A tour around the medieval hill towns of Umbria makes for the most pleasant of journeys. Pottering along the small back roads, amidst spreading Chestnut trees and luxuriant elms on the hillsides, through valleys and beside clear sparkling streams, you are in a landscape captured by many a master painter. The popularity of nearby Tuscany has allowed Umbria to remain relatively unscathed, although Assisi and Orvieto have always drawn crowds.
Perugia is both beautiful and lively - home to the University for Foreigners and topped by the 16th century Rocca Paolina, Italy's largest fortress; the July Jazz Festival is colourful and exciting, thousands of people speaking hundreds of languages throng the streets and piazzas, enjoying free concerts late into the night. Assisi, reconstructed after the shocking earthquake of 1997, is crowded with pilgrims coming to visit the Basilica of St Francis. He was born here in 1181. From the magical castle of Rocco Maggiore look out across the glorious TIber Valley, which so inspired him. There are treasures to be found everywhere - countryside and town alike: Spello's ancient walls date back 2,000 years, and its 13th century church is illuminated with Pinturicchio's fabulous frescoes. The town itself is peaceful and traffic-free.
Tiny Bevagna, for once not a hill town, has Roman remains, lovely churches and a marvellous 19th century theatre. The road from Todi to Orvieto is particularly scenic, including views of Lake Corbara; Orvieto itself is visible from miles away, its world famous Duomo silhouetted against the deep blue Umbrian sky. The pedestrianized ancient city centre is reached either by funicular railway, or via escalators hewn into the soft, tufa stone cliff. The Piazza del Duomo and the cathedral itself are magnificent, and Orvieto also has an extraordinary labyrinth of underground passages beneath it, begun by the Etruscans and continued during the Middle Ages.
WHEN TO GO
March to May, September to November. High summer is usually pretty busy.
TIME IT TAKES
You should spend at least a week, but three or four would be ideal!
Todi, with its ancient city walls.
Civita - an artist's paradise, built on a pinnacle and attached to the wider world by a narrow bridge.
Collevalenza - with its unique Sanctuary, built in 1965.
The church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, outside Assisi, which encloses another tiny church that was the first Franciscan friary.
Orvieto - Tempio Belvedere, the last above-ground Estruscan temple in Italy.
YOU SHOULD KNOW
Not only were both st Benedict and St Francis born in Umbria, but also the painters Raphael and Pietro Perugino had their schools here.