Browsing category: Rebecca's Ruminations, Trip Planning Tips for Umbria

If You Have To Do It, Do It Right: Umbria Harvest Week Tour

I’m not a big lover of organized tour travel, which will hardly come as a shock to anyone who has hung around my blog for more than nine nanoseconds. I am all about indie, slow, off-the-beaten-track, sustainable, and all those other buzz words we self-satisfied hipster travellers use to differentiate us from Uncle Bob and Aunt Sue who spent ten days on a Trafalgar coach touring the European Capitals (which they pronounced dirty and their citizens rude).

That said, every once in awhile I come across a tour which is put together which such thoughtfulness and criteria that even I—even I, I say—can’t help but recognize that if I were to choose to visit Umbria with a group, this is how I would want to do it.

Fall is my favorite season to visit Umbria.

Kathy McCabe, publisher of the excellent Dream of Italy newsletter, has pulled together a fabulous itinerary for getting to know Umbria during one of my favorite seasons. This November she will be visiting the region with a small group during her Umbria Harvest Week for cooking lessons, Montefalco vineyards visits, truffle hunting, ceramic painting in Deruta, and—yes—a bit of touring (Assisi and Perugia). It’s basically what I would suggest as the perfect week-long visit in Umbria, but hassle-free.

I met up with her group last year for dinner, and it was a lively bunch—engaged and engaging, well-travelled, curious, and lots of fun. Not what I had imagined a tour group to be, honestly.

Last year's group. Fun was had.

So, for anyone bouncing around the idea of a fall trip but not keen on dealing with the logistics independently, this is a tour that even a die-hard non-tour gal like myself can recommend.


These photos were shamelessly nicked from Dream of Italy’s website. Don’t sue me, Kathy.


Rebecca as Guest rather than Hostess: Five Ways to Explore Umbria alla Cheapo

In these tough times, even travelling has been pared down to the bare bone. That said, there are some great cheap and/or free A list attractions  in Umbria if you are keeping your eye on the bottom line but still want a memorable trip.

I was asked this week by the budget travel site extraordinaire Eurocheapo to suggest five cheap thrills in Umbria, and it was tough to whittle down my choices to just five.

But whittle I did, and you can take a look at the finalists here.


Rebecca as Guest rather than Hostess: Tweeting about Umbria

I am still a Twitter novice, despite a year of tweeting. Twitter tends to bring out the worst of my Luddite nature, though I do enjoy tweeting about events and news regarding Italy and Umbria and find it a great resource.

So when Kathy McCabe of the venerable Dream of Italy asked me to guest on the recent #italychat to tweet about Umbria, it was with both excitement and trepidation that I accepted.

Even if you missed the live event, you can still see highlights from the transcript here. (I mention one of my current favorite restaurants in Umbria: Camesena)

Thanks again to Dream of Italy Travel Newsletter for having me as a guest!


Spring in Umbria: What to Wear, What to Do, What to Eat

If in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, in the dog days of icy February he is most likely thinking about his next vacation. Preferibly to warmer climes. If the drifting snow and slate-colored skies have got you dreaming of your next trip to central Italy, here’s a quick overview of what you can expect in springtime in Umbria.

Spring Weather in Umbria

Spring, specifically April and May, is one of my favorite times to visit Umbria. The crowds haven’t yet begun to bunch up around the major monuments, hotels, restaurants, and anyone working in the travel industry is just coming off a winter rest so happy to see you, the days are longer (many churches and monuments are open until dusk, so a longer day is conducive to getting more bang for your buck), and the lovely Umbrian countryside comes alive with blossoming trees, blooming gardens, and meadows of wildflowers.

That said, being properly kitted out for an Umbrian spring involves a little packing savvy. Make sure you bring clothes you can layer, since the weather may go from chilly and rainy to sunny and warm in a matter of days (if not hours).  I would include a jacket,  a sweater (or fleece), shoes that can take rain, a scarf (or pashmina), and an umbrella. Obviously March through mid-April will require heavier layers, while the end of April through May warms up considerably and you can get by with lighter clothing. For some average temperatures, try this handy graph here.

Also, make sure you have both indoor and outdoor sights on your itinerary so you can work around anything the sky might toss at you. The weather is, of course, spottier than it would be at the height of  summer, but generally has cool, sunny days (good for walking or exploring a hill town) interspersed with some showers (a great excuse to duck into a museum or church). …and gets steadily warmer and sunnier the further you push forward into May.

Spring Holidays in Umbria

If you are planning your trip on a strict budget, by choosing a “shoulder” season (those buffer months between high and low season), you will be more likely to find deals on flights, accommodations, and car rentals. Shoulder season for Umbria generally includes the months of March and some or all of April, but you need to keep an eye on when the national holidays are, as you won’t be likely to find discounted rates during those times.

8 March: Festa della Donna (National Women’s Day)—This isn’t likely to flip rates into high season, and may even save you some money if you are of the fairer sex. The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for state museums and monuments across Italy, and on the Festa della Donna women have free admission. Beware of trying to dine out, however, as restaurants will be packed with tables of girlfriends out for a night on the town and many places will offer only a fixed menù dinner option.

17 March: Festa Della Unità dell’Italia (Unification Day)—Word is still out as to whether this holiday is a one-off for 2011 or will stick around for awhile. Some museums and monuments will be closed, as will offices and businesses (most restaurants and shops catering to tourists should remain open). As it falls on a Thursday this year, many Italians may take advantage of the ponte (“bridge” between a holiday and the weekend) to head out for a mini-break, so hotel prices may reflect the surge in demand.

19 March: San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph’s Feast Day, celebrated as Father’s Day)—This doesn’t really have any effect on anything, but if you happen to be in Italy with your favorite Dad, you might want to buy him a plate of zeppole (a custard-filled fritter) or frittelle (a sugar-dusted rice fritter) traditionally eaten today to show him your love.

Pasqua/Pasquetta (Easter weekend–from Good Friday through Easter Monday)– One of the most popular times for Italians to take advantage of their schools and offices closing and head out on vacation. Definitely high season prices, and availability may be scarce. On the upside, however, visiting around Easter offers an opportunity to participate in the many rituals and traditions surrounding this solemn yet joyful holiday.

25 April: Festa della Liberazione (Liberation Day)—Some museums and monuments (along with all offices and schools) may be closed, and if it falls near a weekend you may run into a ponte peak. This year il 25 Aprile (as it is colloquially known) is the same day as Pasquetta, so see above.

1 May:  Festa dei Lavoratori (Labor Day)– Some museums and monuments (along with all offices and schools) may be closed, and if it falls near a weekend you may run into a ponte peak. The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for state museums and monuments across Italy, and on Il Primo Maggio (as it is colloquially known) many offer €1 admission.

Spring Festivals in Umbria

Hand in hand with holidays come festivals, and one of the biggest selling points to visiting Umbria in spring is the plethora of wonderful traditional local festivals, during which the region awakens from its long winter hibernation and welcomes spring with open arms. For a list of those worth checking out, take a look here. (The list ended up so long that I made it into its own blog post. Sorry about the detour!)

Spring Sagre in Umbria

The sagra season really begins to gain traction in spring, so if you are looking for a festive atmosphere, a traditional meal, and a great window into Umbria culture, stop in to one of these:

Scheggino: Festa del Diamante Nero (mid-March) When they say the Black Diamond Festival, they are not talking about the gems you wear, but those you eat: truffles!

Bevagna: Arte in Tavola (end of April – beginning of May)–A celebration of traditional Umbrian cooking, with a little art and history thrown in, along the streets and piazze of one of Umbria’s loveliest towns.

Eggi: Sagra degli Asparagi (end of April – beginning of May) This hilltop village in the beautiful countryside near Spoleto is all about asparagus one week of the year.

Pietrafitta: Sagra degli Asparagi del Bosco (end of April – beginning of May) In a variation on the theme, this village near Piegaro concentrates on wild asparagus.

Spring Food in Umbria

Affettati (charcuterie): One of the mainstays of the Umbrian diet is pork, and the region is famous for its salame, prosciutto, dried sausage, corallina, and pancetta. Traditionally, pigs are butchered during the winter, and by spring the cured and salted charcuterie is at its prime.

Wild asparagus: Umbrians are diehard foragers: mushrooms, berries, field greens and, come April,  the wily wild asparagus. Local markets sell them by the bunches, and the sharp flavor is perfect with fresh tagliatelle (egg noodles) or in risotto.

Easter food: Easter is the biggest spring holiday, and, like most Italian holidays, food plays a principal role. Breakfast is traditionally the contents of the specially prepared and blessed Easter basket, including hardboiled eggs, new salame (see above), wine (yes, the breakfast of champions), a savory cheese bread (torta pasquale or torta di formaggio), and the dove-shaped colomba sweet bread. At lunch, expect egg-based pasta in all shapes and forms, lamb or young goat, artichokes, asparagus, fennel, and other spring vegetables, and the first strawberries of the season.  Afterwards, merrymakers break open their hollow chocolate eggs to find their surprise inside and eat the remains as dessert.


Spring Festivals in Umbria: The Best of March, April and May Celebrations

One of the biggest selling points to visiting Umbria in spring is the plethora of wonderful traditional local festivals, during which the region awakens from its long winter hibernation and welcomes spring with open arms.

Here are a few worth checking out:

Late March to late April: Pasqua/Pasquetta (Easter weekend from Venerdì Santo through Pasquetta).  Easter is not about a bunny in Umbria; it remains a solemn and deeply religious holiday which begins the week before Easter Sunday.

On Venerdì Santo (Good Friday), many Umbrian towns hold costumed religious processions, when (often barefooted) monks and members of religious fraternities transport statues of the Virgin and/or Christ along torch-lit medieval streets. One of the most moving is in Assisi, where the statue of Jesus is taken down from the cross inside the Cathedral of San Rufino and transported on a canopied litter to the Basilica of Saint Francis and back. Many other towns–Todi, Norcia, Montefalco, Perugia, and Gubbio, to name a few—hold a Stations of the Cross pageant reinacting the martyrdom of Christ.

On Pasqua (Easter Sunday), most Umbrian families attend Mass and enjoy a long leisurely lunch together.  After lunch, both children and adults unwrap the brightly colored mylar paper around their huge chocolate eggs, breaking them open to reveal the sorpresina prize inside.

Pasquetta (Easter Monday) is usually spent with friends, often day-tripping to another town for a passeggiata or walk down the Corso. One of the most popular events in Umbria on Easter Monday is the Ruzzolone cheese rolling race in the pretty town of Panicale. Huge wheels of cheese are rolled along a course around the village walls, and the winner is feted with music and wine in the piazza.

March: Giornata Nazionale delle Ferrovie Dimenticate (National Forgotten Railways Day)—This is one of my favorite annual events, during which ex-railway lines (many now retrofitted as hiking and biking trails) are highlighted with organized excursions, railway museum visits, and period photography shows. This year the events are during the weekend of 5-6 April, but unfortunately the website is only in Italian.

March: Giornata FAI (Open Day for the Italian National Trust)—FAI is a non-profit fund which protects artistic, historical, and natural treasures in Italy. Many of their sites (if not the majority) are closed to the public for most of the year, but for one weekend annually (26-27 March in 2011) some of the most unique and breathtaking of these open their doors for guided tours and visits. If you are passionate about off the beaten track villas, castles, monasteries, and parks, this is an event to watch.

April: Settimana della Cultura (Culture Week)– The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for State museums and monuments across Italy. During the annual Culture Week (9-17 April in 2011), all State-owned museums, monuments, and archaeological sites are open free of charge and some organize special events, guided tours, and extraordinary openings to closed sites.

April: La Corsa all’Anello (The Race of the Ring), Narni–In one of the most beautiful (and off the beaten path) hilltop towns in the region, you will find the epitome of the Umbrian festival: medieval pageantry, costumed locals, banner-festooned streets, outdoor taverne with food and wine, torchlit processions, and, of course jousting.

April: Festa del Tulipano (Tulip Festival), Castiglione del Lago–After World War II, a group of Dutch families resettled on the shores of Lake Trasimeno to coltivate tulips, and with them came the tradition of celebrating the arrival of spring by decorating the town with the petals of the first tulip blooms, which were too short to be sold at market. The Dutch no longer raise flowers here (though there is a concentration of Dutch expats around the lake still), but the tradition continues in decorated floats, flower shows, and petal-strewn streets.

April: Picnic a Trevi–Art, music, and food among the olive groves of lovely Trevi.

April:  Antiquaria d’Italia (Antique Show), Todi–One of the most important and prestigious antique shows/markets in the area, in the beautiful period Palazzo Landi Corradi.

May: Calendimaggio, Assisi–Perhaps the most spectacular of all Umbrian festivals, with its squaring off of the two medieval halves of the town–the “Parte di Sopra” and the “Parte di Sotto”—who challenge each other during three days of costumed pageants, medieval reenactments, vocal and instrumental concerts, dances, processions, archery, crossbow, and flag corps competitions. Splurge for tickets so you can get a good look at the action in the main piazza (the most breathtaking show is Saturday night, when antics with fire play a huge part).

May: Festa dei Ceri, Gubbio–“A candle race” doesn’t quite capture the over-the-top town-wide frenzy that takes over this otherwise stoic village on May 15th each year as three teams carry gargantuan wooden “candlesticks” on their shoulders and precariously charge through the thronged streets to the deafening cacophany of cheering, drums, and bells.

May: Il Palio della Balestra (Cross-bow competition), Gubbio–If you want a piece of the festival action, but maybe a slightly smaller piece than the Festa dei Ceri dishes up, try this historical costumed event the last weekend in May

May: Cantine Aperte (Open Wineries)–Wineries big and small open their doors across Umbria (but concentrated in the Sagrantino-producing area near Montefalco) for tastings, guided tours, and special events.

May: La Palombella, Orvieto–A caged dove representing the Holy Spirit descending upon the Apostles follows a wire from the Bishop’s palace over the heads crowding the piazza to end in a fireworks display on the opposite side in front of the basilica’s breathtaking facade. The festival is held on Pentecost Sunday, so dates vary.


Umbria on a Budget: A Penny-Pincher’s Guide

Let’s face it: times are tough. We are all tightening our belts a little, trimming the fat, and watching our pennies. That said, a trip to Umbria may be more do-able than you think.  Here are some suggestions to help keep your dream trip within reach (and without sacrifice!).

Photo by Julien Jorge

Time It Right

By choosing a low or “shoulder” season (those buffer months between high and low season), you will be more likely to find deals on flights, accommodations, and car rentals. This doesn’t mean you are stuck with the dog-days of January; shoulder season for Umbria generally includes the months of March (and some or all of April) and November (and some or all of October). The weather is, of course, spottier than it would be at the height of  summer, but generally has cool, crisp days interspersed with some showers…and gets steadily warmer and sunnier the further you push forward into April or back into October. Bring clothes you can layer, and make sure you have both indoor and outdoor sights on your itinerary so you can work around anything the weather might toss at you.

Aim Low to Fly High

With a little time and patience, there are good deals to be scored on airline tickets. Time, patience, and a little bit of knowledge, that is. For an overview on how to play the cheap airfare game, a good place to start is here.  Once you have a handle on how to work the system, stop by the new Airfares & Airlines Forum at Slow Talk (the Slow Travel forum), where there is an ongoing conversation going on with travellers about where, how, and when to find the best prices on tickets…and a specific thread to compare what others have paid for their flights. Remember that to fly to Umbria, you have a number of airport options to comparison shop: Perugia, Rome, Florence, Ancona, and (in a pinch) Pisa are all feasible. Perugia has discount European carrier RyanAir flights from London Stansted, so another option is to purchase a ticket to London and connect with a dirt-cheap intra-European London-Perugia flight (make sure you read RyanAir’s infamous baggage restrictions carefully!).

Stay in a Vacation Rental

Okay, anyone who has spent any time on this blog knows that I don’t shill very often, so bear with me while I do here. A vacation rental can be a great budget choice, both for the simple price advantage (Figure Brigolante’s rates average to less than €80/night in high season, which is €40/night per person for a couple and €20/night per person for a family of four. To put it bluntly, the Assisi campground charges more.) and for the added advantage of a kitchen to prepare meals and laundry facilities. When the timing is right, we also offer our guests free access to our vegetable garden and eggs, wine, and olive oil all year long. You do the math.

This view is free!

Get Cookin’, Good Lookin’

While we’re on the subject of the advantages of a vacation rental, let’s talk food. One of the biggest budget crushers when travelling is the cost of eating out three times a day, every day. If you have access to a kitchen, you can dramatically cut down your restaurant expenditures by cooking at home and preparing picnics to take along on day trips. If you’re worried about missing out on Umbria’s fabulous regional cuisine, don’t fret. Traditional Umbrian cooking is very simple–yet hearty–fare founded more on fresh, local ingredients than fancy preparation techniques. Take the time to wander through the region’s farmers’ markets, local butchers, specialty cheese, fresh pasta, and bread shops and pick up a little culture along with your dinner ingredients.

Sometimes The Best Things in Life are Free

Umbria is a particularly budget-travel friendly destination because so many of its sights are free of charge. The lion’s share of her major artworks are in chuches, which are largely open free to the public. Much of the region’s charm is in simply wandering the streets of its numerous medieval stone hilltowns, taking scenic drives through the rolling landscape, and walks in one of the region’s parks. A stroll through sleepy Spello, a drive along the Nera river, gazing upon the iconic frescoes in the Basilica of Saint Francis, watching the sun set over Lake Trasimeno, a picnic on Mount Subasio: all unforgettable moments in Umbria that won’t cost you a cent.

The best things in life...

Cheap Thrills

Here is a bucket list of money saving tips for Umbria:

Purchase a Perugia Città Museo Card: €10/person buys you access to any five of  thirteen local museums, monuments, and archeological sights for 48 hours from your first use, €20 (€35 for a family of up to four) buys you access all thirteen local museums, monuments, and archeological sights for a full year from your first use. A good deal.

Other cities in Umbria have similar discount card options (for example Spoleto and Assisi), which can be deals if you intend on visiting the participating museums and monuments. For more information, contact the Tourist Info offices.

The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for State museums and monuments across Italy. Around Valentine’s Day (for 2011 it’s 12 and 13 February), museums offer two tickets for the price of one. On 8 March, all women enter free to celebrate Women’s Day. And during the annual Culture Week (9-17 April in 2011), all State-owned museums, monuments, and archaeological sites are open free of charge.

Many music festivals offer some free concerts during their program (Umbria Jazz, for example, has free concerts in the public Giardini Carducci). See here for suggestions.

A great time to visit an Umbrian town is during their annual festival, which often includes costumed processions, concerts, crossbow tournaments and medieval reinactments open to the crowds. Just a walk through the town, all decked out with banners and flags and saturated with an air of celebration, makes for some wonderful memories.

Trawl for car rental deals with the same attention as airfare deals. I am a huge proponent of renting a car in Umbria, and, with some attention to detail, it is possible to shave quite a bit off your car rental price.

Groupon. Yes. Don’t make that face. Groupon is divided by city in Italy (as it is elsewhere), so you can register for Perugia to see what local deals are coming through the pipe. I admit that many won’t be of much interest to the average traveller (unless, of course, you are looking to get your teeth cleaned in Umbria), but there are often discounts on restaurant meals, accommodations, and spa treatments. You will have to sort through the Italian, but with a little work most offers are easily decipherable.


Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. And Buses.–Transportation in Italy

I love planning a trip (sometimes, I suspect, more than actually taking the trip) but I hate figuring out the trasportation logistics.  Scrolling down lists of flight times, wading through bus and train schedules, highlighting routes on maps the size of my kitchen table–the whole thing manages to be both tedious and stressful at the same time.  Even the thought of writing a blog post about it was daunting, which is why when someone offered to do it for me, I jumped at the chance.

By someone, of course, I don’t mean just anyone…I mean crack travel writer Jessica Spiegel of WhyGo Italy and BootsnAll (see her bio below.  To hear her dulcet tones, tune in to the weekly Eye on Italy podcast.), whom I am very honored to welcome as my very first blog guest.  (FYI: How do you know a crack writer?  By the fact she sends you an article pre-formatted into bullet points.  Something that mere mortals like myself haven’t yet figured out how to do.  On my own blog. )

A huge thanks to Jessica for this wonderfully informative post:

You probably know what Italy looks like on a map – that boot shape is hard to miss – but even if you’re a geography buff you may not be familiar with just how far apart the cities you’ll be visiting are, or how long it takes to get between them. This kind of unfamiliarity can lead to problems when you’re already trying to pack too much into a relatively short trip, because you’re more likely to make the mistake of not leaving enough time to get from place to place and still enjoy each spot you visit.

Each city in Italy has a variety of transportation methods within that urban and suburban area, and I encourage you to investigate the local public transport either before you leave home or at the tourist information office when you arrive in a new place. But for the purposes of this article I’m going to talk about the larger question of getting around Italy as a whole. This is the part where many travelers make assumptions that lead to trip frustration, and no one wants that. You’ll find a brief overview of the four major ways to get around Italy listed below, with links to additional resources under each one.

Taking the Train in Italy

Even if you’re not old enough to have personally backpacked around Europe with a Eurail Pass in your youth, you’ve heard the stories. Europe – including Italy – is criss-crossed by a network of train lines that make getting just about anywhere easy-peasy. There’s even a new set of higher-speed trains in Italy that connect some of the bigger cities in stunningly short times. But don’t go into an Italy trip assuming that (a) every city has a train station or (b) the train is always the best option.

While most cities in Italy do have train stations, in some cases it’s either faster or more efficient to take a bus (as is the case for a trip from Florence to Siena) or even fly. And just because there’s a rail line between two cities doesn’t mean it’s going to be a quick day-trip (see the journey times from Rome to Venice for proof). Also, that high-speed train may sound perfect until you see the price of a ticket.

If you, like me, love the romance of trains and want to take them as much as is prudent in Italy, then be sure you check the Trenitalia site for schedules and ticket prices so you know just how much of your day (not to mention your travel budget) will be eaten up by sitting on a train. There’s much to be said for romance, but efficiency can’t be overlooked when you’ve only got a couple weeks of vacation time to work with.

A few resources to peruse when planning train travel around Italy:

Flying in Italy

With the increase in the number of budget airlines throughout Europe, flying from city to city within Italy poses a real threat to the country’s train network. You can’t always count on a €30 one-way air ticket, but if you time it right and easyJet or Ryanair is having a sale then you’d be crazy to pay several times that price for a train ticket.

Of course, for some journeys it won’t ever make sense to fly rather than stick to ground transportation. Sure, Pisa and Florence both have airports, but should you fly between them? Not unless you’re a pro soccer player or a rockstar of some kind. For that trip from Milan to Naples, however, you might want to check both the high-speed train and your flight options to see what suits you best.

When browsing the potential flights connecting cities in Italy, be sure to keep in mind that it’s not just the flying time that you need to factor into your day. It’s also the time required to get to and from the airports (many big airports are quite a distance from the city center), the extra hour or more you’ll need to arrive at the airport before your flight, and the expense of transport to and from the airports as well.

A few resources to peruse when planning flights around Italy:

Taking the Bus in Italy

If you’re coming from a country that has a nationwide bus network – like Greyhound in the United States – then you might be surprised to learn that Italy operates things a bit differently: bus travel in Italy is primarily regional.

There are a few bus companies that operate inter-regional lines (when the regions border one another) and some that connect major cities in different parts of the country. For the most part, however, traveling by bus is best suited to trips where you’re staying within one region and one or both of the towns you’re visiting doesn’t have train service. In some cases, even if both towns have train service the bus is still a more convenient option (such as getting between Florence and Siena, for instance). If your trip includes at least one small town without a train station and you don’t have a car, the bus should be your first line of defense.

It should be said that if you’re doing a grander tour of Europe there are bus companies that cross borders and will get you from country to country – but despite the fact that these companies have routes like Paris to Rome, they don’t really sell tickets for just the Milan to Rome portion of that trip. Look into the cross-Europe bus companies for long-distance country-to-country journeys, but not for most long-distance trips within Italy.

A few resources to peruse when planning bus travel around Italy:

Driving in Italy

There are people who love to drive, people who hate to drive, and the vast expanse in between – people who, like me, are perfectly capable of driving but don’t mind at all if someone else wants to take the wheel. In Italy, these divisions are pushed further by unfamiliar roads, signs in a language you don’t know, and drivers who seem to be certifiably insane at times.

Still, there are some places in Italy that can only be accessed by a car – and if you’re determined to get off the so-called beaten track, then you’ll need your own four wheels to do it. You don’t need to pass a special test to drive in Italy as a tourist (thank goodness), but you do need to get an international driver’s license before you leave home (they’re $15 at AAA, whether you’re a member or not) and you’ll want to have a basic understanding of the driving laws and what the road signs mean.

You can try to get a good driving map before you leave home, but chances are that you’ll have better luck getting a far more detailed driving map for the regions (or even sub-regions) you’re visiting once you’re there. Some of the best driving maps I’ve ever seen were in the Chianti region of Tuscany, available for sale at a shop or two in each town, and they even included the famous strade bianche – the gravelly roads used mainly for service vehicles.

A few resources to peruse when planning to drive around Italy:

About the Author:
Jessica Spiegel is the Italy travel guide writer for BootsnAll, the indie travel guide. She’s partway through the paperwork process to make a permanent move to Italy, she’s a fan of a good marocchino, she’s annoyed by the fact that the Italian word for “female writer” is such a tongue-twister, and she doesn’t feel like a day in Italy is complete without at least a couple scoops of gelato.


Fourteen Perfect Days: A Two Week Itinerary for Umbria

Over the past thirteen—gulp!  That can’t be right!—years welcoming guests at Brigolante, I have come to realize that about 95% of their queries are repeat questions.  Some of these I have template emails for (i.e. Do you have driving directions to reach you?), some of these I have pages in our welcome packet for (i.e. How does the washing machine work?), some of these I have Slowtalk for (i.e. What is the best credit card to use when travelling?), some of these I have local friends for (i.e. Where does one buy an accordian, anyway?).  And some of these I am gradually trying to answer here on my blog, which is why there is a drily-yet-concisely-entitled category called Trip Planning Tips for Umbria.

Among the most common travel advice guests require is help in planning an itinerary for Umbria, which is also one of my favorite questions to answer.  Here is a two week long suggested itinerary for visiting Umbria which throws in the crème della crème of the region:  art and history, towns and parks, food and drink, people and shopping.  It may not suit everyone, but feel free to use it as a guideline for planning your trip.

A couple of caveats:

Two weeks is the minimum amount of time you will need to properly visit Umbria, but I recognize that travellers have minor inconveniences like Jobs and Families which restrict their holiday time.  If you are only here for a week, check for a seven day itinerary here.

I am writing primarily for my guests, so I presume your base is Brigolante or, at very least, Assisi.  If you are staying in another town in Umbria, you will have to make some adaptations.

I presume you have a car.

I am neither for turtle nor hare travel, so each day has enough to keep you busy, with enough time left over to add/linger/meander/get lost/come home and relax.

Day One:  It’s Sunday so it must be Gubbio

Yes, I know you are chomping at the bit to visit Assisi, but believe me, Sunday is not the day to do it.  This is the most crowded day of the week, when day trippers from Tuscany and Rome fill up the parking lots and churches.  In fact, not only do I suggest you avoid visiting Assisi proper…I suggest you avoid driving through town altogether.  Instead, follow the winding provincial highway 444 from Brigolante to Gubbio (make sure to enjoy the beautiful drive through the Appennine foothills between Assisi and Gubbio).  This archetypical medieval walled town is a perfect place to begin to get to know Umbria.  Its roots are steeped in the ancient Umbrii people (the town houses the most important example of the Umbrian language on the Eugubine Tablets in the Civic Museum), passes through Roman civilization (there is a wonderful view of the town from the Roman Theatre in the valley below), and remains largely architecturally frozen in the middle ages.  Be sure to dine on truffles while you’re there, and work off your hearty lunch with a climb  (or, if you’re feeling lazy, the funivia car…no one will ever know) to the top of Mount Ingino where you can visit the sanctuary dedicated to Gubbio’s patron saint and enjoy the amazing views from the Rocca fortress.

Day Two:  It’s Monday so it must be Assisi

Ah, now we’re talking.  Assisi can get crowded with coach tours from late morning through the afternoon, so get yourself to the Basilica of Saint Francis as early as you can to enjoy the view, the church, and the famed frescoes virtually to yourself.  From here, leisurely spend the rest of the morning exploring the town (don’t miss the Roman temple in the Piazza del Comune and the surprisingly lovely museum under the Cathedral of San Rufino) and partaking in a little Italian culture by having a slow lunch.  In the afternoon, climb up to the dramatic Rocca fortress (be sure you make it to the “highest room of the tallest tower” for the best photos of your holiday), then hop back into the car to visit San Damiano and the Eremo delle Carceri.  These two shrines will give you a much better sense of who Francis was as a man and Saint than his opulent basilica ever can.  If you are a sunset person (I’m a sunset person), continue along the road past the Eremo to the top of Mount Subasio.  A little luck, the right weather, and a bottle of wine may just be the perfect storm for one of the most stunning sunsets of your life.

Day Three: It’s Tuesday so it must be Nature

You’ve had two towny days, it’s time to see the other side of Italy’s Green Heart:  her lovely parks.  Umbria has seven regional parks and one national park…a surprising number for one of the smallest regions in Italy.  You’ve already visited one of the regional parks…in fact, you’re sleeping in one as Brigolante is within the borders of the Mount Subasio Park (as is the entire town of Assisi).   Today I suggest you go further afield and visit one of the other parks in the region:   the Sibilline National Park with its breathtaking Piano Grande plateau.  There are a couple of hiking trails of varying difficulty—make sure you take a good map—or you can simply take a scenic drive along the spectacular winding road through the plateau, which is bloom from May to July but gorgeous all year round.  I also suggest you work in a visit to delightful Norcia (don’t waste your time with Castelluccio, which is much prettier from afar), a pretty town known as a foodie mecca for its tradition of truffles and charcuterie.  Ristorante Beccofino in Piazza San Benedetto is a perennial favorite for lunch or dinner.

Day Four: It’s Wednesday so it must be Perugia

Umbria’s provincial capital may seem daunting, with its modern suburbs surrounding the historic center, but don’t be put off.  Find your way to the Piazza Partigiani parking lot and take the series of escalators passing through the underground ruins of the medieval alley of the city, which now form the foundations of the modern city above.  Have a good guide on hand; Perugia is full of interesting churches, monuments, and museums.  My favorites are the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria and San Francesco al Prato.  After lunch and a post-prandial stroll  (and a caffè and pastry at Pasticceria Sandri on the Corso),  take the afternoon to discover Umbria’s amazing array of artists and artisans who, for centuries, have produced some of the highest quality wares in Italy and the world.  Many, including my two favorites Laboratorio Giuditta Brozzetti, which hand-looms traditional Umbrian fabric and Laboratorio Moretti-Caselli, which paints stained glass, are workshop-museums where five generations of artists have occupied the same artelier.  Others, listed here, offer visits to their workshops.  There is no better way to return home with both a unique souvenir from Umbria, and an understanding of the region’s rich artisan culture and history.

Day Five:  It’s Thursday so it must be People

You’ve seen the towns (and the City), you’ve seen the nature.  Now it’s time to see the people.  Unfailingly, my guests name the day they took a tour and/or course as their most memorable day in Umbria and I can’t speak highly enough of some of the guides and instructors in this area. When you spend time with someone familiar with the local history and culture it gives you a chance to really get to know Umbria and its people in a way you wouldn’t be able to by simply visiting monuments. So plan a day preparing a traditional meal with a local cooktouring the small family-run vineyards, learning to hunt truffles (and how to use them in the kitchen), or painting your own majolica ceramics.  Alternately, get under the skin of a town or area with a knowledgeable guide.  I especially like Discovering Umbria for food and wine tours, and native Umbrians Marco Bellanca ( and Elizabetta Federici ( for cultural visits.  You won’t regret it.

Day Six: It’s Friday so it must be Todi and Orvieto

I can’t possibly send you home without having seen Orvieto’s cathedral.  It is, simply put, one of the most stunning churches in Italy.  You will be tempted to stop in Todi first, as it’s just off the highway, but push on to Orvieto passing along the banks of tranquil Lake Corbara.  Once there, first book your time for the Orvieto Underground tour in the Piazza del Duomo’s tourist office, then backtrack to visit the sumptuous Duomo.  Explore Orvieto under- and above ground, don’t miss the curiosity of San Pietro’s well, and make sure you have some excellent local white wine with your lunch.  Afterwards, head back to Todi and spend the afternoon in the small but surprisingly cosmopolitan center of this friendly hill town.  Take in the fabulous view over the surrounding rolling hills from the small public park along Via Ciuffelli and the quirky contemporary art boutiques in the center.  Have dinner here, because it’s an easy highway drive back to Assisi.

Day Seven: It’s Saturday so it must be Spello

One of my favorite towns in Umbria is Spello, which has much of the charm of Assisi with about 1/100th of the tourists  Yesterday you had a pretty long day that involved a bit of driving, so today you only need to be in the car for about 20 minutes. Spello is the next town over from Assisi along the S75 highway, though I suggest you take the old frontage road, which passes in front of Villa Fidelia—the Italian garden is worth a quick peek—and the much more interesting 11th century San Claudio church, whose delightfully off-kilter facade and elegant Romanesque interior has made it one of my off-the-beaten-track favorites (though you have to be damned lucky to catch it open to visitors).  Once in Spello, don’t miss the Pinturicchio frescoes in the Cappella Baglioni and the impressive Roman Porta Venere.  If you’ve been holding out to have a special meal, today is the day.  La Bastiglia, a four star hotel with an equally wonderful restaurant at the top of town, is one of the best restaurants in Umbria.  If the weather is nice, you can book an outdoor table overlooking the olive grove covered hills, or eat inside in the elegantly rustic (or is it rustically elegant?) dining room.  A meal to remember.  Otherwise, Spello is peppered with casual, friendly wine bars (my favorite:  the unfortunately named Drinking Wine) where you can have a light meal and wonderful vino.

Day Eight:  The Day of Rest

Even God himself kicked back once a week, and (if I may remind you) you are on vacation, after all.  So after a week of high powered touring, take it down a notch for today.  Catch up on your laundry, hang out in the garden and power your way through one of those books you packed, grab our maps and hiking information and take a walk through the countryside around Brigolante (you can pick up the famous Franciscan trail virtually from our front door, or simply follow the road uphill past vineyards, olive groves, and pastures until you get to Costa di Trex at the top).  Slow down and enjoy the passage of time.  After all, as the great James Taylor once said, that is the secret of life.

Day Nine:  It’s Monday, so it must be Lake Trasimeno

You’ve been landlocked for over a week now, so now it’s time to head to water.  You’re back on the road again, but don’t panic because Lake Trasimeno is an easy 45 minute highway drive.  Castiglione del Lago is a lovely town to visit, and from there you can take the regular ferries to Isola Polvese or Isola Maggiore in the middle of the lake.  Trasimeno is a mud-bottomed lake and—frankly–not one of my favorite places to swim, but there are certainly pretty sandy beaches near Tuoro and Passignano if you want to stretch out and enjoy the view (notice how the countryside has become more gently rolling as you near the Tuscan border).  One of my favorite spots for dinner in Umbria is Rosso di Sera in San Feliciano, where you can enjoy the beautiful sunset over the lake.

Day Ten:  It’s Tuesday, so it must be Spoleto

One of my favorite places in Umbria to have a quiet drink is the Bar Tric Trac in Piazza del Duomo…if you manage to get there when the sun is setting and the swallows are circling the Duomo’s stately belltower, you are in for a golden Umbrian moment.  Austere Spoleto was saved from centuries of provincial backwaterism by the world reknowned fine arts festival Due Mondi, and now is center to a thriving cultural scene. Don’t miss walking across the dizzying medieval Ponte dei Torri acqueduct which spans the Tessino ravine more than 80 meters below.  As the wind makes the grass in the meadows below move like waves in a green ocean, stand near the edge, spread your arms, and understand for just a moment what it must feel like to take flight.  (But not too near the edge…this towering structure is one of the top destinations for spurned lovers who have decided to meet their maker.)  On your way home, take a minute to stop at the delightful Fonte del Clitunno and nearby Roman Tempietto.

Day Eleven:  It’s Wednesday, so it must be the Valnerina

I have often waxed lyrical about the Valnerina, because this dramatic corner of Umbria inspires waxing.  Today you will explore the Nera River Regional Park, winding your way along highway SS209 which skirts the Nera river and runs under steep mountainsides where tiny hamlets perch precariously.  Stop by the beautiful Marmore waterfalls and the gorgeous San Pietro in Valle abbey (check their quirky opening hours carefully)…two of the best kept secrets in Umbria.  Visit some of the creche-like villages along the river valley:  Arrone, Vallo di Nera, Scheggino, Sant’Anatolia di Narco, Cerreto di Spoleto.  You won’t be so much scratching your head as to why these towns are so empty, but more likely surprised that these miniscule, remote centers are still inhabited at all.  If you are drawn to the truly strange and wonderful, visit Ferentillo’s mummies or Castel San Felice’s 12th century San Felice in Narco church, where the facade is decorated with a bass relief of the Saint ridding the locals of a troublesome dragon.  We call it an allegory today, but if you visit the Valnerina on one of her more brooding, misty days the presence of a dragon doesn’t seem so farfetched.

Day Twelve:  It’s Thursday, so it must be People

I know, I know.  I keep harping on the People thing, but I know of what I speak.  I can’t encourage you enough to take the time to really under the skin of Umbria with a knowledgeable instructor or guide.  If there was something that caught your eye from Day Five (the most common combination with my guests is a wine tour one day and a cooking class another day—we must really attract foodies here), go ahead and consult that list again.  Otherwise, there are some wonderful area guides who offer itineraries that would be hard to reproduce without their insider expertise.   I especially like American Elizabeth Wholey’s Artisan Tour, Anne Robichaud’s (another American) FestaTours, and native Umbrian Alessandra Pettinelli’s Underground Tour.  You won’t regret it. Again.

Day Thirteen: It’s Friday, so it must be Bevagna and Montefalco

Okay, I was kind of stuck on Friday because it’s the last guaranteed day of daytripping (some of you won’t be able to squeeze in your last visit somewhere on Saturday because your spouse pounced on cheap airline tickets while late-night online surfing nine months ago and didn’t notice until it was too late that it involved being at the Rome airport at 4 am tomorrow) and there are still about 50 wonderful things to visit.  See caveats.  But I couldn’t in good conscience send you home without getting to know two of my favorite villages in Umbria:  Bevagna (the perfect town to visit if your calves are aching; it’s in the valley!) and nearby Montefalco (perhaps my favorite small town in Umbria.  Art, architecture, food, wine, views, textiles…Montefalco is all that is wonderful about this region in one convenient little package.)  Start in Bevagna, making sure not to miss the medieval workshops, and end your day in Montefalco, from where you will certainly want to watch the sun set over the Umbrian valley.  I love L’Alchimista for dinner.

Day Fourteen:  It’s Saturday, so it must be Your Bucket List

This is your last day, and a bit of a wild card since you may have all the time in the world or you may have to make a dash to your next destination.  Fill this last day/half-day/quarter-day/final two hours by choosing one thing off your Umbria bucket list that you didn’t get to earlier.  Some suggestions:  choose one of the Most Beautiful Villages in Umbria in which to say goodbye to this enchanting region;  head to Deruta if you are interested in seeing this famed artisan majolica production; take a tour of the Perugina chocolate factory on the outskirts of Perugia and stock up on Baci for home; check out the Roman ruins of Carsulae near Narni; if you have the stamina for one more church, work in Lugnano in Teverina’s Santa Maria Assunta or the moving Madonna del Bagno near Casalina.  You’ve come full circle–from your first Umbrian town to your last, with the best of the region along the way.  May you bring back a little piece of Italy’s Green Heart in your own.  This is not goodbye, but arrivederci!


Gluten Free Italy: A Celiac’s guide to Umbria

I know, this seems to come out of left field.  But I’ve been meaning to pull together a quick travel resource for celiacs travelling to Umbria for awhile…not because I have a gluten intollerance, but because we have a strangely disproportionate number of celiac guests.  This for two reasons: 1) celiacs tend to stay in self-catering accommodations where they have access to their own kitchen and 2) Shauna Ahern, aka star celiac blogger and cookbook author, stayed with us a couple years back during her honeymoon (just for the record, she and new hubby were the cutest little piccioncini—lovebirds—and are now parents) and we’ve had many of her readers as guests.

Let me preface this by saying that though Italy is often associated with pizza and pasta, it is–somewhat counterintuitively—one of the best gluten free countries in the world.  There is a very high awareness of celiac disease here, children are routinely screened for it, and celiacs get a state subsidy for the cost of their gluten free foods.  People who follow a gluten free diet will find that most chefs and waiters are matter-of-factly familiar with celiac disease, and Italian food manufacturers produce some of the best gluten free food (which is readily found in larger supermarkets). In restaurants and bars, I have come across gluten-free croissants, pasta, beer, pizza, and gelato.

All this to say that I’m not being a hero.  Not a lot of sleuthing had to go into this, just a bit of organization (and some translating).

Gluten Free Travel Resources for Italy

The sine qua non to tripping through Italy gluten-free is Maria Ann Roglieri’s The Gluten-Free Guide to Italy.  The downside is that—like all printed guides—the restaurant information can go quickly out of date.  However, there is an extensive glossary and sample questions to ask restaurant staff, and many of the suggestions are still valid (the latest edition is from 2009).

For a more updated guide to regional restaurants, bars, pizzerie, and gelaterie which offer gluten free options, you can check the Italian Celiac Association’s website.  It’s not translated into English, but you can choose a category from the list at the left (example: Ristorante) and then the region (Umbria) from the drop down menu at the bottom.  From there, you get a list with the location (by town), category (hotel, restaurant, pizzeria, or albergo (inn)), and and name.  There is also a regional Celiac website, but their restaurant list just sends you back to the national website.

If you feel awkward about stumbling over an explanation as to your dietary restrictions in Italian, you can simply download and print celiac restaurant cards in Italian here.

There is also a new iPhone app that maps out the nearest gluten free dining options.  The text is in Italian, but the list is easy to decipher and the maps are your standard Google maps.  Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much for the region of Umbria, but if you are hopscotching around Italy you may find it helpful.

Where to Buy Gluten Free Food in Umbria

Keep in mind that the gluten free (senza glutine) label in Italy looks like this:

The best place to get gluten free food simply at the grocery store.  And the best grocery store in our area is the Ipercoop at Collestrada.  Coop (the chain of supermarkets) makes their own line of gluten free products, easily identifiable by the white and mint-green packaging.  Aside from their own line, they also stock a variety of gluten free foods from other producers at a fraction of the cost of the pharmacy (see below).  The shelving is a little unpredictable (sometimes the gluten free pasta is shelved with all the other pastas, but sometimes they seem to group all the gluten free products into one display near the pharmacy section) so you may have to comb the store pretty well and watch your labelling, but from pasta to flour to bread to frozen pizza to crackers to snack cakes to cookies…it’s all here, and relatively inexpensive.

I have noticed that other area grocery stores stock gluten free items, but seem to have less variety and consistency than the Ipercoop.  Smaller Coop grocery stores, for example, may stock some of the Coop gluten free line, but not as completely as the Collestrada flagship store.  If you are popping into a supermarket to pick up something, it may be worth it to take a quick look around.  But with the Ipercoop, you know you are going to hit gold.

For a little more grain variety, you can also try the health food store in Perugia.  There are a couple, which are all part of the B’Io organic market chain, but the easiest one to find is just up the road from the Perugia train station at Via M. Angeloni, 42 (it’s on the right as you are climbing the one-way street).  They stock goods made with kamut, rice, spelt, and corn flour and a variety of soy products, as well, if you are looking for lactose free products.

As a last resort, you can purchase gluten free food at any pharmacy in Italy (the bigger the pharmacy, the more variety they will probably have, of course).  I say as a last resort simply because it is usually the most expensive, inconvenient, and restrictive option.  But it is there, in case you find yourself in a bind and can’t make it to either a Coop or a health food store.

Where to Eat Gluten Free Food in Umbria

The gluten free restaurant emblem in Italy looks like this:

It seems like every menu I run across lately has a little star next to the gluten free dishes on offer, so it’s pretty daunting—if not impossible–to make an exhaustive list.  Just casually mentioning this blog post to a friend solicited two gluten free pizzeria suggestions that I had never heard of.

A good place to start is the Italian Celiac Association’s website mentioned above.  I gave it a cursory glance and noticed one restaurant listed that has since closed and one I know which serves gluten free options not included, so your mileage may vary.  I recommend phoning first just to confirm that they do, indeed, have dishes for celiacs available.

I will also be listing restaurants here as I review them when I see that they offer gluten free options.  If I actually eat something from the gluten free menu, I will be sure to mention it.  Otherwise, you can use it as a guide to the general quality and vibe of a place.  Check back periodically, as I will be updating the list over time.

L’Alchimista Wine & Co., Montefalco

Finally, ask around.  As I mentioned before, Italians are generally quite well informed about celiac disease (and many have friends or family who are on gluten free diets), so I’ve often found that word of mouth is a great way to discover local restaurants and pizzerias who will be happy to accommodate your diet.

What to Eat Gluten Free in Umbria

You’ve hit the jackpot in Umbria, as some of its best local foods are naturally gluten free.  While you’re here, make sure you sample the famous pork charcuterie (including prosciutto, salame, and dried sausages) from Norcia, the porchetta (whole roasted pork) from the street vendors’ white vans, wild asparagus, mushrooms, and truffles (depending upon the season), Sagrantino wine, extra virgin olive oil, and legumes (lentils from Castelluccio, fagiolino from Lake Trasimeno, and the chickpea’s close cousin: cicerchie).  Sure, Italy may be known for its pasta and pizza, but the traditional cuisine is so much more than that…and much of it senza glutine.  Enjoy every bite!