Exploring Umbria with Bellini Travel
The charm of Umbria lies in the beauty of its countryside and the splendour of its hill towns. Much of the landscape hasn’t changed since St Francis walked the same rolling hills and through the same deep dense woods back in the 13th Century. The art, especially the frescoes, is unbeatable not just in Italy but really the whole world and more often than not, hidden away in an obscure church or at the back of a tiny village museum.
The food is as good as the art with five key ingredients to look out for – lentils, salami from Norcia, black truffles (and if you’re lucky white) from Valnerina, a flinty emerald, green olive oil that comes from the olive trees that cling to the rocky hillsides and pecorino cheese because quite simply sheep are everywhere. The pasta to eat is stringozzi and nearly every trattoria has an open grill – the Umbrians love their meat. All of the above to be washed down with a glass or two of Sagrantino di Montefalco which more than rivals its super Tuscan rivals over the border
We feel Perugia, the capital of Umbria is vastly underrated and deserves at least a day or two getting to know it. Once through the sprawling suburbs and industrial estates (wind down the windows for a whiff from the Baci chocolate factory) you will emerge into a Centro Storico which is entirely free of cars. A feat of modern engineering perched on a hill with many houses cascading five streets down and most with views of Lago Trasimeno or the splendid Duomo. The city has always had a violent history dating back to the 15th century when it was a hot bed of assassination, incest, and intrigue however the school of painting that emerged as a result is one of the most sentimental moments in Italian art history. The Pinacoteca has all the Renaissance heroes, from Perugino, to Fra Angelico to our favourite Piero della Francesca.
After a painting or two in the Pinacoteca head across the street for a mid-morning cappuccio and pastry at the utterly civilised Sandri in Corso Vannucci. Open since 1860, we love the vaulted frescoed ceilings, the wood panelled walls and the waiters who quite possibly have been there since it opened its doors.
Osteria a Priori Everything but everything that is served or poured in this little osteria is from Umbria including over 300 different wines. The charming owner Alessandro is a disciple of the Slow Food movement and on the menu, you’ll find everything from wild chickpeas and ancient beans, to saffron from Citta della Pieve and local black and white truffles. We prefer the table downstairs in the wine shop, to the tight squeeze upstairs in the vaulted dining room. (NB if it’s fully booked and you are in need of a quick lunch then SUD in Via Birago is a good alternative, Raffaella the owner has created a contemporary osteria with superb food, books and art to buy)
Perugia has a handful of artisans worth paying a visit to. The Studio Moretti Caselli has been making stained glass for over 150 years and descendants of the original Francesco Moretti (known as the Da Vinci of stained glass) still run the studio and welcome visitors to their enchanting museum. Beautiful painted arches frame the old workshops which are lined with shelves filled with dusty bottles of coloured powders dating as far back as the Middle Ages. We think this is one of the great hidden jewels of Umbria, it’s a wonderful way to spend an hour or so and feels like a true discovery.
Across town is the textile workshop of Giuditta Brozzetti which is located in the staggeringly beautiful 12th Century church of San Francesco dell Donne. Master artisan Marta Cucchia reproduces patterns on 18th and 19th century looms from designs she has found throughout Umbria, not only in the archives of the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi but also from studying the frescoes of Perugino, Giotto and Ghirlandaio. You can buy some of her works in the little shop, learn the basic principles of weaving and watch her studio in action.
Under half an hour’s drive from Perugia is the tiny medieval hamlet of Solomeo. Fashion designer/all-round Renaissance man and philosopher Brunello Cucinelli has transformed the village into his own little cosmos. As well as the shops selling what is arguable the finest cashmere in the world (deals are to be had in the back room), you will also find an amphitheatre which transforms into an open air cinema in the summer, a library, an Academy of Arts & Crafts and a garden of meditations. If you walk through the village and past Brunello’s house you’ll find Da Valter a Solomeo – a wonderful restaurant with a fabulously eccentric owner and a surprisingly impressive wine list (look out for the exceedingly rare and outstanding Paolo Bea) With tables spilling out over the lawn in the summer months, and an open grill normally sizzling with sausages in the winter it makes a trip to Solomeo one of the most enjoyable experiences in Umbria.
If you’re in luck, try and get to Solomeo for their annual medieval festival when the entire village plays fancy dress (obviously in Cucinelli), pied pipers stroll the streets and it all feels very Black Adder and joyful.
Birthplace of St Francis and St Clare and beloved of Pope Francis, Assisi is more popular than ever. The Basilica of San Francesco with its tender fresco cycle of St Francis by Giotto plus works by other early founders of the Renaissance including Cimabue and Simone Martini cannot and must not be ignored. It is possibly the most important fresco cycle in all Italy, i. e. on the planet! Yet try and find time to visit the more peaceful places that St Francis so loved including the monastery of San Damiano, ideally early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the swallows are diving between the cypress trees, you can hear the tinkling of bells of sheep grazing in the nearby olive groves and imagine what it must have been like for St Francis all those years ago.
On your way up to Assisi, stop at the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli to see the little stone chapel known as the Porziuncola. The church within the church is where St Francis died, and if you walk into the cloister at the back of the main church you’ll find a statue of St Francis where a dove has made her nest.
In Assisi itself is the relatively unknown Museo della Memoria dedicated to the 300 Jews who were hidden by locals from the Nazis during World War II. Small but important, it tells the tale of some very brave men and women including priests, monks, nuns and most famously the printer Luigi Brizi who together with his son forged hundreds of ID documents on an old printing press. The story was made famous in the novel ‘Assisi Underground’ which later became a film staring James Mason.
Until recently we were fairly despondent over the lack of good eating in Assisi, however I think we have finally cracked it.
Ristorante La Selva, recently opened by a former chef of Robin Birley and just up the hill from the Basilica, the view from the tables on the terrace is glorious. Small clever dishes including a refreshing gazpacho which was ideal after a morning sightseeing in the heat, and even better a chilled pea soup with tiny grilled calamaretti followed by some freshly rolled tagliatelle with broad beans, tomato confit, burrate and crispy pancetta. Don’t rule out the more surprising Peruvian offerings such as the empanadas and other quick snacks if you’re in a rush. Chef Jacopo is one to watch.
Go for a spell to Spello
Spello has become one of our favourite places in Umbria. With Assisi down the road attracting millions and millions of visitors each year, Spello is still remarkably ‘local’ with only the occasional tourist to be seen pottering down the Via Cavour. Try and visit during the extraordinary Infiorate Festival of Corpus Domini which takes place late May/early June (depending on Easter)The night before the festival, over a thousand residents work together to create a carpet of pictures made entirely of flowers that cover the towns narrow streets. Be there just after dawn when the workers are uncovering their masterpieces and the scent of freshly cut flowers permeates the town.
If you are to see just one piece of art and one piece alone whilst in Umbria, make it the series of frescoes that Pinturiccho painted in 1501 in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The focus of these remarkable paintings is the early life of Jesus and they are as good as, if not better than those being painted at the same time by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael.
La Cantina, Housed in a former stable block, with high vaulted ceilings and lit mainly by candles, La Cantina is an immensely welcoming place. The owners use mainly produce from their farm, including lamb, wild boar and pigeon which are cooked on an impressive spit. The pasta is made each morning and the place is unmissable in the autumn when the truffles are in season.
Spello is full of boutiques including a charming new shop Francesca Greco in via Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour selling lovely ceramics.
A Bite in Bevagna
Across the valley from Spello, you will findthe medieval town of Bevagna which lies low as opposed to Spello which hugs the side of Monte Subasio. Important in antiquity, there is a marvelous second-century mosaic of sea monsters, tritons and a variety of fish, hidden under an unremarkable modern building on the via di Porta Guelfa. Equally important in Romanesque times, the churches of San Silvestro and San Michele Arcangelo face each other looking slightly worse for wear across the medieval Piazza Silvestri and are also worth visiting for the purity of their interiors.
Antiche Sere is an unpolished trattoria by Porta di Cannara run by an anarchist called Luciano who also happens to be a very good cook. The menu is short but snappy, with dishes full of integrity including a delicious panzanella salad using tomato’s straight from Luciano’s garden. Don’t be put off by the scruffy exterior.
If you have not managed to get to Solomeo to stock up on cashmere, then Tasselli in Corso Matteotti has a wonderful range and very reasonable prices (ask for Danilo). Another great spot for lunch is La Bottega di Assu which is a tiny restaurant on the main square which must be one of the most beautiful in Umbria. Assunta (Assu) will greet you with open arms and lead you to either the three tables inside or the five tables al fresco. It is completely perfect.
Moving on to Montefalco
All the roads that wind up to Montefalco lead to the five-sided Piazza del Comune which is shaped like a starfish. Montefalco, meaning Falcons Mount is most well known as the “balcony of Umbria”, a tribute to the wonderful views of the Umbrian plains down below. This little hill town has punched way above its weight being the birthplace of not only eight saints but also the of Church of San Francesco which is now a small museum and home to the 13th century fresco cycle by Benozzo Gozzoli of the Life of St Francis. If like us you are an admirer of Gozzoli, you can also see a pair of frescoes in the Convent of San Fortunato which is just before you reach the city walls. A rare treat considering the long queues in Florence to see his frescoes in Palazzo Medici Riccardi.
It is almost impossible to believe that a restaurant can be as good as Enoteca L’Alchemista, considering its prime tourist location on the picturesque Piazza del Comune. You must book in advance to snatch one of the tables outside, where a long afternoon can be spent sitting under white umbrellas drinking the very decent house red and feasting on stuffed zucchini flowers, hand rolled umbricelli with black truffles, surprisingly light gnocchi al Sagrantino (which is the local grape) and an otherworldly tiramisu. The wine list is predominantly Umbrian focusing on some of the serious winemakers that surround Montefalco.
Singing in Spoleto
Home to the Festival of Two Worlds, at one point the Spoleto Festival was such an important part of the social calendar that Harry’s Bar in Venice would close for the two weeks of the festival and move to Spoleto. However, despite being home to one of the great European music festivals, Spoleto is so much more, causing Shelley to claim it was ‘The most romantic city I ever saw’.
Trik Trak overlooking the Duomo is the perfect place to start the day with a cappuccino or end it with a martini. Started by one of Harry Cipriani’s proteges who came to Spoleto and never left.
Il Tartufo is the most famous restaurant in Spoleto and a truffle lovers’ paradise. The chefs work all seasons of truffle: the coveted white in autumn and early winter and the black pregiato for the rest of the year. Our favourites were orecchiette alla popla di olive (tiny handmade pasta shapes served in a sauce of Gorgonzola and crushed olives) and terrina di polenta (slices of truffle-flake polenta in sauce covered with large shavings of truffle).
Our advice for visiting Todi which perches impressively on top of a two crested hill overlooking the river Tiber, is to start at the highest point and work your way down until you reach Ristorante Umbria for lunch. The gently sloping, early medieval Piazza del Popolo is the perfect place for breakfast in one of the cafes overlooking the Duomo.
The wisteria covered terrace of Ristorante Umbria has the most spectacular view of any restaurant in Umbria or possibly in Italy. However, this smart restaurant is equally lovely in the winter months when you eat in the old-fashioned dining room with a roaring log fire that occasionally plays host to large steak or two.
Side Trips to San Sepulcro and Monterchi
(Yes, we know they are in Tuscany but only just!)
The small towns of San Sepolcro and Monterchi are the capitals of Piero della Francesca. We suggest you go to Monterchi first to see the Madonna del Parto who is sadly a little worse for wear but still beautiful. Then to San Sepolcro, to the Museo Civico which has three glorious works by Piero including the famous Resurrection of Christ. For lunch there is the old school, but perfectly decent Ristorante Fiorentino in a lovely dining room that was made for a long lunch in the winter. Save space for the fabulously kitsch pudding trolley.
Discover Citta di Castello
Città di Castello is a must for anyone interested in modern art. The home of Alberto Burri, the artist who founded the Arte Povera movement, the Palazzo Albizzini and the Essicatoi del Tabacco are worth driving across Italy for. Think of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern and quadruple it in size!
Citta di Castello should be explored on foot (the narrow streets make it no fun to drive) and there is a good food market on Thursdays and Saturdays. Trattoria Lea has now moved to the main square and is always excellent especially during the white truffle season.
On to Orvieto
The town of Orvieto can be seen from miles around, its position perched on a wall of dark volcanic rock and its magnificent Duomo, known as the Golden Lily of Cathedrals, have attracted visitors on the main road from Rome to Florence for centuries. We continue in this vein and suggest it as the perfect pit stop for a dash of culture and a good lunch before continuing onto a major city.
I Sette Consoli, One of the few places in Umbria to attract serious gourmands. A welcoming dining room filled with paintings leads onto a pretty garden overlooking the black and white striped Duomo for al fresco lunches in the summer. It is worth investing in the tasting menu which is uncomplicated, beautifully presented and celebrates the very best local ingredients.
Tucked away on the border with Le Marche, Norcia is remote and surrounded by mountains. A world away from the gentle hill towns we speak of elsewhere in this guide. So backward was the town, that at one point it was only famous for its castrati, but thankfully with the retirement of the last castrato in the Vatican Choir earlier this century, the town is now famous for food, and possibly the devastating earthquake of 2016 that demolished the Duomo in the main piazza. Try and visit in late May, early June when the surrounding landscape known as the Piano Grande is carpeted in an explosion of colourful wildflowers.
Granaro del Monte, The oldest restaurant in town and famous for its lentil soup as well as the Norcia black truffle (the town has a truffle festival every February). Choose to eat either in one of the larger vaulted dining-rooms or one of the smaller, cosier rooms of what was the town’s former pawn shop and prepare yourself for an unforgettable gastronomic experience. Open everyday.