I’m not sure how many people in Singapore or in Asia for that matter think of Umbria when planning a holiday to Italy. It’s always Tuscany and its famous capital Florence that gets the most attention. Its fame is not hard to conceive — Florence was, during the Middle Ages, one of the wealthiest cities and also considered to be the birthplace of the Renaissance.
Besides its illustrious history, Tuscany’s popularity is also enforced by the sheer number of cultural exports: Florentine steak, Chianti wine, Puccini, Dante, Carrara marble, the list goes on. But I digress.
Often overshadowed, neighbouring Umbria has plenty to offer, and should be a major consideration on your next trip to Italy. You may get less nodding looks when you share your experience of Umbria, as you would when regaling tales of supporting the Leaning Tower of Pisa with your finger, sneaking phone camera snaps of Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Accademia or maxing out your credit card at the Prada – Space Outlet. But what you would get in Umbria is a more honest, less diluted, humble account of Italy, as I found out on a trip earlier this year.
There for a wine tourism conference in Perugia, the capital of Umbria, I was pleasantly surprised during my short five-day stay by the genuineness of the people and the true passion of the Italians so often masked in more touristy surroundings.
Perugia — The Capital City
Welcomed by Europe’s coldest winter in thirty years (this was the week, when Italians made snowmen at the Colosseum), I was kept warm by hospitable hosts and copious amounts of wine. Usually apprehensive about themed-hotels, Hotel Gio, where I was put up was a surprisingly cosy stay. Split into two themes, one half of Hotel Gio is dedicated to wine, with all rooms fostering valuable bottles of wine inside fanciful “scri-vini-e” (wine desks). I stayed at the Jazz area, and in my room was a CD player dedicated to playing jazz tunes as well as a massage-chair to relax and unwine (pun intended). You may wonder why jazz? Well, Perugia hosts the Umbria Jazz Festival around July each year. This is one of Europe’s most important festivals and has been held since 1973.
It seems that the people who run Hotel Gio also run a chocolate-themed hotel – Etruscan Chocohotel. Chocolate is the other famous thing about Perugia and you would probably have eaten the city’s most famous export – Baci (kisses), individually wrapped chocolates which come with a love note.
Dinner in a Functioning Castle
A highlight for me during the trip was a dinner we had in the Castle of the Knights of Malta in Magione (Castello Di Magione). For those who do not know what the Knights of Malta are about, they were founded nine centuries ago in Jerusalem with the aim of protecting the Holy Land. They are one of the oldest institutions of Western and Christian civilisation.
This castle in Magione dates back to 1150 and was meant as a shelter for pilgrims going to Rome or Jerusalem. It is presently the summer residence of the Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. I felt extremely privileged to be able to dine in a place of such great significance.
Today, the castle has moved beyond its military traditions to also include an agricultural and industrial emphasis. It currently produces on a yearly basis over 100,000 bottles of wine, as well as extra virgin olive oil.
Being in Europe in winter is great. You get to take photos without hordes of tourists in the foreground. Although I imagine, it would be considerably easier to take nice town square and Duomo photos in the Umbrian region as compared to Tuscany in any season.
The Multi Facets of Wine
I spent my second night in Torgiano, a typical small Italian town, not much different from any other in Tuscany. It does however hold one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever visited – the MUVIT Wine Museum. Set inside a 17th-century former noble residence, the museum houses a collection of archaeological finds, artworks and ethnographic pieces related to the history and significance of wine.
The museum is split into various themes such as the earliest history of wine as seen through antique jugs, the agricultural tools used for cultivating vineyards, the symbolism of wine for events such as weddings and also its use as a medicine in ancient times.
Synonymous with the town of Torgiano is Lungarotti, which owns the MUVIT Wine Museum, Lungarotti wines and Le Tre Vaselle hotel. Lungarotti is recognised as the winery that put Umbrian wines on the world map and is known for its long bottle aging process before wines go on the market.
Perhaps one of the unique aspects of Lungarotti’s Le Tre Vaselle is its spa which makes extensive use of wine for its therapies. For those already familiar with vinotherapy, you will know of the grape’s extraordinary antioxidant properties and its beneficial effects on skin, circulation and stress management. Treatments available here include wine baths, vine leaf scrubs, wine nectar foot reflexology, wine massages and even wine-scented waxing. Unfortunately I was tight for time and did not get to experience a wine massage. One can only imagine.
Good food begets good wine or perhaps it is the other way around? Le Tre Vaselle has partnered with Alma or The International School of Italian Cuisine, one of the leading culinary schools in Italy, to conduct cooking classes within their hotel. I was lucky to be able to experience such a class. This was undoubtedly my favourite meal of the entire trip. I must confess though, my only role in the meal was pan frying the potatoes and.even so, it wasn’t quite a complete effort, since the chef later chucked it into the oven. Since I can’t share the food, the next best thing is to share pictures of the meal.
Complementing the charming rolling landscape, in Brufa just outside Torgiano, lies a series of contemporary sculptures by famous artists. The initiative, known as “Sculptors in Brufa”, started in 1987; each year, a new sculpture is added. What’s interesting is that the sculptures are designed to complement the surroundings rather than to detract from it. It really was a spectacular sight in a least expected area.
Orvieto – The Hill Steeped in History
My final stop on my tour of Umbria was to the medieval town of Orvieto. Orvieto has a rich history, dating back to Etruscan times. Like many other medieval towns in the region, this one is found on the top of the hill. The old town is accessible by a funicular (cable car) as well as by escalators and elevators. These modes of access turned out to be useful, as when we arrived, the roads were snowed in and our vehicle could not get to our hotel, which was located in the old town.
Despite the snow, we trudged on and explored the old town. One of Orvieto’s highlights is its extensive underground cave network. Almost every household in the past had one, and the underground network served a variety of purposes, from storage to plumbing to housing of homing pigeons.
The other highlight of Orvieto is its magnificent 14th-century cathedral – the Orvieto Duomo, a masterpiece of Italian Gothic architecture. While this is a common sight in many Italian towns, the Ovieto Duomo is nevertheless one of the most picturesque.
I think one of the best things about Umbria as a travel destination is that being a relatively small area, you really get to experience a lot of different things within a short time, without having to endure long distances on the road. From Rome, Perugia is just 200 kilometres away, and even less to Orvieto. Although I only spent five days in the region, I’m quite certain I could easily double the time here without running out of things to do.
It’s also ideally situated for a break away from the bustle of urban life. You still get the relaxed feeling of being away from the city, yet you are close enough to Rome so you don’t have to spend a long time getting here.
Bidding Farewell to Umbria
An interesting story to end this episode is that I almost couldn’t make it out of Umbria to catch my flight. The heavy snow had halted all flights from Fiumicino Airport near Rome the previous day and up to the night before, it was not apparent whether my driver could make it up to Orvieto . At 6am, I had to drag my luggage through snow to get to a bigger road, where hopefully my driver would arrive. Eventually, my transport came, and it was a somewhat surreal sight as the expressway to the airport was filled with abandoned cars to the side. The snow had descended fast and furious the night before, leaving many drivers unprepared for the road conditions. The fact that some people also died in the cold as emergency services could not reach them in time was a sobering end to my holiday. But the trip was unforgettable so you can be sure hail or heatwave, I’ll be back soon.
Experience a different Italy with Quotient’s 11-day Umbria itinerary, a self-drive route to explore Perugia, Torgiano, Assisi, Montefalco and Ovieto. Other than fine wine and architectural and cultural highlights, you will have the opportunity to learn some secrets of classic Umbria cuisines during cooking classes in Montefalco.