Umbria is often referred to as the green heart of Italy, an especially verdant region of mountains, rolling green hills, forests, tumbling rivers and lush farming land - Umbria produces fine wine, olives, wheat and tobacco. Predominantly hilly it rises to the spine of the Apennines on its eastern border. And more prosaically it is literally at the heart, the only landlocked Italian region, with Tuscany to the west, Le Marche east, and Lazio to the south. To the north and south we have Emilia-Romagna and Abruzzo. The main towns in Umbria are Perugia (the regional capital), Terni, Foligno, Citta di Castello, Spoleto, Gubbio, Assisi, Orvieto, Bastia Umbria and Narni.
So much for the geography and economics ... why do people love Umbria so much? Its closeness to Tuscany is part of the reason: a region that has sometimes seen frozen in time since the internicine fighting of the Renaissance (city against city, town against town) has seen a new lease of life in recent years. Having 'discovered' Florence and Siena, overseas visitors realised the neighbouring region had an unchanged beauty. Retreating into fortified hill towns and pulling up the drawbridge may have rather ossified Umbria, but it leaves unspoiled medieval jewels for the modern visitor to discover. A guide devising a whistlestop tour of the region, pen and back of envelope in hand might come up with the following.
The Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi - the superb Umbrian hilltown may become horribly packed with tourists in peak season, but choose your times well because you have to see this monument to St Francis. The Basilica is one of Italy's most important Renaissance churches, with frescoes by Simone Martini and Giotto. And the approach to hilltop Assisi across the valley below is a stunner.
If you want to tick the box marked 'Umbrian hill town' then Gubbio is your bet. A flood of tourists has failed to blunt the charm of this resolutely medieval city. A picture book of pink houses with orange terracotta roofs, the Apennines rising majestic behind. And head away from the crowds to Citta di Castello, with a lovely medieval 'centro storico' yet unknown to most tourists. Perugia may not be the loveliest of the Umbrian towns, but it has Umbria Jazz in the summer, and is a buzzing university town with good restaurants and bars. Nearby you have the vast inland waterway of Lake Trasimeno - good for a spot of swimming, sailing or windsurfing.
The medieval village of Montefalco fully earns its tag as 'the balcony of Umbria', and it's easy to see why the medieval governors of Spoleto considered this such a strategically important spot. Ensure you try the local wine, the blackberry-tinged Sagrantino Passito. Spoleto is lovely - a medieval town with superb Romanesque churches, two kilometres of unbreached walls, and Italy's leading arts festival (the Festival dei Due Mondi each summer).
Out of Spoleto and into the Valnerina - this valley being arguably the loveliest spot in Umbria. The valley heads relentlessly up to the peaks of the Monti Sibillini, as we approach Abruzzo. The pretty fortified village of Vallo di Nera is well worth a stop, as is Norcia. On to Terni, birthplace of St Valentine, and then to the Cascate delle Marmore waterfall. One of Italy's prettiest if lesser known lakes, Lago di Piediluco is nearby, surrounded by thickly wooded slopes. Also see the Abbazia di San Pietro in Valle, the abbey high on the hill.
Narni has a fine medieval centre, though the view down from the town is resolutely modern and industrial. Todi meanwhile is the classic Umbrian hill town, a dusty backwater a few decades ago but now a fashionable retreat for Rome's art and media community. Great restaurants, bars and shops. Orvieto is another lovely city that gets rather inundated by tourists, lying as it does on the main route between Rome and Florence. It's unmissable though, with its Duomo being one of Italy's finest Gothic buildings. It has a famously good white wine too. Head out from Orvieto into Monte Peglia, the triangle of land rising up between the Tevere river in the east and the Chiani Valley in the west. Little villages, olive groves, vineyards and wild unspoiled countryside. This area is a haven for wildlife, particularly birds and native otters.
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