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Franco’s favourite ... Umbrian delights

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On Umbria, I’m going to compile only one thread – since fewer people go there than to Venice and Rome, and as far as accomodation, I’m sorry I can’t help much: I’m always renting a private old stone house there, which is not (no more, to be precise) open to the public – just to patrons and friends of the owner. Two hotels that should be really nice (though not cheap, either) are: Orto degli Angeli in Bevagna, http://www.ortoangeli.com; and Villa Roncalli on the edge of Foligno (if you have a car – it’s quite far from the center). I haven’t stayed at either of them, but I know their respective restaurants, so I can judge the general (excellent) style of these two venues.

And now for the food: Umbrian food is among Italy’s best. No region on this planet is richer in truffles than Umbria (all kinds of truffles, so there are some of them almost all year round), and Umbrian cooks are using truffles almost as much as onions are being used elsewhere (and that’s only slightly exaggerated). Furthermore, Umbria is making Italy’s most famous, and best, salamis, and similar seasoned sausages – the region around Norcia in eastern Umbria is where those are being produced (and that the Italian name for sausages of that type is “norcineria” says enough about the quality coming from Norcia): many are made of game, such as wild boar or deer, and they’re also making raw smoked hams of those meats.
Some of Italy’s very best olive oil is coming from Umbria – always very fruity and intense. My favourite is a very small oil mill: Fratelli Nunzi in Cantalupo di Bevagna, inexpensive and great. Buy as much as you can there, in order to prevent them from ceasing activity (the younger generation is already running the mill as a part-time job) – you won’t regret it. Umbrian groceries are a joy for food addicts; almost every small village grocery a true delicatessen shop. And if you happen to be in the Foligno area in late September, don’t miss the “Primi d’Italia” festival: http://www.iprimiditalia.it/, a feast of pasta and risotto, with producers of all types (from industrial to small traditional manufacturers) from all over Italy – huge fun!

Regarding restaurants, I’m not an expert for all of Umbria – my recommendations are just for the regions where I normally base myself. Of the above mentioned two, the Orto degli Angeli restaurant is extremely pretty, but the food is not more than good; there are better choices in Umbria. Notably the second of the two, Villa Roncalli: this is one of my favourite restaurants everywhere in the world. One of the rare (RARE!!) examples of an Italian restaurant managing to combine traditional cuisine with creative inventions (most often, creative food in Italy is abominable – Italians are unflinching traditionalists in gastronomic matters!). The Villa Roncalli, to me, is worth every detour, and in fact, worth a journey to Umbria.
Not far from Foligno, in Montefalco, the Coccorone restaurant is another favourite: hearty, rustic, tasty, incredibly delicious food here, for still low prices.
Perugia has, surprisingly so, an excellent Sardinian restaurant: Aladino, via delle Prome, 11.
And yet another just gorgeous place is a really simple, by no means elegant village trattoria: the Taverna Castelluccio in, of course, Castelluccio (near Norcia, though “near” is somewhat exaggerated, given the winding mountain roads).

You’re also getting some really great wines in Umbria: white wines around Orvieto, red wines around Montefalco (the Sagrantino di Montefalco, a local grape variety grown almost exclusively there, is responsible for terrific wines, dry or even, believe it or not, sweet! – sweet red wines normally being a nightmare).

Ok, so much for food & drink. Regarding sightseeing, Umbria is a medieval region. It was full of powerful, rich and independent cities in the middle ages, which were step by step conquered by the popes - in the late 13th century, Perugia was the last to surrender. Given the relative proximity to Rome, the popes would never again allow these cities to grow or prosper - and today (now you understand why I'm teaching history here), they're merely bigger than in the 12th/13th centuries! That means that they don't go much beyond their medieval walls, e.g. - and that immediately outside these walls, you are right in the middle of acres and vineyards. Nevertheless, these small towns (in modern terms, they're rather villages) have kind of an urban flair to them, though in an almost intimate manner - everyone knows each other, like deep in the countryside, but then - there is that certain urban-civic pride, and the structure of a city, complete with magnificent churches, a civic museum (often boasting works of international importance), a tiny theatre and so on.
All in all, it's that unique coexistence of urbanity and cultivated landscape that makes Umbria very, very special; or where else do you have merely five minutes to go by foot from the urban theatre to the next vineyard? The best examples of this rural-urban mix are Bevagna, Todi, Spoleto, and Assisi (yes, Assisi – unfortunately, the only spot in Umbria already spoiled by tourists and notably by pilgrims!!!), but also Spello, Città della Pieve, and even (bigger) Orvieto.
Assisi, of course, has the biggest artistic treasure: the Basilica di S. Francesco, better than each and every museum on medieval Italian painting – certainly one of the most beautiful (and most important, artistically) churches on earth. Overcrowded or not, I feel the need to return every time when being in Umbria.
But it’s also worth touring the countryside, apart from the big and important sights. Many of those totally forgotten medieval towns/villages are waiting for you; just think how rewarding it is to discover the mummified corpse of Beato (i.e. blessed) Ugolino in the crypt of the church of Gualdo Cattaneo, “whose nose and left foot were stolen by his ardent worshippers in the moment of death”, as a faded sign will teach you.

Then, the landscape is marvellous - very much like Tuscany, though a little more alpine and a little less man-made. And above all, it's a tranquil and relaxed region (nobody would ever lock the front door in Umbria, there's no need to). The landscape is rising in the East of the region, around Norcia/Cascia, and there you’ll find the best of Umbria’s non-artistic beauties: the Piano Grande region. High mountains there, but softly shaped, not rugged; and three plateaus in between that are unique in Europe: the Piano Grande (as the most beautiful and important), Piano Piccolo and (just across the border to the Marche region) Piano Perduto, all of them boasting luscious green of weeds and - lentils! Europe's most famous and most delicious lentils are being grown there. Apart from the lentils, the plateaus are EMPTY. No house, no hut (strictly forbidden to build anything there!), no tree. On the one and only steep rock around, in the middle between the three plateaus, there is Castelluccio, a tiny mountain village haunted by the cold winds, a weather-beaten place somehow out of earth, a bit like on the moon. And here (thanks to expert Fodorite nessundorma) is a link to wonderful Piano Grande pictures: http://dptpch.slide.com/c/Piano+Grande

Please note: This thread is not primarily meant for discussion… it’s primarily meant for substituting myself while work won’t permit regular posting during the next six or so months. I’ll try to check once a week, however, so if anyone would like me to answer any questions related to Umbria, please post them here – I won’t unfortunately be able to browse all the other threads…

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