by Anne-Marie and Glenn
Our week in Umbria, a region of rolling hills, fertile farmland and ancient medieval hill towns, provides a titillating tour of the senses.
After arriving in Italy’s hectic capital on a British Airway Flight from London we were looking forward to the soft embrace of the Italian countryside. There was only one problem – we had to get out of Rome, and out of the airport parking garage, first. Tucked into our rental car and bracing ourselves against the onslaught of the Italian drivers, we found that adapting to the Italian way of driving (translation: as fast as possible) takes approximately the same amount of time as it takes one to thrice orbit a Roman traffic circle. Around and around, and once more around the airport traffic circle we went before we were at last launched onto Autostrada A1, heading north to Umbria.
With the hustle and dust of Rome now in our rear view mirror and green rolling hills stretching before us, we relaxed and settled in for the drive to Todi. Around each bend in the winding country roads, a collage of colored squares greeted us. Red poppies, purple irises, yellow and pink roses and blue wildflowers wrapped the rural fields in a vibrant quilt, while olive groves, citrus trees and vineyards cloaked the countryside like an ancient tapestry. The rich, earthy scent of the pastures soaked the misty valleys, and a fresh, cool breeze kissed our skin atop each hill.
Morning Mists bring
We arrived in the ancient town of Todi just as the morning mist gave way to a mid-day shower. After parking the car outside the stone walls of the city, we scurried under the lichen-covered arches and up the cobble-stone roadway and joined a small group of locals huddled under umbrellas outside a cute trattoria. A few minutes later, two smiling waitresses led us to a little table inside. Glancing around, we noted we were the only tourists in the small café. We scanned the cozy trattoria was waited for our waitress returned for our order, and noted that we were the only English-speaking people there. Menu in hand, pointing and smiling, we somehow ended up with a carafe of robust local red wine and a delicious meal of homemade pappardelle pasta covered, of course, with truffles. The pungent, earthy scent of truffles followed us everywhere throughout Umbria. Our simple meal in Todi that first afternoon was typical of many to follow: fresh, local produce and pasta prepared with herbs and olive oil and accompanied by a jug carafe of local red wine (Though Umbria has a wine-making tradition that began with the Etruscans over 2000 years ago, the Umbrians spent most of the past two millenia brewing up tiny batches of wine for use by family and friends, and never made the name for themselves to rival that of their Tuscan neighbors.). Over the next seven days we were to return to this quaint trattoria in Todi more than once.
From Todi we drove north to Villa Olivi, where we based ourselves during our stay. Our home base was a rustic villa is superbly located between Todi, Deruta and Perugia in the heart of Umbria. The “key holders” were waiting for us when we arrived and greeted us like long-lost friends. After a tour of the premises, conducted entirely in Italian, they showed us the provisions they had stocked the villa with and the wonderful meal of veal, pasta and salad they had prepared for our dinner that evening. After dinner, full and content, we drifted off to sleep with the splendor of the region permeating our senses.
Three Towns and a Tavern
Sunday morning at sunrise we woke to the sound of pheasants cooing from the bird sanctuary next door. After a light breakfast with fresh cantaloupe, strawberries and melon, we set out for the hillside village of Deruta. Famous for its narrow streets lined with brightly colored ceramics and its wealth of local artists, life in the ancient hamlet has not changed much since the 11th century. After a morning of winding our way up the steep streets and exploring the displays of vibrant blue and yellow urns and exquisitely detailed tiles, we stopped to ask an elderly woman directions to the nearby village of Gubbio, where we hoped to have lunch. She smiled, pointed and answered, “I think it is this way, but I have never been.”
Consulting our map, we climbed back down the hill and headed north to Gubbio. Perched on the slopes of Monte Ingino, Gubbio provides incredible views of the surrounding villages and valleys. Parking again at the base of the village and climbing up to the village center, we passed one tiny shop after another filled with bins of truffles and giant cheese wedges. Whole legs of prosciutto hung outside a few of store windows. The smell of grilled artichokes drifted out of one shop, and a stuffed boar’s head hung over the doorway of another. Flower stands and wine shops dotted the ancient alleys. As in most towns in the Italian countryside, the cathedral and the surrounding square in Gubbio anchored the village. After a look in the medieval church, we arrived at the Taverna del Lupo, a well-known restaurant organized around numerous small, beautiful stone rooms divided by archways. Families filled some of the rooms, enjoying their Sunday meal. We began our lunch with an antipasto of bruschetta topped with truffles and olive oil, a primi of penne covered with deep red tomatoes, and ordered a secondi of sliced duck and simple roast pork with rosemary. We enjoyed our feast at the slow pace of a Sunday afternoon in the Italian countryside, listening to the locals, chatting about the sideboards of sweets and tiny cookies and studying the hand-blown glasses and carafes of local grappas and wine lining the walls.
Late in the afternoon, instead of driving back to the villa we decided to take a detour to a third hillside town, Spoleto. Winding south through the country, we passed bright fields of wild mustard, green and silver groves of olive trees and several vineyards. Along the crests of the hills, rows of cypress lined the ridges like soldiers standing watch at their ancient posts.
Viva la Villas
Monday and Tuesday were villa exploration days. Hosted by our local Italian representative, we visited more than 10 villas in two days. The villas range from charming and simple to elegant and extravagant, and each villa somehow seems to fill its own niche in the region. A few times a day we would scan the patchwork hills for the village of Todi, always a recognizable landmark on the horizon. Tuesday afternoon one of the villa owners invited us to join him for lunch in Umbertide at Adamo Ristorante, a restaurant located on a farm that serves the farm’s own products. Our host insisted on serving us the antipasti, primi and secondi, all accompanied with coordinating wines and followed by dolce and espresso. It was quite a meal!
Wednesday, May 1 was May Day, a national holiday, and we took the day off from villa exploring to visit the town of Orvietto, another medieval town high on a rocky hill. Once again we parked outside the city walls, but instead of tackling the steep incline up to the walled city, we took the funivia, or cable car, up the hill. Orvietto hosts one of the Italy’s most magnificent Gothic buildings, the Orvietto duomo. After hearing about a miracle in a nearby town, Pope Urban IV ordered the church built at the end of the 13th century. The church took more than three centuries to complete. The massive marble structure is almost overshadowed by the church’s colorful façade. Inside, Luca Signorelli’s superb frescos along the wall and ceiling are said to have inspired Michelangelo’s work 40 years later on the Cappella Sistina, the Sistine Chapel.
After visiting the duomo, we chose a café in the main palazzo which was recommended by our weathered Fodors guidebook. It turned out to be the first place we’d eaten where there were more tourists than there were locals. We decided to stick to our previous strategy and follow our senses instead of our guidebook for the rest of our stay.
We had plans to join one of our hosts for dinner at Fattoria di Vibio, a restaurant owned by the host family 12 miles from Todi up a curving mountain road. As we drove up, up and up, once again we looked to see Todi, perched on its craggy hillside, bathed in the fading glow of the sunset. We spent the next three days criss crossing Umbria, inspecting villas, and enjoying one memorable meal after another. On our last night in Todi we spent a quiet evening in our villa, relaxing with a simple meals of local dried and cured Soppressata sausage and Pane di Terni bread, accompanied by a hearty bottle of Montefalco Sagrantino wine, reflecting on the wonderful tour of the senses Umbria had offered us, realizing we were more than a little sad to be moving on.
Explore our Italian villas here to start your adventure of a lifetime!
Related: Explore everything from chocolate factories to underground tunnels in these three Umbrian hill towns: A Weekend in the Umbrian Hill Towns