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 The downside is that—like all printed guides—the restaurant information can go quickly out of date.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!
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. Which is the best credit card to use in Italy?), 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.
Umbria, Italy by Armando Lanoce
One of 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 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:
A week is not enough time to properly visit Umbria, but I recognize that guests have minor inconveniences like Jobs and Families which restrict their holiday time. Come back soon for a two week itinerary, which will be much more complete.
I am writing primarily for our 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.
(And one last note…I know, I know. Blog posts must have pictures. After much deliberation, I decided that pictures would just be a pain for folks wanting to print out this itinerary as a reference. So buy a guidebook.)
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…two of my favorites are the Sibilline National Park with its breathtaking plateau Piano Grande (you can work in a visit to pretty Norcia…don’t waste your time with Castelluccio, which is much prettier from afar) and the Nera River Regional Park, winding your way along highway SS209 which skirts the Nera river and runs under steep mountainsides where tiny villages perch precariously. Stop by the beautiful Marmore waterfalls (check times when the falls are running here) and the gorgeous San Pietro in Valle abbey…two of the best kept secrets in Umbria.
Day Four: It’s Wednesday so it must be Perugia (and then some)
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 remains of the medieval center, which now form the foundation for 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 the Oratorio di San Bernardino. After lunch and a post-prandial stroll (and a caffè and pastry at Pasticceria Sandri on the Corso), you may still have the time and energy continue touring. I have two suggestions to fill your afternoon: 1) Deruta. If you are interested in seeing this famed artisan majolica production, head here. Shop, walk, have dinner at the elegant Forziere Antico. 2) Lake Trasimeno. If you are more enthusiastic about a pretty drive or walk, head to the lake. Castiglione del Lago is a lovely town to visit, and one of my favorite spots for dinner in Umbria is Rosso di Sera in San Feliciano.
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 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. 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Elizabetta Federici (email@example.com) for cultural visits. You won’t regret it.
Day Six: It’s Friday so it must be Todi and Orvieto
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 stop 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. However, after much soul searching I decided that 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 past 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. Have dinner here, because it’s an easy highway drive back to Assisi.
Day Seven: It’s Saturday so it must be the Village of your Choice
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 of the Most Beautiful villages in Umbria in which to say goodbye to this enchanting region. My favorites are Spello (which has much of the charm of Assisi with about 1/100th of the tourists), Bevagna (a good final town to visit if your calves are aching; it’s in the valley!) or 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.)
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. Arrivederci!
In a perfect world, I would come back to this blog post every once in awhile to dust it off and add new fonts of information for planning a trip to Umbria. As we know, this is not a perfect world. Your mileage may vary.
Well, the world isn’t perfect…but I did manage to get back here to update this post in under two years, which is a pretty good turn around time for me.
I have two resource suggestions in which I personally have my paws, both of which have come into being after this post was written and both of which you can read all about here.
Umbria Slow: Food, Culture, & Travel: an iPhone app with pretty much all the information contained in this blog, but boiled down to fit on your mobile device screen. My co-author is Alex Leviton of Lonely Planet fame, so it’s a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll…and all Umbria.
Umbria on the Blog: This is where I am more actively blogging about Umbria now, because they pay me. What I get when I blog here is personal satisfaction and backed up ironing.
Also, I dabble sometimes on Gogobot. You can take a look at my Nearby Faves and Raves here:
Best Guidebooks For Umbria
I am very cautious about overusing printed guidebooks. While it’s handy to toss one in your carry-all when you travel for some one-stop referencing of maps and sites, art and history, local customs and practical information, there is much more complete and timely information available online. Many guidebook authors are not based in the countries they are covering, and much of the information (especially regarding lodging, restaurants, and hours of museums and monuments) goes quickly out of date.
That said, I adore the Umbria guide published by Cadogan Guides. Adore. I have never met prolific travel writers Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, but when I do I will either take them to dinner or marry them. They did live in Umbria for a few years, and their knowledge of and affection for this region permeates every page of their instructive, engaging, and light-hearted writing. This is the guide you want.
The Umbria guide that puts the others to shame.
There are also a couple of niche printed guides that I like:
For walks and hikes in the region, I mention a few possibilities here.
For driving itineraries, Sunflower Book’s Umbria and the Marche by Georg Henke or Frommer’s 25 Great Drives in Tuscany and Umbria can do in a pinch (though I think you can get the same itineraries and maps with a little online diligence).
For the foodies out there, Christine Smallwood’s An Appetite for Umbria: The People, the Places, the Food is a feast for the eyes, soul, and palate.
Restaurant recs, luscious pictures, mouthwatering recipes. A keepsake.
Unfortunately, the latest edition from 2006 has begun to show its age. Rather than as a guide in the strict sense, I suggest using this as more of a coffee table book to remember your visit to Umbria (and to duplicate the cuisine at home, as there are recipes!).
Best Official Websites for Umbria
There are times when I am painfully reminded that Umbria is not Tuscany (aka the Italian poster child of successful web marketing), and one of these times is when I am searching for information from the official government tourist agency websites, which are generally a) awful b) ugly c) poorly organized d) rarely updated and e) badly translated (if at all). Okay, let’s just go with a) awful. That said, there are a few out there that are worth a look:
I like the official regional website primarily for the downloadable maps and proposed itineraries.
For some information on the regional cuisine, you can take a look here.
A jaw-droppingly complete and engaging website for biking in Umbria is here.
For planning a winery visit, La Strada del Sagrantino association offers an informative and well organized website.
Wineries, oil mills, local artisans, and foodie events are all here.
The Park Service can’t manage to provide decent trail markers half the time, but their website is surprisingly chock full of information about the regional parks.
I love to get off the beaten path a bit, and a great place to start is with the Most Beautiful Villages of Italy site.
For biking around Umbria, check out Bike in Umbria. Walkers and hikers can find information instead at Via di Francesco.
One of my favorite sites for pure quirky pleasure is the Strada dell’Olio DOP Umbria. Great information for visiting oil mills in Umbria, but also check out their Unusual Sites, Local Personalities, and Wanderings pages.
Best Personal Websites and Blogs for Umbria
I can’t speak highly enough of Bill Thayer’s Website. Bill is a lovely curmudgeon (and I say that with much affection…I wouldn’t have it any other way) who has walked about 2,000 km all over Umbria, taking detailed photos and notes. His site isn’t flashy and his delivery can be dry, but there is simply no more complete online resource for Umbria than his juggernaut of a website.
I also love:
Life…Italian Style – American chef and Umbrian resident Jennifer tells of life and food in this region.
Discovering Umbria – Alessandra organizes wine and food holidays and customized tours in Umbria…and writes a wonderful Umbria blog.
Villa in Umbria – A lovely blog with some gorgeous photography.
For foodies, you can’t go wrong with local cooking class instructor. Again, Jennifer’s cooking (with a little Life in Umbria thrown in) blog at Life…Italian Style, Deborah’s Italian Food Forever and Simona’s Sagra in Casa are allo winners.
Best Travel Forums for Umbria
I have been, over the years, either a lurker or an active participant in every major travel forum out there. Only one, however, have I stayed true to over the years for the pure quality and scope of information, friendly vibe, and sense of community. Slowtalk (the forum for the Slow Travel website) is where it’s at. I have never seen a question go unanswered there (use the search function before posting, though…chances are your query has already been discussed!).
Best Local Resources for Umbria
Umbria still uses the anacronistic posters plastered along roadsides and on billboards, which is a good way to get an overview of what’s going on while you are in the region (many have the website address for the event at the bottom, for more information). One of the best resources for current festivals and events is the monthly VivaPerugia magazine, which you can buy at newspaper stands for €.80 They list cultural, music, and art events, restaurants, food festivals, courses, children’s activities, and some practical information (the location of pharmacies, gas stations, and a train schedule). The magazine is in Italian, but the listings are easy to decipher even if you don’t speak the language.
The pocket-size monthly Viva Perugia
Each town also has a local tourist office, which—at best—provides up-to-date event information, maps and brochures for local sights, and logistical travel information. At worst, it provides a life lesson in surly government employees. It can go either way.
I was very happy to contribute a nuts-n-bolts “how to” article for planning a trip in Umbria for Pauline Kenny at Slow Europe.
If you are thinking about your next visit, you can get some tips here!
I was thrilled to be able to contribute to the wonderful Ciao Bambino! website, a great resource for family-friendly travel, this week.
Take a look here to see my five suggestions for making your family’s trip to Umbria fun for the kids and grown-ups alike!
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.
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.
The good news about walking and hiking in Umbria is that even if you get lost, you are bound to have such breathtakingly beautiful scenery to distract you that it won’t matter that much.
Who cares about the map when you are looking at this?
The bad news about walking and hiking in Umbria is that it is damned easy to get lost.
Some Guidelines for Walking and Hiking in Umbria
Umbria is a fabulous area to explore by foot, yet at the same time can sometimes be not that hiker-friendly. The region has been late to the game in organizing well marked-trails and accessible information regarding itineraries and routes, which is a shame since the undulating landscape, tiny stone hilltop hamlets, and abandoned country churches and fortresses lend themselves to some remarkable hikes.
Here is some general logistical information for walkers interested in discovering this captivating region. For specific hikes, please refer back to the Walking and Hiking in Umbria blog category, where I will be reproducing some itineraries and adding some of my own.
Guides for Walking and Hiking in Umbria
The offerings in English for printed guides discussing itineraries in Umbria are disappointing. Probably the best to date is Walking and Eating in Tuscany and Umbria by Lasdun and Davis, which has 26 walks in Tuscany and…um…a whopping 3 in Umbria. That said, the three they do list for Umbria are all pretty walks with clear information and recommendations for local restaurants.
Walking and Eating in Tuscany and, oh, right, Umbria
A second choice is Sunflower Book’s Umbria and the Marche (Landscapes) by Georg Henke. With its 8 driving itineraries, 37 walks, and two regions, this guide is kind of all over the place. It does, however, focus on the Valnerina and Monti Sibillini–two of the most breathtaking areas in Umbria if not all of Italy– and contains large-scale (1:50,000) topo walking maps and transport timetables for all the walks. Sunflower offers a free on-line update service.
Sunflower Books took a stab at it…but why can no one manage to publish a mono-regional guide?!?
There is also a more local–though exhaustive–printed guide which follows a medieval trail through the olive groves between Spoleto and Assisi with English text, maps, and photos: The Olive Grove Path (Il Sentiero degli Ulivi) by Enzo Cori and Fabrizio Cicio.
Alternatively, I can’t speak highly enough of Bill Thayer’s Website. Bill has walked about 2,000 km all over Umbria during his numerous travels here, and has documented his walks with diary entries and photos. In my opinion, there is no better resource for walking in Umbria than his juggernaut of a website.
In Italian, there are two very good walking guides:
A Piedi in Umbria by Stefano Ardito has over 100 itineraries and covers the region well. Unfortunately, the guide is very text-heavy with few maps and no photos, so your Italian has to be pretty good to get any use out of it.
Lots of info, but hard to follow if your Italian isn’t up to snuff.
L’Umbria per Strade e Sentieri by Giuseppe Bambini, on the other hand, is chock full of maps, photos, and easily decipherable bullet lists for each walk–even if your Italian is shaky it’s a great resource. The routes described are largely loops, so you can drive to your starting point, follow the walk, and end up back at your car. If this sounds too good to be true, it is. The guide was printed by a small local press, Editrice Minerva Assisi, and is almost impossible to find outside of the Zubboli bookshop in the main piazza in Assisi.
Charts, maps, graphics and simple language…even if your Italian isn’t fluent this can be helpful
Maps for Walking and Hiking in Umbria
Trail markings in Umbria are maintained by a sketchily organized conglomerate of volunteer groups, like the Italian Alpine Club, and local government agencies so tend to be spotty, at best. A good map is essential.
The two series of trail maps I like best are the Kompass maps (1:50,000 scale) and the C.A.I or Club Alpino Italiano maps (1:25,000 scale), which show trails, unpaved and paved roads. Both of these are readily available at bookstores or larger souvenir shops which carry guidebooks in Italy.
Walking and Hiking Trails in Umbria
Trail markings in Italy look like this:
Or, if you’re really lucky, this:
So, generally, two red stripes with a white stripe in the middle and the trail number. Painted on anything.
Trails in Italy look like this:
Or, if you’re really lucky, this:
As I said, chances are you are going to get lost at least once during your hike, so try to be philosophical about it. Remember, a truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery while on a detour. (Or at least not bicker with whomever was in charge of the map.)
Three quick cautionary words before you head off. Hunting is a popular and widely practiced sport in Umbria, so be aware when hiking in hunting season (September through January) and outside of the regional and national parks, where hunting is prohibited. Umbria is also home to quite a few sheep, and their guard dogs can be aggressive while on the clock–give them a wide berth. Finally, be careful walking through high grass or climbing loose rocks…there are vipers in the area which generally flee at the sound of approaching humans but are not too pleased to be accidentally tread upon.
I feel I am uniquely qualified to research and write an article about shopping in Assisi for two reasons:
- I absolutely abhor shopping.
- I only rarely go into the center of town.
Given these two details, is has to be something really special to lure me into a store in town, but luckily Assisi is full of lovely, offbeat little boutiques unique enough to tempt even the avid non-shopper.
Unfortunately, average run-of-the-mill souvenir hawkers specializing in what we affectionately call in our family “shitky-ditky” are both more numerous and more prominent near the monuments and churches, so at first glance it’s easy to miss my favorite specialty shops. If you are looking for pressboard crosses, friar salt and pepper shakers, or plastic replica medieval weapons, read no further…you can find all that without my help. But if you have your heart set on bringing something home to remember Assisi by which you won’t be able to find anyplace else on earth, you’ve come to the right place.
Food and Wine
Il Baccanale, Via del Comune Vecchio 2
I love this wine and gourmet shop….Luana (proprietor and friend) has a wonderful selection of both Umbrian and other Italian wines. She also stocks high end chocolate and coffee, top quality olive oil and pasta, and a whole range of jams, sauces, and condiments. She can help you with your selections and make up a gift basket to bring home with you.
Il Baccanale di Assisi
Farmer Shop, Via San Francesco 4a
This great mix between rustic stone vaulted space and minimalist design furnishing sells products from a local agricultural consortium…heirloom legumes, wild boar salami, hearty aged sheep cheese…but their big seller is their organic, unfiltered, unpasteurised, bottle refermented beers from the San Biagio estate…you can sample before you buy!
Farmershop Assisi's beer
Farmershop Assisi's Cheese
Alice Laboratorio Artistico, Via San Francesco 8I
I can’t talk up the kids’ t-shirts Alice hand-paints enough…sunflowers, doggies, dinosaurs, poppies, whimsical scenes of Assisi. If you give her a couple of days (and she’s not too busy), she’ll even personalize the back with your choice of name painted in a rainbow of colors. A one-of-a-kind gift.
One of Alice's hand-painted t-shirts
My favorite tee that Alice makes
Franchi, Via Portica 15A
This shop is bursting with wooden toys and decorations…Pinocchio in all sizes and colors, mobiles, wall clocks, rocking horses. Toys from another era yet somehow ageless.
Alice Laboratorio Artistico, Via San Francesco 8I
Aside from her handpainted tshirts, Alice has jewelry, photo albums, paintings and prints. All in her lovely, whimsical style.
A sample of Alice's charming wares
Claudio Carli Studio, Via San Rufino
Claudio Carli is a well-known local artist who works in both watercolor and oil…primarily scenes of Assisi and Umbria. I love his work (we have some hanging in our house) and even if you are not in the market for a work of art, I suggest you stop by his gallery and take a look.
An example of Claudio Carli's work
Artestampa, Via S Francesco, 10c
Handmade woodcut prints of the monuments and backstreets of Assisi. Much more charming than the ubiquitous posters.
This antique shop has mostly big ticket furniture and art, but there are a few small, packable (or shippable) items which are fabulous…primarily their antique prints and majolica tiles. Claudio, the proprietor, is affable and knowledgeable, and the space is chock full of beautiful, unique pieces.
A tragically hip gathering of local contemporary art—if you are looking for something beautifully offbeat, or perhaps offbeatly beautiful, stop in here and have a chat with Francesco, the loquacious and charming gallery curator.
Detail of a painting shown in Minigallery, Assisi
Assisi has two wonderful jewelry designers with shops: Artigianato del Gioiello on Via San Francesco and Il Forziere on Via San Gabrielle dell’Addolorata. They both make lovely gold and silver pieces worked around precious and semi-precious stones, and also sell commercial lines (though I like their own work better). If you would like something uniquely “Assisan” to remember your visit, consider a gold tau—symbol of redemption much loved by Saint Francis.
L'Artigianato del Gioiello, Assisi
Fashion and accessories
I Colori del Tempo, Via Portica 6/b
A tiny boutique is crammed with scarves, purses, hats, jewelry, and some clothes. Most of their stock is in silk, wool, or cotton and in lovely hues and eye-catching prints.
Il Tapiro, Via San Francesco
This leather workshop has hand-made purses, wallets, belts, and jackets…the shop is owned by Mauro, who is passionate about his products and will treat you right. Florence is the place to go for leather, but if you’re not going to make it there, this boutique is runs a close second place for price and quality.
Paper and Books
Zubboli, Piazza del Comune
One of my favorite stores in Assisi, for both the beautiful antique wooden and glass show cases and the leather-bound wares in them. This shop has gorgeous hand-bound photo albums and journals, florentine printed notepaper, fountain pens, and hard-to-find books about Assisi and Umbria.
Outside of town
Terra Umbra, Via Patrono d’Italia 10, Santa Maria degli Angeli
A wonderful gourmet shop for Umbrian specialties….cheese, cold cuts and cured pork, truffles, and olive oil.
Duda Dida, Via de Gasperi 9, Bastia Umbra
This is an amazing toy store…fabulous european educational toys, dolls and stuffed animals, science and art projects. Definitely worth the stop in an otherwise unexceptional town, or a perusal of the website for online shopping.
Duda Dida, Assisi
Margiò, Via Los Angeles 57, Santa Maria degli Angeli
A wonderful fresh pasta shop where you can get tagliatelle, cappelletti (with meat filling) and a number of different types of ravioli filled with the traditional spinach and ricotta to the more exotic truffle and sheep cheese made fresh daily.
Broccatelli or Brufani, Via Los Angeles 33 or 35, Santa Maria degli Angeli
These two cheese shops (oddly right next door to each other) have fabulous fresh local cheese, both cow and sheep.
If you really want to see how the Italians in rural Italy live, your best bet is to head to the nearest sagra.