“It is quite true indeed that the air of that part of Tuscany which lies towards the coast is thick and unwholesome: but my house stands at a good distance from the sea, under one of the Apennines, which are singularly healthy. But, to relieve you from all anxiety on my account, I will give you a description of the temperature of the climate, the situation of the country, and the beauty of my villa, which, I am persuaded, you will hear with as much pleasure as I shall take in giving it.” Pliny the Younger
Umbria has a specially favoured climate. Not for nothing is Umbria called the green heart of Italy. In midsummer, the hills around Siena are brown and sere as the heat haze shimmers over the landscape and the country tracks are so dry that dust from passing cars turns roadside plants a ghostly white.
But cross the pass behind Cortona, into the valleys that lead cross-wise towards the Upper Tiber Valley, and the landscape immediately becomes fresh and green once more. The soil is deep and fertile and water, always a precious resource in Italy, is more abundant here. The quality of the light here has a particular beauty which has inspired generations of painters.
It is unsurprising then that, far from being undiscovered, Umbria has been home to successive waves of settlement over time, as neighbouring civilisations have discovered this green and pleasant land and decided to move on in. In recent years foreigners (a term which, for these purposes, includes Italians from Puglia, Trento or Rome as much as English, German or other incomers) have been buying and restoring long-abandoned farmhouses and reversing the depopulation of this countryside that took place over the decades following the Second World War. That phenomenon is entirely consistent with the pattern of Umbria’s history, going back over 3000 years. However, unlike those parts of Tuscany that have become irreverently known as Chiantishire, where tourism has become so much the dominant industry that one at times has the sense of being in a sort of Tuscan themepark, here there is a balance: tourism is but one element in what is now a thriving local economy; and although you’ll hear a good number of other languages spoken as you potter about the markets, Italian predominates by far.
Our local town of Umbertide is a good example of that balance.
Guidebooks to the area are dismissive of it, noting that it was badly bombed during the Second World War and passing hastily on to other, better known sites near by. But take a closer look.
Umbertide has long been of strategic importance as the site of one of the (in Medieval times, very few) bridges over the Tiber in its upper stretches. You’ll find it on ancient maps of the area under its old name of Fratta (it was renamed Umbertide in honour of Umberto I). There is an attractive historic centre, complete with castle (now an art gallery) and a circular Renaissance church, the Collegiata, in a style straight out of a painting by Perugino or Raphael.
The central square hosts a busy market on Wednesdays (and a smaller artisans market on Saturdays). You can buy classic Italian high fashion in a shop on one corner or damasked-linen upholstery fabric in Busatti, opposite. The town has its own website on which you can take a rather dizzying 360 degree look at the historic centre: http://www.comune.umbertide.it/ To the side of the historic centre runs the railway track of the little train line that putters up and down the Tiber valley from Sansepolcro at the Northernmost end to Terni, South of Perugia: www.fcu.it.
Cross the track and you find yourself in a jewel of a Renaissance piazza with, along one side, a perfect little cloister and the weathered facade of the church of Santa Croce, now a museum, in which you’ll find a magnificent altarpiece by Signorelli. If you walk back to the main road and follow it to the right, to the railway station, you pass a series of imposing 19th century villas and the rather Napoleonic secondary school, with the war memorial outside of a, somewhat fey, naked warrior.
Beyond the station, you’re into modern Umbertide. This is the bit the guidebooks hate. There’s an extensive area of modern development: blocks of flats line either side of roads with names like “Yuri Gagarin” and “Martin Luther King”; a large modernist church with swirling wrought iron work around the sides stands next to campanile of reinforced concrete, boasting an impressive array of bells of all shapes and sizes; beyond that, there’s a shopping centre, a sports stadium, and an industrial zone. But here’s the whole reason why this region is not just a playground for tourists, not merely a living museum, but a thriving and vibrant community whose past is intimately bound up with its present. This perhaps helps to explain why those who live here are not jealous of their heritage but are, in our experience, exceptionally welcoming of those who come here wishing to share in it.
So, come to Umbria not just for its history, art, picturesque hill-top towns and unspoilt countryside but also for all that the Umbria of today has to offer: imaginative modern design and fashion; cooking which uses seasonal organic produce and combines traditional recipes with a new sensibility and willingness to experiment; internationally renowned music festivals; and, in short, the perfect balance between the pleasures of nature and those of civilization.
There’s a good deal more information about Umbria and the things you can see and do here in the other pages within this section of the Casa Nova website: see the links below or at the top of this page.