What an honor to be invited by Michelle Fabio of the wonderful Bleeding Espresso blog to participate in August’s Gita Italiana trip around Italy.
In two weeks of guest posts, Italy travellers and residents took readers on stops to some of the most beautiful spots in the Bel Paese. I talked about what it is I love so much about the magical town of Assisi here.
Salve, Umbria verde, e tu del puro fonte
nume Clitumno! Sento in cuor l’antica
patria e aleggiarmi su l’accesa fronte
Hail, green Umbria, and you, Clitumno, genious of the pure spring!
I feel in my heart the ancient fatherland, and the Italic gods
alighting on my fevered brow.
So often human history is intrinsically intertwined with water—floods and drought, navigation and exploration, the rise and fall of nations—and a visit to the crystal-clear springs which form the source of the Clitunno river is a reminder of this symbiosis.
Le Fonti del Clitunno's landscape of shallow lagoons and weeping willow planted islands
This idyllic spot has been the inspiration for writers, poets, artists, priests, and emperors for over 2,000 years. In Roman times the spring was considered sacred for the river god Clitumnus, and white oxen were raised here to serve as sacrifices (legend had it that bathing the animals in the river rendered their color immaculate).
Try to visit on a weekday late afternoon, when traffic is at a minimum on the nearby Via Fliminia and the bus tours have left
A severe earthquake in the year 444 a.D. changed the river’s depth, leaving it no longer navigable, and muddied the area around the springs. In the middle of the 19th century, a careful landscaping project restored the springs and surrounding park to their former splendor.
Writers from Virgil to Pliny, from Carducci to Byron have paid homage to these springs
Continue a kilometer down the Via Flaminia to visit the Tempietto del Clitunno, a truly fascinating piece of architeture which straddles the centuries of the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Christianity.
The colored marble columns and pediment on the elegant facade are just some of the pieces pilfered from nearby abandoned Roman buildings
Dating somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries a.D., this early Christian church was built with architectural elements plucked from abandoned Roman villas and pagan chapels which once stood in the sacred area along the Clitunno river. Here in this one tiny building you can see one of the last architectural works of antiquity, now adopted to make a Christian church rather than pagan temple. Soon Christian architecture would take over, and this world would be lost forever.
The tiny indoor chapel is decorated with 8th century Byzantine frescoes
I’m so pleased to be a guest blogger this week at Casa Dolcetto‘s wonderful Italian Reflections blog.
Come read how Umbria can satisfy all five (or six!) senses here and admire Letizia Mattiacci‘s lovely photos!
There are places on earth that somehow get to you, and sometimes it’s not easy to put your finger on exactly why. The tiny church of La Madonna del Bagno near Deruta is one of those places for me. I am charmed and moved every time I have the opportunity to visit, though at first glance you, too, may be scratching your head.
This country sanctuary, just meters from the roar of traffic on the four lane E45 highway (in fact, if you are arriving from Rome this is a great place to stop off for a few minutes and stretch your legs. Take the Casalina exit and follow the signs; you will be there in roughly 30 seconds.) with its neat yet nondescript brick exterior, seems like a place you could easily pass by in a region saturated with architecturally imposing cathedrals and basilicas.
The simple brick facade of La Madonna del Bagno
What makes La Madonna del Bagno special is on the inside—hundreds of majolica votive tiles adorn the walls of the church, each inscribed with the letters PGR (Per Grazia Ricevuta or for grace received) and a scene depicting various misfortunes and illnesses that have been resolved due to La Madonna’s intervention.
The historic oak and original piece of painted majolica are behind the altar; the walls covered with centuries of votive tiles.
First a brief history of this quaint and fascinating tradition. In the mid 1600s, a Franciscan friar found a broken fragment of crockery on the ground, the base of which was painted with an image of the Madonna and infant Jesus. To avoid it being trodden on by passersby, he wedged it between the branches of a small oak tree along the path. Later, a merchant from nearby Casalina noticed the fragment had fallen again, so nailed it back to the tree. This merchant—Cristoforo di Filippo—returned to the tree just a few years later to pray to the image of the Madonna and ask for her grace to save his dying wife—whom he found in perfect health upon his return home. The couple then commissioned the first votive plaque to give thanks to Maria for her intervention, a tile now almost 400 years old that can still be seen behind the altar of the church.
This glass case behind the altar holds the first votive tile from 1657; behind you can see the famous oak tree.
Just months later the first stone was laid to build the church around the site where the oak grew, which can now be viewed behind glass above the altar of the church, with the fragment of painted crockery still attached to its trunk. Once the church was completed, local citizens began commissioning their own tiles to give thanks to the Madonna for her various interventions. Over the succeeding 4 centuries, these tiles gradually began covering the walls and corridors of the sanctuary. Looking closely, you can even see some affixed around the ring at the base of the cupola’s interior.
The base of the cupola is ringed with tiles
I suppose some of the charm of this church is its unique history—and the romantic aspect of a desperate and grieving husband whose love for his wife is so intense that it spawns a miracle. But I can’t deny that my fascination revolves mostly around the votive plaques themselves.
From a historical point of view, it is interesting to see the progression as the scenes move from medieval misfortunes like demonic possession, highway robbery, and females bedridden for undisclosed maladies and rural accidents that involve horses, agricultural tools, and falls from trees to sons returning from war and open-heart surgery and industrialized accidents involving cars and trains. I wander through and watch Umbria’s 400 year modernization take place in a 20 minute majolica slide show.
Trampled by a horse
Falling from a tree
A wartime detention camp
Yikes. No explanation needed.
From an artistic point of view, I find the progression of artistic styles—from the simple two-dimensional rendering in the earliest tiles, to the more decorative and elaborate paintings from the 1700s, to the straightforward journalistic style of post-war Italy—as complete and self-explanatory as any local museum. The color pallet has changed over the centuries, the tiles range from barely more than a sketch to legitimate works of art, the faces have gone from mask-like to hyperrealistic, but the basic iconography has remained intact.
An example of the simple two dimensional early tiles
An elaborate later tile
These portraits are so realistic that they look like photographs
From a human point of view, one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen is a photo of the destruction wrought over two nights in 1980 when thieves broke into the church (at the time it was left unguarded. Currently, it is attended to by a foundation which provides housing and work to adults in need. The women clean the church and the men tend the garden; I have never seen the church and grounds so immaculate. If you stop by, give them your compliments…they beam with pride.) and stole over 200 tiles—including the original tile from Cristoforo di Filippo. Even more tragic were the dozens left abandoned on the floor after being broken by clumsy hands trying to chip them out of the walls. Many were later recoved, others were replicated from photos (you can pick these out, as their colors are discordantly bright despite the dates from the 1600s), but the fact that these intimate tokens of devotion were stolen and sold is heartbreaking.
This large plaque commemorates the post-1980 restoration after thieves damaged the church
From a spiritual point of view, I have always been attracted to simple manfestations of faith more than elaborate religious ceremony. I find these unpretentious tiles so representative of the Umbrians’ pragmatic spirituality and so poignant in their straightforward depictions of life’s most painful moments that it is deeply moving. That I can get teared up over the rough rendered painting of a toddler falling into the flames of an open fire 300 years after it happened, and feel relieved knowing that the child survived, is a testament to the spirituality of this humble place.
The child is saved from the flames
I suppose what it comes down to is that in these humble squares of terracotta I find embodied all I have come to love about Umbria: its rich history and sense of tradition, its humble yet steely faith, its artistic eye and ability to render even the simplest thing beautiful, and, ultimately, its overwhelming—and, at times, it can be just that—sense of family. The first tile, painted in 1657, gives thanks to Maria from a family. The last tile, painted in 2010, gives thanks to Maria for exactly the same thing. Here’s to the di Filippo family. Here’s to the Natalizi family. Per Grazia Ricevuta, we give thanks.
The latest tile hung
Note: The sanctuary was historically known as La Madonna del Bagno, but in contemporary times has also come to be called La Madonna dei Bagni. It’s the same place.
I recently discovered the charming organization I Borghi Più Belli dell’Italia, which formed in 2001 to promote the hundreds of small Italian towns at risk of depopulation and decline because they are not on the commercial and travel A-list. The foundation states its goal as “to guarantee – through protection, restoration, promotion and utilization – the preservation of a great heritage of monuments and memories that would otherwise be irretrievably lost.”
Umbria is particularly rich of just these kinds of small towns (indeed, Umbria is the region which has the most towns listed…even more than her historic rival Tuscany), and the fact that many of these villages are faltering economically because they have been unable to attract industry and tourism is a not only a shame but also a huge loss for the local history and culture.
Perusing I Borghi’s list of Umbrian towns, I realized there were many I’d never visited myself (though three of my favorite spots in Umbria—Montefalco, Bevagna, and Spello—are all included) despite having lived in this region for almost 20 years. So, I have officially set a personal goal to visit them all this year which, given my median to do list turn around time since my two sons were born, I foresee I will actually accomplish within the year 2018. Late 2018.
I started a few days ago by stopping by the sleepy yet charming hill town of Bettona (I had decided to go in alphabetical order, so I should have visited Arrone first…but Arrone is more of a drive and I only had a morning free so it was Bettona. I’ll get back to Arrone sometime before 2018. My scientific methodology is already all shot to hell.) which, as it turns out, is the perfect place to begin as it is the quintessential Umbrian village. A piazza, a church, a small museum, a view, some picturesque alleyways…nothing “important” to see, but just a lovely hour or two of slowly paced wandering.
Bettona floats over the Umbrian valley
Once you’ve wound your way up the hill on which Bettona perches—passing the town walls on the way, parts of which are made of large sandstone blocks dating to the Etruscan period–you can park your car right in the main piazza (!!) to begin your visit. Take an outdoor table at one of the two bars in town to enjoy a cappuccino (the owner will stiff you slightly…take it in stride) while you admire the bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore which dominates the space, flanked by the austere town hall and the 14th century stone Palazzetto del Podestà.
Bettona's bell tower in the main piazza
From here, stroll past the bell tower to the Oratory of S. Andrea—poke your head in to see the fabulous carved wooden roses on the coffered ceiling—and, at the end of the steet, the city gate Porta V. Emanuele.
Double back to the main piazza, pass the requisite central fountain and the church of San Crispolto, patron saint of Bettona, and continue on to one of the hidden jewels of the town: Piazza IV Novembre. Grab one of the benches along the railing on the far side of the tree-covered square and gaze across the Umbrian valley to the towns of Assisi, Spello, and Perugia. This is one of the most enchanting views around, so kick back for a few minutes and enjoy it.
A town with a view
When you’re ready to stretch your legs, spend the next half hour wandering through the narrow streets and alleyways of the town. The stone houses with their flowering window boxes, wooden shutters, and forged iron gates are captivating with their simplicity and charm. I guarantee that by the end of your walk, you’ll be sizing up the houses with “for sale” signs out front and fantasizing about acquiring a little Umbrian pied-à-terre and easing into village life.
Your final stop should be the quaint Municipal Museum, housed in the stately Palazzo Biancalana in the main piazza. My favorite room is upstairs in the painting collection…smack in the middle of the gallery, counter to the current fad of drive-thru museum going, they have plunked down two of the comfiest leather sofas I’ve ever had the pleasure to take for a test drive. So settle yourself in and admire Perugino’s etheral Madonna della Misericordia at your leisure.
I find my appreciation for art grows exponentially given a comfortable seat
A quiet town, a meandering walk, a drink in the piazza, a park bench with a view. This, my friends, is Umbria.
Bettona is known locally as host to one of the best sagre of the summer–La Sagra dell’Oca Arrosto—where thousands gather at long tables filling the piazza to feast on roast goose and trimmings. If you happen to be around the first week of August, come witness this sleepy village come alive with crowds, food, and music. Otherwise, the aptly named Osteria dell’Oca (they have a goose thing in Bettona) right in the main piazza is a solid choice for traditional Umbrian cooking. Don’t be put off by the entrance—the interior is quite charming and they have outdoor seating in the summer. If you’d rather opt for a quiet picnic in the vicinity, check here for a suggestion.
It may be the dog days of summer, but no reason you should be living a dog’s life in the heat. Here are some suggestions to keep your temperature down on even the hottest summer days.
Retreat to the Hills
Mountain tops abound in Umbria, where the air is cooler, the breeze is constant, and the view itself is worth the trip. Pack a picnic, plenty of water, and a camera…by the time you’re ready to head back down towards the valley you’ll be refreshed and relaxed (and have a pretty good tan, to boot). My favorite places up high are Mount Subasio, Mount Cucco, and—my favorite—the Piano Grande in the Mount Sibilline National Park where, if you’re lucky and spring comes late, you can see the last of the wildflowers into July.
Up through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear!
If there’s one thing humans understood soon after climbing out of the primordial soup, it’s that if you want to keep cool, the lower you go, the better. In guided underground tours of Narni and Orvieto you can check out how subterranean passages and cells, cisterns, crypts, and catecombs have been used by the local populations for hundreds—in some cases, thousands–of years…and cool off while you do. Still not ready to come back up to the surface? How about some cool caves? The Grotte di Frasassi (right over the border in Le Marche) is one of the most spectacular caves open to the public in the world, and is easily visited by a walkway. If you’re feeling more adventurous (and are over 11 years old) you can try your hand at real spelunking with professional guides in the Mount Cucco caves. Once you come out, you’ll both feel and be cool!
Water, water, everywhere
Umbria is known as the green heart of Italy, and much of that vegetation is the result of the ample annual precipitation which falls in this region…so there’s no lack of water to cool you off when the temperature starts rising. You can head to tranquil Lake Trasimeno for a cool dip or to the Mount Sibilline National Park to spend the day at one of my favorite lakes in the area, Lake Fiastra.
Okay, not exactly what I meant.
To cool off with a natural shower, visit the beautiful Marmore Waterfall in the south of Umbria…the sound of rushing water is refreshing, even before the first mist hits you.
Praise the Lord
Or, at least, stop by His house for a little natural air conditioning. With their thick stone walls, marble or terracotta floors, and small windows, the historic churches in Umbria provide a respite from the heat with their cool interiors. Choose one where there is something interesting to look at to keep you occupied long enough to really cool down: The Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi is, of course, a front runner as the entire interior of both the upper and lower church are covered in frescoes by some of the greatest painters of that time, including Giotto and Cimabue. Perugia’s Duomo di San Lorenzo, though the city’s cathedral, doesn’t offer much eye candy to keep you interested…head instead to San Pietro, which is chock-full of frescoes and paintings inside. For a city cathedral which will keep you inside long enough to cool off, visit Orvieto’s Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta. It will take you awhile to tear yourself away from gazing at its glorious facade, but once you get inside the simple grace of the striped stone walls is as soothing as the temperature. When you are feeling up to being overwhelmed again, stop by the chapel of San Brizio, richly frescoed by Signorelli.
Take advantage of the natural a/c while you take advantage of the art in Orvieto's Duomo
Do as the Romans Do (and the Umbrians, too)
One of the hardest things to get accustomed to your first time in Italy is the mediterranean schedule, as the entire country grinds to a halt for roughly the same hours during which the Anglo-Saxon world is at its most productive. There are lots of explanations for this cultural difference (which, by the way, is becoming less and less the norm—especially in larger cities), but principal among them is that it is simply a pragmatic way to avoid being outdoors during the hottest hours of the day. So as long as you’re in Italy, do as the Romans do (and the rest of the Italians, for that matter) and try the siesta on for size. Get yourself out and about at a decent hour of the morning (when the temperature is still amenable to touring), enjoy Italian cuisine to its fullest at lunch, and retreat to base camp afterwards. Rest for a couple of hours: nap, read a book, have yourself a little afternoon delight, map out your next day of traveling, write in that travel journal that you vow with every trip you will keep, vacate (after all, you are on vacation). By the time you are back out on the streets, the grueling summer sun will have left but the rest of the Italians, who have disappeared indoors along with you, will have returned.
Italians have an inexplicable penchant for bitter digestive liqueurs made with infusions of either curious vegetables (i.e. Cynar, made with artichokes) or a complex mix of herbs and spices (i.e. Fernet Branca, with its top-secret recipe of 27 ingredients). All are guaranteed to put hair on your chest (bartender Logan B. describes drinking Fernet Branca like this: “You shoot it, immediately getting a strong hit of mouthwash – drying the mouth out, stinging the tongue. It’s kind of like getting hit in the nose. Your brain hurts, your eyes sting and water, you cough a bit.” Yum.), but the king of them all is Nocino.
Green walnuts ready to be harvested for Nocino
The primary ingredient of this traditional liqueur is unripe green walnuts, infused in alcohol with various other flavourings depending upon the recipe and the region where it is made. Nocino is found all over Italy—made either industrially or at home–but is most popular in the center and north of Italy.
Make sure you wear gloves when chopping...this innocuous looking fruit will turn your hands black for weeks. Take my word for it.
Of all the liqueurs we make at home, Nocino is my favorite, mostly because of the quirky family recipe which has been passed down through the generations:
20 chopped green walnuts, picked from the tree at dawn on the Feast day of St. John the Baptist (24 June) before the dew dries (What’s up with the dew? you ask. See here.)
30 petals of a scarlet rose, dried in the shade
6 whole cloves, crushed
¾ of a cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
the zest of one lemon cut into strips, not grated
Add these all to 1 liter of alchol in a large glass jug, seal it, and place it in the sun for 40 days, making sure to shake it every day.
After 40 days, prepare a sugar syrup with 500 g of sugar and 500 g of water. Add this syrup to the infusion and strain through filter paper.
We think that Nocino improves with age, so tend to keep it bottled for 6 months to a year before drinking it, but that’s the young whippersnapper technique. Our older relatives start drinking it the day after it’s filtered.
And they all have very hairy chests. Cin-cin!
The last few vintages of our Nocino
So remember that boyfriend you briefly dated your sophomore year at college, the one who seemed to drop out of nowhere one day, spent a few months listening to you pine after the campus heartthrob, and then seemed to vanish into the ether again? And all these years later you stumble upon some love notes he wrote you during those months and you realize that you probably should have paid a little more attention to the guy, because he was actually really interesting and funny and smart and it’s not really that fair that the campus heartthrob was always getting all the attention.
Well, my friends, that’s pretty much the story of the Etruscans. This mysterious ancient people surfaced in central Italy sometime after about 800 BC, from whence we still don’t really know, stuck around for a few centuries building a far flung and mighty confederation of city states spanning from near modern Venice to south of modern Naples dotted with walled towns and rich necropolises and trading with most of the Mediterranean, left us with with some of the most astoundingly beautiful bronze and goldwork, terracotta sculpture, and frescoes produced in the history of Italy and then, during the first century AD, vanished—completely absorbed by their conquering neighbors. And what do they get for it? Millenia of being ignored and underrated, and having to hear everyone harp on constantly about the Romans, whom, as history has taught us, have quite a bit to thank the Etruscans for, including laying the foundations for the city of Rome itself.
IN TVSCORVM IVRE PENE OMNIS ITALIA FVERAT (Nearly the whole of Italy was once under Etruscan Rule) – Cato 2nd century BC
Ipogeo dei Volumni
A visit to the Hypogeum of the Volumnii (Ipogeo dei Volumni) inside the Palazzone necropolis right outside of Perugia is to see all this in the microcosm of one archaeological site. This ancient subterranean burial chamber—one of the most significant examples of Etruscan funerary architecture–was discovered by construction workers in 1840 who were building a road cutting right through the necropolis which is thickly covered with almost 200 modest chamber tombs…and, in keeping with a long and proud history of distain towards this ancient populace, just kept right on building the road. In fact, a visit to the site now is punctuated with noise of traffic from the highway running above it and the trains passing on the railroad tracks adjacent.
The 19th century entrance to the archaeological site...note the highway overhead and the railway crossing to the right. No respect. (Photo by Cantalamessa)
The tomb itself is accessed through a 19th century “antiquarium”, crowded with row upon row of ornately carved travertine urns inside of which the ashes of the deceased were laid, wrapped in cloth. These stone boxes with roof-shaped lids show how strongly Etruscan art and architecture were influenced by Greece in this period; the sculptures of the reclining deceased on the lids look like they could have come straight from Athens. The front faces of the urns are often decorated with ornate reliefs depicting mythical scenes, referencing Greek mythology, or sea monsters, recalling one of the more dominant theories as to the origins of this people: a sea crossing from Troy.
An elegant reclining image of the deceased
A mythological sea monster relief
From there, the steep descent into the cool and dark tomb is captivating. The burial site dates back to 3rd century BC and imitates the architecture and layout of a house, with faux wooden roof beams carved into the stone, an entrance hall, and bedrooms and antechambers. At the end of the entrance hall is the “tablinum”, or chamber where urns containing the remains of members of the Velimna family remain still. The urn from the last member of the family, from the 1st century AD, is the only example in marble, in the shape of a Roman temple, and inscribed in both Etruscan and Latin. By this point, the ruling classes in Perugia were integrated into Roman culture, and the Etruscan culture which had dominated the area for centuries had disappeared completely.
The house-shaped tomb preserving ornately decorated family urns
There is a small museum on the necropolis grounds which displays some of the artifacts found in the surrounding tombs and burial chambers, but if you’ve caught the Etruscan bug (which I certainly did after a visit to the hypogeum) it’s more than worth your time to stop in at the newly renovated National Archaeological Museum in Perugia.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale dell’Umbria
The entrance to the museum through the San Domenico cloister (Photo by G. Dall'Orto)
Housed in the former convent of San Domenico—the entrance is through the elegant cloister—the museum has on display a variety of Etruscan artifacts found in excavations in the necropolises in and around Perugia. Two of the most interesting of these are a travertine block used as a boundary marker and incribed with one of the longest examples of the Etruscan language, and the remains of a bronze chariot. There are also breathtaking examples of glass and gold-work from the Etruscan period.
The Cippo Perugino, example of the Etruscan language (Photo by Louis Garden)
Etruscan bronzework taken from a chariot (Photo by G. Dall'Orto)
My only beef with the museum is that the incredibly interesting printed explanations of the displays still haven’t been translated into English, which is a crying shame. They said they’re working on it…and they had better be. After all these years, it’s time the Etruscans get the attention and respect they deserve.
For more information about Etruscan history and culture, you can take a look here.
The beauty of many grande dames of a certain age is only enhanced by low lighting, and the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi—amongst the Grandest Dames of them all—is no exception.
Occasionally the doors of the Upper Church are opened to the public for “after hours” classical music concerts and when I get wind of one of these—there seems to be no rhyme or reason in the scheduling—I always try to seize the opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful buildings on earth at her finest.
As evening progresses and darkness deepens, the richly frescoed interior becomes both more majestic and more intimate. Giotto’s famous frescoes soften in the twilight and the famed “giotto blue” ceilings seem to richen in color.
The concert is an excuse to sit and contemplate the art and architecture with more care…there are no noisy crowds to distract you from the humble beauty of Saint Francis’ life as told through the fresco cycle. On the contrary, the echoing cathedral acoustic—surely a bane to the musicians who perform there—only make the music seem more etheral and otherworldly and lends itself to reflecting on the lessons of the Assisi’s “Poverello”.
The whole effect is both uplifting and simultaneously calming…certainly the intention of the artist when he first put his brush to palette over 700 years ago.
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.
Example of a typical rental car in Umbria. Kidding! I'm just kidding. Sheesh.
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.
Calendimaggio in Assisi...one of the many must see festivals in Umbria
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.
You won't find this simply elegant facade in any of the guidebooks. The first reader to guess where this was taken gets a big prize. Big.
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.
An autumnal shot of magical Mount Subasio.
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.
Learning the art and history of winemaking directly from the source. Photo by Gusto Umbrian Wine Tours
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.