Finding Your Way In Umbria
I remember the first afternoon of my Freshman year of college, sitting in my newly occupied dorm room with the thick booklet of the impending semester's course schedule spread out in front of me. I flipped back and forth through the pages for hours, trying to decide which subjects to choose. Every department interested me (aside from, clearly, mathematics), each class description fascinated me, and - ultimately - the endless possibilities paralyzed me.
This is what planning a trip to Italy can be like. This beautiful country is so saturated with enthralling history, art, food, and landscapes that the task of choosing just one of its twenty-odd regions to concentrate on is a daunting - though ultimately rewarding - one. With that in mind, here are my answers to some of the basic questions about what to expect from the "Green Heart of Italy" and how to best organize a visit here.
Who are the kind of travelers who will most enjoy Umbria?
Certainly independent ones, as Umbria is known for its small, quiet hill towns best suited to folks who enjoy getting away from crowds and feeling like they have discovered a place all for themselves. It is also an ideal destination for lovers of art and architecture (especially pre-Renaissance), traditional cuisine, and walking and hiking.
If you are enamored with the idea of a bustling Italian city, cosmopolitan boutiques and restaurants, or the seaside (this is one of the few landlocked Italian regions), Umbria is probably not for you.
Umbria - with its castles, parks, and festivals - is a great choice for families traveling with children, as well.
What to do during your stay in Umbria?
The possibilities are endless, and in a week you will barely skim the surface. The "must see" towns of Assisi, Perugia, Spoleto, Gubbio, and Orvieto top the list, of course, but to see some true gems seek out the smaller villages and spend some time leisurely wandering some of the most charming towns in the Bel Paese. My favorites are Montefalco and Bevagna, but Spello, Norcia, and Montone are also delightful to visit and definitely off the tourist A-list.
Umbria, as its nickname suggests, is also one of the most beautifully green regions in Italy, with lakes and hills, mountains and waterfalls, woods and fields of wildflowers. So skip the towns and churches for a day, and instead head to one of the many regional parks, where you can walk or hike, picnic, swim, enjoy a scenic drive, or just simply enjoy the view from one of the overlooks.
From spring through autumn, the Umbrian calendar is full of sagre, art and music events, food festivals, and religious feasts. The Umbrians are generally a staid and reserved populace, so there is nothing like an Umbrian town during that one time a year when everyone really lets their hair down.
Where to stay in Umbria?
Your first consideration when choosing a base for your stay in Umbria should be altitude. I suggest to aim high for a number of reasons, first being the view. Why bother staying in a region famed for its amazing views when you are in a valley? Head to either a hill town or a vacation rental in the countryside on a hilltop - your camera will thank you.
Your second consideration is climate. The higher up you are, the cooler you will be (in this country of almost non-existent air conditioning) and the less pesky mosquitoes you will encounter (in this country of almost non-existent window screens). There is also much less chance of fog cover during the colder winter months, when the Umbrian valley often spends days on end under thick, sun-obscuring clouds.
Your third consideration is accessibility. Choose a base in central Umbria near the major artery highway 75 (which becomes highway 3 near Foligno), which makes it easy to daytrip to towns throughout the region.
Good options include Assisi (stay in the surrounding countryside, not in town), Spello, Trevi, or, at the far end, Spoleto. Todi (along the other major highway, E45) is also a strategic base in a beautiful area. Avoid the provincial capital of Perugia (the traffic is a mess and the driving confusing), and the area north of Perugia which is beautiful but a bit too on the remote side to serve as a convenient base for excursions.
When is the best time to go to Umbria?
My favorite times of year in Umbria are the so-called "shoulder seasons" (May/June and September/October). The weather is cooler, yet not as rainy as it can get earlier in the spring or later in the fall, the sagre and various music and art festivals are still in full swing, and there is ample opportunity to witness first hand the care and culture behind some of Umbria's most known culinary products: in the spring the truffle hunting season begins and the wine year is inaugurated with Cantine Aperte (when wineries open their doors to the public) and in the fall you can see the grape harvest and winemaking, the olive harvest and milling, and the annual Eurochocolate festival in Perugia.
Why go to Umbria?
Umbria, with its limited size, population, and name recognition, is often considered Tuscany's poor stepsister. Instead, equally steeped in history, art, food, and nature but less touristed than her powerhouse neighbor, Umbria has less English and more Italian spoken, less of a crush of foreign visitors, and more feeling of experiencing the “real” Italy.
How to get to Umbria
Central Umbria can be reached by flights directly to the regional airport near Perugia from the UK, or connecting through Milan. It is also about two hours from the Rome, Florence, or Ancona airports.
Alternatively, you can also fly into one of the major Italian cities and connect to Umbria by train; plan to arrive at the Perugia station if you need to pick up a rental car.
Renting a car for the duration of your stay in Umbria is a must; this region is dotted with hilltop towns and villages, many of which are difficult to reach by train or bus. There are some breathtaking drives in the area, so by having to rely on public transportation, your visit to Umbria will be confined to the more densely visited towns and you will miss out on some of the most beautiful and undiscovered areas. Most major car rental companies have offices at the regional airport and near the Perugia train station.
Spend a Week in a Vacation Rental
Umbria is the perfect region to explore using a vacation rental as a base. The area is quite compact, so there is no reason to hopscotch your nights from one town to the next, and with a plethora of apartments in the center of small towns or in restored farmhouses in the countryside you are bound to find a place to call home for a week or two that suits your traveling taste.
As long as you're hunkered down in a temporary "home away from home", do as the locals do and shop at the tiny outdoor weekly markets. Otherwise, to really stock up head to the Ipercoop supermarket which serves as the anchor store at the Collestrada Shopping Center near Collestrada at the junction of highways E45 and 75. Despite its large size, Collestrada is actually one of the best places for local products (choose those marked "dalla nostra regione", especially in the produce section) and organic products (including meat), and has sundry household items you may need to supplement your holiday rental (I seem to always pick up extra skillets and a decent cutting board when I travel).
Rebecca Winke – Innkeeper and Blogger
Rebecca moved to Italy from Chicago in 1993 and shortly thereafter opened an agriturismo in her husband's renovated family farmhouse at the foot of Mount Subasio near Assisi, Umbria. She spends her time taking care of guests at Brigolante, blogging about the lovely region she now calls home at Rebecca's Ruminations, and wondering about what strange winds blew an urban vegetarian to a pig farm in Umbria.
- I Borghi più Belli d'Italia (Most Beautiful Villages in Italy) - A good list of Umbrian villages to visit.
- Regional Parks - Information about local parks in Umbria.
- Cantine Aperte - When wineries open their doors to the public in the spring (in Italian).
- Eurochocolate festival in Perugia
See Rebecca's website for other articles she has written about Umbria.