Green-Hearted Italy

In autumn the mystic landscape of Umbria is at its best

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.

My two favorite Umbrian towns, Bevagna and Montefalco, lie a short drive from Assisi. Bevagna, on the plains, reflects Umbria's wealth in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when many of its great churches were built. (During the Renaissance, Umbria was papal property, and its riches went elsewhere.) Two big and handsome Romanesque churches stand right across from each other in the main square. In the basement of the town hall, which sits between them and dates from 1270, is a curious turn-of-the-century theater, visible through the newly restored arched windows. When I visited in late spring, the town was busily preparing for some sort of festival -- one clearly more for its own residents than for tourists, who were nevertheless welcome.

Every region seems to have a town that people claim is its "balcony" or "railing," and Montefalco is Umbria's: it sits on a high hill with views all around. Montefalco has a marvelous museum, in a former Franciscan church made into a gallery in 1895 and recently brightened and reopened. The masterpiece in a noteworthy medieval and Renaissance collection is the fresco cycle of the life of Saint Francis by Benozzo Gozzoli, painted about 150 years after Giotto's and showing many of the same scenes. If Giotto expresses all of Saint Francis's passion and renunciation of worldly pleasures, Gozzoli, a Florentine who worked for the Medici in Florence, is true to Saint Francis's mercantile origins: the colors and fabrics (Francis's father sold textiles) are sumptuous, the air cosmopolitan. Yet Gozzoli was surely moved, too, by his subject, and comparing the two cycles makes a very pleasant day's labor.

A good base for excursions to all these towns is Le Tre Vaselle, a hotel and restaurant in Torgiano, a town put on the map by Giorgio Lungarotti, whose wines have in thirty years come to be among the most respected in Italy. Torgiano is a half hour by car from Perugia and most of the well-known hill towns. The inn, in a seventeenth-century building, is comfortable and luxurious but not ostentatious; the smallish rooms are decorated with rustic furniture and local textiles, examples of which are for sale at a handicrafts shop also owned by the Lungarottis. (Giorgio's two daughters have joined him in the business.) The family has already opened, adjacent to the hotel, the best-mounted, most informative wine museum in Italy, which is worth visiting even if you don't stay at the inn. The inn's good food is naturally built around an all-Lungarotti wine list.

Perugia has in the nearly twenty years since I first saw it gone from being a provincial capital enlivened by foreign students to being a sprawling city practically engulfed by small industry. The students still come: they study at the University for Foreigners, which was begun in 1921 to encourage foreign exchange. There's an important state university for Italians, too, and at night the main square, with its famous medieval fountain, is jammed with youth. Jazz lovers come for the long-established summer jazz festival, one of Europe's best known. The city merits at least half a day -- a morning, to be sure of finding open the National Gallery of Umbria, just restored and rehung, with its magnificent Piero della Francesca polyptych, also just restored.

Entering the city by car requires navigating a maze of mini-cloverleafs; you have to park outside the walls and take escalators to the center. This entrance turns out to be delightful, because of the Piranesi-like spaces you travel through in the sixteenth-century walls of the Rocca Paolina. A papal fortress that once dominated the city, the Rocca Paolina was mostly torn down by resentful citizens in the 1860s, at the time of Italy's unification; the walls have become a kind of urban museum with piped-in music. You can have a thick hot chocolate and sacher or linzer torte at the Pasticceria Sandri, which has long been owned by a Swiss family and has a Viennese Art Nouveau interior that's still intact. For decades Perugia meant Perugina chocolates to Italians, and in particular Baci ("Kisses") -- chocolate-hazelnut balls ("decidedly nipple-like," Faith Heller Willinger calls them in Eating in Italy) wrapped in star-patterned foil with little romantic verses inside.

A Torgiano base also gives you access to Spoleto, which is best visited when the famous summer arts festival hasn't overtaken it, and to Gubbio, another medieval hill town. Tourists have taken note of Gubbio's excellent state of preservation, and they seem to be the only people there. I would rather drive along the northern edge of Lake Trasimeno, just west of Perugia, to the olive-oil press of Alfredo Mancianti, who produces some of the most prized oil in Italy; in the same building is a charming shop where you'll often encounter his proud father, Faliero, who bought the press in 1952. The trip will also show you the lake, and it's hard to go wrong at any of the restaurants in the resort towns around it, which generally serve local fish such as perch and carp. Another well-regarded oil producer is Maria Possenti-Castelli, near Terni, who produces a powerfully truffle-flavored oil. Both sell their oils in elegant bottles worth carrying home.

The food of Umbria is simpler than that of any of the surrounding regions. There are only a few ingredients in a typical dish, such as the great spaghetti alla Norcina, with its sauce of black truffles, garlic, and anchovies. The dish is named for Norcia, a town on the other side of Spoleto that is worth visiting for the picture it gives of untouristed everyday life. What's more, in Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, which will be published next March, Fred Plotkin singles out Norcia as the best food town in Umbria. It's worth driving there, he says, to try the lentils -- Italy's most famous -- from the nearby town of Castelluccio (which doesn't have Norcia's abundance of good places to eat), and the various sausages and hams. "Norcineria" is a generic word that butchers all over Italy use for their line of pig products, and the butcher is a "norcino." Plotkin points out the restaurants Trattoria dal Francese and Granaro del Monte.

The reason to go to Umbria -- more than food, more than charming hill towns, more, perhaps, than frescoes -- is that mystic landscape. The back road from Todi to Orvieto, up hills and across valleys, past a medieval castle in the middle of the tiny town of Prodo, overlooking Lake Corbara far below, is another route like the one that induced my bicycling ecstasy. The twenty-four-mile passage, which for the last third is dominated by the almost hallucinatory image of Orvieto rising on its volcanic base, has inspired many of the foreigners who have the means to indulge real-estate lust to find their ideal life there, at least seasonally. The rest of us can drive up from Rome for a few days, and keep dreaming.

The Atlantic Monthly; September, 1995; Green-Hearted Italy.