Umbria lies in the middle of Italy between Tuscany and the east, Lazio in the south, and Le Marche in the west. Other than Assisi, St. Francis’ fame, and Orvieto which is a popular day trip from Rome, few cities in the region have international recognition.
Our family and friends had never been to Umbria, some of them hadn’t heard of it. While tourists have been drawn to neighboring Tuscany for a long time, Umbria remains largely undiscovered. This is exactly what we wanted. We booked our flights and planned our itinerary. Then we took a leap.
How to get to Umbria
It wasn’t long before we realized that we had made the right decision. We flew into Florence, escaped the chaos of the airport and rented a car to head southeast. Traffic began to decrease. We noticed a change in the landscape as soon as we crossed into Umbria from Tuscany.
Both regions are stunningly beautiful. Umbria, however, is wilder, more gritty and untamed. It is composed of rolling hills and unspoiled forests. There are also small medieval hill communities. The vast, wooded Lake Trasimeno stretches beside us, breaking up this undulating valley.
The lake was surrounded by casual cafes and campgrounds making it a peaceful and welcoming vacation spot.
We decided to spend a week in Montefalco, a hilltop hamlet that overlooks the valley below. It was nicknamed “the balcony of Umbria”.
The village, still surrounded by 12th-century walls, sounded charming and interesting. It was easy to find Montefalco using GPS. However, it was difficult to drive our Fiat rental car through the narrow streets to the top. We noticed it was very crowded as we approached the main square.
I was nervous. Instead of finding an authentic Italian oasis, had we foolishly chosen another tourist hot spot?
Mark drove our car to the Piazza del Comune. We walked in a hazy direction. The owner of the hotel had instructed us to meet him in a local restaurant. Christina, the daughter of the hotel owner, appeared soon with a key that led us to the place where we would be staying.
She said, gesturing at the cars and people around her, “Sorry it’s so busy right now.” “Today, we are holding our grandparents’ festival.
I took a moment to appreciate the sight. It was enchanting. All ages were present to share snacks and play games. Mark and I were barely noticed by the families, who were busy mingling with their luggage.
Tourism in Montefalco
Montefalco was an Italian town that lived and breathed. Residents were free to go about their business without being aware or concerned that tourists were present. Perfetto!
The next day was spent exploring the town. I realized quickly that English was not widely spoken in this area as I spoke with locals. When I tried to communicate with Italians in larger cities, my poor Italian was not an issue. They would often tell me they could speak English. Communication was a beautiful art in Montefalco.
I spoke Italian, and the locals spoke English. Together we came up with a common understanding. We were made to feel at home by the friendly people who were eager to help.
My husband and I went into a small market to inquire about a laundromat. Six other people gathered around us to provide directions. It was clear that Americans were just as fascinating to the locals as we were.
Wine in Montefalco
It would not be Italy without wine or olive oil. Montefalco has both. Since pre-Roman times, Montefalco has been producing wine. This is the only place in the world that produces Sagrantino grapes. From these grapes is made the rich and fruity Sagrantino di Montefalco.
Montioni Frantoio & Cantina
Mark is our wine connoisseur, so he was excited to try it. I was more interested to taste Umbrian olive oils, which are arguably some of the finest in the world. We visited Montioni Frantoio, Cantina, an olive mill and winery that has been owned by the same family for generations.
Elisa, our guide, took us to the vineyards of the family, where we were allowed to sample the Sagrantino grapes straight from the vine. She took us up a hillside to see a row of moraiolo and fantoio olive trees.
She pointed out a large, gnarled, tree and deferentially explained, “That one is the oldest.” It has been there for about 135 years.”
It was as if she were introducing us a family member. After touring the equipment and cellars Elisa invited us to enjoy a wine tasting and a buffet of fruit, breads, cheeses, and cured meats. Then, Elisa served pastries that were freshly baked by Nonna. It was a moment when I felt like I belonged in the big Italian family that I had always wanted.
Montefalco was a great place to call home. We could have stayed inside the walls of the fortress for the entire duration of our stay but we also had the option to visit other Umbrian cities.
Magdalena’s favourite view of the Duomo is from Orvieto, an alleyway just off the main square. Photo by Heidi Davis.
Day Trip To Orvieto
We made day trips to many towns and found that they also offered “slice-of life” moments. Magdalena, our Orvieto tour guide, was born and raised in Orvieto. She proudly pointed out the house, which is actually the window of the room, where she was born. Her sister and her father built the home many years ago.
She was delighted to share her town with us and led us down an alleyway to show her favorite view from Orvieto’s Duomo. Later, she took us to the bustling market to do her shopping.
Gubbio’s storekeeper wrapped my purchase and took the time to explain how his family has lived and worked there for generations.
He pointed at the name of the shop and tapped his chest, exclaiming, “See?” It is my name!”
Every town felt alive with Italian culture, history, and family. However, Umbria isn’t all about friendly interactions and great history. Each town has its own fame and visitors can choose the one that appeals to them.
Orvieto is well-known for its history in ceramics and Orvieto Classico, a delicious white wine made from Trebbiano grapes. Perugia is the capital of the region and has a rich chocolate-making heritage.
For hundreds of years, Assisi is a popular pilgrimage destination. Gubbio provides the opportunity for adventurous travelers to ride an open funicular up a steep hillside. This gives them a magnificent view.
Many important art pieces have been found in churches and cathedrals throughout Umbria, which are a great examples of Renaissance masters. There are also many ruins and archeological sites that reflect the Umbrian, Umbria, Roman, and medieval pasts. Umbria is everything travelers expect from Italy. These wonders are delivered in a subtler way, in an atmosphere that is authentic and not like a theme park.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Umbria and her people were my favorite place in Italy by the end of our stay. Mark and I reflected on our experience and realized that we had finally found the real Italy we were looking for, a taste of authentic Italy without all its museums or UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The region was more difficult to explore than Rome or Venice. It was difficult to learn Italian and do our homework to discover what we were interested in. We also had to travel off the beaten track.
Our efforts paid off with extraordinary experiences that were ordinary. These small, memorable moments have given me a new perspective on what I want in travel. My bucket list will never be the exact same.
It is a 3-hour drive from Florence to Montefalco after you have flown into Florence. Just beyond the Tuscan border in Umbria is Lake Trasimeno which offers a great spot for a picnic and quick lunch.
Overview of Montefalco: https://www.tuttomontefalco.it/eng
Montioni Olive Mill and Winery contact information: https://www.gabrielemontioni.it
It is approximately a 30-minute drive from Montefalco to Assisi and Gubbio. Orvieto is approximately a 90-minute drive.
General Umbria information: www.umbria-italy.org/index.htm