In the very centre of the Italian peninsula, serene, dreamy Umbria unfurls its idyllic landscape – soft, green and gold hills backed by distant mountains. The only Italian region with neither a coastline nor an international border, Umbria is a quiet, timeless place where the rest of the world’s concerns don’t quite seem to matter. Named for the mysterious Umbrii tribe who inhabited the area 3,000 years ago, Umbria was later enriched by the Etruscans, the Romans, and medieval and Renaissance Italians before seeming to turn its back on further development. The result is an elegant, enchanting time-warp – a region whose settlements are overwhelmingly dominated by historical buildings.
Umbria’s population density is half the national average, which means there’s a lot of space here (even given the region’s growing popularity with tourists and Northern European ex-pats). Most Umbrians still live on hilltops, where there are excellent opportunities to gaze out into all that space – invariably pastoral, undulating and beautiful. It is for its innumerable ancient hilltowns and hill-villages that Umbria is most famed. Unchanged for centuries, and offering a high quality of life, these skyward-reaching settlements are treasure troves of art and architecture. Heavy with history, their pedestrian-friendly old alleys and cobbled streets open onto perfect piazzas lined with gorgeous buildings – the snug intimacy of the close-knit community contrasting wonderfully with the huge, inspiring vistas from balconies, roof terraces and ramparts.
While invariably attractive, each Umbrian hilltown has a different character. Here’s a guide to eight of the best...
Dominating the landscape for miles around, totemic Monte Subasio is a high, rounded hulk of land that looms beside the table-flat Vale of Spoleto. Assisi is draped delicately across a lower spur, its white and pale pink buildings easily discerned against the dark mountain from many miles away. It’s an inspired setting for an inspiring place. Assisi is Italy’s most popular Christian pilgrimage site after Rome, thanks to animal-loving local boy Francis. The town teems with religious and secular visitors almost year-round, but is too majestic to ever really be overwhelmed by them. Each evening sees renewed tranquillity, the daytrippers gone and the locals and stayers-overnight free to mingle in the exquisite central piazza – with its fountain, medieval palaces and original Roman temple sprouting Corinthian columns.
Even when the main streets and their central churches are most crowded, Assisi has no shortage of quiet back-alleys lined with pink stone and festooned with geraniums. Steps and slopes lead you up and down the town, climbing eventually to the enormous views on offer round the hilltop Rocca Maggiore (‘big castle’, to you and me). Up here, it’s impossible not to be moved by the vista of forested mountain slopes to the northeast, the pancake-flat patchwork of colourful fields to the southwest, and the beautiful Basilica di San Francesco glittering below you to the northwest.
Umbria’s slick capital is a medieval metropolis perched on a high plateau, gazing out across miles of rolling landscape. It’s a bustling, cosmopolitan city (unusual by sleepy Umbrian standards), with a booming economy and a wealth of art and history. Nearly 3,000 years old, Perugia was founded by the mysterious Umbrii, later developed by the canny Etruscans, and then snapped up by the over-acquisitive Romans. (Monuments and remains from these last two civilisations pepper the streets.) But Perugia’s flavour is overwhelmingly medieval. Tall, secretive alleys retain a strange atmosphere of suspicion and intrigue; high, tiny windows seem to wink menacingly at each other. This was a dark, murderous city in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, sick with plots and vendettas. That there are subterranean streets bricked-over into permanent dark beneath one of the central palaces is perfectly in keeping with Perugia’s bewitchingly macabre sensibility.
At the foot of its plateau, Perugia sprawls unlovely modern suburbs and industry, and it’s down here where a sizeable proportion of the city’s 150,000 inhabitants live. But it’s probably up in the lively historical centre where you’ll want to buy property. Central Perugia presents particularly good rental prospects – not just because the city is a tourist hub for the region, but also because it has a large student population and hosts a major international music festival each year (‘Umbria Jazz’). There are two universities: the 700-year-old University of Perugia, and the rather more modern Università Italiana per Stranieri where non-Italians come to study Italian language and culture. The two-fold student population keeps the city cosmopolitan and ensures there’s a wealth of cultural events, films and concerts in town – not to mention a good few inexpensive eateries.
‘Unspoilt’ doesn’t do this tidy, magical spot justice; ‘untouched’ might be nearer the mark. An intimate little town, Montefalco is medieval to the back teeth, its sloping cobbled lanes and tall, intricately-wrought buildings effortlessly evoking another time and sensibility. Unusually for a medieval locale, it’s also suffused with daylight. Dubbed ‘la ringhiera dell’ Umbria’ (‘the balcony-rail of Umbria’), Montefalco sits atop a rounded solitary hill in the mountain-flanked Vale of Spoleto, enjoying fabulous wide-open views in every direction. It’s a clean, quiet, civilized place, with a high quality of life. It’s still under-visited, especially for somewhere with so many attractions – richly-decorated churches, a good art collection, and gorgeous local wine (‘Sagrantino Passito’ – made from a grape variety grown nowhere else in Europe).
One of Umbria’s most impressive hilltowns, Spoleto is many people’s favourite settlement in all of central Italy. While fairly large, it’s more provincial-feeling than Perugia, and less stuffed with visitors than Assisi. Scenically spread across the landscape, Spoleto boasts some big, tough, imposing structures. Its city walls are a synopsis of Umbrian history – a base of huge 6th-century-B.C. blocks laid down by Umbrii, subsequent layers built up by Etruscans and Romans, and uppermost parts dating from the Renaissance. The mighty Ponte dell Torri aqueduct-bridge spans a deep ravine with ten towering arches, linking Spoleto to the forested slopes of Monteluco. And the town-top ‘rocca’ is very much a castle’s castle – stern walls, towers, crenellations, the lot.
Spoleto hosts Italy’s most important performing arts festival every year – the Festival dei Due Mondi, bringing international crowds, an influx of high culture, and a fair bit of commercial tat. The annual shebang means the town keeps itself in good shape year-round – monuments are spic and span, trendy shops glitter with lavish goods, etc. Spoleto’s graceful medieval centre is a delight, perhaps especially in the Piazza del Duomo where the elegant cathedral sits against a backdrop of open sky and hillsides.
A broad column of rock rising a thousand feet into the sky from a lushly fertile valley plain is the spectacular setting for Orvieto. ‘Hilltown’ hardly seems an appropriate term for such an astonishing arrangement. Atop the rock, which is the solified core of a prehistoric volcano, Orvieto is a near-perfect collection of gingerbread-coloured medieval buildings and enticing, strollable lanes. Oh, and the cathedral, with its show-stopping facade of gold-and-coloured mosaics (not to mention its psychedelic interior frescos) is by a general consensus of Italians the most beautiful in Italy.
Popular with daytrippers because its train station is on the mainline between Florence and Rome, Orvieto is big enough to absorb its myriad visitors pretty painlessly. There’s plenty for them to see besides the cathedral and the beguiling streets – such as various wells and passageways worked into the soft volcanic rock beneath the city by Etruscans and latter Italians. Most visitors avoid the modern, lower part of town around the rail station (connected to the old town by funicular train.
Repeatedly voted the ‘world’s most liveable town’ by the University of Kentucky (who presumably know about this sort of thing), intoxicating Todi lures an increasing number of discerning tourists and is home to an expanding community of ex-pat artists, writers and media types. Set in a very high position approached by winding roads, Todi is yet another town founded by Umbrii, enlarged by Etruscans and Romans, but now predominantly medieval. It has a magnificent central piazza, the Piazza del Popolo – a regular candidate for ‘best piazza in Italy’. Intricate swallowtail crenellations adorn the pale palaces here, watched over serenely by the simple, elegant duomo. Elsewhere, the quiet streets are dotted with galleries and shining boutiques. Narrow lanes open out suddenly to reveal staggering vistas of countryside. The overall flavour of Todi is more secretive and sombre than friendly, expansive Orvieto. This could be a result of the high-brow incomers, the smaller permanent population (17,000), the relative difficulty of access, or simply the chill white and grey of Todi’s stone compared with the ubiquitous warm teddy-bear-brown of Orvieto’s.
Set on a cliff overlooking the Nera river, Narni is a picturesque and pleasantly low-key place with the usual piazzas and maze of alleys. Medieval buildings tumble down from a huge castle, and there’s a romantic ruined bridge left over from Roman times. The town’s strong Middle-Ages flavour is cranked up a notch each spring when it stages a spectacular medieval-style ‘tournament of the ring’. But for all this, Narni sees nothing like the number of visitors who make it to the classic hilltop towns to its north. (Some come by mistake, confusing it with Narnia!) It’s a place to consider if you’re thinking of losing yourself in little-visited Umbria (but be warned that steel and chemicals plants in the lower part of town can come as a nasty dose of reality).
Pinky-grey Gubbio is a medieval town of movie-set perfection. Its beguiling streets tumble up and down the lower slopes of Monte Ingino, creating a boiling sea of orange roofs. In the main piazza, a gigantic campanile towers above pretty palaces while further up, the castle pitched at nearly 3,000 feet gives predictably awesome views of the town, of the forested Apennines behind it and the vast plain stretching in front. Not terribly easy to reach (local roads are small and the train station is miles away), likeable Gubbio has a tough, mountain-outpost feel. Even the big annual festival is gutsy and determined – teams carry monumental wooden columns at speed through the streets. The town sees increasing tourism, a triumph of its considerable charm over its awkward location.