A couple of years ago Matt and I spent a wonderful week in Umbria with his parents, Debra and Phil. Much of it was spent relaxing by the pool of our Italian country house, apart from the days where we explored nearby. In this post you can read all about these tiny towns teetering on clifftops, and hopefully get a taste of this beautiful area. Oh, and this is a history-packed post, so prepare your brain for some knowledge.
Is the Civita di Bagnoregio even real? It feels like a film set. Founded by Etruscans over 2,500 years ago, the town balances precariously on top of a plateau of volcanic tuff in the middle of the Tiber river valley, like some sort of sea-less island.
The houses in the tiny town have been falling off the cliff since before the 16th century, and all the official buildings have long since moved to Bagnoregio proper, the established town linked to the Civita by a modern bridge.
Civita is known in Italian as La città che muore (“The Dying Town”), because of the rapid rate of erosion since the 19th century. The bridge that allows you to visit is actually relatively new, and has helped revive tourism to the town.
Civita is so isolated that it managed to escape both world wars and any attempts at modernisation. The result is an endearingly traditional, and of course tiny, Umbrian oasis of honey-coloured stone, cobbled streets and a small church.
In fact, it’s so small that the population ranges between 7 in the winter and 100 in the summer, housing the staff of the few restaurants and shops to cater to tourists.
Following the main streeet, the Via Madonna della Maestà, to the end leads you to a shrine (Cappella Della Madonna del Carcere) and beautiful views of the valley from Belvedere lookout. You get the sense that centuries could pass without being acknowledged by Civita except for the occasional building falling off the side.
Orvieto was our nearest city on our trip, so my first peek of the small city was on the drive from the airport. It makes for a striking sight, spread out on top of a rock cliff like a table set for dinner. Just like Civita di Bagnoregio, the rock it perches on is the flat summit of a volcanic tuff. The buildings of the town are made out of the same stone (called Tufa) and defended by a surrounding wall, making it seem as though the town has grown from the rock itself.
Opera Del Duomo Di Orvieto
Unlike the rest of the city, crowded and clustered together, the Cathedral of Orvieto sits like an island in the middle of the Piazza Duomo. It’s so distinct from the other buildings that you can see the silhouette on top of the cliff for miles around. The façade is so intricate and colourful compared to the unusual striped body that it feels like two separate pieces of architecture mashed together, or like you’re looking at someone who’s wearing striped pyjamas and a full face of make-up.
The colourful 14th century façade is beautifully ornate, sculpted with twisting tiled columns and symmetrical repeating patterns.
We found our lunch spot on the corner of Via Maurizio and Via del Duomo. The Ristorante Maurizio, a traditional Umbrian restaurant in a hulking medieval building, has the massive bonus of outside tables with sunlit views of the cathedral. Although I’ll be honest the highlight of pretty much the entire day was their famous homemade pasta, which I had with wild boar ragu. Rich meaty sauce and buttery soft pasta strips, what a dream team.
After lunch we made our way through Orvieto to the Piazza Cahen, where you can get the Funicolare up and down the side of the cliff. This is where we found the best views in town from the Rocca Albornoziana, an old fort converted into public gardens.
For me this was the spot where the strange geography of the town was the most obvious. Compared to Orvieto Scalo spread out below, busy with supermarkets, schools and trains passing through the station, Orvieto feels like a city beyond the reach of modern life.
Perugia is actually the capital of the region of Umbria. Another hilltop town, the only way to get to the centre is to park outside the walls and ride a series of escalators up inside the caves of the hillside.
Piazza IV Novembre
The Piazza IV Novembre in the historical centre packs in a lot of the town’s monuments, including the Capitolare di S. Lorenzo Museum, the San Lorenzo Cathedral, the Maggiore Fountain and the Priori Palace.
For me Perugia had a totally different vibe than the other towns we had visited so far. Since the Palace is still a working seat of government, and the cathedral is an active church, Perugia feels like a functioning, vibrant town, full of residents and students getting on with their lives, much like Oxford or Bath.
Chapel San Severo (Cappella San Severo)
This tiny chapel houses a fresco by Renaissance artist Raphael and his Perugian teacher Perugino. Inside the chapel, the decor is surprisingly simple, with clean white walls offering cool relief from the baking Italian sun. The small room is so stripped back that your attention can’t help but focus on the fresco as you lean back in your wooden pew, surrounded by the quiet murmurings of other admiring viewers.
Chiesa di San Francesco Al Prato
Away from the centre and towards the university stands the 12th century church of San Francesco al Prato in a square of the same name, next to the Renaissance oratory of San Bernardino. I say “stands”, but actually the vaults and chapels were all demolished by a landslide, leaving only the facade and a single nave.
Blocked off by barriers and visited mainly by students relaxing on the grass, the old church has the melancholic appeal of ruins, gutted and lonely but still standing.
Etruscan Arch of Augustus (Arco Etrusco o di Augusto)
Built in the 3rd century BC, the Arco Etrusco o di Augusto is the most intact of seven gates in the Etruscan walls of Perugia. The architecture is very different on either side, taking you from the wide, spacious and more modern buildings outside, to the compact streets and narrow walkways inside the historic centre.
We actually managed to do Perugia and Assisi in one day, hitting the former in the morning and enjoying a quick drink in Piazza IV Novembre before heading off to the latter for lunch.
Is there such a thing as too much history? The town of Assisi is totally saturated with churches and monuments, and every building around every square is so beautifully Italian it’s almost unbearable. You could easily spend a week in this city, admiring the architecture and learning about its past, but sadly we only had a day. We hit the main square for lunch at Bar Trovellesi, then knocked off the Basilica and the Cathedral in quick succession.
Another hill town, Assisi can be seen for miles around. The first Umbrians began to settle here in 1000BC, but it wasn’t until 295BC that the Romans took control and founded Asisium. The town is the birthplace of various patron saints, including of course St Francis of Assisi.
Notable attractions worth your time are 9 churches (many of which are world heritage sites), a Roman amphitheatre, a main square (Piazza del Comune), a tower (Torre del Popolo), a palace (Palazzo dei Priori), and the Temple of Minerva (Tempio di Minerva).
Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi
The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi is one of the important pilgrimage sites in Italy. The Franciscan monastery includes a crypt (il Sacro Convento), and the lower and upper church (Basilica inferiore and Basilica superiore) of St Francis, all built in the 13th century after San Francesco was declared a saint.
The basilica juts out from the rest of the town, crowning the hill with its bleached stone bell tower. With the misty horizon stretching out behind, it kind of looks like a lonely old ship adrift at sea. You can only imagine what the sight of it must have felt like for the pilgrims of ancient Italy, travelling for miles just to see it.
For me the most memorable attractions inside the church are the frescos decorating the walls, which were done over such a long period of time that they show how Italian art styles developed throughout the 13th century.
Tip: The queue outside the Basilica is long and in the full glare of the hot Italian sun. Bring water bottles, sun cream, a hat, and even a parasol if you need to.
OK so this one isn’t so much a must-visit as a visit-if-you’re-in-the-area. The small village of Porano, named after the hill it stands on, has the typical medieval architecture of Umbria, with terracotta tiled roofs and cobbled terraced streets spread over the hillside.
Local sites include some Etruscan tombs from 4th century BC, Rubello castle built in 1200, and the 18th century Paolina villa. But that’s not what earned this tiny town a spot in this list. We’re here for the food.
Il Boccone del Prete Osteria Umbra
We ate the best meal of our holiday at this little local restaurant in Porano, sat outside in the street on an Italian summer’s evening. The highlight of the meal was easily the pork cheek, sliced and pan-fried in sage infused olive oil.
Where we stayed
Porano was the perfect home base for us to explore the area. The four of us stayed in a beautiful airbnb with traditional Umbrain features and a pool that could definitely fit a large family. We thoroughly enjoyed all the outdoor seating areas and spent many happy evenings drinking wine and bitching about Brexit.
Umbria is a stunning part of Italy, and the striking geography definitely sets it apart from the rest of the country. If you’re looking for a beautiful place to go for a summer holiday, with delicious food and historical towns to visit, you can’t go wrong with Umbria.