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Originally published Saturday, August 6, 2011 at 7:01 PM

Roaming Italy's hilltown heartland

Exploring historic hilltop towns in Umbria, the green heart of Italy.

The Associated Press

If You Go

Umbria

Umbria is less than three hours by car from Rome via the A1 freeway. Attractions include the historic hilltowns of Orvieto and Assisi, both with impressive churches and atmospheric narrow streets.

Each May 15, the town of Gubbio hosts a large annual festival, Corso dei Ceri, while Perugia (hosts the Eurochocolate festival on Oct. 14-23 this year (the popular Baci chocolates are made near Perugia).

More information

Italian government tourism office: www.italia.it/en

— AP and Seattle Times

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As we turned off the main street onto an unpaved road in the Italian countryside, I glimpsed a stone tower jutting up from a distant hill. It seemed impossibly high from our vantage point — were we really headed up there? Where else could this road lead?

I was traveling with two friends to a destination wedding in the tiny town of Monte Santa Maria Tiberina, about halfway between Rome and Florence. The happy couple had rented a villa for about 18 guests and would be getting married on the grounds.

As our little car powered its way up the mountain, the altitude started to make sense. Earlier in our drive from Rome to the Umbrian countryside, we had gasped from afar at the hilltop town of Orvieto as we sped up the A1, the main north-south highway in Italy.

Breathtaking views of stone buildings perched above green valleys would be repeated throughout our five days in Umbria, which boasts lovely landscapes, terrific food, impressive art and architecture, and a wealth of history.

Umbria plays the subtly gorgeous girl-next-door to its more famous celebrity neighbor, Tuscany. Our villa, which the bride found through Homeaway.com, was the perfect base for exploring this region, the green heart of Italy.

The villa was a stunning rehab of a 16th-century home once owned by a prince.

It had several bedrooms, spacious common areas, Internet access, a gigantic kitchen with modern appliances, and a two-tiered backyard with a pool overlooking the hills. (For smaller parties or shorter stays, try an "agriturismo" — a rural bed-and-breakfast.)

One of my favorite day trips was to Assisi, home of St. Francis, Italy's patron saint.

The immense basilica built in his memory is a major Christian pilgrimage site — his remains are on the lower level — and a marvel of ornate frescoes, including Giotto's "The Life of St. Francis." Dress modestly (no shorts or tank tops) or you'll be turned away.

The town also boasts a medieval fortress, other churches (St. Clare is buried in one) and many upscale shops and eateries.

Ironically, while St. Francis renounced his worldly possessions in a search for God, you can buy all kinds of saintly keepsakes — including a mini-version of his signature sandal on a keychain.

We also stopped in nearby Perugia. The Umbrian capital is a university town and home of the Galleria Nazionale, the region's main art museum. History buffs might seek out Etruscan treasures like the municipal well and Porta Marzia (Mars Gate), both of which date to the 3rd century B.C.

I've since realized we should have stopped in Orvieto — and not just because of its famous local white wine, Orvieto Classico. Its cathedral, with a facade covered in brightly colored mosaics, is one of Italy's most beautiful.

No matter which town you visit, the real enjoyment comes from soaking up the atmosphere of Umbria's small towns: wandering narrow streets and winding stairways, treating yourself to coffee or gelato at an outdoor cafe, admiring scenic vistas and architecture, or shopping at farmers markets that offer everything from seasonal produce (fresh truffles) to flowers, cheese and meats.

I was nervous about driving in Italy, but I'm glad we rented the car since train travel among these towns is not efficient (and bus travel can be complicated for foreigners).

Just remember to keep right on the highway unless you're passing. You've never truly been tailgated until you accidentally stay in the left lane too long on the A1, where speedy drivers have no patience.

Navigating to the hilltowns was fairly easy: Follow the signs to the town you want, then follow the bull's-eye "centro" symbol to the town center. Some parking areas are below the town centers and offer escalators, elevators or funiculars to take you up to the town.

Heading back to Rome, we dropped off our rental car at the airport and took a taxi into the city for a whirlwind 10-hour sightseeing jag.

After watching our taxi driver maneuver through hordes of urban scooter riders, I was grateful we ditched the car. When in Rome ... let Romans do the driving.

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