Wandering the back roads through the interior of Italy, a lucky traveler will find Umbria, north of Rome and south of the more familiar Tuscany. Known as the Green Heart of Italy, this region offers a healthy dose of Italian charm, fabulous wineries, world class chocolate, and a calm retreat off the tourist path.
To get off the main road, book a short-term holiday lodging like La Passionata, a 16th century convent in the very small – microscopic, even – village of Upper Bazzano, near Spoleto. Don’t look for it on Google maps; you may have to ask a local for directions to find the apartment.
At the convent, an iron gate leads up a dozen steps to the door of the old structure. Off of a utilitarian kitchen hewn out of the rock, the library and prayer room are framed with six huge arched windows. The view shows a patchwork of green that stretches out to the horizon. The main room features a huge stone fireplace and an elegant 16th century fresco, allegedly by Lo Spagna, who also has works in the Duomo in Spoleto and in the Vatican. A spectacular private garden, outfitted with four hammocks, greets visitors who have arrived in vacation heaven.
Nearby is a fascinating medieval hill town known for its world-famous music event, Festival dei Due Mondi. To get to the majestic La Rocca Albornoziana, built in the 14th century, visitors file into an escalator for the 15-minute ride up to the fortress. This was a prison until late in the 20th century, and it still has a stark prison vibe.
Looking for a meal? Walk up the narrow street from Piazza Garibaldi toward the upper part of the old city of Spoleto to find 9 Cento, a combination restaurant, coffee shop, and wine bar. Cheeses and meats were the start of a memorable meal in the small restaurant, and the house wine was served with a huge array of fresh hot and cold assorted local specialties. The Norcia truffle pasta and wild boar pappardelle are both iconic dishes of the region and are done very well at 9 Cento.
Wine… and chocolate kisses
Wine is always a welcome requirement of any Italian trip, and Umbria offers several notable varietals, including the white Orvieto and the lesser-known red Sagrantino di Montefalco. Montefalco is another small walled city in Umbria and the hub of the wine-growing region. The Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG (or Montefalco Sagrantino) is the rising star of Italian red wines; try to find a bottle or two to take home and cellar.
Another spot for great wine is Torgiano, yet another small town with medieval walls and an impressive defensive tower located on a hill overlooking the Chiascio and Tiber rivers. This is where you’ll find the Museo del Vino Torgiano, founded by the Lungarotti family in 1974. Lungarotti is one the best-known producers in Umbria and have been largely responsible for putting and keeping Torgiano on the world map of top wine regions. Leading the tour of their winery was Chiara Lungarotti, daughter of the founder. The 30-minute tour of the property featured a combination of modern technology and centuries old techniques. Best of all, however, is the wine tasting, accompanied by Umbrian bread and Lungarotti extra virgin olive oil.
The only thing left to complete your Umbrian vacation is a guided tour of the Perugia Chocolate House on the outskirts of the city of the same name. While the factory is now owned by food giant Nestlé, it still maintains its reputation for quality. Some 1500 of the famous silver-wrapped chocolate-and-hazelnut confections called Baci – Italian for “kisses” – are created each minute during production. Visitors can sample to their heart’s content at the end of the tour. Serious fanatics can enroll in chocolate school, a four-hour course that teaches the secrets of chocolate making.
Umbria is a bright gem of a travel destination, with unique places to stay, charming cities to tour, terrific food, and outstanding wine. A stay in Italy’s “Green Heart” leaves the visitor with the sweet taste of a chocolate kiss.