Her lake a sheet of silver
Her lake a sheet of silver
Umbria, the “green heart of Italy”, is an area which has frequently captured the imagination and stirred the souls of poets and writers. English poet George Byron described one of its most seductive spots, Lake Trasimeno, as “a sheet of silver”. Virginia Woolf also wrote of the “plovers egg lake; grey olives, exquisite, subtle; sea cold, shell green.” The banks of the lake are dotted with small towns and villages which began as typical mediaeval hamlets, such as Castiglione del Lago, Magione, Passignano, Tuoro, Paciano and Panicale.
No matter which view of the lake you have, you should be able to see the lake’s three islands: Polvese, with its aquatic plant garden, Maggiore (which is inhabited) and Minore. Perhaps the most enchanting view is the one from Montecolognola, a small hamlet of Magione at an altitude of 400 metres and surrounded by mediaeval walls. In another small village, San Savino di Magione, visitors to the La Valle nature reserve will spot birds stopping during migration to build nests among the rushes emerging above the water. The lake is also an ideal spot for combining the enjoyment of natural beauty with more energetic activities. In summer, the water teems with sailing and kitesurfing enthusiasts, and there are dedicated paths for mountain bikers at Castiglione del Lago and Panicale.
However, Trasimeno is not the only place where you can combine these two pursuits. On the other side of the region lies Valnerina, which takes its name from the Nera River. Flowing among the Sibillini Mountains, it continues as far as the 165m tall Cascata delle Marmore near Terni. This waterfall was actually constructed in Roman times by the consul Curio Dentato to divert the waters of the Velino River and channel them into the Nera basin. Nowadays, the river course with its undulating terrain and sudden drops is a challenge for rafting and canyoning fans alike which never fails to live up to expectations.
The Umbrian land and skies are also full of fascinating surprises. On the “roof of the Sibillini” lies the Castelluccio di Norcia plain, whose wide meadows are in bloom from late May to early July in a spectacular display of unfurling petals, while hang-gliders and paragliders soar through the sky above. At the Monte Cucco Park, famed for its caves, the descents of hang-gliders and paragliders follow and echo the torrents cascading into the hollows of the canyons. The underground complex of mountain caves spans 30 kilometres, in an underground world which reaches a depth of almost 1000 metres. Those who prefer to experience the thrills of caving at a less ambitious depth can try out the Gola del Forello, between Todi and Orvieto.
Look, you who are passing by, at the playful life of this fountain.
If you look carefully, you will see incredible things.
The architecture and art of the Umbrian region have been slowly sculpted over time by one civilisation after another, from the Umbri to the Etruscans and up to the mediaeval era. The influence of each era is visible at every turn. Perugia, the regional capital of Umbria, is a prime example: the pathway to the historic city centre takes you through the Etruscan Arch, opposite the University for Foreigners. As you stroll through the town centre, sheltering from the lash of the north wind in the winter, you find yourself in a typical example of Roman urban planning, with Corso Vannucci acting as the main thoroughfare joining the two main piazzas, Piazza Italia and Piazza IV Novembre.
The second piazza is unmistakeably recognisable, hemmed in by the San Lorenzo Cathedral and Palazzo dei Priori, where tourists and university students lounge on the steps in front of the two buildings enjoying the view of the Fontana Maggiore, built in the 13th century to celebrate the new aqueduct. The tiles of the lower basin are a veritable compendium of mediaeval civilisation, depicting the calendar, the liberal and mechanical arts, stories from the Bible and moral fables. On the lower ledge, you can still read the words of the Latin epigraph inviting you to enjoy “incredible things”: “Look, you who are passing by, at the playful life of this fountain. / If you look carefully, you will see incredible things.”
Moving along Corso Vannucci, the Palazzo dei Priori lies on your right. This building, open to the public, is home to both the Council House and the Perugia National Gallery, with works spanning a vast timescale, from the 13th to the 19th century. The Gallery displays works by mediaeval painters such as Pietro Vannucci (also known as “il Perugino”, or “the man from Perugia”) and Pinturicchio (Bernardino Betto Betti). The former, born in Città della Pieve, was Raphael’s teacher and painted a fine Adoration of the Magi; the latter, born in Perugia, painted the Santa Maria dei Fossi altarpiece.
If, on the other hand, you prefer ancient history, walk towards Via Baglioni, parallel to the main street, then turn off from Via Oberdan down the Sant’Ercolano steps. Once you arrive at Porta Santa Croce, carry on up to Piazza Giordano Bruno, where you will find the National Archaeological Museum housed in the San Domenico complex. In addition to artefacts from prehistoric times including urns, amulets and coin collections, the Cippo di Perugia or Perugia boundary stone, one of the most significant documents of the Etruscan language, is to be found here, as well as the Cai Catu tomb. This was discovered by accident in the 1980s when a gardener hoeing a vegetable garden struck an opening in the vault, which had been undisturbed until that moment.
If you’re interested in the Etruscan era, Orvieto underground is an underground city for you to discover. Take a journey back in time from Piazza Duomo, at the centre of the town, to the remains of the ancient Etruscan city of Velzna. And if you’re inspired to continue your journey of exploration, there’s always the Crocefisso del Tufo Necropolis.
Sacred art in the Christian tradition, and the masters of mediaeval painting, from Giotto to Cimabue.
Sacred art is the area where Umbria truly reveals the richness of its heritage. It is so broad and varied that even the top experts in the art of this region are constantly surprised by new discoveries. Among other things, Umbria was the birthplace of many key Christian figures, including St Francis and St Chiara of Assisi, St Benedict of Nursia and St Rita of Cascia. This remarkable legacy can be admired particularly in the area between Assisi and Spello, peppered with Benedictine abbeys and Romanesque churches. Noteworthy abbeys include those in Sassovia (near Foligno) and Montelabate, between Perugia and Gubbio. It’s more than worth making a trip to Assisi, the famed holy city, where the Basilica of St Francis houses the remains of the saint and you can also admire the works of mediaeval painting masters such as Giotto and Cimabue.
Contemporary art also has its place in the region, helping to strike a balance between ancient and modern, between the past and the challenging realm of the present day. In Terni, Umbria’s second largest city, these two worlds are brought together in juxtaposition at the Centro Arte Officine Siri, (whose name forms the acronym CAOS, Italian for “chaos”). Once a chemical factory, the site now houses the Aurelio de Felice Modern and Contemporary Art Museum and the collections of the Archaeological Museum. Spoleto is seething with art, dance and music during its Festival dei due mondi (Festival of the Two Worlds) in the summer, whereas the Palazzo Collicola Visual Arts centre is open all year round. The Palazzo Albizzini, home of the Burri Foundation, is located in Città di Castello in the northern part of the region and displays the works of Alberto Burri. More works are on display in the former tobacco drying warehouses, which remained operational until the 1970s before being converted into a museum. Those who are new to the work of this artist are sure to be enchanted by his ability to transform materials into works of art.
Craftsmanship still plays a vital role in the Umbrian economy, as do re-enactments or commemorations of professional activities and rituals. They are a means of maintaining and renewing the link with the past. Along the high street in Deruta, the tradition of majolica ceramic art lives on, for which the village became famous throughout Italy and abroad. The range of objects is astounding: plates, jugs, plaques, cups, tables and even watches, in every colour from terracotta red to striking ceramic white, painted in minute detail and with great imagination. You’re unlikely to leave without having chosen a little piece of that art to take home, but it’s not just about commercial production: you can also learn about the history of the art through the exhibitions at the nearby regional Ceramics Museum. Located in a Franciscan convent, it is the oldest ceramics museum in Italy, portraying the development of the art from ancient times up until the 19th century.
One perhaps lesser-known tradition is that of printmaking in Città di Castello, where the Grifani-Donati artisanal print house was established in 1799 in a convent in the heart of the city centre. The family, who have handed down their knowledge of the profession for over two centuries, still produce lithographs and copper engravings. You can also visit the Museum of Graphic Arts next door (on reservation).
The Moretti Caselli Studio is another example of a workshop with an adjoining museum, this one dedicated to glass painting. This is a curious art form combining painting skills with an understanding of light and how to use it: artists must start by positioning the glass, studying the movement of the sun and only then choosing a design and colours, which will adopt a unique vitality thanks to the light.
Handicrafts are proof that every stage of the production cycle is important, and this is something which inhabitants of the small municipality of Sant’Anatolia di Narco know full well. This location in the Valnerina, on the banks of the Nera River, is famous for its hemp cloth. It was such an important industry for the inhabitants that a museum devoted to the cloth was inaugurated in the Town Hall in 2008. Clothing collections from the 18th to the 20th century display the variety of techniques and production styles.
The population of Bevagna use the words “Cartiera”, “Ceriera”, “Setificio” and “Zecca” every day, as these are the names of the four “Gaite” or districts of the mediaeval town. But they’re not just names: they actually mean “paper mill”, “wax factory”, “silk factory” and “mint” and refer to the professions of producing cotton wool from shreds of cotton, beeswax candle-making, silk spinning and coin forging once practised there. Visitors to Bevagna in June will learn the meanings of these words during the Mercato delle Gaite, when the village travels back in time and rediscovers its roots. The districts spend ten days reliving the past in themed competitions. The reconstruction work is extremely conscientious and based on the 15th century town charter. Points are allocated to the districts after equally fastidious judging and the winning gaita crowned at the end of the competition.
In fact, the symbol of the region – three red votive candles – hints at Umbria’s most important re‑enactment. On 15th May, Gubbio commemorates the eve of the death of St Ubaldo, Bishop of Gubbio, in 1160. According to legend, the villagers filled the streets in a candle-lit procession, with tall votives on wooden stands carried as a tribute by the various craftsmen’s guilds towering above the crowd. The procession was repeated the following year, on the day of the vigil. Nowadays, the date is marked by the Votive Celebration beginning one Sunday in May when three votives – carried on wooden floats – are placed in the Basilica of St Ubaldo in the town centre. On the 15th the race begins: yes indeed, the modern version of this celebration is a race! Instead of processing the candles, the candle-bearers hoist up the weighty votives and run out with them, cheered on by an ecstatic crowd.
The streets of Spello are also brimming with community spirit and a sense of sanctity in June, when multitudes of tourists walk around, their eyes curiously and firmly angled downwards. They are in fact admiring the Infiorate or flower carpet displays laid out on the pavements and piazzas of the town centre. The event recalls the custom of using flowers as decoration in religious processions. The modern revival of this tradition is quite recent: elaborate flower carpets first appeared in Spello in the early 1900s, on the Feast of Corpus Christi.
UmbriaJazz is an unmissable event which has hosted concerts by internationally renowned musicians since the 1970s, including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Dee Dee Bridgewater.
The fun doesn’t end with re-enactments: the region also plays host to a range of major international events. Every July, the streets of Perugia are overrun by jazz-lovers who swarm into the city for its concerts. The first edition of UmbriaJazz festival was held in the 1970s, and over the course of time it has cemented its reputation as an unmissable event. As you join the river of people flooding the main street in the evening, the sounds of double basses, clarinets and trombones ring through the air. Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Dee Dee Bridgewater are just a few of the internationally renowned artists who have performed on the UmbriaJazz stages over the years, making it what it is today. Since the 1990s, the winter nights in Orvieto have also been warmed by the syncopated and unpredictable rhythms of this music genre at the Umbria Jazz Winter festival, from late December to early January.
The International Journalism Festival is another major event par excellence in Perugia. The Festival is in its ninth edition this year, and in the space of just a few short years has become “the in-the-flesh journalism social network”, a tongue-in-cheek definition coined at the end of last edition. Over 500 speakers from around the world meet to discuss the future, challenges and opportunities for the profession, whilst enjoying Perugia’s captivating historic centre. What’s more, the timetable is bursting with free workshops, where seminars worthy of making front page news are coupled with inspiring debates.
The Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of the Two Worlds) is a more historical and rival event to UmbriaJazz, and began in Spoleto in 1958 as the brainchild of composer Gian Carlo Menotti. For over two weeks, Spoleto is filled with music, dancing, singing, plays and exhibitions. Spectators flock to the town’s churches and theatres, which provide impressive ancient backdrops for the artistic performances. Finally, the importance of music as a vector for bringing cultures together and breaking down barriers is celebrated at the Festival delle Nazioni (Festival of the Nations), which began in 1968 in Città di Castello and has now spread to other municipalities in the Tevere river valley, such as Umbertide, Sansepolcro, Anghiari and San Giustino.
Whether travelling by train, car, bike or on foot, the olive trees and vineyards on Umbria’s hillsides can always be seen in the background. These ever-present motifs along your route become the oil and wine on tables laid before you, reinvigorating the tastes of traditional cuisine. Your discriminating palate will be satisfied all the way along the Olive Oil and Wine Roads as you visit the areas where these delicacies are produced. For example, on the Colli del Trasimeno Wine Road, you can sample local fish-based specialities or the typical torta al testo, a soft focaccia bread cooked on a wood stove, as you sip a goblet of dry white wine on the banks of the lake.
The region is home to numerous high-quality wines, but two in particular attract tourists. Montefalco is known as the “balcony of Umbria” for its view over the surrounding valleys on all sides, and is also the home of Sagrantino: a dark ruby red wine which awakens the olfactory sense with its spiced and fruity aromas. In the Torgiano countryside you find the Rosso riserva, deeper in colour with an unmistakeable dry, harmonious taste. If oil is nothing but a condiment for you, about as exciting as salt, then make sure you stop off somewhere along the Olive Oil Road, for example at a tavern in the old part of Trevi. When you sink your teeth into a bruschetta doused with Umbrian extra-virgin olive oil, you’ll change your mind. If you’re already a convert, you’ll know that the regional boundary lines also demarcate a Protected Designation of Origin – Umbria – a label assigned by the European Union indicating the quality of the extra-virgin olive oil, and the only such case in Italy.
Where the hills give way to patches of forest, truffle hunters tread the soil come rain or shine with their dogs. These animal helpers are much more trustworthy than the gluttonous pigs traditionally used in the past, which had the unfortunate habit of gobbling up their tasty finds! Umbria is one of the main exporters of black truffles, the winter variety being the highest quality. This becomes clear when entering any restaurant in the area- nigh on every menu includes some form of antipasto with truffle sauce, a first course or a meat dish adorned with generous shavings of the delicacy. Nor would Umbrian cuisine be complete without its meats, whether from farmed animals or game. The little shops selling traditional produce in Norcia, nestled among the Sibillini Mountains, exude the scent of cured meats. Those who venture in will find excellent prosciutto ham, which has had Protected Geographical Indication status since 1997. Sometimes, you happen across surprising food labels, such as signs saying “donkey testicles sold here”! But take these with a pinch of salt: they’re really pork meat packed into a rounded mould, with the addition of tasty peppered lard.
Steve McCurry has cast an artist’s gaze on the everyday lives of Umbrians to produce his photography exhibition, “Sensational Umbria”. McCurry has been one of the top names in contemporary photography for the past thirty years and produced the famous “Afghan Girl” photograph, thus securing his place in the history books. The photo also reveals one of the recurring themes in his work: the quest for the human element at all times, whether in war zones or in the traditional settings of the rural world.
After winning numerous sectoral prizes such as the Robert Capa Gold Medal, the National Press Photographers Award and four awards from World Press Photo, McCurry decided to tread the streets of Umbria with his camera, trying to capture the places, moments and splendours of the region. “Sensational Umbria” is the result of this quest, an exhibition which tells the age-old story of the people who live and work in Umbria, enhanced by original shots from the photographer’s catalogue.
This is a land with an abundance of time, where past, present and future coexist in the portraits of a world-renowned artist. The exhibition is promoted and organised by the Umbria Region, together with the Municipality of Perugia, and will be on display in the Ex-Fatebenefratelli exhibition space, and at the Civic Museum in Palazzo della Penna, in the room housing Beuys’s blackboards.