You can tell an Umbrian town by the steepness of the climb. The walls are in good condition and the gates date from Etruscan or Roman times. There’s usually a stunning piazza and the wide steps of a palazzo on which to enjoy a gelato before having a look inside the duomo. Until April, the weather is cold and the wind blowing down narrow streets is best confronted with a hat and scarf. Summer is mild compared to other parts of the peninsula and Umbrian hills are a cool alternative to baking on overcrowded beaches along the coast. Although it’s true you won’t find any of the patented Italian crowd pleasers in this landlocked region (no leaning towers or cities covered in ash), what you can discover is nearly as satisfying.
You don’t need a sign to know you’re entering Umbria, something just feels different. The colors are greener than they are in the south, the mountains are less imposing than they are in the north, and the sea is missing altogether. It is that lack of an outlet that has had the most impact on the region’s character. Umbria is a place where people talk less and say more with the words they do use. It’s the home of saints like San Francesco and San Benedetto, who turned their backs on the material preoccupations of the medieval church and focused their energy on peace and goodwill. Assisi is in many ways the spiritual capital of Christianity, lined with churches, monasteries, and convents that still very active today.
Baroque and ornate styles, however, never overshadowed the Romanesque evident in nearly every piazza in Umbria. Fortunately the region’s centrality did not lead to unwanted growth. With the exception of Perugia, urban sprawl is limited and destinations like Gubbio and Todi are pristine time capsules from the Middle Ages. A Renaissance man returning to Spoleto after a 500-year nap in the mountains above town would feel little culture shock. Only the clothing has changed, but even fashion turns back time during the many costumed festivals and events reenacting age-old rituals.
Umbria’s residents understand the importance of landscape, the products it yields, and the value these have for visitors. It’s no coincidence that markets selling local delicacies and specialty stores outnumber fast-food outlets; sustainable tourism has become a regional mantra. Environment matters more than anything else and Umbrians are determined to preserve it.
Although Umbria is made up of a northern and southern province, there is no natural dividing line between the two. The difference is in the higher population in the north and a tradition of ceramic and oil production centered around the towns of Deruta and Spello. Northern Umbria is earthquake territory and over 80 percent of the area is prone to regular seismic activities. The most recent quakes occurred in 1984, 1997, and 1998, when large parts of Assisi were destroyed. Lago di Trasimeno near Perugia constitutes the only major lake and is the fourth largest in Italy.
Southern Umbria has a desolate and wild landscape. The region’s only national park, Parco Nazionale Monti Sibillini, is located in the southwestern corner of the region on the border with Le Marche. Mountains reach 2,476 meters in height and it’s not uncommon to see wild boar and other small mammals a short distance outside of towns. They provide a convenient source of meat and frequently paired with truffles that are also found in the area. The high, rugged terrain near Norcia should be seen after the snow has melted and the mountain valleys begin to take on the colors of spring. This is the natural home of free climbing and rafting down the Nera and other local rivers. The hill towns of Orvieto, Todi, and Spoleto are nearly on the same latitude and located within 40 kilometers of each other so seeing a lot in a little time is possible in Umbria.
Umbria Jazz: Umbria isn’t the obvious choice for a jazz festival, but three decades after its creation, Umbria Jazz has gained a reputation for unforgettable live performances by the world’s best musicians.
Gubbio Cableway: The best six minutes in Umbria are spent on a cableway to the top of Monte Ingino. Keep your eyes on the stunning scenery and avoid looking down.
Basilica di San Francesco: The enormous frescoes Giotto painted along the walls of the Basilica di San Francesco are a visual testament to the saint’s life and more enlightening than any biography.
Bevagna: Most people don’t make it to this charming village, but it is well worth the trip, especially during Il Mercato delle Gaite, when the town undergoes a dramatic transformation to recreate the spirit of the Middle Ages.
Orvieto Underground: There’s just as much to see below the surface of Orvieto as there is above. Take an underground tour of hidden caves, passageways, and cisterns.
Cascate delle Marmore: Created by the Romans in 271 BC to prevent flooding, at 165 meters Cascate delle Marmore is the tallest artificial waterfall in Europe.
Castelluccio di Norcia: In the town of Castelluccio di Norcia, you can experience the beauty of the Monti Sibillini mountains from above. The registered flying school located there offers parasailing and hang-gliding in the summer.
Henry James advised not to hurry, to walk everywhere, and to observe everything when in Umbria. That may not always be possible, but the region’s compact size and infrastructure offer slow travelers a head start. Perugia’s position in the center makes it a good jumping-off point as most sights are within a 90-minute drive. It’s also one of the most vibrant towns in Umbria and can balance days spent climbing to the top of idyllic hilltop villages with nights animated by a youthful university population. Northern and Southern Umbria can be reached quickly via the E45 highway that splits the region in half. Other major roads fan out from Perugia and bus companies link the regional capital with major towns. The most pleasant journeys however are on foot, bicycle, or horseback along Umbria’s back ways and through the region’s parks, where views get better over every hill.
A tour of Umbria requires two or three days. The general rule is half a day per hilltop town. That gives you enough time to reconnoiter the side streets, explore the duomo, visit a museum, and, most importantly, spend a leisurely lunch or dinner tasting local ingredients. Umbria’s proximity to Rome and Florence make it a viable one or two-day excursion if time is short.
Umbria’s history stretches back 3,000 years. The first settlers, who founded small, fortified villages in 1000 BC, were known as the Umbri. Except for the Eugobine Tablets in Gubbio, there is little trace of this forgotten people. They were slowly overshadowed by Etruscans, who infringed upon their territory from the west, and were eventually conquered by Romans at the Battle of Sentino in 295 BC. The Romans built the Via Flaminia and other roads, which brought increased trade and helped towns prosper. During this period, new walls were built around Spoleto, Assisi, and Spello. It is said the legionnaires recruited from this area were among the most reliable in the Empire. Yet even they could not prevent the fall of Rome.
Barbarians and wars between Byzantines and Visigoths meant Umbria wasn’t a very safe place for many centuries. Nevertheless Christianity flourished in this hostile environment and some of Italy’s oldest places of worship, such as the Tempietto del Clitunno near Spoleto, were built. It wasn’t until the Lombards (or long beards) founded a dukedom in southern Umbria that a degree of stability returned.
The conditions, which produced a renaissance in other parts of the peninsula, eventually spread to Umbria, whose towns began to expand again. The most obvious expression of this recovery was a building boom that resulted in hundreds of new churches, palazzi, and piazze. Romanesque was in full swing during the 12th and 13th centuries and an era of independence began, exemplified by civic buildings in nearly every major town. After 1540, however, the Vatican clamped down on the region and it wasn’t until the reunification of Italy that Umbria regained control of its destiny. Industrialization followed and the modern borders of the region were established in 1927.
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