There are numerous locations to visit around Umbria and in Tuscany. It helps if you have a good guidebook. We’ve given thumbnail sketches of some of the nearby cities you can see in a day using public transport. If you’re heading to Tuscany by rail, definitely download our free Tuscany Rail Map (as well as maps of Siena) from www.thelittleblue.it.
Assisi is an easy day trip from Perugia. Hop on a regular train heading south and it’s your third stop. Buy a ticket at the station’s tobacco (tabacchi) shop and then take the next bus to the top. You could also be a true pilgrim like Jens and walk up; it’s about four kilometers. If you arrive by bus, walk out of the parking lot and up to the left. Once at the top, by-pass all the stores eager to sell you clothes and trinkets (if you have ever longed for a bright-yellow t-shirt emblazoned with “Shrek – Assisi”, you’ll find it here). Weave through the camera-heavy crowds straight to the magnificent Doppia Basilica di San Francesco.
St. Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant but renounced his inheritance (by stripping naked in public, no less) and worked to rebuild the Catholic Church in the 12th century. You can see the frescoes that depict him doing The Full Franky and then metaphorically supporting the broken Church in the frescoes in the third arch on the right of the basilica superiore. Francis was rewarded for this by being kidnapped by his own men; he fell ill in Siena and his second in command sent out an armed band to bring him back to Assisi to die, to ensure that the tourist – errr, pilgrim – profits would flow to Assisi and the Franciscans. St. Francis’ body was then hidden in the Basilica to prevent “relic snatching,” common in the Middle Ages, and was not rediscovered until the early 1800s. The frescoes in the basilica superiore are thought to be by Giotto, a medieval master. Get a good guidebook to do justice to the art. Assisi’s main festival is the pulsating Calendimaggio in early May, a spectacular display of medieval music, costumes and traditions. Entrance is free but a grandstand ticket is worth the money for a much better view.
The traditional second side-trip for University For Foreigners students (the first is Assisi), the lake is better visited in the summer. The most convenient way to visit the lakedistrict is by car, driving in the hills that surround it. Various points around the lake hire out windsurfers and paddle boats during the warmer and sillier months. The easiest spot to get to by public transport is Passignano, an overrated jumble of tourist apartments and gelati shops. If you are dead-set on going to the islands, take the train to the dirty little stazione in Passignano, dodge cars as you walk down to the jetty in town, and pay €5.30 for a return ticket to the Isola Maggiore. APM runs the traghetti (ferries) on the lake and has a timetable in the back of the summer edition of their little orario book. They also have a map and orario combination, available at the Piazza Partigiani bus station. It’s a twenty-minute ferry ride to the island, but check the schedule for the next boat back because there’s not much to do. Skip lunch there (the two restaurants are nothing to write home about); bring a picnic and go see the main attraction, which is admittedly cool. It’s a villa on the far side of the island from the jetty, where an old lady used to lead tours of the eerie old house and its chapel, courtyard, and scary billiard room. Unfortunately, (or fortunately) it’s now being renovated. The island is a lot more interesting if you get the €3 Guide to Isola Maggiore, You get the inside story on the historical reasons behind the lace and can read about the cool ancient fishing techniques. Best of the lakeside towns is Castiglione del Lago, reachable by direct bus from the Partigiani terminal or by train via Terontola, or even by lake ferry from Passignano. It boasts, modestly, a ruined castle (if there is any other sort in Italy, let us know) jutting out on a promontory and some passable nightlife along the lakefront promenade.
Gubbio is about an hour away by bus over a twisty, nausea-inducing road. Gubbio sits on the side of one of the Umbrian valleys and like many other Umbrian cities, has a beautiful main piazza with a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside. You’ll arrive in a big square; walk up Via della Repubblica and take a left on Via XX Settembre. After you see the Piazza Grande, walk back down XX Settembre to the end and cross a little bridge to the “cabinovia.” Don’t miss this open, bird-cage-like contraption (not for the faint of heart), which will give you a wild ride up to the top of the hill.
During the winter a huge Christmas tree is made by stringing lights on the slopes of Mt. Ingino. It’s claimed to be the largest artificial Christmas tree in Europe, a dubious distinction at best. Other than that, there’s the perfectly Romanesque Duomo and the well-preserved city wall (both free). If you’re around on the fifteenth of May go see the Corsa dei Ceri, one of Italy’s lesser-known but most passionate festivals. It’s a race between teams carrying the three giant, teak casks that have been around since the Gubbians were pagans. The three teams belt through the narrow streets and up the mountain as if there was a pot of gold at the top (instead of the seven-hundred-year-old embalmed body of Saint Ubaldo). The Corsa is a flurry of color and fun even if you don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Later in the evening each team holds an open-air party with free wine for all comers.
It’s about an hour by train, a little more if you have to change at Foligno. From the station, take a bus to the center or simply walk five minutes up the big street out front, Viale Trento e Trieste and bear right at the big intersection where it ends. Go through the arch, salute Garibaldi on his horse, and continue straight on Corso Garibaldi, then start bearing left up into the old city. Spoleto, like many Umbrian hill towns, is well-endowed with beguiling alleys and arches leading to unexpected delights. Enjoy them and wander up to the Piazza del Mercato. Only two fruttivendoli are left, unfortunately, of the centuries-old market. Meander uphill towards the rocca, the Albornoz Fortress. Don’t go in but take Via del Ponte around the back side of the castle. Here you’ll see an awesome sight: the so-called Bridge of the Towers (Ponte delle Torri), an enormous bridge seventy-five metres tall and two hundred and thirty wide. It was built in the thirteenth century to link the town to a small fortress. The road goes all the way around the hill. Spoleto also has some Roman ruins (amphitheater, theater, assorted gates, walls, and other crumbly things), though one can see the ampitheater just fine through the gate on Piazza della Libertà.
Periodically there is a survey that assesses the quality of life in Italy’s towns and cities and Todi routinely comes out among the top picks. Lucky for us it’s a comfortable day trip from Perugia. Take a direct bus from Partigiani terminal or the FCU train from Sant’Anna and then the mini-bus up into the centro. The main church features the tomb of renegade poet Jacopone under the altar and admission by payment to the dizzying bell-tower for sublime views all around. Most of all Todi offers quiet elegance and an unhurried ambience in which to savor the treasures of days-gone-by.
Way down in the southwest corner of Umbria, Orvieto is on the main railway line between Rome and Florence. Orvieto sits on a hill made of volcanic tufa rock and has marvelous views of the surrounding country side, as well as a funky Duomo. It’s also one of eighteen Italian cities in the movement “Città Slow,” Slow Cities; among other things the member cities try to keep traffic and noise in the city center to a minimum, preserve local foods and wines, and keep their populations under 50,000. While you’re there, try the great white wine, and take the cheesy “hidden Orvieto” tour of the grottoes that the Etrsucans carved into the rock underneath the city. One of the coolest underground things in an enormous well carved into the rock on the orders of some sixteenth-century pope: it has interlocking staircases so that a continuous line of donkeys could ascend to get water and bring it back up without blocking each other.
Nikos, Michael, and I visited on a bright October day. Cortona is steep and instead of a central piazza it has two smaller ones – which don’t quite add up to the effect of the classic piazza grande. Other than views of Lago Trasimeno (it looks swimmable from Cortona!), it’s not worth the hassle. Around Cortona you can see the terraced agriculture that has sculpted the hills for thousands of years; Cortona is another notable Etruscan city. Get really damn ancient with Etruscan-style jewelry, lovingly recreated on the basis of museum specimens, at Il Girasole, Via Casali 2 adjacent to the Duomo. Not that cheap, but I guess there’s a price to pay for having your civilization wiped out.
My favorite city in central Italy outside of Perugia. Siena is Rinascimento harmony at its best (that’s the Italian word for Renaissance). It is almost inaccessible by train from Perugia because of numerous transfers and connections, hence much more convenient to take the bus departing from the train station. It usually leaves at 8:35 in the morning and departs Siena to come back at 16:30 (€20 roundtrip). Ask for the newest schedule at the bus station in Piazza Partigiani or look at www.sena.it. Two must-sees at Siena are Il Campo, the perfect piazza which focuses your attention on the proud town hall, and the Duomo. Even more interesting than the cathedral (did you ever think green could look so good on a cathedral?) is the cathedral-that-wasn’t. In the early 1300s the Florentines completed their new cathedral. Their rivals the Sienese said, “Hah, we can beat that!” and began an ambitious building project: to build a new nave and turn the old nave into the new transept. If you go into the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and follow the signs past all the old scepters up to the “Panorama,” it will all be clear to you (and please, says Marsely, check out Duccio’s “Maestà” while you’re in the museum – it’s an Early Renaissance masterpiece). The city fathers commenced their project and the piazza below would have been inside the new cathedral. The wall you’re standing on would have been at the front of the cathedral, the top of the main entrance. In the piazza below you can see the white circles, the foundations of enormous pillars that never were. A banking collapse in the 1320s and then bubonic plague killed the idea permanently in 1348, along with a third of Siena’s population.
An elegant city in the plain, Foligno is the site of the famous jousting event “la Quintana,” a reenactment of a horserace of the 1600s which occurs twice a year, in June and in September. You can also look for the Art Nouveau style houses in the center. Foligno is where you often change trains for all points south.
There are two main ones, both free and both open at night. One is near Viterbo and one is in San Casciano dei Bagni in Tuscany. It’s notoriously hard to find anyone who actually knows how to get to them…so I’m not going to tell you either. You’ll need a car to arrive as well as MapQuest, or ask Piccola Umbria(see the end of this page) for a quote. Both hot springs are free though the ones in Tuscany are definitely more scenic – you’re in a valley below a big castle, lit up at night for your Italian memories.
When in Deruta, think ceramics. Its simple claim to notoriety is as one of the top production centers for majolica pottery in Italy. Hundreds of warehouses and factories line the main street with more in the city proper on the hill. If you’re dead keen on going pott(er)y you can even take in the Ceramics Museum and Art Gallery situated in the Palazzo Comunale behind the main piazza. You are welcome to poke your head into the artisan workshops for a firsthand look at how the pottery is made, both in the city and outside; a jewel is the Cama Workshops. Need a “Beware Of The Cat” decorative ceramic tile for your dream home? Find it here! Visit the very helpful Pro Deruta Association in Piazza dei Consoli 4a1 for free maps and city guides. A selection of Deruta ceramic ware is also on show and sale at the colorful Saturday morning market in Perugia. It’s held behind the Duomo on Piazza Danti, 8-13.
A small town about 50km south of Perugia on the way to Terni. There’s jack-all to do there but a picture next to the location sign makes a great souvenir!
Not a business but rather a group of Umbrians who want to share their region with everyone. Get together a small group and tell them what you’re interested in and they can help you organize the transport and the logistics, plus show you the best spots, whether it’s the hot springs or trekking in the Appenines. Gastronomy is also a favorite pastime of the group. They speak Dutch, French and English. See more info at piccolaumbria.it.