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Umbria sits in the shadow of Tuscany, its better-known northern neighbour, but is fast becoming a favoured destination for those who want to discover rural Italy away from the crowds. The area is predominantly rural, with no major cities and a small population of under a million. Umbria is landlocked, situated in the heart of Italy, north of Rome, with the Marches region to the east, Latium to the south and Tuscany to the north.
The region is dotted with remarkably unspoilt medieval hill towns and villages, ancient castles, Roman ruins and a rolling countryside of forests, olive groves and vineyards. The famous Tuscan towns of Florence, Siena and Pisa are all within driving distance, but Umbria also has many of its own magnificent sights. These include the cathedral facade in Orvieto, the Roman theatre in Spoleto, and the town of Assisi, whose Basilica ranks among Italy's must-see sights along with Pompeii, St Mark's Square and the Colosseum.
Perugia is the region's main city and is the place to head for shopping, bars or any nightlife, although visitors are more likely to visit Umbria to hike through the unspoilt countryside, slumber by the pool, and enjoy the delicious local wine and food, than to shop and party.
Umbria is only one to two hours' drive from either the Rome or Pisa airports, and can be accessed via the A1 toll road which runs through the region from Rome to Florence.
The medieval fortress town of Orvieto is perched on a hilltop overlooking the Umbrian countryside, just over an hour north of Rome by car and also accessible by train. The dramatically situated town, with ancient fortifications that seem to grow out of the cliffs, has been permanently inhabited since the Etruscans. It is thought to have been an important centre for Etruscan civilization and many impressive artefacts can be viewed in Orvieto's archaeological museum. Situated as it is on the route between Rome and Florence, Orvieto has been a vital defensive outpost at various points in its long history. The famous Christian philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, once lived and taught in Orvieto. The town remains almost unchanged since medieval times, and even in summer is not too packed with tourists. The 13th-century Duomo of Orvieto, with its magnificent facade and frescoes, dominates the skyline. The cathedral is Orvieto's must-see attraction, but visitors should also take time to wander around the town's backstreets to find hidden gems and amazing views over the city walls and battlements. The best restaurants are tucked away in the side streets off the main square.
The picturesque hill town of Assisi, to the east of Perugia, is famous as the birthplace of St Francis, a 12th-century monk who founded the Franciscan order, devoted to achieving an 'abundance of the divine' through the practices of ascetism, poverty and chastity. Tourists and pilgrims flock to the bustling town for inspiration and worship, and a multitude of annual conferences, festivals and other religious activities. Assisi is a visual spectacle of shimmering white marble buildings perched halfway up Mount Subasio. The town is set against the backdrop of the towering 14th-century hill fortress of the Rocca Maggiore, a landmark with which to orientate oneself from inside the city's medieval ramparts.
One of the most loved and visited churches in Italy is the 13th-century Basilica di San Francesco, containing frescoes by Giotto commemorating the life of St Francis. Other notable works include paintings by Pietro Lorenzetti, and Simone Martini's frescoes based on the life of St Martin. St Francis' tomb rests below the lower church, also worth visiting when on holiday in Assisi. Almost all of the four million tourists who travel to Assisi each year come primarily to see the Basilica di San Francesco, but other popular sights include the 13th-century Basilica di Santa Chiara, the 12th-century Romanesque Duomo di San Rufino and the Eremo delle Carceri monastery, situated in the woodland outside the walls of Assisi.
Assisi is a beautiful city with winding streets, Roman ruins and magnificent churches, and it feels like it has changed little since medieval times. The greatest gems are the small medieval treasures and glorious views to be found all over the small city. It is considered a highly spiritual place and attracts many pilgrims - it is common to see nuns in the streets and there is a peaceful, ancient atmosphere.
The beautiful town of Spoleto was established by the Romans in the 3rd Century BC, and many Roman buildings, ruins and artefacts remain, including the Coliseum and the Church of San Salvatore, which dates from the 4th Century, making it one of the oldest churches in the world.
The Lombards made Spoleto their capital in the 8th Century, and from here ruled most of central Italy until the town fell into papal hands in the 12th Century. The medieval castle and the cathedral dominate the well-preserved Upper Town; the Lower Town was badly damaged in World War II and has had to be extensively rebuilt. The Duomo di Spoleto has a lovely facade with eight rose windows, while inside there are beautiful frescos by Filippo Lippi. Another popular attraction in Spoleto is the impressive Tower's Bridge, or Ponte delle Torri, which was built in 1350 AD and is still traversable today. The bridge provides access to some great walking trails and the views are gorgeous.
The church of San Pietro can be found in the wooded hills a short trip out of town. This church served as the cathedral of Spoleto until 1067, and sports some of the best Romanesque carvings in Italy.
Located just 50 miles (80km) from the region of Umbria, the city of Genga's Frasassi Caves complex is considered to be one of the most wondrous in Italy. A remarkable karst cave system - that is, a system comprised of limestone that has been dissolved over millennia - the site has been well-prepared for visitors over the years. Known as a 'show cave', the complex is fitted with safe, comfortable walkways and theatrical lighting to bring the otherworldly stalactites and stalagmites into even greater relief. The walkways are easy to traverse and you don't have to be particularly fit to manage it. You will experience a genuine thrill as you make your way down into the 'centre of the earth', as the temperature drops and your breath begins to mist, and the overwhelming silence is broken only by the resonant sound of dripping water. Tours are in Italian but audio sets are usually available for foreign visitors. Note that, despite the many photos on the internet, photography is not allowed in the caves and cameras probably won't be allowed in. One of Italy's most talked-about tourist attractions in recent years, tourists stopping off in Umbria should be sure to make the short trip to the Frasassi Caves.
Assisi, birthplace of Saint Francis in the 12th century, and home to the incredible Basilica di San Francesco, one of Italy's most celebrated attractions, is the main draw for visitors to Umbria. It is a place with a palpably holy atmosphere, noted even by the non-religious, and the countless art treasures in the Basilica alone justify an Umbrian holiday. The medieval fortress town of Orvieto, just a short drive from Rome, is also a very popular destination in Umbria, as is the picturesque ancient town of Spoleto, established by the Romans in the 3rd century BC.
By contrast, the capital city of Perugia is not that well known among travellers despite being an ancient Etruscan settlement reputed in Italy as a centre for art and culture. Visitors to Perugia will find it a charming city, beautifully located, with many good museums and galleries. The city of Terni, in southern Umbria, also has much to offer, with a number of archaeological sites to explore. Terni is best known to travellers for the magnificent Cascata delle Marmore, an artificial waterfall created by the Romans which remains one of the tallest man-made waterfalls in the world. The Umbrian city of Gubbio, which predates the Roman Empire, also draws visitors with its historical attractions and lovely scenery.
Umbria is not as packed with tourists as some other regions of Italy, which allows visitors to sightsee in relative peace and enjoy the rustic, laid-back charms of the area without the crowds that can prove so frustrating in the big Italian cities. The best time to visit Umbria is in the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn (April to May and September to October).
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