Exploring the green heart of Italy
And although it’s the only region in Italy without any coastline or international borders, Umbria’s reputation for being the “green heart of Italy” has certainly secured it a spot in the hearts of those who visit.
According to David Tordi, an Umbrian tour guide and co-owner at Teseotur and Orvietoviva, “Umbria is a perfect place for people who want to explore but also enjoy relaxing.” But this past August, Umbria’s quiet existence was shaken by the earthquake that rocked central Italy. While Umbria remained largely unscathed, the earthquake caused the deaths of nearly 300 people and injured countless more in the neighbouring regions of Lazio and Le Marche. “Those were moments of panic, where you do not know what do to and most of all you feel completely powerless,” Tordi says. “The whole community here was in shock for many days and daily life wasn’t functioning the right way.” Then, on October 30, the town of Norcia was hit by an earthquake that damaged the town hall and levelled the Basilica of St. Benedict, built atop the birthplace of the saint and father of monasticism.
“Although it’s a relatively small region made up of only two provinces,
the variety of foods, dialects and traditions is remarkable”
As Norcia heals and begins to rebuild, the region of Umbria stands as a shining example of perseverance and solidarity. And it remains, as proudly as ever, one of Italy’s less-travelled gems. Although it’s a relatively small region made up of only two provinces, the variety of foods, dialects and traditions is remarkable. “The Umbrians are also very proud of their heritage, which dates back way before the Roman times,” explains Tordi. From the initial civilizations of the Umbri – which date back to the second millennium BC and from which Umbria takes it name, to the Etruscans, and then the Romans – the history of Umbria is long and distinguished.
Putting his tour guide expertise to good use, Tordi points out that visitors travelling to the region in the spring should not miss the town of Castelluccio di Norcia. Each year from May to June, the town comes to life with thousands of flowers of different varieties. For history buffs, there’s the charming medieval town of Gubbio, known for its ceramics and its Corsa dei Ceri – a historic candle race through the streets.
Heading south, visit Perugia, the capital city of the region and home to two universities: the Università degli Studi di Perugia and the Università per Stranieri di Perugia. It’s also the birthplace of the iconic Baci Perugina chocolate. Next, follow the road to Assisi, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi. Visit the impressive Basilica Papale di San Francesco d’Assisi and admire the surrounding countryside from different viewpoints throughout the city. Orvieto, known for its white wine and Gothic-style Duomo, is another not-to-be-missed stop on any Umbrian itinerary. It also hosts the winter editions of the Umbria Jazz Festival and the Umbria Folk Festival.
Drinking in the scenery, devouring the sights and stopping in at a festival or two are all good ways to learn about the region, but in order to fully live an Umbrian experience, you must eat. “Italians in general firmly believe that eating well equals living well,” explains Tordi, and because of this, “Umbrians use an official festivity or event to have another wonderful party with incredible food and drinks.”
He cites Orvieto’s Corpus Domini celebration as an example of an initially religious festival whose focus expands to include music and cuisine. “If an Italian eats a bad meal,” says Tordi, “that would be a bad day for sure.” Thanks to its abundance of locally grown or produced grapes, olives, farro, cinghiale or tartufo, it would be hard to eat a bad meal in Umbria. For a real taste of local specialties, Tordi suggests sampling the region’s soups, rabbit and wild boar dishes, as well as the torta al testo, which he describes as a “special type of focaccia.” With so much on offer – history, art, nature, food, wine and cultural events – it’s no mystery why Umbria is an attractive destination for Italians and tourists alike.