We’ve been deluged with spin-offs from the now-famous book, Under the Tuscan Sun. Legions of American and British women have read the book, seen the film, and have been begging their spouses to take them on a romantic holiday enjoying the spoils of fine wine and cuisine in the Tuscan countryside.
Tuscany is great – yes, it is as charming and rustic as it looked on the big screen, though it’s feeling awfully busy these days. But it isn’t the only place in Italy to wander the countryside. In fact, many of Italy’s more rural airports are now home to Europe’s low cost carriers, making it incomprehensible not to explore your options.
Recently I spent some time in Umbria, often called the “green lung” of Italy. (I never understood this expression, considering that a green lung would be an awfully painful condition, but I digress…) Umbria gets more rain than Tuscany – this isn’t a sun trap by any means – so its hills are lush and very, very green.
The main city and rail station/airport in Umbria is Perugia, located north of Rome about 2 hours if you were driving. But the real highlight is not this city, but the many tiny medieval towns that dot the hilltops. You can’t go through any valley without spotting a town, tower or church, a reminder to the days when religious powers were very influential in shaping the landscape. Here are some towns to visit – each filled with cheap wine, cheap (and delicious) cuisine, and wonderful sightseeing – much of it free.
The imposing town of Assisi drapes the side of a mountain with a feat of incredible strength. The town is indeed the one of St. Frances, and with so many churches in such a small city, Assisi is frequented by pilgrims on religious treks. For you, you’ll need comfortable shoes, because just getting around town can be a trek.
Perhaps my favourite town of the lot, I love how Orvieto clings to the mountaintop – quite literally. The city is made up of a unique kind of volcanic rock which has turned out to be perfect, architecturally. Orvieto is also home to one of the most lavish and ornate churches in the area. (Not a church fan? Across the street they sell one of my preferred Umbrian wines – Barbarani.)
The town has long been famous for it’s incredible Spoleto Festival, which has spawned numerous other similar festivals based on the Italian original. The town is also now famous for a new escalator that takes you up the incredible steep cliff to check out the castle. You’ll be saying your blessings for having it on a hot day. Lots of accommodation in this area due to the festival, so planning ahead can mean a good bargain stop to base yourself.
Todi has a couple of wonderful churches, some fabulous hotels, and a relaxed atmosphere – it doesn’t have the influx of tourists like Rome or Assisi, but it does have some quirks and charms all of its own. The buildings seem juxtaposed in just a way that while they’re not perfect at all, they’re well balanced. Fresh tasty gelato and world-class restaurants await.
Umbria can be great for a quick weekend break to relax, though I suggest you spend a full week so you can wait out the rain squalls and enjoy just taking in all the history, culture and great dining that the area offers.
Posted : Friday, June 1st, 2012 at 10:00
Andy Hayes is a travel journalist currently based in Seattle, Washington. When not soaking up the Pacific Northwest lifestyle or enjoying life on the road, he is spending time hanging out on his own travel lifestyle magazine, Sharing Travel Experiences.