Umbria has so much to offer, but to get the most of your trip to this region there are a couple of top secret, high security, eyes only (and definitely copyrighted) tricks of the trade I can reveal. But keep it between us.
1. Quit being a baby and rent a car.
Now, everybody stand up, shake yourselves a bit, and have a group freak-out about driving in Italy. Ready? Go! AAAAAHHHHH!!!! Shriek, wail, rent your garments! Ok, done? Feel better? Now that we’ve gotten that out of our system can we sit down calmly and talk this thing out? Good.
Listen, folks, driving in Umbria is not that big of a deal. Umbria is to Rome what Wisconsin is to Chicago, what upper state New York is to Manhattan. It is quite rural here, so unless you manage to get yourself into a hopeless tangle in the middle of Perugia (something that is incredibly easy to avoid, as all the main parking lots are outside the city walls anyway) the worst thing that’s going to happen is that you get benignly lost along some country road and have to retrace your steps. The pace is slow here, and traffic not that heavy. Umbria is dotted with hilltop towns and villages, many of which are difficult to reach by train or bus, and there are some breathtaking drives in the area, even if you don’t have a specific destination. By having to rely on public transportation, your visit to Umbria will be confined to the more densely visited towns and you will miss out on some of the most beautiful and undiscovered places in this lovely region. Get yourself some wheels!
2. Time your visit to coincide with a local festival.
The Umbrians are, generally, a staid and reserved populace, so there is nothing like an Umbrian town during that one time a year when everyone really lets their hair down. Almost every town in Umbria has one main annual festival—often centered around the patron Saint’s feast day and/or in period garb—during which the town gets decked out, its citizens riled up, and there is an irrestistible air of celebration. Flags and banners hang from every window, taverne–outdoor temporary eating areas which range from refreshment stands to all out restaurant fare–sprout overnight like mushrooms in the piazzas, there are street musicians around every corner, costumed processions, reinacted medieval markets, crossbow tournaments, jousting, singing and dancing.
Some festivals worth checking out are the Corsa all’Anello in Narni (April), Calendimaggio in Assisi and the Corsa dei Ceri in Gubbio (May), the Mercato delle Gaite in Bevagna (June), Umbria Jazz in Perugia (July), the Quintana in Foligno (August), and the Giochi delle Porte in Gualdo Tadino (September).
3. Do your homework. But don’t get too Type A about it.
Before you leave for your visit in Umbria, research, research, research! And then, once you get here, trash it. There are so many wonderful things to see in this region: restaurants to try, towns to visit, works of art and architecture to admire—many of which are covered in the guidebooks and on the web. But one of the most wonderful things about Umbria is that it is still able to offer that Holy Grail of travel to visitors: discovery.
Umbria, despite its fame as a tourist destination, remains in many ways a provincial and undeveloped area. It is peppered with lovely off the beaten track villages, restaurants which don’t have business cards much less websites, and isolated frescoed churches and abbeys in the hills. These are things you are only going to be able to find if you are willing to ask advice from the locals, follow a mysterious sign pointing to a monastery at the crossroad, stop your car along with others parked in a field where you hear music and the smell of cooking coming from the big tent. So have a game plan before you come, but be willing to diverge from it and try something not on the roster.
4. Take advantage of the natural beauty here. And I don’t mean Monica Bellucci.
Umbria has some amazing art and archecture, food and music festivals, enchanting towns. But it is also one of the most beautifully green regions in Italy. Lakes and hills, mountains and waterfalls, woods and fields of wildflowers. So take your car (the one that you’ve rented, right?) and skip the culture for a day, instead heading to one of the many regional parks.
You can walk or hike, picnic, swim, enjoy a scenic drive, or just simply sit along one of the overlooks, let your ears rest themselvs with silence, and let your eyes rest themselves with shades of green, let your spirit rest itself with stillness. After all, you’re on vacation, remember? Some of my favorite places in Umbria are the Marmore waterfalls, the Piano Grande in the Mount Sibilline National Park, Lake Trasimeno, and the Mount Subasio and Mount Cucco Regional Parks.
5. Get the inside scoop.
I’m one of those nerdy folks who always gets the headphones in the museum, and actually reads the guidebook’s explanations while gazing at a frescoed church. Part of that is because at the advanced age of 39 I have come to terms with my inner dorkiness and no longer feel a need to hide it, so wandering around a gallery with oversized headphones like a 70s deejay from Soul Train no longer bothers me. But mostly it’s because the background explanations—with their historical and cultural context, their underlining of details I wouldn’t otherwise notice, and their juicy helping of factoids which are always fun to throw out at future dinner parties—make the whole experience much more meaningful and memorable. So as long as you’re here, try to fit in a day when you spend time with someone familiar with the local history and culture and really get to know Umbria and its people in a way you wouldn’t be able to by simply visiting monuments.
Consider filling a day with shopping and preparing a traditional meal with a local cook, touring the small family-run vineyards, learning to hunt truffles (and how to use them in the kitchen), or painting your own majolica ceramics. The most memorable things you bring home from a journey aren’t those you carry in your suitcase, but in your heart.