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Leave behind the tourist hordes and instead head to Umbria's medieval hilltop towns
27.05.16 - 18:37 -
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Under the Umbrian sun
The breathtaking landscape surrounding the city of Orvieto. :: A. FORBES
It was like being immersed in an exuberant dream. Upon entering the palace it took a moment to adjust to the light; flickering candles were held aloft by young Footman dressed in white, wearing striking Zanni and Pantalone style masks with exaggerated noses, typical of an Italian Masquerade Ball. Beautifully dressed hostesses greeted us, dressed in ornately decorated and beaded dresses, their hair adorned with peonies, roses, vine leaves and grapes. Baroque music played. The intrigue continued as we were seated for the banquet. Illuminated by candelabras and lanterns, athletic dancers, wearing theatrical costumes, performed in front of us beginning their story telling... I was captivated.
Beyond Assisi
I had only been in Umbria a few days, but I was spellbound. I have to admit that I haven’t been that adventurous in my trips to Italy, allowing myself to be tempted by the country’s big hitters, including of course romantic Tuscany. In fact it would seem that I have not been alone in being seduced by the draw of Florence and Siena, or icons like the leaning tower of Pisa and those quintessential Italian countryside scenes of manor houses reached by winding lanes lined with towering Cypress trees. But giving into such temptations often means that many forego the opportunity to enjoy neighbouring Umbria.
Yet if my few days of discovery in Umbria were anything to go by, then this central autonomous region, one of the twenty-nine that make up modern Italy, can more than equal the charm of any other part of central Italy. The area has a local cuisine that is deliciously natural and uncomplicated; whilst for those seeking to be wowed by history and culture, well Umbria can certainly boast plenty of medieval and renaissance art – and all without the coachloads of tour groups.
Assisi, birthplace of St Francis is Umbria’s tourist focus, so unless you are travelling in low season or on a pilgrimage tour, it’s a good idea to give that a miss and instead enjoy the abundant choices of medieval hilltop towns that surround the energetic market town of Foligno.
Orvieto – hilltop masterpiece
I’d found a reasonably-priced flight to Rome, so decided to enjoy the couple of hours’ drive through the Lazio countryside to Umbria. On the way we stopped at the stunning volcanic lakes of Bracciano and Bolsena – I was already being charmed and absorbed by stories from our guide; about the ‘miracle of Bolsena’ and the Corpus Christi church in Montefiascone, and how water from these lakes fed the ancient and classical fountains of Rome.
Yet this was not our final destination for the night; we were heading to the Umbrian town of Orvieto. Towards the end of the afternoon the hilltop town came into sight, set upon a huge outcrop of volcanic rock surrounded by fertile countryside. We pulled over to admire the view – the elevated, fortified medieval town, reflecting the warm afternoon sunlight, clusters around its remarkable 14th century Duomo and extends right to the cliff edge. It’s the sort of fairy-tale scene that really can only be enjoyed in Italy, and especially here in the heart of the country.
The road twisted and turned before delivering us to the summit – and to a maze of cobbled streets and ancient buildings made from the local volcanic rock.
Orvieto was the first of three towns we planned to explore off-season; creating a triangle that offered a fascinating insight into culture, history, and day-to-day life in Umbria; and all without catching sight of a tour group.
The cathedral is one of the internationally renowned monuments in the town. Escaping conflict in Rome, and before relocating to Avignon in the early 1300s, the Popes came to Orvieto, putting this town very much on the religious, cultural and artistic map. So to pass through the huge bronze door of the Duomo, under the rose window, one enters not just a religious building but also into a gallery of fine art. Carvings, sculptures and frescos depict more than iconic stories, they showcase priceless period artistry that has influenced and shaped the cultural story of Italy.
But for me to get a feel for a destination means to dive into the food culture. I love to try the local wines and be adventurous with new dishes. Eating in Italy is of course one of the great pleasures of holidaying here, and once deep within Umbria one can escape those tawdry tourist restaurants with picture menus propped up outside. Here eateries on the whole retain their identities and are usually still family owned and run. Orvieto offers menus prepared as they have been for generations- no irritating foodies here, or fussy presentation with decorative plate sauces, foams or droplets – instead the focus is on ingredients, flavour and hearty portions.
Montefalco – sophisticated enclave
The next day we found ourselves in Montefalco, a charming hilltop town with a classic, central piazza, surrounded by ancient buildings of stone and plaster, each with a glorious faded patina that one only sees in Italy; a combination of rich and gentle earth tones, from warm and mellow travertine to rose-coloured plaster.
Here one can discover Umbrian fine dining. Yes, in this small but perfectly formed town is not only one of the area’s finest boutique hotels, but also one of the best restaurants. Reassuringly fellow guests included as many Italians as visitors – so far this part of Italy hasn’t become a theme park for foreign tourists. Although one can find galleries and museums; sophisticated independent stores selling artisan products and the town’s famous woven linen products; quirky bars and good restaurants, they are all enjoyed as much by the Italians as they are by visitors.
Foligno – living history
Foligno was to be the final town on our route discovering hidden Umbria. Admittedly, passing through the shabby outskirts on the way into the centre, the town doesn’t at first display the same degree of charm and beauty as the other destinations but this market town does embrace you with a lively and welcoming ambiance.
It’s said that the town centre has the highest concentration of palaces and churches compared to anywhere else in Italy. That’s hard to believe in such a historic country, but once in the centre, Foligno certainly has plenty to offer the history buff.
Yet on this final night in Umbria we were to enjoy some living history; at the Palazzo Candiotti.
Celebrating 70 years since the modern day revival of the ‘Giostra della Quintana’, the town’s historic jousting tournament, Foligno is putting on a very special dinner. It’s an extravagant Baroque Ball, a carnival masquerade banquet evocatively named the ‘the Festa d’Oro e di Vento’. Taking its inspiration from the Zephyr wind that brings with it the changing seasons, the feast was animated with magicians, jesters, actors and dancers.
Even the menu echoed seventeenth century tastes. Between courses we were entertained with period rhymes, poems, and mysterious interpretations of Mother Nature and her seasons. It was an enthralling world; but one you won’t have to wait another 70 years to experience.
For Foligno succumbs to renaissance romanticism, glamourous events and period costume parades twice a year, in June and September, to mark the town’s unique jousting tournaments. Over eight hundred people join in the celebrations, dressed in extravagant seventeenth century costumes, and restaurants serve typical dishes from the period – and it all starts again in June. So just enough time then to choose a mask...