For a quarter of a century, Southern California-based tour operator In Quest of the Classics (IQOTC) has discovered gems throughout Europe and packaged them for clients interested in upscale, group and individual tours. One such glittering example can be found in the rolling green hills of Italy’s Umbria region. While its neighbor Tuscany seems to get all the attention, Umbria has more than its share of hidden gems.
Hotels in converted castles and chateaus dot the region. In Umbria’s capital of Perugia, the historic Castello di Monterone has 18 unique rooms designed to preserve the atmosphere of the castle while providing its clientele with broadband Internet access, a mini-fridge and air conditioning. A spa — which includes a Turkish bath, a sauna and an outdoor Jacuzzi — is available to all those fortunate enough to spend a night there.
An equally successful renovation was done in Bevagna to create L’Orto degli Angeli comprised of two ancient villas connected by a hanging garden. The owner’s family has lived here since 1788. The property has fourteen rooms decorated with original period furniture and paintings. Guestrooms feature modern amenities such as rain showers and cable television. Its Redibis restaurant is located in what was once the ambulatory of the Roman theatre, built in the first century. Redibis loosely translates to “see you again,” which is exactly what a patron will want to do after tasting the restaurant’s haute cuisine.
The Palazzo Seneca in the small walled town of Norcia is another shining example of a conversion from a private residence to a boutique hotel. Under the guidance of brothers Vincenzo and Federico Bianconi, the youngest generation of a family dedicated to the hospitality and restaurant business since 1850, skillful restorations and a beautiful interior design utilizing a collection of great antique pieces and modern amenities have made the Palazzo Seneca a world-class property.
These and the other historic hotels of Umbria set the stage for explorations of this lesser-known region. For clients interested in history, a walk on the narrow cobblestoned streets around any of these walled, medieval cities will reveal countless treasures. In fact, some excursions take visitors back more than two millennia, such as IQOTC’s tour of the archaeological excavations at Perugia’s Cathedral Rocca. A walk back in time along a recently uncovered and well-preserved Etruscan street is another highlight of the tour.
While Assisi, in part due to its most famous inhabitant Saint Francis, is a must for first-time Umbria visitors, there are many more lesser-explored towns to wander.
Bevagna, for example, like most of its Umbrian counterparts, has maintained its medieval urban structure. IQOTC organized a walking tour to the medieval craft workshops of Gaite. Artisans dressed in traditional costumes demonstrated how candles, medicines, silk and paper goods made from rags were produced in the Middle Ages. Every year during the last week of June, the Mercato delle Gaite (the Market of the Gaite) is held. Visitors can even rent period costumes and join in the festivities. Modern structures are covered and torches and candles are used instead of electrical lights.
Art lovers will find the galleries of Umbria fully stocked with countless masterpieces. Perugia is also home to the National Gallery of Umbria housing a magnificent collection of Medieval and Renaissance art including the work of Pietro Vannucci, popularly known as Perugino. The town of Montefalco has the Museo di San Francisco where magnificent frescos of Benozzo Gozzoli are preserved.
While art and history feed the mind and soul, the food and wine of Umbria is far more than simple fuel for the body. For those who want a hands-on experience the corsi di cucina (cooking class) at Casa Bianconi in the town of Norcia is a great choice. The town and its environs are famous for its lentils, salami, cheese, and black truffles. A truffle hunt in the local woods with a truffle hunter and his national champion dog can be arranged. For those who want to stay out of the kitchen on their holidays the dining choices are almost endless. Foodies might want to seek out Il Postale in Citta di Castello which earned the coveted Michelin Star for its incredible cuisine.
For oenologists the towns of Montefalco and Torgiano are homes to famous red DOCG wines. The Wine Museum in Torgiano includes a vast collection of vessels, goblets and glasses from the ancient to the present used to store and imbibe the noble grape. The Lungarotti vineyard, Osteria, is just down the road and open for tastings.
The only reason under the Umbrian sun to not recommend a vacation to this magnificent region of Italy is because your client is on a diet — both physical and mental. There is simply too much great food and well-preserved history here to consume.