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Umbria: Italy's Oasis
Pick up any guidebook and you will be bombarded with warnings against tackling Italy in July and August. It's stinking hot, crawling with tourists and overpriced - that's the general consensus. And they're right... if you're planning to take on the major tourist centres of Rome, Florence, Milan and Venice. If, instead, you are after a gentler holiday, exploring charming hill towns and discovering works of art in their original setting, purchasing local pottery and developing a taste for regional cooking, no place could be more magical than Umbria in the summertime.
As the only landlocked region in central Italy, Umbria holds little attraction for Italians during this season as they typically head to the coastline for their summer holiday. Umbrians are no exception. As an Australian living in the region, I must confess I can't wait for the beginning of summer; not so much for the long sunny days, abundant ripe tomatoes and basil or the fields full of flowers, but for the peace that falls over the place - even its capital, Perugia - after the mass exodus to the seaside has taken place. Umbria is rarely impossibly crowded with tourists in summer. Even Assisi attracts more pilgrims than tourists and is to be avoided more in September and October (when festivals such as the Festa di San Francesco take place) than in summer. Many Umbrian hill towns are difficult to get to by public transport, which means only the most intrepid backpackers tackle the region. You need to hire a car to explore the countryside, and get an air-conditioned one, too. Organize that before you leave home to save time and money. There is a lot less traffic in summer than during the rest of the year and parking is a breeze.
The hill towns of Umbria tend to be quite a deal cooler than Rome or Florence. On even the hottest days, a pleasant breeze sweeps through dark medieval alleys which are scarcely touched by the sun's rays. However, we are still talking about summer, so my advice is to take your sightseeing at a leisurely pace, interspersing visits to churches, museums and galleries with a spot of shopping, a concert under the stars, a wonderful meal, an antique market or a village fair. Better yet, do as the locals do and take a siesta in the early afternoon. Enjoy a leisurely lunch in a cool taverna or buy some delizie from the local alimentari and have a picnic or pranzo al sacco. Or, if you spot a porchetta van by the roadside or at the food markets, stop and buy some panini stuffed full with one of Umbria's most delicious specialties, roast suckling pig. Then go back to your hotel and settle down for a siesta. After all, you won't be missing out on anything as life simply shuts down from 1pm until 5pm (except restaurants).Once refreshed, join the locals in the cool of the evening as they take their customary passeggiata down the main street. Do a vasca (lap) or two yourself then choose an outdoor table, sip an aperitivo and watch the passing fashion parade.
Perugia, in particular, really comes to life on summer evenings. During July, shops stay open until midnight every Thursday so there's plenty of time to check out the summer sales in Perugia's impressive array of boutiques. Also on Thursday evenings, stalls set up by local artisans line the streets. Perugia's Galleria Nazionale dell' Umbria is open every evening from 8.30pm to 11.30pm during the summer months. Have dinner alfresco at a table set outside a restaurant. Among the best in Perugia are Da Cesarino in Piazza IV Novembre and Osteria Il Gufo, tucked away in Via della Viola. The latter is very "in" among young Perugini so it is wise to book ahead, and it may be closed for most of August. Or you can make dinner last all evening by joining one of the progressive dinners or mangialonga held on Thursday evenings in July. Wander through the streets of Perugia from antipasto to primo, from secondo to dolce as the town's best restaurants provide one course each. If you are in Perugia for Umbria Jazz (14-23 July) you will certainly not be stuck for entertainment. This haughty city really lets its hair down for these two weeks as the streets ring with the sounds of marching bands from New Orleans and the main piazzas become stages for free concerts. Umbria Jazz attracts many international acts - past stars have included Sting, Stan Getz, Gil Evans and Wynton Marsalis. More intimate gigs can be enjoyed in Perugia's best restaurants.
If these activities don't give you enough local colour, keep your eyes peeled for the posters advertising sagre (fairs) or check the listings in the local paper, Corriere dell' Umbria. Held in most Umbrian villages, these fairs are organized by the villagers themselves and can provide a chance to try local dishes prepared as they have been for centuries. Avoid the sagre that have obviously wandered from their traditions, such as the Sagra della Birra (beer festival) and the Sagra della Crepe, and go for ones celebrating local in-season produce and regional cooking. The sagra held at Montesperello is as special for its setting in the grounds of its medieval hilltop castle as for the main dish of roast pork. Although these fairs have their theme dishes, a full menu is on offer. Food aside, these sagre are a wonderful way to join the locals at their most charming and relaxed. Have a go at the pesca di beneficenza (lucky dip) or trip the light fantastic in the town square where a live band is sure to be playing.
Synchronize your hill-town visits with the antique markets. An excellent market is held in Pissignano on the first Sunday of each month. The village itself is nothing special but when you've done shopping, visit the nearby Roman spa, Fonti del Clitunno, for an oasis of peace. On the second Sunday of the month, antique dealers set up stalls in Spoleto, a popular Umbrian town. The third Sunday sees the markets at Passignano sul Trasimeno, a good excuse to head for Lake Trasimeno and, on the last weekend, the market hits Perugia. It's worth timing a visit to the Duomo in Perugia for a Tuesday or Saturday morning when the steps of the cathedral are filled with brightly painted, bargain-priced pottery from nearby Deruta, though those serious about their ceramics will want to make a special trip to the pottery centre itself. Gubbio is also famous for its pottery and, while you're there, enjoy a meal at the Taverna del Lupo. Order the rabbit dish, coniglio alla taverniera, and you will be given the beautiful ceramic plate that celebrates it.
Assisi is a must on an Umbria itinerary, yet there are many neighbouring small towns worth visiting as well. Todi is another fairytale medieval town - explore its main piazza and the antique shops running off it before enjoying a meal at Ristorante Umbria where the panorama from the terrace is breathtaking. Visit Spello, where frescos by Pinturicchio in the Cappella Baglioni of the Santa Maria Maggiore church depict the same landscape as can be seen while lunching on the terazza of the excellent restaurant nearby. On the way to Assisi, turn off the autostrada at Bastia Umbriafiere and do a bit of bargain hunting at the Valentino spaccio or factory outlet store, confusingly called SOCREA, and at the huge LOFT, which stocks a wide range of top Italian and American designer items at half price or less. Then go on to admire Giotto's frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco celebrating St. Francis, the former cloth merchant who gave away the clothes off his back.
Explore the perfect little medieval town of Corciano. In July, medieval dinners are held in the Taverna del Duca and in August, the village stages an interesting art fair, known as Agosto Corcianese. Across the valley, the 12th-century castle of Solomeo houses a knitwear factory run by the king of cashmere, Brunello Cucinelli. Snap up a bargain in the tiny factory shop and admire the perfect village setting. If your hunger for luxury clothing has not been satisfied, try the Gunext, Rivamonti and Losani Lamberto factory shops down on the plain at Taverne di Corciano.
Umbria offers a number of cool, subterranean sites to explore. In Perugia, take the underground escalator from the main car park in Piazza Partigiani and find yourself walking through an underground road of medieval houses. You will emerge in Piazza Italia, right in the centre of town. In Orvieto, the 16th-century well commissioned by Pope Clement VII is a miracle of engineering and provides a cool respite for the weary traveller. When you emerge from this Pozzo di San Patrizio, don't miss Orvieto's magnificent cathedral and its charming lanes lined with shops selling ceramics. In Torgiano, the Lungarotti family has set up an interesting Museo del Vino in the cool cellars of a 16th-century mansion, offering another welcome refuge from the heat of the day and demonstrating that good food and wine have been a priority in the region since Etruscan times. Above ground, continue the tradition with a meal at the famous Le Tre Vaselle, run by the Lungarotti family, and taste their wines, especially Torre di Giano and Rubesco. Just out of town, visit the Nazareno Gabrielli factory shop for superb shoes, bags and clothes at discount prices.
Discover Perugino, the most famous of all Umbrian painters, in the towns fringing Lake Trasimeno. In Citt della Pieve, you'll find his Adoration of the Magi in the chapel of Santa Maria dei Bianchi. Then turn down Via Baciadonna ( "kiss woman street" - the narrowest in Italy, and that's saying something!) and take in the view at the other end: the same rolling hills, feathery cypresses and distant views of Lago Trasimeno as in Perugino's fresco. Panicale affords a similar experience - a spectacular view of the lake and a marvelous Perugino fresco in the chapel of San Sebastiano. Panicale is also home to the fine restaurant Le Grotte di Boldrino, which serves meals in a shady walled courtyard. While in the area, pop over to Paciano, an unspoiled village mysteriously twinned with the suburb of Mosman in Sydney!
If the heat is getting to you, head down to the lake. Historically important as the site where Hannibal clobbered the Romans in 217BC (villages along its shore sport names such as Sanguineto or "bloodbath", and Ossaia or "bone dump"), Lago Trasimeno is now a pleasant spot for Perugini to cool off in its clean waters. Foodies seek it out for the eel, carp, perch, trout and pike which make up the local stew, tegamaccio. Try it in one of the lakeside restaurants of Passignano sul Trasimeno or Castiglione del Lago or catch a ferry from either of these towns to the Isola Maggiore to watch the fishermen mending their nets and women knitting lace while you're having lunch at Hotel Ristorante Da Sauro. Alternatively, you could drive around the south of the lake to Faliero restaurant at Sant'Arcangelo to try their torta al testo. Halfway between a pizza base and a focaccia, the torta is cooked on a testo or plate of stone over seething hot coals, then split and filled with prosciutto, sausage and spinach or rocket and stracchino cheese. Faliero boasts that the "torta della Maria la pi buona che ci sia" - his wife, Maria's, torta is the best around. Eating this simple but delicious snack, regarding Hannibal's lake, who could possibly disagree?
NOTE: opening hours do vary depending on the season, so phone ahead to confirm.
Galleria Nazionale dell' Umbria, Corso Vannucci 19 (Palazzo dei Priori). Open Sunday and feast days 9am-8pm; weekdays 9am-7pm; during summer, also Saturday 9pm-midnight. Closed the first Monday of every month. Entrance fee is L8,000 (under 18 and over 60 free).
Mangialonga. Contact the Tourist Office in Palazzo dei Priori, Piazza IV Novembre,phone (075) 573 6458. Open Mon-Sat, 8.30am-1.30pm and 3.30-6.30pm, Sun 9am-1pm. Or contact Ristorante Gi, Via Ruggiero Andreotto 19, phone (075) 573 1100 or(075) 501 1875. Bookings essential.
Osteria Il Gufo, Via della Viola 18, phone (075) 573 4126. Open evenings only 8pm-12pm. Closed Sunday and Monday and all of August.
Ristorante Da Cesarino, Piazza IV Novembre, phone (075) 572 8974. Open 12.30pm-3pm and 7.30pm-11pm. Closed Wednesday.
Umbria Jazz. For information, contact the Tourist Office above.
Taverna del Lupo, Via Ansedei 21, phone (075) 927 3291. Open 12pm-10pm.Closed Monday.
Ristorante Umbria, Via S. Bonaventura 13, phone (075) 894 2737.Open 12.30pm-2.30pm and 7.30pm-10.30pm. Closed Tuesday.
LOFT outlet store, Via dei Pioppi 2, phone (075) 801 2539. Open 10am-8pm. Closed Sunday.
SOCREA (Hemmond s.p.a), Via del lavoro 9, phone (075) 801 531. Open 9am-1pm and 3pm-7pm. Closed Sunday.
Brunello Cucinelli s.p.a., Loc. Solomeo, Piazza Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiese, phone (075) 529 481. Open Mon-Fri 9am-1pm and 3pm-6.30pm; Sat 9am-1pm.
Gunext s.p.a., Via A. Maria Mozzoni 2, Taverne di Corciano, phone (075) 697 9107. Open Mon-Fri 9am-1pm and 3pm-6.30pm; Sat 9am-1pm. Closed Sunday and probably 1 August-20 August (earlier if they sell out).
Losani Lamberto, Via Villa Case Sparse 48g, Magione, phone (075) 847 711. Open 9.30am-1pm and 3.30pm-7pm. Closed Sunday.
Rivamonti s.p.a., Via A Maria Mozzoni 26, Taverne di Corciano, phone (075) 506 881. Open Mon-Fri 9am-12.30pm and 3.30pm-6.30pm; Sat 9am-12.30pm. Closed Sunday.
Taverna del Duca. Organised by locals during July - look for the queue!
Le Tre Vaselle, Via Garibaldi 48, phone (075) 988 0447. Opening hours 12.30pm-2.45pm and 8pm-10.30pm.
Museo del Vino, Corso Vittorio Emanuele 23, phone (075) 988 0200. Open 9am-1pm and 3pm-7pm. Entrance fee is L5,000.
Nazareno Gabrielli, Via Assisi 51, phone (075) 985 468. Open Tue-Sat 9am-12.30pm and 3.30pm-7.30pm. Closed Monday and Sunday and throughout August.
Albergo Ristorante Le Grotte di Boldrino, Via Virgilio Ceppari 30, phone (075) 837 161. Open from 1pm (lunch) and from 7pm (dinner).
Hotel Ristorante Da Sauro, Via Guglielmi 1, phone (075) 826 168. Open 12pm-3pm. As the last ferry leaves in the late afternoon, dine here in the evening only if you're planning to stay overnight.
Faliero Bar Dancing, Loc Montebuono (ss.599), phone (075) 847 6341. Open 7.30am-10pm (later on Saturday).
© Megan Rialti, first published in the Australian Gourmet Traveller, June 2000
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