Insightful Travels Through Umbria's Nefarious Past

18 February 2015
Read Time: 3.6 mins

Forget the Capulets and the Montagues, Romeo and Juliet’s families were mere novices compared to the residents of Assisi and Perugia when it came to fighting and feuding.

The neighbouring Umbrian towns were locked in deadly enmity for centuries with saints, sinners and skulduggery involved … in the most literal way. The battleground was the hearts, minds and, of course, pockets of pilgrims.

Such was the ill will between the hilltop towns, pilgrims who visited one would be loathe to visit the other in case they were mistaken for the enemy.

Fortunately for modern-day tourists, religious or otherwise, the relationship between the two is extremely cordial now, and both are included on the 16-day Insight Vacations’ Country Roads of Italy itinerary.

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"You Have Nothing To Fear Here"

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This glimpse into Umbria’s nefarious past came courtesy of Insight’s Umbrian tour guide Marco Bellanco who has mastered the skill of spinning an entertaining yarn while delivering all the pertinent facts.

 An Assisi streetscape

“You have nothing to fear here,” he laughed, as he led us through Assisi’s pink and cream sandstone streets towards the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, the resting place of Italy’s most beloved saint.

There was no detail about Assisi, Perugia and Umbria at large that Marco, a historian, was not across. His fields of expertise are art and religion. Perfetto for a region blessed with riches of both.

(FYI: Every Insight Vacations’ guided holiday has an on-board tour director, who is joined at various locations by local experts. Our tour director, an expat Aussie who fell in love with Italy and an Italian and settled in Umbria 20 years ago, was a passionate and enthusiastic convert to la Dolce Vite.)

Assisi long ago streaked to the lead when it came to tourist numbers. Today with five million tourists annually, it is one of Italy’s most-visited sites.


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A Miracle In Assisi

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But, fortunately, on the Sunday we visited a miracle occurred and the streets were relatively deserted. Which meant that there was no waiting in line to pay our respects to Italy’s most beloved saint, St Francis, who is entombed in a crypt in the lower reaches of the Basilica that bears his name.

And, yes, Marco was adamant that indeed it was St Francis in the crypt. “It is true that he went missing for 600 years but that had nothing to do with our neighbours, it was the Pope who hid him to prevent him being stolen,” he told us.

 Historic Perugia

Only 2000 live in Assisi, 70 per cent of whom belong to religious orders, which is why I was glad Insight Vacations had chosen Perugia, Umbria’s capital and a dynamic university town, as the base for exploring the region. Quite as beautiful as Assisi and with art treasures that rival the major centres, Perugia pulsated with life at night with students and tourists mixing and mingling in cafes, restaurants, wine bars, pizzerias and boutiques.

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Orvieto's 'Wild' Cathedral

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Orvieto, the third of the Papal Umbrian hilltop towns on the Country Roads itinerary has extraordinary charms of its own. Its cathedral, Moorish in design with an intricately patterned façade and green and white striped sides, is in a word – wild - a description not often associated with cathedrals.

 The 'wild' place of worship

The other elements of Orvieto’s holy trinity of attractions are Orvieto Classico, a bone-dry white wine and its robust cuisine, which is strong on flavour and tradition. Both of which the Insight group got to know (and love) during a special lunch organised for us at Ristorante Zeppelin, one of Orvieto’s choicest restaurants.

Umbria prides itself on being the green heart of Italy, with its oak forests providing its chefs and cooks with porcini, hares, boars, pheasant and “black gold” in the form of the winter truffle. The olive oil is in a category of its own. There are more than seven million trees in Umbria and 70 per cent of the oil produced is extra virgin.

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Great Culinary Memory

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One of the joys of exploring a country by the roads less travelled is the chance to get close to nature. Just out of Assisi on a country lane leading to the hidden gem that is the miniscule town of Spello, I spotted a group of women up ladders picking olives, which is how it is always done in Umbria.

Olive growers in the other regions might be happy to let their fruit drop to the ground before harvesting it, but not the Umbrians.

It is Umbria’s way of ensuring the oil lives up to its reputation as the best in Italy, we were told by Manuel Ragani, a third-generation producer of Umbria’s liquid gold, whose small olive holding of 5000 trees we visited with Insight.

The visit also delivered one of great culinary memories of my life: While Manuel showed us how he extracted oil from his olives, his mother toasted slabs of homemade bread over coals which she then slathered with fresh extra virgin oil and salt. “Mangiare, Mangiare” (eat, eat), she commanded as she handed them out.

No one held back. Heavenly is the word that springs to mind.

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Signature Experiences

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 The Duomo di Siena

The visit to the Ragani olive farm near Spello is one of Insight Vacations’ Signature Experiences that are designed to give travellers an insight into destinations beyond the iconic.

Here are some other Signature Experiences beyond Umbria that made the 16-day Country Roads of Italy so memorable:

ROME

Fast-track entry into the Vatican and a special viewing of the Bramante Staircase, normally closed to the public. The Sistine Chapel is another bonus extra.

FERRARI MUSEUM

Not into cars? The Ferrari Museum will change your mind. It did for me. Danger, sex and beauty all wrapped up into a (horrendously expensive) car. That’s Ferrari for you. It epitomises the best of Italy. Irresistible.

VENICE

You see all the big sights, catch a vaporetto to the outlying islands, sip a Bellini at the legendary Harry’s Bar and then there is a fascinating walking tour of Venice beyond the Grand Canal with local guide Anna, a sprightly octogenarian born and bred in La Serenissima.

TUSCANY

A two-night stay at the exquisite Borgo San Luigi in Monteriggioni, near Siena, a grand country estate set in emerald lawns with a vast swimming pool, bocce field and authentic, but modernized, accommodation.

Kay O'Sullivan

Kay O’Sullivan is no accidental tourist. A decade ago she decided to combine two of the loves of her life – travel and journalism – and morph into a travel writer. Much to her delight her plan worked.