Umbria, the landlocked green heart of Italy, has many of the attractions of Tuscany – beautiful undulating landscapes, hilltop towns and villages, frescoes and churches, and fantastic local food – but with a more mystical feel. Cooking holidays here involve more than just inspired cuisine.
Despite being the region’s busy capital, even Perugia manages to have an air of the spiritual, for example – one of the central enigmas being its one-way system – but while there’s plenty to see in it, the curious will want to explore the region’s more rewarding towns and villages.
Assisi, for example. From Roman to Renaissance, ancient buildings abound in the birthplace of pious, animal-loving St Francis. The lofty arches of the Basilica di San Francesco seem to rise above the everyday world, surrounded by the filmset-pretty streets and flower-bedecked balconies of the historic centre. A follower of Francis, St Clare, experienced a vision in her room of a Mass being conducted elsewhere, and so she later was selected as the Catholic Church’s patron saint of television!
Orvieto, down in the south-west of Umbria, stands broodingly on volcanic rock, but dominating its expansive Piazza del Duomo is the cathedral’s astonishingly colourful, decorated facade. Elegant restaurants line the streets nearby for those studying cuisine from the diner’s side. When you’ve recovered from the overground excitement, take an underground tour of the tunnels that extend underneath the main monuments, many of them secret old Etruscan passages. You can get married down here; if so you may want to toast the occasion with one of Orvieto’s renowned crisp white wines, thanks to the vineyards on the fertile volcanic slopes.
Gubbio, north-east of the summer playground of Lake Trasimeno, is one of the most intact medieval towns in Italy. If you want something wilder, the border country out east by Le Marche is pretty wild stuff, while the Nera valley down at the southern end of Umbria offers stunning wooded gorges and food trails: the town of Norcia specialises in truffles and salami.
Umbria justice. It’s a spirited place, that has to be experienced – and tasted – first hand.