What to See in Tuscany and Umbria

Photo by Sharri Whiting De Masi

Central Italy’s capital cities, Florence (Tuscany) and Perugia (Umbria) have captured the attention of travelers for centuries and 2018 is no exception. Though Florence is the more famous of the two, both were part of Etruria, the land of the mysterious Etruscans, located between the Tiber and Arno Rivers. The Etruscan area also includes Siena, Arezzo, Todi, Orvieto, Pisa and Volterra, providing yet more reasons to visit Central Italy.

The National Archeological Museum in Florence traces the history of the Etruscans from the 8th century BC, while museums and extraordinary painted tombs abound in the area.

New to the Florence museum scene is Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni, which previously was only open by special appointment to a very exclusive group. The main floor (piano nobile) is now accessible to all visitors by appointment and exhibits part of Roberto Casamonti’s extensive private art collection, including pieces by Picasso, Warhol and De Chirico, as well as some of Italy’s contemporary artists. Roberto Casamonti is the owner of the Tornabuoni art galleries in Florence and Milan.

An old favorite in Florence is the Mercato San Lorenzo, the largest food market in the city. It was designed almost 150 years ago by Giovanni Mengoni, who also designed the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. The building is chock full of food vendors and the work of local artisans. A newer favorite in Florence is Todo Modo, a large bookstore that includes a bar and auditorium.

Hotels within the city include the Brunelleschi, JK Place, and the Savoy. Slightly out of the center, but still within easy walking distance, are the Four Seasons Firenze and the Hotel Regency.

Those who love wine and architecture will find a wealth of great spots to visit in the broad area to the south between Florence and Perugia. Montalcino, home of Brunello and Tuscan Rosso vintages, is surrounded by more than 250 wineries. Serious wine lovers should map out Tuscany’s wine routes to find open cantinas, while the town itself has numerous enotecas, or tasting rooms, within the walls.

The main piazza in Siena is legendary, as are the towers in nearby San Gimignano. In and around Siena are many luxury resorts, castles and villas, including Castello del Nero, Relais Suvera, Fonteverde Spa and Villa Il Poggiale.

Well-known Etruscan ruins and museums are located all around the area, from Volterra, southwest of Florence, all the way down to Tarquinia in northern Lazio, where superb painted tombs and a fine museum are located. Families traveling together between Volterra and the coast may find the Fonte alla Lepre resort near Riparbella or nearby Relais Guado al Sole a good place to stop. Both have enormous swimming pools to appeal to children and are close enough to Pisa and the beaches to serve as a base for travel in the region.

Initiated in 2016 and in preparation for 2019, the year of Slow Tourism, historic walks and pilgrimages called Cammini d’Italia (Pathways through Italy) offers travelers routes designed for walking, cycling or horseback tours lasting several days. (Clients familiar with the Spanish Camino a Santiago will recognize the concept.) Every path has been chosen to offer scenery, history, safety and ideal places to stop along the way. All details of every itinerary are posted online. Most are between 90 and 110 kilometers (55-65 miles). Individuals may plan their own trips or sign up with tour companies.

North of Florence, the Via Romea Nonantolana route, which owes its name to the Abbey of Nonantola (circa 725), is of outstanding historical and cultural interest. The Trail is divided into two separate paths, Western and Eastern, both of which start from Nonantola.

The Assisi Way is longer at 285 kilometers (170 miles) and is made up of small, centuries-old pilgrimages between Dovadola and Assisi and focused on the two saints. Unlike other trails, this one allows a limited number of walkers, due to the small number of beds at the refuges along the route. Travelers must be certified in advance and carry “Pilgrim’s credentials.” The itinerary includes Assisi, La Verna, Gubbio, the Hermitages of Montecasale, Cerbaiolo and Montepaolo, the Benedictine Monastery of Camaldoli and the Basilica of San Francesco, places made famous by the presence of St. Anthony and St. Francis.

In Perugia, the National Gallery of Umbria is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a year of special exhibits and events, including the re-mounting of an exhibition of Umbrian art first organized in 1908. The permanent collections of the museum include Middle Ages and Renaissance periods with works by Arnolfo di Cambio, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Duccio di Boninsegna, Gentile da Fabriano, Beato Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli and Piero della Francesca. Umbrian artists Benedetto Bonfigli, Bartolomeo Caporali, Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, Perugino and Pinturicchio are well represented.

The National Archaeological Museum in the San Domenico Convent exhibits Etruscan-Roman artifacts and Cippo di Perugia, a stone that is one of the most important examples of the enigmatic Etruscan language.

Visitors to Umbria can trace the itinerary of St. Francis of Assisi, beginning with the spectacular duomo of San Francesco in Assisi, and continuing to the ancient town of Foligno, where Francis sold his horse to finance his ministry, and then on to Bevagna, where he is reputed to have talked to the birds clustering around the fountain in the main square. The perfectly preserved medieval town of Montefalco is home to the national museum located in the San Francesco church, where Gozzoli’s fresco cycle of the life of the saint is unforgettable. Outside the walls of Montefalco, Pambuffetti is an elegant villa hotel that offers cooking classes and fine dining. Barattano, a 1,000-year-old fortified village near San Terenziano, rents restored apartments to travelers — it is said that Lucrezia Borgia stayed in the tower when she was governor of Spoleto.

The old railway line Assisi-Spoleto-Norcia was converted into a bike and hiking route several years ago and attracts visitors looking for a day or half-day excursion.

Wine and olive oil lovers will find themselves welcomed by dozens of wineries and oil producers while following in the saint’s footsteps. (Umbrian wine routes may be found online). A favorite summer / fall activity is the seasonal Montefalco nel Bicchiere (Montefalco of the Glass) wine tastings led by a sommelier every Saturday at 5 p.m., April through October. Each week four wines from the area are offered; the tastings are conducted in both English and Italian and held at the Wine Consortium’s headquarters in the main piazza. Reservations are necessary.

Away from the bigger cities in Tuscany and Umbria are the medieval hilltowns: Cortona, Cetona, Montepulciano, Spoleto, Deruta, Torgiano, and dozens more. Lucca, Arezzo, Castiglione del Lago on Lake Trasimeno, and the spa town of Chianciano are on flatter ground, but offer ancient architectural sites, spas, wineries and shopping. Cortona and Chiusi are home to well-respected Etruscan museums.

With the rich variety of historic places, vineyards, walking tours and museums, it cannot be forgotten that 2018 is the Year of Italian Food. It is almost impossible to have a bad meal in Central Italy. The cuisines of Tuscany and Umbria are similar, but with distinct differences. Florence is known for bistecca Fiorentina, but both regions revere Chianina beef, one of the oldest breeds in the world. Umbria is known for its cured meats from Norcia, while Tuscans are expert at cooking the white beans grown in the area. Both regions make ample use of black truffles, porcini mushrooms, extra virgin olive oil and wild asparagus. Every itinerary to Central Italy should make plenty of time for eating, especially during the summer festival season, when every village has a festival honoring its favorite local food.

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