must for me.  The owners of DOCG Lungarotti wines have two estates. At Torgiano, 10 km from Perugia at the country house resort Le Tre Vaselle, I participated in a wine tasting of their wines on the hotel’s terrace. I was particularly taken with their sparkling wine which, I was assured, was not Prosecco as made half with Chardonnay and half Pinot Noir grapes. It is a competitor of champagne although, because of French laws, they are not allowed to use the name. A delicious lunch of strigoli pasta with asparagus and saffron was served with the wine tasting. As well as the wines, they are very proud of their winery which is self-sufficient, producing its own thermal electricity. Visits need to be booked in advance. Nearby, the same owners have a wine museum, which I was assured, was considered one of the best in the world. Twenty rooms showcase the history of wine from the beginning of civilization. Explanations are in English as well as Italian.

at the mediaeval festival

at the mediaeval festival

The Italians love their traditions, and various medieval events are staged throughout the year. Every year at Bevagna, over a ten day period in June, the town turns the clock back to medieval times. The old town is split into four with each gaite or area competing against each other. People dressed in clothes of the time served the food. Our meal consisted of an enormous portion of pork on the bone served with greens, potatoes did not exist at that time, and of course the inevitable carafes of wine. Each gaite had workshops of crafts from the period. I watched people making stained glass windows, and spinning silk, taking the yarn from silk worms.

A fast train from London Liverpool Street on the Stansted Express takes 47 minutes. National Express coaches also go to Stansted from various parts of the country. Ryan Air has direct flights from Stansted to Perugia.

For more about Umbria, click here or go to

To read more of Natasha’s travels, click here or go to

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