EVEN if at any given moment I would rather be in Italy than anywhere else, when I visit I rarely look at houses with lust. But on a recent bike ride in the hills and valleys above Orvieto, in the region of Umbria, I decided that there could be no finer place to own a stone farmhouse than among the green, green plains and hills that overlook the Tiber, far below, as it makes its way down to Rome. Rounding the switchbacks of a long, ecstatic descent from the small town of Castiglione back to Orvieto, passing right through the arch of a medieval watchtower at one turn, I kept identifying perfect, foursquare houses in attractive states of disrepair. That's the one, I would say to myself. No, that one. I could hardly believe that perhaps the most beautiful landscape I had come upon in Italy was just beside the main north-south highway -- Italy's first superhighway, the A1 -- and less than two hours north of Rome.
I was predisposed to enjoy beauty, having begun the morning in the simple comfort of La Badia, a hotel in a former abbey with much of its twelfth-century exterior and its nineteenth-century restoration intact, dramatically situated a few kilometers from the high bastions of Orvieto. Built on a plateau of volcanic rock, Orvieto is famous for its exceedingly ornate Gothic cathedral, with façade sculptures that helped to define Western images of hell, and mosaics as brightly colored as the Sony sign in Times Square. It should be famous for the ice cream at the Gelateria Pasqualetti, just behind the church, made by a master craftsman concerned with using the freshest fruit, which in the fall includes figs, persimmons, and prickly pears, and with obtaining the creamiest and deepest-flavored chocolate and pine-nut gelati. The path from the old town down to the modern one runs along medieval bastions and gray-black walls of volcanic stone so sheer that walking it you can feel, as I had the night before, trapped on the ramparts of the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. (The crenellated twelve-sided tower of La Badia was my beacon; I encountered no flying monkeys.)
The day was full of chance discoveries. I took my morning cappuccino in Porano, a pleasant village straight uphill from La Badia on the other side of Orvieto, where for a festival that Sunday there happened to be big pictures made of colored sawdust in the streets; around the main church the pavement pictures were made of rose petals. Heading south, I followed rusty yellow signs to several Etruscan tombs, and to my happy surprise was able to rouse local custodians who let me in. Traces of the Etruscans, enigmatic, artistically innovative pre-Roman people who traded with the Greeks, are abundant north of Rome. Their subtly colored tomb paintings, by turns severe and gay, have mostly been taken to museums -- for example, the newly installed National Archaeological Museum, behind the cathedral in Orvieto, which has a superb collection of bucchero, or lustrous black Etruscan pottery. The pottery's bulbous and scalloped shapes, thin walls, and incised decoration seem more modern and desirable than anything Greek or Roman. Even if the tomb's original paintings and objects have been removed or stolen, their rectilinear shapes and often extensive layouts are there for the traveler on back roads who keeps an eye out.
What other part of the world offers so many unexpected pleasures -- or so many expected ones, if you're always on the alert for exceptional food, as I am? Umbria is, after all, the source of some of Italy's best olive oil, every bit the equal of Tuscany's in roundness and peppery bite, and of black truffles. The abundant truffles are less famous than Italy's white ones, but are said to be the equal of France's Perigord black truffles, and are served with a more generous hand. The best Umbrian souvenirs, to my mind (genuine bucchero being hard to find and on the expensive side), are little bottles of chopped truffles in oil, which you can get at Carraro, the best salumeria in Orvieto. Antonietta Carraro, the tart-tongued proprietress and chief cook, cheerfully heckles customers in line when they get impatient for her room-temperature rustic pizzas; savory little panicelli, rolls studded with local prosciutto and pecorino (sheep's-milk cheese); and tisichelle, marvelous biscotti made with wine, olive oil, and anise seeds from a centuries-old recipe thought to be restorative for its lack of eggs and butter.
For years Umbria was an add-on to people's Tuscan itineraries, a place to break up the trip between Rome and Florence or Siena. But Umbria has its own identity: it is more rural than Tuscany, while sharing much of Tuscany's nobility and beauty. Even if today Umbria is siphoning tourists from Tuscany, who think they are discovering the very discovered Spoleto and Gubbio and Todi, large tracts of the region will be virtually empty whenever you visit. The best time is autumn, when the black truffles are chopped into and over many dishes, and the air is cool but the hills are still green.
Umbria calls itself "the green heart of Italy," perhaps to turn its landlocked status into an asset, perhaps to emphasize the lack of industrialization, which has been a main reason for the ever-increasing sales of land and houses to foreigners who once would probably have bought in Tuscany. Certainly the stunning landscape is enough to make a visitor to Italy set aside at least a few days to see the region.
I keep returning to Umbria to try to understand its soul. It isn't easy. Nancy Harmon Jenkins, an American writer on food who has long had a house on the border with Tuscany, calls Umbria "veiled." The legacy of Saint Francis, who was born in 1182 in Assisi, the region's principal tourist site, makes the small towns and hills where he preached both alluring and unknowable -- like a painting by Piero della Francesca, who in the mid- 1400s worked in and around the region. The Umbrian regard for nature helps explain the high numbers of political greens, both Italian and foreign, who have settled in the region; its pacific legacy is today more apparent than that of the soldiers who fought bloody battles from Roman times onward. "Umbria spawned a superabundance of saints, warriors and artists -- so many that almost any town can claim one or more for its own," Curtis Bill Pepper, an American writer who has lived for years near Todi, has written. "Nowhere in Italy is there such a compost of prayer, violence and art."
Although more than two million tourists a year visit Assisi, the town retains its spirituality, which pervades the streets and buildings -- many of them housing orders and other religious organizations, and almost all of them built of the region's pinkish stone -- without ever seeming either oppressive or exclusive. The Giotto frescoes of the life of Saint Francis, magnificently restored in the Upper Church of the vast Basilica of Saint Francis (a decade before the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, their startlingly bright colors caused controversy), are the artistic core of Umbria. Surprisingly for a town that lives on day traffic, Assisi has several restaurants that serve local dishes at reasonable prices. Ravioli stuffed with wild greens and sheep's-milk ricotta were so good at Ristorante San Francesco, whose terrace overlooks the Upper Church, that I sneaked into the kitchen to see where they came from. The hillsides around Assisi, the owners informed me; a contadino, or farm worker, had brought a basket of spiky raponzoli that morning. In keeping with Umbria's sobriquet, its greens seem at once sweeter and more pungent than any in the surrounding regions. La Stalla, at the end of the town, shows the Umbrian mastery of the grill, serving rustic food such as torta al formaggio (bread with melted local cheese) at modest prices.