Umbria's slow pleasures

16:00, Mar 16 2014
OFTEN OVERLOOKED: Umbria is packed with ancient treasures.

Wedged between Rome and Tuscany, the often overlooked region of Umbria contains many delights, as Brian Johnston discovers by luxury coach.

Beyond Rome's tangle of highways, umbrella pines unfurl and burnt-orange villas slouch on hillsides. Leaves are only just turning yellow at the edges, and yesterday's rain has rinsed the sky to eggshell blue. Vines have an orange flush, wild horses splash in roadside marshland, and oak forests promise ripening truffles.

Umbria is a fertile landscape and an ancient one. Its inhabitants have had plenty of time to get it right. Its olive groves and vineyards were first planted by the shadowy Etruscans. In the Middle Ages, the people climbed tufa outcrops and built lofty little city states of terracotta roofs and church spires.

UMBRIAN FARE: Something to go with your espresso.

Modern Italians have contributed admittedly hideous train stations and supermarkets, but they are confined to the valley floors. You want to look up in Umbria, where old towns cling to crags that are too squeezed to be sullied by the accoutrements of modern living.

Umbria is beautiful, even in late October. We spend the week dodging rain showers, but avoid the heat and high-season tourist crowds. Anyway, Umbria is less visited than better-known Tuscany to the north. Some, who don't know better, call it the poor man's Tuscany, in the same way they sniff at coach tours. Listen to the naysayers and miss out on a treat.

As my coach heads up the highway, I am delighted to be on a grand adventure in an unfamiliar part of Italy. Let Insight Vacations worry about transport and hotels, guides and suitcases. I want to spend my time absorbing the panorama beyond the windows, and exploring Umbria's slow pleasures.


Orvieto is the first of these, just 125 kilometres north of Rome. Our coach parks at Foro Boario, where a clanking lift hoists us through the rock onto its fortified walls. From the ramparts, vineyards and villages are gorgeous enough to provide a stab of happiness.

Even better, I do not have to fret over practicalities. Before we are let loose, we have an orientation tour with Marco, a local art historian and madly enthusiastic leprechaun of a man. He strolls us past old towers and Gothic palaces, sparking with information. Ahead looms a black-and-white cathedral, zebra-striped, as if painted by teenager pranksters.

"Here you have to worry about going to hell," says Marco, pointing to the superb array of Last Judgment sculptures in pink and green marble above the entrance doors. "You might suffer through eternity while a monkey shoves a poker in your eye!"

Inside, the cathedral is dim and simple, capturing the solemn spirituality of an age before Renaissance doubt and baroque bedazzlement.

"This a great masterpiece. It's all in the art books," says Marco in delight, as if he has only just discovered its charms.

Guided tours provide context, but our itinerary sensibly provides ample free time too. Soon our group dissolves, and I scamper off to investigate Orvieto's alimentare.

The town is at the forefront of Italy's slow-food movement, and shops are fat with cheese, salamis and porchetta flavoured with wild fennel that is grasso e magro (fatty and lean) from the pork shoulder and belly. "A bite of porchetta in the morning will transform your day," suggests a shopkeeper with Italian exaggeration. But it's already afternoon, so I have a gelato instead: jasmine delicately flavoured with cinnamon.

Later, I am off for dinner at Zeppelin Restaurant, under the helm of self-styled "Etruscan chef" Lorenzo Polegri. I soon have a local sparkling wine at my elbow, accompanied by prosciutto and salty chunks of aged parmesan.

Afterwards, the bald, bearded Led Zeppelin fan emerges to see if I have enjoyed my tagliatelle al cinghiale with its autumnal boar's meat sauce. Had I been to the market in Piazza del Popolo earlier that day? A pity, because I could have talked to the cheese seller.

"We used to go to the same disco back in the '80s when I had a red Honda and a head of beautiful hair. He has parmesan aged for 36 months, pecorino, mozzarella ..."

Such is the dilemma of coach touring. I enjoy the constant on-the-move variety, but feel I am never quite long enough in any one place to do it all. Is that a bad thing? Maybe not, because the sign of a good holiday is to leave wanting more. As our coach trundles north and passengers gaze at the scenery or catch up on emails, I dream of a month in Orvieto, or maybe even a lifetime.

Coach touring has proved more sophisticated than I imagined. My fellow passengers are experienced travellers who have reached a stage in life when comfort and ease trump backpacker boasting. Tour leader Belinda Richardson has an Italian husband, a house in Umbria and an encyclopaedic knowledge of history combined with insightful personal anecdotes. She has none of the cloying bonhomie and dreary patter I associate with tour guides.

I like this tour for its flexibility, too. Not all meals are included, which may be an inconvenience for some, but it allows occasional solo dining. The following evening in Perugia, I set off with some newfound friends and find a backstreet pizzeria that could not be further from tourist-hotel restaurants.

Locals chortle over rough red wine as chefs shovel pizzas into a hunchbacked oven where flames dance. Minutes later, I am tucking into a pizza scattered with oozing splinters of cheese and curling prosciutto, burnt at the edges.

Perugia is a wonderful place. "It's the Middle Ages without the stench, the plague and the fear," says Belinda in sly acknowledgement of tourism's misleadingly romantic vision of history, but it is hard not to be seduced by this hilltop town, as pretty as a picture from a book of hours. It has herb gardens, Gothic windows and little chapels where hot wax mingles with whispers.

The main street, Corso Vannucci, is joyous in pale-pink stone. We stay two nights and, in the evenings, this is the place to join a throng of locals on their passeggiata, that well-dressed, gelato-slurping, crony-greeting promenade ritual so beloved of Italians. Later, jazz bars hum with the chatter of university students and restaurant laughter spills into shadowy streets that set cheeks tingling with a promise of winter.

Morning views unroll across a cypress-dotted valley towards Assisi on the far hillside. It is by far the most touristy destination in Umbria, with more than 5 million visitors a year. Pilgrims come from all around the world to visit the home town and final resting place of St Francis, the wealthy merchant's son who gave up the good life in 1204 to devote himself to preaching and poverty, and became a favourite Catholic saint.

Streets are a bustle of brown-robed friars, Polish grandmothers and hallelujah hippies. Doleful supplicants hang off the metal grille around St Francis's plain tomb, whispering prayers. The tomb of fellow poverty-preacher St Clare is across town, a little overlooked. Shops line the streets between the two, a plastic eruption of saintly statues and snowdomes made in China.

Away from the holiness, Assisi is still impressive. It has Roman remains, a hilly cascade of cobblestone streets topped by a whopping papal fortress, and views to make you think you have gone to heaven. But being a mere tourist among psalm-singing teenagers and Philippine nuns is an awkward business.

Fortunately, Assisi provides temptations of the flesh for those incredulous by nature. Every street corner seems to have a pastry shop gluttonous with fig-filled biscotti pizzicato and mother-in-law's tongues that ooze a sharp marmalade of candied lemon peel. Bocconcini glisten with sticky almond paste. I settle on a cannoli and an espresso macchiato served by a waitress with improbable eyelashes, and feel that renouncing the good life might be overrated.

Each to their own. Few of my tour group seem moved to religious devotion, but this is no cookie-cutter itinerary. Some shop, some drink coffee, some Instagram lovely Umbrian scenes. The earnest press Belinda for history. Others ogle art. Then we climb back on board and swap stories about finding a fresco, a pear tart, a ceramic dish. It would be a dull soul who did not enjoy a coach tour of Italy. Tomorrow we are off to Tuscany, and Venice awaits.

The writer was a guest of Insight Vacations.


TOURING THERE Among Insight Vacation's tours that take in this region is a 16-day "Country Roads of Italy" tour between Rome and Venice from $NZ5318 a person, twin share. It visits Orvieto, Perugia and Assisi, as well as the Amalfi Coast and Tuscany. Not all meals are included. With a maximum of 40 passengers, luxury coaches have ample legroom, as well as on-board lavatory and free Wi-Fi. See