Umbria travel guide via @Telegraph

A few years ago, Umbria was known, if at all, as Tuscany’s less alluring sister. Not any more: these days Italy’s “green heart” is every bit as celebrated as its more famous neighbour. The reasons are simple: the region has all Tuscany’s attributes – and a few more.

True, it doesn’t have the big set pieces of Florence and Siena, but it does has a coronet of far more intimate and easily visited hill-towns – Perugia, Assisi, Orvieto, Gubbio, Todi, Spoleto and Norcia. Each has enough to keep you busy for a day or more, and none is more than a few miles from the next, making Umbria manageable and straightforward to explore.

When you’ve exhausted these towns there’s a second tier of charming and even more intimate smaller centres, such as Montefalco, Bevagna, Spello, Trevi, Narni, Bettona, Città di Castello, Città della Pieve and more.

There’s also the same glorious pastoral scenery as Tuscany – the olive groves, vineyards and cypress-topped hills – as well as high mountain landscapes such as the Monti Sibillini that are the superior of its neighbour’s own Monte Amiata or Alpi Apuane.

Umbria is also a region where the food, wine, art, culture and architecture are the equal of any in Italy. Norcia, with its truffles, hams and cheeses, for example, is a gastronomic centre par excellence; Orvieto’s duomo is one of the country’s finest cathedrals; Spoleto’s summer festival is one of Europe’s major cultural events; and Assisi’s majestic Basilica di San Francesco contains frescoes by Giotto and others that mark a turning point in the history of Western art.

Finally, there are qualities to Umbria beyond towns, truffles or cypresses. Umbria mistica – mystical Umbria – some have called it, or “la terra dei santi”, the land of saints, after the hundreds of saints born here, including St Valentine and the two fathers of Western monasticism, St Francis and St Benedict.

It’s hard to put your finger on what sets Umbria apart – some quality to the light, a haze to the hills, a certain gentleness to landscape – but once you’ve visited you’ll understand, and wonder how this varied and beautiful region ever languished in its neighbour’s shadow.

Umbria travel guide via @Telegraph

Umbria has all Tuscany’s attributes – and a few more

Umbria has all Tuscany’s attributes – and a few more

Italy: The stuff of dreams

As a young girl, I had vivid dreams of running through fields of wild flowers in slow-motion, dressed in creamy muslin with a floppy hat. Four decades later, I found those fields near a tiny Italian village in Umbria. Some of the details did not quite match up – I was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and cap – but it was a dreamy place, all the same.

High in the heart of Monti Sibillini National Park, we came upon a vast open plain, the Piano Grande, and the exquisite mountain village of Castelluccio perched atop a hill amid an ocean of wild flowers.

The peaceful scene was a balm to our bruised spirits after hot, hectic days in crowded cities and mayhem on Italian motorways.

We waded, slow-motion – of necessity – through knee-deep scarlet poppies, wild mustard and cornflowers marvelling at the riotous colours of “The Flowering”, an annual spectacle on the plain surrounding the village. An elderly, stooped man with a walking stick was harvesting wild flowers with a hand scythe.

We drove up to the village and apart from a few hardy trekkers, there were no other foreigners there – but as we wandered the steep streets and pathways of the little village, there were signs of ancient stone buildings, dating back hundreds of years, undergoing a stylish spruce-up to attract the tourist euro.

The view over the Piano Grande was breathtaking.

We watched a young shepherd usher a small flock of sheep and lambs, wearing name tags and bells, through the village and up to a green hillside pasture where he spent the afternoon in the shade of an umbrella.

Little shops were selling local delicacies – wine, sheep-cheese, salami, hams made from wild boar and the renowned Castelluccio lentils – to housewives in aprons and head scarves.

Postcards of the scene in winter showed a blanket of snow over the mountains, village and plain, and skiers on the small ski-field nearby. I imagined my dream transforming into a winter version and returning to this most beautiful place.

*Castelluccio is a village in Umbria, in the Monti Sibillini National Park, central Italy. The village, situated at 1452 metres, is the highest settlement in the Apennines and lies above the Great Plain (Piano Grande, 1270 metres).

The village dates from the 13th century or slightly earlier, but was also settled by the Romans.

The Piano Grande is renowned for the cultivation of lentils which are quite different from varieties elsewhere. The climate and soil of the high plain contributes to their thin skin and soft consistency, allowing them to be cooked without having to be soaked first.

The area is a favourite with hang-gliders and para-gliders and there are schools in the village that offer lessons and rentals on a seasonal basis. Skiing in the winter and tramping in the summer are popular activities.


Italy: The stuff of dreams – Travel – NZ Herald News via @nzherald

Ask Lonely Planet: Transport options in Italy

We are trying to decide whether to take the train from Rome to Assisi and then hire a car to visit the little hilltop towns, or is it wiser to take, say, a nine-day tour with a small group? Also, we are not sure if it is possible to get around these little towns in Umbria and Tuscany using trains and buses. We quite like using public transport as we don’t need to worry about driving on the right side, parking and so on. What would you suggest? – Pegs

Italy’s rail network is extensive and relatively cheap, with most services run by Trenitalia. The bus network is also good and often the only choice in mountainous areas such as Umbria. Conveniently, bus reservations are usually necessary only for high-season, long-haul trips.

Despite this, getting around Umbria and Tuscany on public transport requires some effort. Although services are regular between larger towns and cities such as Assisi, Perugia, Gubbio, Arezzo, Siena, Lucca and Florence, they thin out as they extend to small hilltop villages. As an example, the ancient town of Todi is serviced by an hourly bus service from Perugia, taking 90 minutes and costing around 6 ($9.44).

It can be done – it will just require good planning. Lonely Planet’s comprehensive Italy guidebook will help, of course.

The authors of this guide endorse your suggestion to rail or bus to a larger town, then hire a car to explore the countryside. They also, however, confirm that a car can prove a hindrance in the narrow streets of the hill towns, which can get congested. Another option is to embark on guided day-tours from key hubs (a wine tour by bicycle in Chianti, for example).

A package tour will certainly eliminate most of your travel hassles, as well as that of finding accommodation. It will probably be more expensive, of course, and provide less flexibility and the unknown variable of unfamiliar travelling companions. If you’re handy with guidebooks and timetables, online bookings, and map-reading, touring on your own wits may be much more rewarding.

My partner and I (mid-20s) are heading off to Europe for our OE and will be based in Scotland for a few months before, hopefully, backpacking around Southern Europe for around four months. Can you suggest an itinerary from France to Turkey visiting other countries along the way, and what is the best mode of transport getting from place to place? – Ross Neal

The following itinerary is an abridged combination of two provided in our popular Western Europe guidebook.

A logical first stop is Paris, from where you could set off on a large loop passing the must-see cities of Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna and Zurich. From Nice on the French Riviera you could venture either to Corsica and Sardinia, or follow the Mediterranean Coast southwest to St Tropez and Marseilles before reaching Barcelona and then Valencia in Spain: both are jumping off places for the Balearic Islands. Head south to a cluster of highlights – Granada, Cordoba and Seville. You could also visit Malaga and Gibraltar around these parts before heading to the lively Portuguese capital, Lisbon. Head back east overland, or fly to save time…

Ask Lonely Planet: Transport options in Italy – Travel – NZ Herald News via @nzherald

Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco and Other Franciscan Sites – UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Assisi represents a unique example of continuity of a city-sanctuary within its environmental setting from its Umbrian-Roman and medieval origins to the present, represented in the cultural landscape, the religious ensembles, systems of communication, and traditional land use. The Basilica of San Francesco is an outstanding example of a type of architectural ensemble that has significantly influenced the development of art and architecture. The interchange of artistic and spiritual message of the Franciscan Order has significantly contributed to developments in art and architecture in the world.


The city of Assisi is built on the slopes of the hill of Asio, at the foot of Subasio Mountain. The form of the urban settlement is elongated and extends from the south-east towards the north-west. The Roman plan of the city is based on the set of terraces.

The most important event in the history of medieval Assisi was undoubtedly the life and work of Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), who initiated the Franciscan Order and who was canonized in 1228. His companion, Clare, also later canonized, founded the sister order to the Franciscans. After the canonization of St Francis, it was decided to build a monumental church in his honour. This construction was followed by the Basilica of Santa Chiara to honour St Clare. The construction of the Basilica of San Francesco was started in 1228. The lower basilica is entered through an exquisite Gothic portal; the interior is completely covered with frescoes. The earliest of these date from 1253 and are by an unknown artist, the Maestro di San Francesco. Furthermore, the paintings include allegories attributed to Giotto and his school in the presbytery, the Virgin with a Child on the Throne by Cimabue, and the Crucifixion by Giotto, the paintings by Pietro Lorenzetti and his assistants, and the Chapel of St-Martin by Simone Martini. The upper basilica has a magnificent east front in white limestone, with a large rose window in the centre. In the interior, the walls are decorated with series of paintings relating to the faith and life of the saint.

The Cathedral of San Rufino probably dates from the 8th century; it was rebuilt by Bishop Ugone around 1036 as a cathedral. The west front is a masterpiece of Umbrian Romanesque architecture, connected with the cathedral and the church of San Pietro of Spoleto. The interior of the church was completely restructured by Galeazzo Alessi in 1571 in simple Renaissance forms. The construction of the basilica to honour St Clare started in 1257, under the direction of Fra’ Filippo da Campello. In the exterior the structure is characterized by three large flying buttresses, and close to the apse there is a square bell tower. The plan of the church is based on a Latin cross and the whole interior is painted with a cycle of frescoes illustrating the legend of St Clare by several artists. Originally built outside the city walls, the Benedictine abbey of San Pietro is recorded from 1029; in the mid-12th century it adopted the Cluny reform and it passed later to the Cistercians. The interior is austere, divided in three naves by massive pillars. The Roman temple, traditionally dedicated to Minerva, is relatively well preserved. It was first converted into a church and then, in 1212, into a prison. From 1456 the building was again used as a church, dedicated to Santa Maria della Minerva in 1539.

The Carceri are located in a valley of the Mount Subasio and consisted originally of a series of caves for St Francis and his companions. From the 15th to the early 19th centuries a small convent was gradually built on the site of the saint’s grotto. San Damiano is a monastic complex, essential for the understanding of the religious awakening of St Francis, as well as being the convent of St Clare, where she also died. Santa Maria degli Angeli is a Renaissance church designed by Galeazzo Alessi in the 16th century to protect the original chapel of Porziuncola, the site from where St Francis sent his order to their mission and the site where he died. The three surviving chapels contain important early paintings, and are carefully preserved as religious relics. The Sanctuary of Rivotorto contains a small medieval complex, preserved as a relic and relating to a site of Franciscan pilgrimage.


%d bloggers like this: