Umbria See And Do
Tourist Info: Piazza del Comune
Tel: 39 075 812 534
The city of Saint Francis, Assisi looms above the surrounding olive groves like a holy ocean liner. There's some sprawl in the lower town outside the walls, but the handsome, stone-built upper town perches intact and aloof on a spur of Monte Subasio, the mountain where the saint went on retreat with his followers. At the northern end of the upper town, the Basilica di San Francesco, fully restored after a devastating 1997 earthquake, contains Giotto's remarkable Life of St. Francis fresco cycle from around 1296a first step toward what would come to exemplify the art of Italy's Renaissance (Piazza Superiore di San Francesco and Piazza Inferiore di San Francesco; 39-075-819-001). The upper town also has some smaller churches worth visiting, including the Cattedrale di San Rufino (Piazza San Rufino; 39-075-812-283) and Basilica di Santa Chiara (Piazza Santa Chiara; 39-075-812-282). In the lower town, the bombastic Baroque church of Santa Maria degli Angeli is an over-the-top container for the remains of the eleventh-century oratory that Francis adopted as a place of meditation and prayer (Piazza Porziuncola; 39-075-80-511; www.porziuncola.org).
Tourist info: 126 Corso Cavour
Tel: 39 074 235 4459
These three small historic towns circle the olive groves of the Valle Umbra south of Perugia. Bevagna is probably the best-kept secret: A Roman colony on the Via Flaminia, it was prosperous enough until the Middle Ages to endow two fine Romanesque churches, San Silvestro and San Michele, which face each other across the main square. Nearby Montefalco is—after Orvieto—Umbria's second-most-famous wine town. Its star brew, the full-bodied red Sagrantino di Montefalco, has recently become a cult favorite among international wine buffs. Top producers include Arnaldo Caprai, Adanti, and Antonelli, though aficionados say that the wines turned out in tiny quantities by Paolo Bea are the real crème de la crème. Of the enoteca-restaurants that line the main square, L'Alchimista offers the best value and service—and it's also the only one that stocks Bea's bottles (14 Piazza del Comune; 39-074-237-8558; www.montefalcowines.com). If you're still standing after lunch, head for the Museo Civico di San Francesco, home to Benozzo Gozzoli's dynamic Life of Saint Francis fresco cycle (Via Ringhiera Umbra; 39-074-237-9598).
Another town with Roman origins, Spello (pictured) is a small, walled hilltop village that has some of the most intact Roman architecture in central Italy—especially evident in town gates like Porta Venere. Pinturicchio's frescoes in the Baglioni Chapel, inside the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, are some of Umbria's most vibrant examples of Renaissance art (Piazza Matteotti).
Tourist info: 15 Via della Repubblica
Tel: 39 075 922 0693
A fortified town that rises in terraced splendor up the flank of Monte Ingino, Gubbio is so authentically medieval that you half expect to bump into Dante or Giotto here. It's also relatively remote (the nearest train station is 14 miles away)which means there are no crowds, even in summer. The crenellated Palazzo dei Consoli, pictured, a towering Gothic palace, houses the Museo Civicohome to the Tavole Eugubine, seven bronze tablets from the second century B.C. that are the only surviving record of Umbrian, the language spoken in these parts before the Romans arrived (Piazza Grande; 39-075-927-4298). The town's Duomo and church of San Francesco (with its 15th-century frescoes) are also lovely. But the best thing to do in Gubbio is simply to wander around the narrow alleys and absorb the stately ancient surroundings. Every May 15, the whole town shuts down for the Corsa dei Ceri, a Christian ritual of decidedly pagan origins that involves processions through the streets with 13-foot-high ceri, or candles.
Tourist info: 10 Piazza Mazzini
Castiglione del Lago
Tel: 39 075 965 2484
The largest lake on the Italian peninsula, Trasimeno is a lovely place for a day out (although the weedy bottom and murky water aren't great for swimming). The main towns around the lake are picturesque Castiglione del Lago, on the western side, and sleepy Tuoro and Passignano on the north shore. From any of these, you can pick up a ferry to Isola Maggiore (timetable at www.apmperugia.it; click on "Orari," then "Navigazione del Trasimeno"). The only inhabited island of the three on the lake, Maggiore has a pretty one-street village known for its lace shops; a basic hotel, Da Sauro (39-075-826-168; www.hoteldasauro.it), with a restaurant serving grilled lake fish; and some good walks. (The entire circuit of the island takes no more than an hour.) The lake's largest island, Isola Polvese (accessed by boats from San Feliciano, on the eastern shore), is a nature reserve with a garden of aquatic plants and the remains of a 15th-century monastery.
Just south of Trasimeno, in a Tuscan-style landscape of rolling hills, stand the fine fortified villages of Paciano and Panicale—the latter home to the excellent Lillo Tatini restaurant. Further to the southeast, Città della Pieve, a handsome walled town made almost entirely of weathered brick, has an interesting claim to fame. In addition to being the birthplace of Renaissance painter Perugino (whose Adoration of the Magi adorns the little oratory of Santa Maria dei Bianchi in Via Vannucci), it also has what's allegedly the narrowest street in Italy: Vicolo delle Baciadonne, or "Kiss-lady Lane."
Tourist info: 24 Piazza Duomo
Tel: 39 076 334 1772
If you visit only one sight in Umbria, make it Orvieto's majestic Duomo, or cathedral (Piazza Duomo; 39-076-334-1167). If Florence's Duomo is a monument to the arts and the technical know-how of the Renaissance, Orvieto's mother church celebrates the cultural refinement of the Middle Ages—at least on the outside. The foundation stone was laid in 1290, and although it was more than three centuries before the huge, intricate edifice was completed, the artisans who built the cathedral stayed true to its original medieval plan. The facade includes delicate, 14th-century sculptures of Old Testament scenes; inside are the colorful Last Judgment frescoes of Luca Signorelli, who was a major influence on Michelangelo.
Built atop a steep-sided bluff of volcanic rock that looks like something out of Monument Valley, Orvieto's dramatic and rather precarious position is belied by the air of quiet prosperity in the town itself, with its bookshops, cafés, theater, and highly rated restaurants. Vineyards fill the flat expanse of the volcanic floor below the town; if you want to buy wine, there are any number of enotecas in the old town—or you could head for the sales outlet of the reputable producer Cardeto, where bottles made with Orvieto's eponymous white grapes are offered at cellar-door prices (51 Via Angelo Costanzi; 39-076-330-0594).
Tourist info: 18 Piazza Matteotti
Tel: 39 075 573 6458
The regional capital of Umbria isn't nearly as famous as the big art towns in neighboring Tuscany. So instead of battling through tourist crowds like you would in Florence or Siena, you'll largely be exploring this cultured, historic town in the company of friendly, laid-back locals. If you're driving, you'll need to negotiate a confounding maze of one-way streets, so it's best to leave the wheels behind in the well-marked Piazza dei Partigiani parking lot and take the escalator up past the subterranean remains of medieval streets and houses to Piazza Italia, a leafy square with panoramic views.
From there, the café-lined pedestrian street of Corso Vannucci (don't miss the historic bar-pasticceria Sandri) leads conveniently to both of the city's major sights. First comes Perugia's massive Gothic town hall, Palazzo dei Priori, which houses the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, a one-stop display of the best art from regional masters like Perugino and Pinturicchio alongside a few Tuscan interlopers like Piero della Francesca and Fra' Angelico (19 Corso Vannucci; 39-075-574-1413). Just beyond is Piazza IV Novembre, dominated by the Fontana Maggiore, a gorgeous fountain built in the 1290s by father-and-son team Nicola and Giovanni Pisano.
The city's cosmopolitan air is partly due to the presence of the Università Italiana per Stranieri, which runs courses in Italian language and culture for foreigners. Perugia is also the venue for the country's most important jazz festival, Umbria Jazz, which takes place in July, with a short winter reprise in Orvieto at the end of December (39-075-573-2432; www.umbriajazz.com).
Tourist info: 7 Piazza della Libertà
Tel: 39 074 323 8920; 39 074 323 8921
Before the late, great Gian Carlo Menotti established the Festival dei Due Mondi here in 1958, Spoleto was just another perfect Umbrian historic town. Now it's a whole other story. The world-famous festival of music, theater, dance, and the visual arts runs every year between the end of June to mid-July (2007's festival—the 50th anniversary—starts June 29 and ends July 15). Tickets for events need to be booked well in advance; the easiest way to do this is via the festival Web site: www.spoletofestival.it.
Of course, the festival isn't the only reason to visit Spoleto—although the town can seem comparatively subdued the rest of the year. Once an important Roman colony, the town began to take on its present shape during the Middle Ages. Spoleto's lovely Duomo dates from this period, as do some of the town's formidable walls and fortifications. The most impressive of these is the impenetrable Rocca, the town's castle, which served as a prison until 1982 (Piazza Campello; 39-340-551-0813). Below the Rocca, the bridge-aqueduct of Ponte delle Torri is both a classic photo op and a remarkable example of medieval engineering, spanning a deep wooded gorge on ten soaring pilasters (Via del Ponte). Outside the town walls are two ancient churches worth the detour: San Salvatore is one of the oldest in Italy, dating to the fourth century (Via della Basilica di San Salvatore; 39-074-349-606), while the facade of San Pietro is covered in fine Romanesque bas-reliefs of religious allegories (Strada per Monteluco; 39-074-349-796).
Tourist info: 28/29 Piazza del Popolo
Tel: 39 075 894 5416; 39 075 894 2526
Todi has been referred to as Italy's "ideal town" (the phrase was coined by Kentucky University professor Richard S. Levine, an expert in sustainable cities), and visitors to the walled village often agree. Although residents might complain that Todi is too quiet to be ideal, and too full of foreign expats to be affordable, those stopping there on holiday are almost always charmed. Scenic Piazza del Popolo is at the center, and top, of Todi's dense web of medieval streets: Here you will find the Duomo, with exquisitely carved wooden intarsia choir stalls dating to the 1520s. On the other side of the square, the tall Gothic Palazzo del Capitano, one of three medieval civic buildings in the square, hosts the Museo-Pinacoteca di Todi, a collection of artistic and archaeological bits and pieces illustrating the history of the city, housed in a series of richly decorated rooms that are as worthwhile as the collection itself (Piazza del Popolo; 39-075-894-4148; closed Mon.). Below the town walls stands the isolated and stunning Renaissance church of Santa Maria della Consolazione, worked on by various architects in the course of the 16th century (Via Circonvallazione Orvietana; 39-075-894-8482). For nine days in mid-July, the town comes alive during the Todi Arte Festival, with concerts, plays, and dance performances (www.todiartefestival.it).