If you have a vague notion of Umbria being “second best to Tuscany”, you might want to look further into the charm, cultural heritage and natural beauty of this much underestimated Italian region. In fact, you will find that it has everything you were looking for in Tuscany, without the annoying concentration of tourist traps and the outrageous prices. We are not saying that you should ignore Tuscany, of course (your life probably won’t be complete until you have visited Florence), but if you are visiting central Italy, you should definitely schedule a stop or several in Umbria. Small medieval towns and villages surrounded by lush woodland and hills make up the very fabric of this fascinating region, but the kindness and strength of the locals is what will probably impress you the most. After the recent earthquake, the vast majority of the shops and retailers in the cities that were less affected, started selling products from the towns that suffered the most extensive damage, in order to help local farmers get back on their feet. And that is but one of countless examples of the resourcefulness and solidarity that you will become accustomed to if you spend time in Umbria. If you are visiting on a budget, you might want to check out these 5 free attractions. But don’t forget to shop local, if you can: you will discover unique delicacies while also helping those in need!
1. Visit the Orvieto Cathedral
This may well be one of the most iconic buildings of the Italian gothic tradition. The classification is more chronological (since the building dates back to the late Middle-Ages), rather than strictly architectural. The Duomois in fact a rich and complex structure, in which multiple influences are visible, from the classical roman basilica to the French gothic churches of the 1300s. The first thing you’ll notice upon arriving is the rich and preciously decorated façade, with its golden mosaics, arranged in a tryptic, and its massive bronze doors, encased in imposing archways. The doors are actually the newest part of the decoration (they were finished in the 1970s). Inside the cathedral you will find some of the most beautiful and impressive frescoes in Italian history, including Luca Signorelli’s impressive Judgment Day, which spans across the lunettes of the walls in the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio. This is a rich and complex work, which touches the historical, religious and philosophical movements that were shaking the very core of Italy throughout the Renaissance, in a turmoil of conflicting dogmas and artistic aspirations.
2. Walk the Giro dei Condotti, one of the most beautiful hiking trails in Umbria
If you like being outdoors, being at one with nature and are drawn to beautiful natural landscape, you should not miss the opportunity of walking the trail known as Giro dei Condotti di Spoleto. This is an easy and short walk, perfectly suitable for beginners, that connects Sant’Elia hill with the magnificent Rocca Albornoziana (named after Cardinal Albornoz, who had it built in the XIV Century. The actual hiking trail stretches considerably longer, but the section known as Giro dei condotti is particularly popular among tourists and locals alike. You will enjoy a breath-taking view of the valley underneath, which is known for being home to a variety of plants and aviary species. While the hilly terrain and the mild climate might feel vaguely northern, the predominant vegetation in this area is still the Maquis shrubland typical of the Mediterranean regions. For many visitors, hiking this trails is also a spiritual experience, since they are often used to reach sanctuaries and hermitages, such as the one in Monteluco or the ruins of the monastery of Santa Maria Inter Angelos.
3. St. Francis’ woods
Speaking of spiritual experiences and communing with nature, the most famous son of Umbria was none other than St. Francis, which can be said to be the earliest pioneer of this particular expression of spirituality. The woods in which he is said to have walked and prayed are currently a protected natural area, managed by the National Trust of Italy. If you are in Assisi, you could round off your inevitable visit to the famous Basilica by exploring the nearly 160 acres of woodland and over 8 centuries of history that this valley is renowned for. You will be experiencing a unique balance of wilderness and manmade order, since the nooks and crannies of this valley are dotted with the discreet traces of human actions. There are nunneries and churches, a monastery and a mill, as well as fields and olive-tree plantations. It’s easy to get lost in one’s thoughts while walking through this ancient wood, and to imagine how a revolutionary preacher might have walked along the same paths and discovered the joy of communing with nature and of contemplating beauty and harmony at their best and purest.
4. Visit the Marmore’s Fall
If you find yourself in the province of Terni, there’s a manmade waterfall that ranks amongst the highest in Europe. This is a splendid example of the advanced knowledge that the Roman civilisation expressed in the fields of engineering and applied physics. The waterfall, which is over 3000 ft high, was built to drain a swampland, which was formed by the stagnant waters of the Velino river. By allowing them to fall into the Nera river, the original engineers ensured a healthier environment for the area around the swampland and incidentally created one of the more spectacular sights in the region. Subsequently, the Marmore Falls were used to power a hydroelectric power-plant, which allowed the city of Terni and its steel industry to prosper. This means that they are only accessible at specific times, so make sure you plan your visit in advance. There is no ticket to visit the waterfall itself, however, to reach a good observation point you will have to access the Valnerina National Park, which does require a daily ticket.
5. Visit the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia
Perugia is a beautiful city and it worth spending a few days exploring it (particularly during Eurochocolate, a trade-show and fair whose name is pretty self-explanatory). One of the landmarks we recommend you visit is the Fontana Maggiore, which is one of the most impressive medieval fountains still in existence. It dates back to the late XIII Century and it is richly decorated with sculptures by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. It is composed of three basins, on three circular steps. The lower basin is shaped like a 25-sided polygon, each side sporting three finely carved columns and decorated with complex bas-reliefs representing a variety of subjects (the months of the year, the liberal arts, the branches of science and several mythical subjects). The middle basin is supported by columns within the lower one and it has the same shape but a different decoration: 24 sculptures stand on its corners. The upper basin, which is set atop a column at the centre of the middle one, is plain and cast in bronze, with a central sculpture representing three woman standing back to back and balancing a smaller basin on their heads.
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