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A green tapestry, unfurled
Umbria, land-locked and lovely, is an emerald gem in the center of Italy. Its gentle, rolling hills are crowned with medieval towns whose isolation has helped to protect its ancient traditions from outside influences. With hearty, rural cuisine exalting fresh, seasonal produce, cured meats and premier truffles, gourmands can really dig into the dishes that have defined the region for centuries. And for the sweet-toothed, a chocolate tour in Perugia is a “must.” Umbria also offers quietude to those who come to visit its UNESCO recognized duomo in Orvieto and the holy sites of Assisi where Saint Francis once lived and served. Walks in nature, through the seemingly water-colored landscapes of the Norcia Valley or around the heart-shaped Lake Trasimeno, provide the opportunity to explore the simple, serene beauty of Italy’s core.
The layered history of former times is often found under the sun-baked soil of the Italian earth. One of the more recent discoveries in Italy unveiled just such a place when the Underground City of Narni was stumbled upon in 1979. Tour a series of subterranean buildings that date back to the Inquistion, including a convent with marvelous frescoes, a dark passageway that leads to a Roman cistern, another passage to a tribunal and then a cell. The ancient “graffiti,” most likely detailing the pain of those held within as they awaited trail, has yet to be decoded. This lesser known area is fascinating to see and you can be one of the few who have the opportunity to visit it.
Orvieto is a lovely, medieval city built upon a plateau of tuff stone. Few know that the city is actually much older and even more interesting than it appears: just below its surface an ancient city lays, hiding the grottos, caves, staircases and serpentine pathways the Etruscans lived in. Deep wells, cisterns and burial sites were carved into the malleable walls and floors. A row of pigeonries also reveal the fact that the bird was once an integral part of the diet for the ancient population that called the area home.
In 1527 the Pozzo San Patrizio was bored 62 meters deep into the tuff at the order of Pope Clement VII. Its purpose was to provide the city with drinking water and protection in advent of siege. The well is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, with a 16 story shaft that includes two helicoidal staircases that join at the bottom of the well. 70 windows allow for views of the structure as you descend into the eerie and astonishing “Purgatory.”
Underneath an apparently normal restaurant in Orvieto lies an impressive ancient labyrinth. As visitors descend into the rooms, five thousand years of history become illuminated in the torchlight. The area carved into the tuff stone served various purposes over time, first as living quarters, then as storage, a hiding place and a meeting point. When the rooms fell into disuse, they were forgotten and almost lost to time. Then, one day in the 1970s, while endeavoring a project to enlargen their confectionary, the owners rediscovered the vaults. The entrance is still located in the middle of the small restaurant, where visitors can stop to eat before or after the tour.
St. Francis chose Greccio for the sight of the first living nativity scene in 1223. With the aim of discouraging pilgrims from going to Bethlehem, which was risky at that time since it was under Turkish control, the secluded town surrounded by oak forests offered the perfect haven for the spiritual endeavor. The area had always been a safe place. It was settled by the Greeks (the town’s name, “Greccio” derives from the word for “Greek”) as a colony for the refugees fleeing war in their homeland. Today a monastery stands where the first re-enactment took place.
Visit medieval Todi, a hilltop town with views over the Tiber Valley and its river. Originally settled by the Umbri people in the 8th century B.C., it was called first called “Tutere” (“Border”), as its represented the frontier between the Umbri people and the Etruscans. Its position made it easily defensible and a series of walls were added over time to serve as further protection from invaders. Now three walls encircle Todi, built during the various stages of the town’s historical progression. The oldest standing helped to fend off Hannibal. Inside the city the rectangular main square, Piazza del Popolo, encompasses the major sites: the cathedral, a monastery and three palatial buildings (one of which is now an art gallery and museum). Beneath the piazza there is an ancient underground city of over five kilometers of tunnels, 30 cisterns and 500 wells. It is possible to tour the subterranean system and learn more about the geomorphological features that the Romans used to their advantage in controlling the water for their inhabitants. Todi’s serene beauty on its surface – and the secrets just below it – make for a memorable tour.
This excursion can easily combined with: with a tour of Orvieto.
With an old town hardly changed since the Middle Ages, a stroll through Perugia can feel like stepping into a fairy tale. With cobblestones, towers and squares guarded by griffins, a visit to the center of Perugia begins at the Roca Paolina entrance gate, which immediately gives visitors a sense of the fascinating history of the city. The partially destroyed gate is a medieval maze of passageways and chambers, as it was once a fortress Pope Paul III ordered to have built in 1540. Paul III ruled the papal state of Perugia, though the aristocratic families pushed back. When the Pope levied a tax on the elite for salt, thereby shattering accords, they rebelled and the “Salt War” ensued. The uprising was quelled when the Pope defeated the rich by leveling the Baglioni family’s neighbourhood, building fortress Roca Paolina in its stead. The structure remained intact until Italy was unified in 1871 and the people tore parts of it down in an attempt to remove the symbol of oppression. Locals and visitors still pass through the gate on their way in and out of the city and the names of those involved can be spotted on the streets that now carry their names.
This excursion can easily combined with: a tour of Assisi or a visit to a chocolate factory.
The city of Città del Castello offers the possibility to taste truffles – or for the more adventurous, hunt for them! – and see some of the Umbria’s most important paintings and artwork. The Pinacoteca Comunale is a museum enveloped in a Renaissance palace. Complete with geometric gardens, in the Italian Garden style, Città del Castello is a fabulous destination for food and art enthusiasts.
On the surface Gubbio appears to be another lovely Umbrian town featuring a mostly medieval aesthetic. But its history goes back much further – far beyond its inhabitation by a Bronze Age population – to an exposed layer marking the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary from 66 million years ago. The rare heavy metal sediment found in a road cut just outside of Gubbio reveals the story of how a gigantic meteor shattered upon its impact with the Earth. The magnitude of the event would have devastated the climate; the moment represented in the extraterrestrial debris is thought to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Most meandering their way through Gubbio’s active weekly market and lovely squares are unaware that they are treading on phenomenal ground.
The serene city of Assisi is not only home to a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Pilgrims have been drawn to it for centuries to visit its numerous sites of historic and spiritual importance as the birthplace of the Franciscan order. Most noted are both the Basilica di San Francesco and the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli with its Porziuncola – the church within the church that Saint Francis dedicated much of his life and energy to. The Eremo delle Carceri monastery tucked into the nearby forest offers visitors the opportunity to understand more about the history of the Patron Saint of Animals, who communed with the birds there. Multiple other saints were born in Assisi and the sites dedicated to them are interwoven in the city center.
This excursion can easily combined with: a tour of Perugia.
Spoleto is a cultural hub as the small town has two indoor theaters, a Roman amphitheater and numerous churches. With frequent festivals throughout the year, Spoleto is a great destination for those looking for art and music in a breathtaking setting. The Roman influence is still visible, with the first century B.C. Ponte Sanguina bridge visible in the center and the Forum under the current marketplace. It is quickly connected to Rome by road or rail, making a trip to the ancient city easily doable.
This excursion can easily combined with: Marmore Falls.
Orvieto’s location is unique - atop a steep rocky plateau amidst vineyards and olive groves. The small city’s skyline impresses even on the approach to it. The silhouette of the cathedral dominates the image, which is appropriate since it has also played an integral part in Orvieto’s development as a city on the Via Francigena road connecting northern Europe to the Vatican. The imposing structure of the 14th-century cathedral includes glittering golden mosaics, bas-relief panels on the piers that depict biblical stories, a rose window, three bronze doors, five bells and a breath-taking frescoed interior. The characteristic black and white striped rows both inside and outside of the church is a style that is echoed in other churches throughout Italy. For centuries pilgrims have passed through the city on their way to Rome, admiring the cathedral and St. Patrick’s Well. Visitors now enjoy exploring the underground millenary city, which was dug into the tuff rock, used for hundreds of years by various populations and then forgotten until its discovery by a spelunker in the 1970s. Visitors are always fascinated by the multi-layered and multi-faceted history of Orvieto.
This excursion can easily combined with: a walking tour of Todi or a visit to its underground city.
The heart-shaped Lake Trasimeno is surrounded by rolling hills scattered with villages and vineyards. The sizeable lake has three islands, which make for fun boat trips that can also be done at night. The lake was originally a shallow sea, settled by the Etruscans. Three of the main Etruscan sites - Perugia, Chiusi and Cortona – are all located within 20 kilometers of its shores. Lake Trasimeno earned fame in 217 BC when Hannibal beat the Roman consul Caius Flaminus there. Now the lake is enjoyed for its great fishing and hiking. For groups on a longer commute to or from Tuscany, a short walk around the area is a nice way to take a break in the fresh air and stretch the legs a bit.
Marmore Waterfall demonstrates the totality of the Roman command: capable of manipulating Mother Nature, Consul Manius Curius Dentatus diverted stagnant waters away from Rieti in 271 B.C. in an attempt to remove the threat of malaria to the city. Creating a canal that led to the cliff, the consul united the Velino and Nera Rivers by driving the former to leap 165 meters through the air and onto the latter below. He thereby created the highest waterfall in Europe, a site that has inspired visitors, nobles, pilgrims on their way to Rome, intellectuals and writers. Virgil and Cicero described the falls in their work.
A visit to the waterfalls can easily be combined with: a tour of Spoleto.
Every child’s dream is to walk through the walls of the Wonka Chocolate Factory. A tour at a chocolate producer in Perugia may not provide the chance of winning a golden ticket, but it does let you try a silver wrapped bite-sized chocolate with a hazelnut center. And, because it’s Italy, there is even a little love note written on a slip of paper inside. Perugina is the most famous brand with headquarters in the city, but also other, smaller chocolate makers abound in the area. Whether you tour a chocolate factory or an artisanal producer, the experience will make for one sweet memory!
Search among the dewy grass and smell the earth as you try your hand at truffle hunting. Accompanied by trained dogs and experts, look for the gems tucked in the forests of Umbria. Each season offers a different variety, so it’s possible to try this experience all year round. Following the hunt enjoy a tasting and an explanation of how to use truffles to create myriad local dishes.
From a long tradition of hunting wild boar in the Appenines, the community of Norcia has become synonymous with quality cured meat. Known for its salami and sausages, butcher shops across Italy have borrowed its name, being called “norcineria”, though they may be far from it. In Norcia many producers open their farms, factories and shops to groups for visits and tastings. A few are even working to bring back a nearly-lost breed of native pig to preserve the animal and the exceptional flavors it lent to pork dishes. This suino nero cighiato is easily identifiable for its black body and wide, single stripe across its back. It is so intertwined with the history of the area that ancient images of it have been found, depicting the creature alongside saints in sacred art. A visit to a norcineria is a delicious way to understand more about the Umbria region.
Tulips and tulip festivals immediately bring images of Holland to mind, but an Italian area also celebrates the flower. Castiglione del Lago is a picturesque town on Lake Trasimeno and since 1956 it has organized the “Festa del Tulipano.” The center is festooned with the flower as residents compete to create the most beautiful decorations on their windows and balconies. With an array of events, concerts, folk dances, street theater in historic costumes and a colourful parade of floats to conclude the festival, the four day extravaganza is great for people of all ages.
At the Mercato delle Gaite event in Bevagna visitors literally step back in time to experience what life was like there during the Middle Ages. For 10 days in June the streets and squares of the little village are transformed into a medieval scene, complete with historic reenactments, street decorations and old-fashioned culinary offerings. Small workshops portraying how blacksmiths, spinners, candle makers and dyers worked are an intriguing way to understand what life was like in the past.
Medieval Crossbow Competition
Signoria Square has been transformed into a medieval crossbow competition every May since 1461. Originally meant as a way for competing arms makers in Gubbio and Sansepolcro to test their equipment, the trials are now a full-day event that kicks off with a flag throwing performance, followed by a show of historic costumes and many other festivities to entertain locals and guests until the late evening. At night fall the streets are illuminated by torchlight.
The Procession of Corpus Domini in Orvieto is a celebration of the Eurcharistic miracle that took place in the neighboring town of Bolsena in 1263. It is believed that Priest Peter from Prague had some doubts regarding the transformation of the Communion bread and wine into the true body of Christ; as he was giving Communion to his congregation, blood started gushing from the bread. The miracle was commemorated by the construction of the Duomo built in Orvieto in 1290 and for nearly 700 years a special mass has been celebrated, followed by a parade with over 400 performers dressed in medieval costumes. As the relics are transported from Bolsena to Orvieto every year for the event, the towns in between have paid homage to the Corpus Christi by sprinkling flower petals on their streets. This tradition has led the towns of Spello and San Gemini to adorn their streets in floral masterpieces on the days around the celebration.
The oldest city in Umbria revels in its medieval traditions, the highlight of which is the epic candle race held every May 15 on the anniversary of its patron Saint Ubaldo’s death. During the Corsa dei Ceri three enormous wooden candles – each sixteen feet tall and weighing four tons – are hauled up Mount Ingino to the saint’s tomb as a way of showing gratitude for the protection he gave to the city during hard times. The event is organized as a relay race and is divided into three teams: one wearing yellow to represent Saint Ubaldo and the masons; another dressed in blue for Saint George, protector of the merchants; and black for Saint Anthony and the farm workers. The candles are decorated accordingly and the ceraioli (the candle carriers) wear their colors in traditional costumes. The winner is decided by the community, as skill level and not speed is assessed. The unique event has been celebrated since the twelfth century. When, due to war and other disruptions, men were unable to participate, women took their place.
The Infiorata in the town of Spello is a delight to see. On the weekend of Corpus Christi its residents decorate their streets with thousands of flower petals. Arranged to make pictures, the resulting masterpieces form a tapestry in celebration of the Corpus Domini Procession, which passes through the area on its way to the church. Mass, markets and expositions are also a part of the weekend.
Since 1993 chocolate lovers have united in Perugia to celebrate the ingredient in all its delicious forms. Every October the city is transformed into a cocoa mecca with tasting stands, show cooking events, chocolate sculpture exhibitions and other sweet events for people of all ages. With more than one million visitors each year, Eurochocolate is one of the most important touristic, cultural and culinary events in Italy.
Saint Rita, recognized as both the Patroness of Impossible Causes and as the Saint of Abused or Heartbroken Women, is remembered every year in the city of Cascia, where she died in 1457. Exemplifying the Christian ideal of being a model wife and mother, she was able to dissuade her husband from his abusive behavior. Following his murder after 18 years of marriage, she transmitted her values to her sons, stopping them from seeking revenge on the man responsible for the death. For ten days every May the town of Cascia celebrates the saint’s life. The highlight of the event is on May 21 when an awards ceremony for women chosen for their contributions to communities world wide unveils the year’s winners. In the evening, a sea of lights known as the “Incendio di fede” fills the town and its streets with a warm glow of hundreds of candles. The next day includes a procession of women, dressed to emulate the saint. The event closes with a blessing of the rose, which symbolizes an important moment in Saint Rita’s life.
Festival of Two Worlds
The Festival of Two Worlds was founded in 1958 in Spoleto. The small town with a couple of indoor theatres and a Roman amphitheatre was chosen as a venue for a three week music, theatre and dance festival for its ideal location, which is well-connected to Rome. The event has blossomed into an important cultural event held every summer. Artists have given sculptures to the city, creating permanent installations for the city of art.
Take a bus tour around heart-shaped Lake Trasimeno. The lake was once at the core of Etruscan development, as its three main cities fall within twenty kilometers of its shores. Begin in Castiglione del Lago, a fascinating historical area with a divided old town on a promontory. The eastern part has the Ducal Palace and the fortress. The western side, which is the residential section, revolves around the number three: three gates to the city, three squares and a tower with only three sides. After some time to look around continue on to Panicale, located to the south of the lake. The medieval town awards more fantastic views of the area, from a different perspective. From there groups can decide whether they would like to do a boat trip to visit the lake’s islands. Maggiore Island has a small, sleepy fishing village, a castle and a church. Isola Polvese, the largest of the islands, is a scientific-didactic park that includes a trail, an aquatic plant garden, and ruins of a monastery.
Travel to Chiusi, one of the most important Etruscan capitals (in the league of twelve dodecapoli) from the seventh to the fifth century B.C. Visit its Cathedral Museum, which has a great collection of representative objects from the paleo-Christian, medieval and Renaissance periods. The ivory and wooden coffins display excellent craftsmanship from the time. Under the church lays the Porsenna Labyrinth, 130 meters of tunnels believed to be the King Porsenna Mausoleum described in Plinius the Elder’s legend. As you enter the ancient, underground world you can work your way through the dense system of tunnels that lead to a series of wells and cisterns, search amongst the maze for the legendary treasure in the tomb of King Porsenna. It has never been found. The tour ends at the tower, which was a defensive tower that got converted into a bell tower. The next stop is in Città della Pieve. It is a small city encircled by twelfth century walls. Many different architectural styles from the Romanesque to Neoclassic can be found. The highlight of the town is its Via Baciadonne street – the narrowest in Italy.
Three mountain towns make for a great day excursion in Umbria. Start in Spello, a medieval town that appears to spill over its position on a ridge with jaw-dropping views of the extensive plains. As you stroll into the walled city you will see its Roman gates and the phantasmagoric frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Then on to the second town, Montefalco, which is just 20 minutes away. The town is best known for its Church of San Francesco, which features an impressive fresco cycle of the saint’s life. The church is now one of the most important museums in Umbria. The final town, Bevagna, is 10 minutes away. Roman ruins can be seen as you walk through the historic center. An olive oil mill is ready to welcome those desiring to taste the fruit that once fueled the economy of the ancient empire.