Exploring Umbria (and beyond)
Umbria is a region of central Italy landlocked between Tuscany to the west, Marche to the east and Lazio to the south. It’s fair to say it doesn’t sit as prominently on the tourist map as some other parts of the country. The draw of neighbouring Tuscany with it’s beautiful landscape of rolling hills, cypress lined vineyards and olive groves, along with destinations such as Florence, Pisa and Siena is too much to pass.
The thing is though, Umbria, known as ‘the green heart of Italy‘ has an equally beautiful landscape of valleys, rolling hills, medieval hilltop towns and one of the most dramatic national parks I have visited – Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini. These are the reasons we decided to visit.
You may well have heard of the Umbrian cities of Perugia (the capital), Assisi (the birthplace of St. Francis and home to the magnificent Basilica of San Franceso d’Assisi) or maybe Orvieto (famed for it’s imposing Duomo and it’s white wine).
We spent a week in Umbria, 5 nights at the Relais Il Canalicchio and 2 nights in Perugia to get a feel for the city (I’ll cover this in a seperate blog post). My top tip here would be to visit Perugia first – the Relais would have been a far more relaxing way to end the trip rather than to start.
We chose not to visit the more well known towns and cities of Umbria, but to take a more relaxed approach and experience some of the smaller hill towns and destinations. One main focus of our trip was wine tasting – the area is famed for it’s wine and olive oil production so we made sure to research and visit a good variety of vineyards during our stay. It would be rude not to.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the places visited.
Montefalco is a 12th century hilltop hamlet located about 30km southeast of Perugia. Focused around a central piazza, the narrow streets wind their way around the town past numerous cafes, restaurants and shops.
Be sure to venture to the outskirts of the town where you will see some amazing panoramic views of the surrounding countryside – this giving Montefalco the title of ‘balcony of Umbria’.
The town is also becoming popular for its wine production thanks to the indigenous grape variety Sagrantino, of which there are 2,400 acres planted in the region. There is an official wine trail called the ‘Strada del Sagrantino’ which guides tourists from one winery to the next.
We visited one winery on the outskirts of town to take part in a private tour and tasting. Montioni Frantoio & Cantina is a small family run winery and olive oil producer. We booked a tour with the owner Paolo who took great pride in showing us around the winery and oil mill. This was followed by a tasting of four of their signature wines (Umbria Rosso, Montefalco Rosso, Umbria Grechetto and their signature Sagrantino di Montefalco) paired with some local food and their own olive oil. All delicious. Fabulous tasting room. Very relaxed.
We ordered some wine to be shipped over to the UK – the prices even with shipping costs included were cheaper than buying a half decent bottle of wine in the supermarket at home! Winner.
We also visited the Arnaldo Caprai winery outside of Montefalco. This was a much bigger operation with a large modern tasting room, geared up for organised wine tours – a couple of buses called in while we had a brief tasting. It’s worth noting that their white Grechetto wine was delicious.
Gubbio is one of the oldest town in Umbria although remaining amazingly well-preserved. Located on the slopes of Monte Ignio to the north of region, the town has a distinctly medieval feel with dark grey stone, narrow streets and angular, gothic architecture.
The winding streets meander up the hills from outskirts of the town walls before reaching the Piazza Grande and the Palazzo dei Consoli.
If you are feeling particularly brave, it’s worth taking a ride on the funiva cable car (basically a birdcage hanging on a wire) which will transport you up to the Basilica di sant’ Ubaldo, perched on the hillside and offering fanstatic view of the town from above.
Montepulciano was one of the main reasons that we wanted to visit this part of Italy. You may well have heard the name before. If so, it’s likely to have been on the label of a bottle of lovely Italian red wine.
The town of Montepulciano is across the border in Tuscany, about an hours drive west of Perugia. An absolutely stunning drive through the countryside and along the north shores of Lake Trasimeno, once you cross the border into Tuscany the landscape seems to feel decidedly more Tuscan – the rolling hills, the wildflower meadows, the cypress tree lined roads to hilltop vineyards. Proper picture postcard stuff.
The town itself, another hilltop hamlet focused around the main Piazza Grande with some fantastic architecture – the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta and the Comune di Montepulciano to name a couple of lovely buildings.
Once again, walking around the streets of this town make you feel like you have stepped back in time and also offers some great views.
So, onto the wine. Wandering around the town it’s clear to see that there is a large focus on the Montepulciano brand here. Many wine shops and small wineries are located within the town walls, one of which we particularly enjoyed. The Contuccio winery has a shop and cellars located within the town, with the farm and vineyards further afield. We had a lovely free tasting and could wander the ancient cellars, which was really interesting.
After leaving the town we headed to the Poliziano winery for a pre booked tour. Poliziano is large modern winery surrounded by acres of vineyards of the signature Sangiovese grape variety. The tour and tasting was interesting, informative and fun – the wine particularly enjoyable. More wine ordered and shipped back to the UK.
Civita di Bagnoregio
Civtia di Bagnoregio is like no place I have ever seen before. Sitting atop a tufa rock hill surrounded by an eroding canyon, the first jawdropping views of the town are so dramatic from Bagnoregio itself.
The only access to the town nowadays is via a footbridge that crosses the canyon up the hill to huge stone archway that acts as an entrance into the medieval town. Once through the archway, its perfectly and classically Italian. Warm coloured stone walls, ivy draped balconies and stairways covered in summery potted plants. And cats. Lots of cats!
The town’s population has dwindled over the years due the constant erosion of the surrounding landscape, with most people relocating across to Bagnoregio itself, meaning the town is mainly based around tourism – cafes, restuarants, shops and a few accommodation options for people wishing to stay over.
The civita is located across the border from Umbria in Lazio, not too far from the city of Orvieto.
Cascata delle Marmore
Whilst we were in the south of Umbria, we chose to visit one the of the local attractions near the town of Terni.
The Cascata delle Marmore was one of the highlights of this trip. A waterfall created by the Romans in 271BC, at 541 feet high it is the tallest man-made waterfall in the world. The reason for the construction was to drain the swamps and stagnant waters around the Nera river to reduce illness in the area.
The falls now have a dual purpose – most of the time the water is diverted to a hydroelectric power plant, at this point the flow of water to the falls is basically a trickle. Twice daily for the sake of us tourists, the water is diverted back to falls and within minutes the trickle becomes a raging torrent. It is spectacular to watch. The power of the water, the spray and the winds created are amazing to experience.
Set within a park of botanical gardens and hiking trails which give access to some of the most fabulous views of the falls themselves, it is an attraction not to be missed if you visit Umbria.
I have very few photos – given the amount of spray from the falls it wasn’t really an ideal situation to have my camera out! You also might want to take a poncho if you dont like getting wet!
Castelluccio di Norcia and the Piano Grande
Last of all, we come to the gorgeous little farming town of Castelluccio di Norcia.
I write this section with a heavy heart as since we visited the area was hit by two large earthquakes – the second of which caused damage to over 60% of the towns buildings leaving it currently uninhabitable. I truly hope that the government funds a rebuild and that it can be fully restored so that people can start visiting again.
Located in the heart of the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini to the eastern edge of Umbria, the Piano Grande is a huge 16 square kilometre plain, 4000ft above sea level surrounded by the Sibillini mountain range. The Piano Grande is famous for it’s summer blooms, where wildflowers cover the area making it look like a fantastic patchwork of vibrant colours. Unfortunately we visited in May so were a little too early for this, but the views were spectacular nonetheless.
The town of Castelluccio di Norcia sits to the north edge of the Piano Grande, offering fabulous views of the plains. Originally a farming town and famous for its lentil production, the town was mainly a collection of restaurants, cafes and gift shops aimed at the tourist market. It was quaint and a lovely place to spend a couple of hours, even if just to gaze out at the surrounding landscape.
I genuinely hope that the town is restored as it would be even more of a tragedy than has already been suffered if it does not become inhabitable again.
I hope this little taster of Umbria makes you want to pay a visit. We will definitely be returning, after all we missed out on visiting Assisi, Orvieto, Todi, Spello and Spoleto to name a few. I could go on and on.