Midway between Florence and Rome is the grand hill town of Orvieto, which sits majestically 1,000 feet above the valley floor on a large butte of tufo, a sandy, volcanic rock. It is home to one of the great masterpieces of Italian art, the Duomo di Orvieto. It took centuries to build and its ornate, polychromic, gothic facade is breath taking, especially at midday when it basks in the full glory of sunlight. Nearby is the Tempio Belvedere, Italy’s only remaining above-ground Etruscan temple; and the Pozzo di San Patrizio, a deep well topped by a spectacular two-story house built in the 16th century and featuring a double spiral staircase leading to the water source. Orvieto is also known for its Classico white wine and colourful ceramics.
In central Umbria lies Perugia, the region’s capital. This picturesque Etruscan town has kept its medieval look. It is dominated by Italy’s largest fortress, the Rocca Paolina. Perugia’s main square is Piazza IV Novembre with the Fontana Maggiore in its center, a large fountain covered with bas-relief sculptures. The art museum, La Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, is filled with wonderful works by Italian artists. Nearby, the unassuming church of Sant’Angelo and the monastery of Sant’Agnese invite visitors to meditate. Perugia is home to Universita per Stranieri, attended by students from around the world who learn Italian as a foreign language. Perugia is also the chocolate capital of Italy and home to the world famous chocolatier Perugina – creators of the Baci Perugina chocolates. Every October, Perugia hosts the Euro Chocolate Festival that features everything from theatre and music performances to cooking demonstrations and chocolate art exhibits. Perugia is also host to one of the most important jazz festivals in the world – the Umbria Jazz Festival – held annually since 1973.
In the northeast corner of Umbria lies the charming hill town of Gubbio. It is one of the region’s most ancient towns, dating back to the pre-Roman era. Its town center is a mix of medieval, gothic and Renaissance buildings made from grey limestone. Together, they seem to be marching up the steep slopes of its heavily wooded hill. At its base is a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre that is still used for summer performances. The 13th-century church of San Francesco showcases wonderful frescoes and a serene little cloister with remains of Roman mosaics. The most visible landmark of Gubbio is the tower of Palazzo dei Consoli, one of the most beautiful medieval public buildings in Italy.
Lesser known, but equally as charming, is Spello, a picturesque town and a pleasure for those who love walking. Three well-preserved Roman stone arches form the entry points to the town, Porta Venere, with its towers, Porta Urbica and Porta Consolare. Once inside, the cobblestone streets meander, leading to simple, yet elegant stone houses. For the art lover, Spello is well known for its wonderful frescoes by Pinturicchio, which can be found in the 12th century church of Santa Maria Maggiore. For food enthusiasts, on the third Sunday of February, the town celebrates an olive and bruschetta festival during which local farmers parade on decorated tractors and delicious, local food abounds.
Just east of Perugia is Umbria’s most famous town, the enchanting Assisi, with its winding medieval streets and sacred shrines. It is crowned by the fairy-tale castle, Rocca Maggiore. This is the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi – patron saint of Italy, founder of the Franciscan order and one of the most popular saints in history. Assisi’s main attraction is the 13th-century Basilica di San Francesco, which contains his sacred relics and beautiful frescoes of his life painted by Giotto. There are several other churches well worth visiting for their beauty and connection with Francis and his friend St. Clare, like the Basilica di Santa Chiara and San Damiano. Clare was one of the first devout followers of St. Francis. Following her death, the order she founded was renamed in her honour as the Order of Saint Clare, commonly referred to today as the Povere Clarisse (Poor Clares).
Another hidden gem of Umbria is Norcia. It also delivers its share of impressive churches and museums. Norcia is the birthplace of St. Benedict, patron saint of Europe. However, most people come to this town for pork products in all their delicious forms – prosciutto crudo and cotto, salami, porchetta, and wild boar. Not surprisingly, meat shops specializing mainly in pork throughout Italy are known as Norcineria. Black truffles are also a hallmark of this area. So much so that starting at the end of February, Norcia is home to a world renowned agro-food exhibition – Nero Norcia – showcasing the prized black truffle. Anyone seeking a relaxing atmosphere and great Umbrian cuisine and hospitality will revel in a day or two in Norcia.
After spending time travelling through this beautiful and fascinating region, you will realize why American born writer Henry James called Umbria “the most beautiful garden in all the world.”
Written by David DeMarco