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American Airlines provides year-round service to Rome with daily flights from New York/JFK and Chicago O'Hare. From Rome, Narni is roughly 50 miles north, and Perugia, the largest city in the Umbrian region, is about 85 miles north.
Under the Umbrian sun
Umbria, which lies just east of tuscany, in the dead center of the Italian Peninsula, looks just as italy is supposed to look: rolling green hills covered with vineyards and olive groves, and hilltop walled cities with cobblestoned streets so narrow that pedestrians compete with puttering tiny cars and buzzing motor scooters - an eternal paradox of ancient and modern times, side by side. one street I stroll along is so narrow that two people cannot walk abreast. It has jokingly been named Vicolo Baciadonne, "kiss-the-women alley," and indeed is so tight that if a woman were heading toward you, your lips might touch when you passed one another.
As much as the landscape looks like what you would expect, the food in Umbria is not what Americans think of as Italian. It's earthy and wholesome - barley, lentils, chickpeas; sheep and goat cheeses; veal and prosciutto. There's less pasta than in the south, less risotto than in the north, and Umbrian chefs sprinkle grated truffles on everything. The locals talk about the various grades and purities of their olive oil as if they were talking about wine. And speaking of wines, theirs are full-bodied and smooth. There's not a lot of English spoken, but you can get by, because the Umbrian attitude makes up for everything. the following Umbrian cities embody all that makes this region unique.
Assisi is where Saint Francis lived in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. his remains lie in the basilica in the old city, and a cathedral outside town hovers over the tiny chapel where he died. Francis was a young nobleman who denounced his riches for a pair of sandals, preaching simplicity and communing with animals. Despite the mystic's candor, the two churches are astoundingly ornate; in contrast to his kind and gentle nature, the franciscan friars police the basilica, snatching caps from the heads of schoolboys and hushing those who dare to speak out loud.
Orvieto's world-famous cathedral has a gold facade and dizzying frescoes, and there are angels and demons that look over panels depicting the lives of Christ and Saint Francis. Just as dizzying is the view into a sixteenth-century well that you can visit on a tour of the Orvieto underground. In the evening, you can stroll along the city streets with handsome young Italian couples and pop into a Trattoria for a fine meal or a glass of wine.
Perugia is the largest city in Umbria. Its oldest, uppermost part is home to a fortress called la Rocca Paolina, which was built right into the original etruscan gates of the city and named for the catholic pope who commissioned it. Its vaulted-ceiling underground passageways have been turned into an entertainment center with various clubs, bars, and performance spaces - though in the corners remain the claustrophobically deep, narrow holes that are said to be where, way back when, the authorities threw people they didn't like very much.
Montefalco is a walled village renowned for its red wines, which are made from grapes that grow on trellises over tiny courtyards of medieval houses where people still live. The city walls, the townsfolk say, keep dangerous blights away from the vines. It's a marvelous town to walk through - and, better yet, for attending a wine tasting.
A few other standouts include Spoleto, best known for its annual music festival; CittÀ Di Castello, renowned for its thermal baths; and terni, known for the roman engineering mistake that created a magnificent waterfall.
Sights to behold
umbrians have a talent for incorporating elegant hotels and restaurants into ancient buildings without compromising their historic value.
La Badia di Orvieto was once a benedictine abbey. Across a valley from Orvieto, it dates to the sixth century. Its tower was built in the twelfth; its frescoes were painted in the thirteenth and fourteenth. The sisters who run the hotel and restaurant like to talk about the celebs they claim have stayed there, including Richard Gere and Brad Pitt. From $275 a night; 011-39-0-76-3301959, www.labadiahotel.it
The restaurant redibis, in the town of Bevagna, was built in what remains of a tunnel from a first-century roman theater. The tables sit in a passageway that was used by gladiators on their way to the arena. Dinner might include chickpea soup with crunchy pork cheek, barley with braised chicory in Sagrantino sauce, stuffed Guinea fowl, and several glasses of red Montefalco wine. Expensive to very expensive; 011-39-0-74-2360130, www.redibis.it
Castello dell'Oscano is a medieval castle in a wooded area outside perugia that has been converted into a hotel. Among the menu offerings: prosecco, parmesan cheese chipped from a giant round, soft goat cheese with figs on a spoon, salad with truffles and potato mousse, risotto with saffron, and veal steak wrapped in pancetta and served over a potato stack. From $261 a night; 011-39-0-75-584371, www.oscano.it
Hotel Le Tre Vaselle is one of two five-star hotels in Umbria. Set in a seventeenth-century home, it’s nestled among the lungarotti family vineyards and olive groves in Torgiano. Lungarotti sends three million bottles of wine to 42 countries every year. In the United States, their olive oil is carried by Williams-Sonoma. Chiara Lungarotti, a striking woman in her 30s, runs the family business with her half sister and her mother. She says, “the only thing I demand of the family members who want to be involved in the business is that they love it. … We have our land. We are proud to be from Umbria.” From $275 a night; 011-39-075-9880447, www.3vaselle.it
For more information on Umbria, visit www.umbria2000.it or contact the Italian Government Tourist Board, (212) 245-5618, www.italiantourism.com.