Italy

Around the region

The green heart of Italy has hills aplenty – many topped with medieval towns – as well as mountains, lakes and a Mediterranean coast.

From ancient Rome to the Renaissance, from Raphael to Ravanelli, the wealth of historical and artistic treasures in places such as Assisi and Orvieto is extraordinary, while towns such as Perugia and Urbino have lively universities to add youthful spice to the cultural mix.

The landscape is stunning, with enormous panoramic vistas around every corner. The spine of the region, the Apennine range – snow-capped in winter and then enrobed in spring flowers – makes ideal walking country. Or you could fling yourself off the top with help from a paraglider, or rush down white water rapids in a raft. Alternatively, laze on a sandy Adriatic beach with great local wine and delicious pasta, flavoured with the mysterious truffles that grow under the roots of the region’s trees.

Central Umbria

Perugia, the region’s biggest city, and Assisi, its biggest tourist attraction, sit facing each other across the northern neck of the Valle Umbra, a large plain that was once under water. Still living a watery existence – just – is Lago Trasimeno to the west. Perugia and Assisi are very different places: the former a lively university town famed for its summer jazz festival and its chocolate; the latter one of the holiest places in Christendom, home of Sts Francis and Clare, and the site of frescoes that changed the face of art.

Stray from the souvenir-laden main streets of Assisi, or the wide, paved thoroughfare of Perugia, and you will find yourself lost among a maze of narrow medieval lanes, with cats lying in the shade of ancient arches and women hanging washing from high windows. And Perugia’s cultural life goes much deeper than its summer festivals: late into the night, when the rest of Umbria has long since gone to bed, music issues from chic wine bars and gritty student pubs.

Shallow Lake Trasimeno is a cool antidote to the two towns, with regular boats to its indolent islands and a beach life of sorts around its edges. And there are other escapes too – behind Assisi, Monte Subasio rises steeply, with good summer walking and cross-country skiing in winter.

Valle Umbra & southeast Umbria

South of Assisi, a series of steep hill towns presides over the flat plains below, each prettier than the last. Spello, Trevi and Spoleto all retain their strong medieval identities, while Montefalco adds the bonus of a successful wine industry. Bevagna is flatter, but no less lovely.

The striking town of Norcia was the birthplace of the twin saints Benedict and Scholastica, the first Western monk and nun. Beyond, further south and east, the landscape changes: the Apennines rise to some of their most spectacular heights in the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini, straddling Umbria and Marche, a mountainous land of wild boar, wolves and morning mists. Beech woods cling to folds in the hills while the enormous high plains are home to wild flowers and fields of lentils.

Southwest Umbria

The town of Orvieto, built on, and into, a huge layer cake of volcanic rock, is another of Umbria’s centres, dominated by a gargantuan cathedral visible from afar. Decorated both inside and out with fascinating, if occasionally nightmarish, bas-relief and frescoes, it is one of the region’s must-see buildings. Orvieto is a wine centre too – its crisp white is a good accompaniment to a meal in one of its excellent restaurants.

Nearby Todi is yet another hill town, with an excellent September arts festival and some huge Roman cisterns underneath its striking piazza. Narni, from which CS Lewis probably took the name for his fantasy land Narnia, is a little-visited town with a fascinating underground network. The geographic centre of Italy, it has remarkable Roman remains, which residents of pretty nearby Amelia see as rather modern – their town having been founded before Rome itself. To the north there is more of ancient Rome, in the shape of the abandoned town of Carsulae, whose romantic ruins occupy a bucolic spot among thickly wooded hills.

Northern Umbria

Less visited than the regions further south, northern Umbria has some excellent walking, not to mention world-class hang-gliding, on its eastern fringes. On the edge of the Parco del Monte Cucco, Gubbio has a Roman theatre, an extraordinary medieval town hall and a very special cable car, which whisks passengers two at a time up Monte Ingino in fragile-looking baskets. To the west, in the Upper Tiber Valley, Città di Castello sits at the heart of a tobacco-growing area where you can find much of the region’s agriturismo (rural farm) accommodation. Home to one of Italy’s foremost 20th-century artists, it also houses significant art collections. Nearby, little Montone hosts Umbria’s film festival each July. 

Northern Marche

Urbino is one of the most picture-perfect Renaissance towns and has been a great centre of learning and the arts for hundreds of years. The huge Palazzo Ducale dominates the surrounding landscape and the town retains much of its 15th- and 16th-century structure, as well as being home to 21st-century contemporary university life. To the north, the Montefeltro is an isolated area, with craggy outcrops topped with castles rising precipitously out of the landscape. San Leo has a spectacularly sited fortress at the top of a cliff, and there are lots of other villages to explore. Out on the coast, Pesaro and Fano are old-fashioned resorts, but both have good beaches and handsome antique centres to compensate for their garish seafronts. North of Pesaro, where the hills reach right to the sea, Gradara is another castellated town with a tragically romantic past.
 
Central and southern Marche

The busy Adriatic port of Ancona has a quiet old centre with some good museums and some exceptional seafood restaurants. Just to the south, the Parco del Conero is one of Italy’s most attractive stretches of coast, with rare wild beaches and green hills that reach right down to the sea. Portonovo is a pleasant little beachside village with some good restaurants and hotels and, just around the coast, cliff-top Sirolo has pastel- painted houses and a great beach at the foot of a steep path. Macerata is a little-visited university town with an outdoor summer opera festival, and nearby Loreto is the site of Mary and Joseph’s house – flown here by angels or reconstructed by crusaders, depending on who you believe. Ascoli Piceno, a buzzing town with a stunning stage-set piazza, is the centre of the Marche’s south, from where the high and often snowy peaks of the Monti Sibillini are not far away.

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