Nestling in the shadow of the more famous Tuscany, the Italian region of Umbria has two towns that will dazzle even the most jaded day tripper, writes Yvonne Gordon
I’M LAZING around in the pool in an Italian villa, admiring the surrounding hills and a distant medieval castle, when my host asks if I’d like to visit Assisi or Orvieto the next day. The idea of going on a pilgrimage to Assisi brings back unpleasant memories of school tours to Knock, but, not wishing to bestow upon myself the status of ungrateful guest, I choose Assisi and an overnight stay in Orvieto at the end of the week.
Both places take my breath away. These two medieval hilltop towns, in the Umbrian region of Italy, are cultural treasures. Assisi was made famous by St Francis, founder of the Franciscans and patron saint of Italy; Orvieto is perhaps best known for its white wine.
Yet both towns are full of fascinating art and culture. They are destinations in themselves – or are ideal for day trips if you’re staying in Tuscany or elsewhere nearby. Within the town walls of each you can while away many pleasant hours exploring narrow cobbled streets, taking in churches, museums and art galleries, or exploring underground ruins.
And although it is less well known than its next-door neighbour Tuscany, the Italian region of Umbria has many similar attractions but with lower prices and fewer crowds, especially in high season. The landscape is breathtaking, from rolling hills punctuated with olive groves and vineyards to rivers and lakes. But it is the charming hilltop villages and towns, which date back to medieval times and before, that really capture the imagination.
ASSISI, WHERE St Francis was born in 1182, has many reminders of the Italian saint’s heritage and is a popular place of pilgrimage. Even for the nonreligious it is a gem, and, whatever your reasons for visiting, you will be blown away when you come face to face with the spectacular Basilica di San Francesco complex, on the approach to the city. The striking white-stone buildings, which include the basilica and a neighbouring friary, with its endless Romanesque arches, dominate the northwest of the town and tower over the valley below.
Assisi is pedestrianised, so it’s best to park in one of the car parks under the town and take a lift up to the town itself. Your first destination might be the basilica. This is a centre of pilgrimage for Catholics, but the series of 28 frescoes depicting the life of St Francis, painted in about 1295 and attributed by many to the Italian artist Giotto, also attracts art lovers and historians from around the world.
The building is divided into an upper and lower basilica. The lower church, which was begun in 1228, has a crypt containing the tomb of St Francis. There are also stunning stained-glass windows, and, nearby, some of the saint’s relics are on display. The upper church is where you’ll find the colourful frescoes.
If you follow Via San Francesco uphill from the basilica, you’ll come to Piazza del Comune, the town’s main square. This is a good location for people-watching and perhaps enjoying an ice cream or coffee. Here you’ll find the compact Tempio di Minerva (Temple of Minerva), with a facade of Roman columns. It was built around the first century BC and later converted to a church.
Walk farther south, to Piazza Santa Chiara, and you’ll find the Gothic Basilica di Santa Chiara, which marks the burial place of St Clare, a follower of St Francis and founder of the Poor Clares order of nuns. The pink-and-white Gothic-style church and adjacent convent date back to about 1257; relics of both St Francis and St Clare are kept within. There is also a “speaking cross” inside, which is supposed to have spoken a message from God to St Francis.
If you turn left at the piazza, up Via Sermei, you’ll come to Cattedrale di San Rufino, a cathedral with an impressive Romanesque facade. Farther up the hill is Rocca Maggiore, a medieval fortress with great views – it’s a bit of a walk but is worth it for the vista.
There are plenty of other historic monuments and churches to discover in Assisi, and all along the narrow cobbled streets you’ll also find shops, galleries and restaurants. The usual tacky souvenir stalls are mixed with shops selling unusual sculptures, pottery, art, olive-wood creations and artisan produce. Take a few turns down some meandering streets and, once you’re away from the bustling centre, you’ll find tranquil thoroughfares with pretty houses and colourful window boxes. Some of the streets have impressive views over the valley below.
RISING ON A volcanic plateau more than 300m high, the tufa cliffs of Orvieto provide a natural fortress, protecting the gems of Italian art and culture within. You reach the town by a funicular that runs from near the train station or via a network of lifts and escalators from the car park below. There is also a bus from the train station. Although you can drive into the city at certain times, parking is limited and most streets are pedestrianised.
However you approach the town, you’ll soon find yourself lost in a captivating network of cobbled streets filled with churches and museums. Spires and clock towers call to each other in chimes at key moments, all adding to the charm.
One of the first places to see, even from outside, has to be the spectacular cathedral, one of the best examples of Romanesque and Gothic art in Europe. The exterior is breathtaking, with a 52m facade that includes four spires, colourful mosaics and rows and rows of columns and detailed sculptures, all positioned around a central rose window.
Construction of the cathedral began in 1290; the detail took nearly 300 years to complete. The cathedral was inspired by the Miracle of Bolsena – when, in 1263, a young priest was saying Mass in the nearby town, blood apparently dripped from the host on to the altar cloth. The cloth is housed in the church, which is as impressive inside as out, with frescoes by Luca Signorelli depicting the Last Judgment. The series of images, which feature angels and demons, prophets and the Antichrist, is said to have inspired Michelangelo before he painted the Sistine Chapel, some years later.
Also around Piazza del Duomo is Palazzo Faina, which contains Museo Civico Archeologico and Museo Claudio Faina, which features Etruscan and Greek artefacts.
For great views of the city and countryside below, climb to the top of Torre del Moro, a historic clock tower with 236 steps (a lift will take you part of the way). The bell tower at the Church of Sant’Andrea is worth seeing, too, with its 12 sides.
Also among Orvieto’s highlights are Etruscan remains such as the Necropoli Etrusca di Crocifisso del Tufo burial grounds, at the base of the plateau that the city stands on, which date from the sixth century BC.
You can take a guided tour of “underground Orvieto”, a labyrinth of caves and tunnels that bear evidence of the work of the town’s residents over the past 3,000 years. So far 1,200 caves have been found beneath the city, many still intact and providing rich archaeological and historical treasures.
Above ground, as well as churches and museums, there are plenty of small shops to browse in, with local crafts including Orvieto lace and a variety of pottery and ceramics. Shops often stay open late, especially during high season, and the quiet streets come alive at night with the hum of bustling cafes and restaurants.
Where to stay, eat and go if you visit Umbria's hilltop towns
Where to stay
Hotel La Fortezza. Piazza del Comune, 00-39-075-812418, www.lafortezzahotel.com. Small, reasonably priced hotel in a pretty medieval stone building near Piazza del Commune.
Residenza d'Epoca San Crispino. Via Sant'Agnese 11, 00-39-075-8155124, www.sancrispinoresidence.com. This is a quiet historic residence near Piazza Santa Chiara, with panoramic views.
Hotel San Francesco. Via San Francesco 48, 00-39-075-812281, www.hotelsanfrancescoassisi.it. Right in front of Basilica di San Francesco, this is a small, comfortable hotel with great terrace views.
Where to eat
Ristorante Medio Evo. Via Arco dei Priori 4, 00-39-075-813068, www. ristorantemedioevoassisi.it. Medieval-style restaurant under vaulted ceilings with simple food and a fantastic atmosphere.
Trattoria Pallotta. Vicolo della Volta Pinta 3, 00-39-075-812649, www.pallottaassisi.it. A cosy little restaurant where house specialities include salami, truffle, pigeon and rabbit.
La Locanda del Cardinale. Piazza del Vescovado 8, 00-39-075-815245, www. lalocandadelcardinale.com. Typical Umbrian specialities served in elegant surroundings.
Where to go
Don't miss the medieval frescoes at Basilica di San Francesco.
Hike up to Rocca Maggiore, a fortress with fantastic views over Assisi and the surrounding landscape.
Visit Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli, one of the world's largest churches. It's outside the town near the train station.
Where to stay
Albergo della Posta. Via Luca Signorelli 18, 00-39-0763-341909, www.orvietohotels.it. Basic but charming and reasonably priced old-style hotel in the heart of historic Orvieto.
Hotel Duomo. Vicolo di Maurizio 7, 00-39-0763-341887, www.orvietohotelduomo.com. You can't beat the location of this hotel, right beside the duomo. Each room was painted by an artist.
Hotel Corso. Corso Cavour 343, 00-39-0763-342020, www.hotelcorso.net. A friendly, rustic hotel in the historic centre of Orvieto.
Where to eat
Hostaria Nonna Amelia. Via Duomo 25, 00-39-0763-342402. Bustling with atmosphere, this reasonably priced restaurant serves typical Italian dishes.
Ristorante Maurizio. Via del Duomo 78, 00-39-0763-343212, www.ristorantemaurizio.it. Simple but tasty Umbrian dishes and an excellent location, at the duomo.
L'Asino d'Oro. Vicolo del Popolo 9, 00-39-0763-344406. Sample traditional Umbrian cuisine in stylish surroundings.
Where to go
Don't miss the duomo, Orvieto's stunning cathedral, breathtaking both inside and out.
Explore the narrow streets of the medieval quarter, with cafes, wine bars and shops selling crafts and souvenirs.
Pozzo di San Patrizio, a deep well named after our own St Patrick, circled by two spiral staircases, each with 248 descending steps.
Both Assisi and Orvieto are best explored by foot, with most streets in the historic centres pedestrianised. Arrive early during high season and park in one of the car parks below either town. Cover arms and legs (no shorts) when visiting the main basilicas.
Local produce from Orvieto includes extra-virgin olive oil and wine. Truffles are another Umbrian speciality, with both black and rarer white truffles found nearby. Truffled cheese is a real treat.
Try the local charcuterie – porchetta, mazzafegate and copa di testa – and don't forget to try mouthwatering gelato (ice-cream) flavours such as melon and apple.
Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus. com) flies from Belfast, Cork and Dublin to Rome Fiumicino. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Rome Ciampino and from London Stansted to Perugia in Umbria. Alitalia (www.alitalia.com) flies from Dublin to Rome via Paris. Orvieto is about an hour by train from Rome. Assisi is about two hours by train from Rome.