Umbria, Perugia and Assisi: The Heart of Italy
Umbria, Perugia and Assisi: The Heart of Italy
"Italy's rich mix of archaeological treasures, fine art and architecture, hearty cuisine and mountainous Mediterranean landscape has long proved irresistible to visitors. Unreservedly romantic and deeply influenced by religion, it's capable of stirring emotion in a way that's unrivalled worldwide. And despite possessing these attributes in abundance, Umbria slips under the radar. Its unique position as the only region in Italy that doesn't border another country or the sea ensures it remains one of the country's most authentic areas.
Umbria isn’t the place to see showy tourist attractions you'd recognise from the guidebooks at a glance. This region quietly goes about its laidback local life, proudly preserving its trademark hilltop towns and protecting its landscape of fertile green plains, which dip into valleys and slope up forested hillsides to the towering crags of the Apennine mountains. It's also fiercely proud of its incredible history traceable back to ancient Etruria, which expanded over central Italy between 750 BC and 500 BC, before eventually succumbing to Roman rule. Two of the destinations on this tour were among the 12 major Etruscan cities, including our bustling base, the magnificent university city of Perugia, and the charming Tuscan town of Cortona. We also visit pretty Gubbio and clifftop Orvieto, both former Etruscan strongholds, as well as spectacular, mountain-backed Spoleto and the famous pilgrimage town of Assisi, thought to have been the territory of the Umbri tribe. Both ancient civilisations remain elusive to this day, although traces can be seen in the ruins that lay hidden beneath Umbrian streets.
The calling card of Umbrian towns is that they've been built in improbable places – climbing up hillsides or perched atop sheer walls of rock. This defensive tactic has undoubtedly contributed to their impressive preservation as portals to the past. Their deliberately inaccessible positioning, made accessible by impressive escalator systems and funiculars, also meant that victorious invaders built upwards, siting medieval towns above crumbling Roman amphitheatres and secret Etruscan cities. Of course, as we're at the heart of faithful Italy, we'll also see magnificent churches, crowned by the awe-inspiring Basilica of St Francis of Assisi.
Between dipping into local town life, we'll experience central Italy's natural attractions, including the otherworldly caves of Frasassi and the tranquil Lake Trasimeno, as well as taste the fruits of the fertile landscape at a local winery and rustic restaurant.
If you'd like to discover what lies at the very heart of Italy – a region that's every bit as beautiful and historically important as neighbouring Tuscany, but remains largely unexplored – this tour of Umbria is set to surprise and enchant."
- Return flights from Bristol
- Seven nights’ accommodation with breakfast
- All local taxes and transfers
- Entrances to Perugina Chocolate Factory & Museum, Frasassi Caves, Orvieto funicular, a boat trip on Lake Trasimeno, and the services of a Riviera Travel tour manager.
Day 1: Arrival in Italy
Fly to Rome or Perugia, and transfer to the four-star Brufani Hotel. This grand hotel has hosted royalty and celebrities since its opening in 1884, including our very own Queen Mother. Guests can enjoy the panoramic views from the terrace of the Collins Bar, and the atmospheric swimming pool, which lies under exposed medieval vaults and has a glass floor overlooking the 3,000-year-old Etruscan ruins below. The hotel sits on an elevated position on the edge of Perugia's hilltop historic centre, on one end overlooking the lower town towards the surrounding green countryside, and on the other leading onto the smart Piazza Italia. A three-night dining option is available during your seven-night stay if preferred.
Day 2: Perugia & Chocolate Factory
After breakfast we embark on a tour of this bustling university city, which uses an escalator system to connect the lower town to the historical core above. A wander along the Corso Pietro Vannucci is a treat for the senses, as its traffic-free status allows the subtler sounds and smells of local life to come through – the clink of china as cups are set out for morning coffee and the friendly chatter of Italians passing the time. This wide avenue leads up past a mix of shiny designer boutiques and tiny timeworn shops to the Piazza IV Novembre – the centrepiece of the city. This flagstone square boasts the gothic San Lorenzo cathedral, the imposing 13th-century Palazzo dei Priori and the intricately carved Maggiore fountain. Fanning out from the square is a jumble of narrow alleyways lined with crumbling buildings in shades of peach, ochre, russet and cream, providing plenty of places to people-watch over a local craft beer, a chilled glass of Orvieto Classico or a creamy gelato.
From the Piazza Italia you can take an escalator down to the atmospheric streets of medieval Perugia, an underground world hidden within the 16th-century Rocca Paolina fortress. You can also enter the foundations of the fortress through the Porta Marzia gate, one of the stone portals chiselled into the crumbling Etruscan wall that encloses Perugia. Interestingly, this under-city maze is more than just a tourist attraction – you'll see locals hurrying through it to the bus station!
This afternoon our attention turns to chocolate at the Perugina chocolate factory – surely every chocoholic's dream. Founded over a century ago, this chocolatier quickly became one of Italy's top confectionary exporters. If you're not already familiar with Perugina's foil-wrapped hazelnut 'Baci' chocolates, each hiding a romantic love note, you will be after our tour.
Day 3: Assisi
This morning we head for Assisi, an elegant hill town dominated by the vast Basilica of St Francis complex, which includes a Franciscan monastery and two churches. Sitting on the green hillside with the town climbing ever higher behind it, this is a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts pilgrims from around the world.
As we wander the flower-hung streets with our local guide, we learn how St Francis came to be so highly revered in Italy, from his early life as the spoilt son of a silk merchant, to his renouncement of riches and founding of the Franciscan Order of monks. Built as a shrine to St Francis in 1228 two years after his death, the exterior of the basilica and friary complex is befittingly austere. Inside, however, is a different matter, with both the upper and lower basilicas adorned with colourful frescos, including a series attributed to the famous Florentine painter, Giotto. The simple-living St rests in the crypt below the basilica, together with his friend, benefactor and follower, Jacoba of Settesoli, who is said to have fed him his favourite almond treats on his deathbed.
We have some free time to explore the old-world town centre with its shuttered stone houses, 'hole-in-the-wall' shops and tiny family-run cafes – the silky ‘strangozzi’ pasta with rich, earthy black truffles is a must-try! A varied collection of churches and cathedrals dots the piazzas, while two medieval castles, Rocca Maggiore and Rocca Minore, jostle for dominance on the skyline.
Day 4: Cortona & Lake Trasimeno
Today we travel north towards Tuscany, following the shoreline of Lake Trasimeno, a huge splash of azure surrounded by gently sloping green hills covered with olive groves, thick woodlands and the occasional lakeside town. Cortona clutters the hillside with a tight muddle of terracotta rooftops, which hide a maze of narrow alleyways and wide piazzas – you may recognise it from the romantic memoir and subsequent film, 'Under the Tuscan Sun'. The central Piazza della Repubblica is the perfect place to stop for a mid-morning ‘caffè’ served thick and brooding in a tiny white cup. This square is so impossibly untouched by time that you half expect an old horse and cart to come clip-clopping past the bell-topped Palazzo del Capitano! The spectacular view from the Piazza del Duomo is another must, leading the eye over the city walls and across the Tuscan countryside.
In the afternoon we return to tranquil Lake Trasimeno, known as the Sea of Umbria by locals of this landlocked region. From the lakeside town of Castiglione del Lago, we take the ferry across the languid waters to Isola Maggiore, enjoying the view of the Castello del Leone or ‘fortress of the lion’. As we approach, the 19th-century Guglielmi Castle can be seen nestled into the wooded hillside. Those who wish to can climb the shrubby hill path to the simple Church of St Michael the Archangel – a favourite meditation spot of St Francis. Perhaps you'd prefer to visit the Lace Museum, which celebrates the Irish handicraft that found its way to the island in 1904 and is still practised by local women today – you may even see them working away on their doorsteps. Wherever you wander, you'll be surrounded by hardy olive trees, distinctive for their gnarled trunks and breathtaking views of the lake.
Day 5: Spoleto
This morning we enjoy a guided tour of Spoleto, which sits on a foothill of the Apennines mountain range. The sight of the medieval arched bridge leading to the formidable Rocca Albornoziana fortress will remind you of an epic historical movie, while the city that sits behind it bears the hallmarks of Roman and Lombard rule. The desolate ruins of the ancient Roman amphitheatre are a contrast to the resplendent Romanesque cathedral that dazzles in the palest stone on the Piazza del Duomo.
For lunch you may be tempted by the smell of the slow-roasted porchetta that's stuffed into sandwiches and sold from streetside stalls. Then we set out into the rich tapestry of Umbrian countryside once again to visit a leading producer of Sagrantino di Montefalco wine, made from the black sagrantino grapes indigenous to the region. A tasting allows you to form your own opinion as to whether this dark, full-bodied ‘vino rosso’ deserves a place on your wine rack. We'll also sample the olive oil that this region is revered for worldwide, to complete an afternoon full of the true tastes of Umbria.
Day 6: Frassasi Caves & Gubbio
We drive east this morning to the Marche region that lies between Umbria and the Adriatic. Here we delve deep underground to explore the Frasassi Caves, considered to be among the most impressive in Europe. Our tour of these stunning karst caves, which can easily trick the eye with their glistening snow-white walls and icicle-like stalactites and stalagmites, takes us into the Great Cave of the Wind – large enough to house the Milan cathedral. As we learn more about their 1971 discovery by local speleologists and their formation over a million years ago, it's impossible to remain unmoved by our magical and mesmerisingly beautiful surroundings.
This afternoon we return to Umbria to visit ancient Gubbio, which has roots going back to the Bronze Age. For lunch why not try a traditional ‘crescia’, a flaky flatbread stuffed with cheese and meat, before our land train ride around this pretty, pristinely kept town, which climbs the lowest slope of Mount Ingino. The ruins of a Roman amphitheatre sit in the lower town, with the impenetrable-looking Church of St Francis. Gubbio's medieval core then begins its ascent, the air fragranced by the flower boxes that dot the cobbled streets with splashes of colour, towards the Piazza Grande, a fantastic viewing platform overlooking the town and across to a hilly horizon). Climbing even higher, we can see the cathedral and Palazzo Ducale, a duo of landmarks at the very top of the town.
Day 7: Orvieto & Agriturismo Lunch
This morning we end our journey of Etruscan discovery at another of this mysterious civilisation's 12 key cities, Orvieto, whose ancient ruins lie in eerie underground caves. A glimpse of this sparse subterranean city can be had from the family-owned Well of the Cave, a secret passageway leading to nine caves underneath a traditional pottery shop! With the city built from the precipitous chunk of volcanic rock on which it sits, Orvieto looks almost at one with the red-hued rock – although the cathedral is a stand-out feature. After a ride up the tree-lined funicular tracks to the old town, we marvel at the intricate façade of this incredible Gothic building, featuring gilded frescoes that give it the appearance of being illuminated from within. After our discovery of Orvieto we stop at a rural restaurant, known locally as an agriturismo, to sample a menu of traditional fare grown in this fertile land at the heart of Italy.
Day 8: Return Flight
Transfer to the airport for your return flight.
Hand Picked By
Latest from our Travel Experts
I have just come back from an amazing trip to Thailand on the 'Star Clipper'. It provided the experience of a traditional sailing ship or private yacht...Read More
I travelled this winter to Phuket in Thailand to join the Star Clipper for a unique sailing adventure through Thailand and Malaysia.
Before joining the...Read More