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Trip Report Spring in Umbria

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From a tourist’s perspective, Umbria is often thought of as Tuscany’s second cousin – a region to poke into after you’ve already enjoyed the riches of Florence and Sienna. And to a certain extent that’s true. Once you’ve done Tuscany and presumably the other major stops on the Grand Tour (Rome, Venice, Pompeii, etc.), Umbria is well worth a visit for the richness of its scenery and history and more low-keyed ambience. Sandwiched between Tuscany and Rome’s Lazio province, Umbria features the same kind of castellated hillsides you see in Tuscany but without the tourist hustle-bustle, except in Assisi, which brings them in by the bus load.

We began our visit, as we usually do, by finding an apartment in the region from which to make day trips. We scoured HomeAway, a U.K.-based vacation rental site that features good selections in Europe, and found an intriguing choice: the top floor of a 12th century castle tower in the hamlet of Villa Faustino. The apartment was owned by Steve Baker, an expat Brit with 14 years in Italy, who responded promptly to all our email inquiries and gave us confidence that the site met most of our requirements. He did warn us that it was 52 steps to the third floor and no lift – our daughter counted 58 steps – but we were game since we would have to climb that only once with our luggage. We did learn to appreciate the cooling properties of stone during the hot afternoons; with windows open to a cross-breeze, the apartment was always comfortable.

We had been looking for something with quick access to Rome and Villa Faustino is just off the E45 four-lane highway connecting Terni and Perugia and roughly an hour and a half from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. We landed at Rome at 7:30 a.m., spent an hour or so picking up our car and were in our apartment by noon that first day. The hamlet is both scenic and rustic, mostly comprised of renovated apartments within the medieval walls. Except for a few urban weekenders from Rome, most of the 50 or so inhabitants work in the surrounding vineyards, olive groves and hayfields. These are people who go to bed early and rise with the sun; the most noise distraction you encounter is from diligent roosters and the occasional tractor passing beneath your window in the morning. While the hamlet itself is too small to support any shops, modern grocery stores are less 10 minutes away in the neighboring towns of Acquasparta and Massa Martana.

Getting that balance right between rustic scenery and modern conveniences is important to us. The whole point of a vacation, after all, is to transport yourself away into a world very different from your own. At the same time, you’ve got to eat. Our ideal for European vacations is to stay on the outskirts of a small village or town within walking distance of grocery stores, restaurants and cafes. We made the mistake some years ago in Spain of renting a farmhouse that was so far out in the countryside that any visit to town required an hour-long expedition by car. Villa Faustino provided a reasonable compromise in that we could enjoy the Italian village ambience while conveniently accessing the basic necessities.

Admittedly, without fluent Italian, you soak up that ambience at a distance. Most of our neighbors were older people who would greet us with polite reserve. Other than our landlord Steve, who lives across the street, nobody spoke English and our Italian was confined mostly to “Buona Sera!” and “Ciao!” There is, however, a functioning abbey on the outskirts of town where we encountered two young men, Andreas and Nicolas, who spoke some passable English. They were part of a group of 12 who were participating in a program run by the Catholic Caritas charity dedicated to helping troubled youth. Andre said he and his comrades were all suffering from things like drugs and “depression” and had joined the program to find a “new life.” The abbey operated a fully functioning farm with several fields and herds of sheep and goats; the young men followed a rigid time schedule of prayer, work and meals – up at dawn and in bed by 10. Having watched them stripped to the waist tending the olive groves in the hot Italian sun, we can testify to their industriousness.

Walking through the countryside, where the fields are awash in red poppies in the spring, was one of the joys of living in Villa Faustino. A few minutes from the hamlet and you reach the entrance to the Via Flaminia, the ancient Roman road that crossed central Italy and the Apennine mountains to link Rome with the Adriatic coast. Stretches of the road are maintained by the various municipalities in the region so you can walk for miles along what is essentially a country road that is still used by local farmers to access their fields. Admittedly, there are few only a few large paving stones left that look vaguely “Roman” – more common are the ruts made by modern tractor treads.

For a better appreciation of what the Via Flaminia looked like in ancient times, you need to visit the archaeological site at Carsulae, which is less than a half hour drive away and features some significant Roman ruins such as a theatre, an arch, a temple and a well-preserved stretch of the Via Flaminia. Here you can really ponder the sturdiness of Roman road engineering, where the limestone slabs are bordered by curb stones to confine the wagon wheels and footpaths to accommodate pedestrian traffic. Steve had described Carsulae as very peaceful and quiet, which turned out to be true; we saw only one other tourist the afternoon we wandered over the grass-choked ruins. In a country abundant with famous ancient structures, Carsulae probably ranks low on most tourist itineraries but it’s a lovely spot for a wistful stroll through glories past.

With its easy access to the E45, Villa Faustino also proved ideal for making day trips to the major Umbrian tourist sites, such as Spoleto, Todi, Orvieto, Perugia and, most of all, Assisi. I put Assisi at the top of the list because it has all the attributes of the other hilltop towns – medieval walls, museums, art-rich cathedrals and sprawling piazzas – plus the memory and spirit of St. Francis, which attracts large crowds to the two-level basilica that bears his name. The saint himself, renowned for his gentle humility and ascetic life, would no doubt have disapproved of the ostentatious complex dedicated to him but modern visitors can absorb the lessons of his ministry portrayed on the frescoed walls and pay their respects at the crypt located underneath the lower church. This tomb was only discovered in 1918 because the builders of the basilica had kept it hidden lest someone try to seize the remains of one of the most revered figures in all of Christendom.

As awesome as it is, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi is only a starting place for investigating church art in Umbria. The Duomo in Orvieto is equally striking for its brilliantly shining mosaic façade and cavernous Gothic interior. When confronted with such intricate grandeur, one can easily understand why the structure took 300 years to build. Spoleto, Perugia and Todi all contain their own impressive cathedrals and we particularly enjoyed climbing up the bell tower in Todi, which afforded a panoramic view of that gorgeously medieval-looking town. After a week of this, however, even the most industrious tourist can get “duomo-ed out” so it’s always nice to duck down a narrow lane to a nearby bar or café, plunk oneself down at a table with a cappuccino or gelato and watch the street life.

I do have to say a word here about food. Umbria’s claim to gastronomic fame resides principally in two items native to the region: black truffles and wild boar. While these delicacies are not to be disparaged, we found that the level of cooking in Umbria generally didn’t rise to the level of other parts of Italy such as, well, Tuscany. The Umbrians generally seem to eschew fancy sauces for a simpler kind of country fare. We happily discovered, however, that Umbrian wine from Torgiano and Montefalco is much underrated and affordable compared to the better known Tuscan varieties. The wine museum at Torgiano, built by the Lungarotti family of vintners, presents an outstanding display of artifacts and exhibits devoted to the winemaking art in the Mediterranean since ancient times. The olive oil industry gets a similarly classy treatment in a companion museum down the street notable for its room-size scale model of a Roman cargo ship (the largest vessel built until the 19th century).

We have often found in our travels that the most interesting experiences come not necessarily by following the guidebook but rather by serendipity, the unexpected encounter. During our visit to Perugia, we came upon a car show in the main piazza, which was packed with antique automobiles going back to the 1920s, mostly Ferraris, Fiats, Triumphs and Citroens but also a red 1969 Mustang. And then there’s the Giro d’Italia. We are by no means bike racing enthusiasts, but it so happened that the Italian version of the Tour de France passed through the villages in our area one afternoon and we were on hand to watch.

We arrived in the village just as the police and civil defense were beginning to cordon off the roads to provide a clear path for the riders. We stationed ourselves in the middle of a traffic roundabout so that our daughter with her new Nikon would have an ideal view of the oncoming racers. During the next two hours, we watched the crowds gradually swell along the streets as successive waves of police cars and motorcycles swept past trailed by sports photographers, team cars and vans selling race merchandise. Many of the local children were decked out in the uniforms and waving the flags of their favorite teams.

The riders themselves came through in a flash. From where we stood, it was like watching the Red Sea part as the oncoming tsunami broke in two on our roundabout and hurtled around both sides of us. Amidst the sea of team colors we couldn’t even tell who was in the lead although a later Internet search identified one Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver of the Katusha team as the winner of this stage of the race. Not that we would have recognized him in any case.

All in all, the race had been an unexpected treat for us, which pretty much summarizes our feelings about Umbria. While its attractions, other than Assisi, might not possess the marquee star power that one associates with other regions of Italy, there is an authenticity and beauty that the modern tourism industry (and dysfunctional Italian economy) has not yet despoiled. Umbria is a place where the magic of Italy happens on its own terms.

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