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 http://soc.li/mlTYeqH

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.

– nzherald.co.nz

Italy: The stuff of dreams – Travel – NZ Herald News http://nzh.tw/10859502 via @nzherald

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