Anyone circling the fountain three times goes insane, they said...

Umbria seduces with its soft landscapes and dazzling art and architectu re. But the Italian region's passion for religion gave rise to bloody misdeeds in the past - and superstition in the present, writes Declan McGarvey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Umbria: religious or superstitious? Local lore has it that in the haunted Church of San Gregorio, in the Umbrian town of Spoleto, lie the remains of 10,000 Christian martyrs, slaughtered by the Romans in the nearby amphitheatre. Special gutters were constructed by the Romans to drain blood from the arena into the adjacent River Tressino, which turned crimson as a result.

There are 3,000 years of history and anecdote squeezed into Umbria, to be explored and - for the superstitious - feared. Nestled between Tuscany, Marche, and Lazio, Italy's "green heart" is a beautiful region of deep valleys and forest-clad mountains. Dotted with a dozen or so distinctive hill towns, it has earned such titles as Umbria Santa and La Terra dei Santi (land of saints). But personally I found a lot more than just religion at play here.

Perugia, the provincial capital, was the obvious place to kick off my whistle stop tour. Perched on a lofty summit, its alluring and unpretentious medieval centre offers a clear view as far as the Appenine mountains on the horizon. Henry James called Perugia "the little city of the infinitive views". But as you amble leisurely along low-vaulted medieval streets it's difficult to imagine the horrors that plagued Perugia's history.

A multitude of gruesome clues attest to Perugia's bad old days. On the north facade of the sumptuous Palazzo dei Priori, the majestic Gothic portal commands your attention. Above, however, are the rows of trefoil windows from which convicted criminals were thrown to their deaths. In medieval Umbria, high religion was never far removed from savagery.

Walking down Perugia's main street, the dimly-lit Corso Vannucci, I also caught a glimpse of a past more in tune with Perugia's cultured present. The Sala dell'Udienza, boasting superlative frescoes by Perugino, is a Renaissance masterpiece. The Galleria Nazionale offers a delicious feast of Umbrian art from the 13th to 19th centuries.

In the street meanwhile, impeccably turned out Perugians go for their daily passegiata on a street lined not only with atmospheric cafes but also fire eaters, traditional musicians, and mystics. Completely beguiled, I found myself sitting in front of the gimlet-eyed Mirella Crimicina (an Italian Rosie Lee) being informed of my future in low conspiratorial tones. With renewed confidence in my fate, I left Perugia for my next port of call.

Gubbio, tagged the Pompeii of the 14th century, lived up to all my preconceptions. The forested Appenines form a dramatic backdrop while the Camignano gorge tumbles into a town deemed to be the most perfectly medieval in Italy.

The grand Palazzo dei Consoli, which took over 100 years to put together, represents Gubbio's single greatest attraction. But it was the abundant evidence of Umbrian superstition which grabbed me. Those people curiously eyeing the Fontana dei Matti in Palazzo dei Bargello were not admiring some architectural masterpiece but wondering whether some English tourist was about to put local legend to the test. It is said that anyone circling the fountain three times ends up insane.

Throwing salt over my left shoulder, I declined the Gubbio insanity challenge and instead took the funicular up to Mount Ingino, Gubbio's best vantage point, for a last view of the broad valley below. Gubbio can easily be visited in a day and as the sun set beautifully I set out for Spoleto, making a short stopover in Assisi on the way.

The omens looked promising. Set in Umbria's spiritual and historic heart, Assisi boasts the region's single greatest glory. Constructed in 1228, at a time when Umbria was divided into independent city republics united only by the spread of monasticism, the Basilica di San Francesco represents the highest expression of that epoch's religious vitality and Franciscan ideals. Dazed and overwhelmed by the basilica, I staggered outside into Assisi's maze of passages. Here, however, Franciscan ideals were drowned in tacky paraphernalia. Time to move on.

With fine vistas of glorious open countryside and a good-natured populace, Spoleto is a place to raise the spirits. Lacking the prestige of Perugia, Spoleto is still widely judged to be Umbria's most impressive town. Affable, unhurried Spoletans happily direct befuddled tourists through their town's labyrinthine streets towards the Rocca and Ponte delle Torri, both testament to Spoleto's glorious past.

The Ponte delle Torri is an engineering marvel, spanning 240 metres, supported by ten 80-metre arches. Originally designed as an aqueduct to carry water from the hills, for the last 600 years it has been used by spurned lovers as a dramatic escape route from life. On crossing the bridge and strolling through the woods of Monteluco, where St Francis once wandered, you may encounter ghosts of dead lovers.

Spoleto was not quite the end of my Umbrian journey. I rose at the brutally early hour of 5am to take the daily bus into the Nora Valley, situated in the remote, south-eastern reaches of Umbria. Covering an area of 300,000 square kilometres, 15,000 people inhabit a region of isolated hamlets, barren emptiness, and high mountains roamed by wolves.

My first stop was Norcia. Sited on the edge of a tectonic basin and built horizontally rather than vertically, Norcia is far from the picture-book pretty towns of central Umbria. Religion, however, was not my reason for venturing into the wilderness. The desperately isolated village of Castelluccio, 30 kilometres east of Norcia and situated at 1,500 metres above sea level, overlooks one of Umbria's true highlights, the Piano Grande. The vast, silent expanses of this huge plateau stretch uninterrupted for miles.

With the setting dominated by Mount Vettore, at 2,470 metres concealing the mysterious Lake Pilato, the panorama becomes an eerie whirl of plains and vertical rock faces. The suggestiveness of these surroundings led to its notoriety in the Middle Ages as a realm of necromancers, fairies and evil spirits. Old folk tales recount how Pilate, governor of Palestine, when sentenced to death by the Emperor Vespasian, ordered that his body be placed on a cart drawn by two bulls. The bulls left Rome with their sad load and eventually arrived at the summit of Mount Vettore, from where they plunged into the lake below. Since that day, the lake has been populated by demons.

All around are spots with menacing names. Pizzo del Diavolo (Devil's Peak), L'Abbandonata (Forsaken Land), and Passo Cattivo (Fiendish Pass) to name but an ominous few. Call me lily-livered, but I was going no further.

FACT FILE

GETTING THERE

Flights to Perugia go via Milan. Daily BA flights to Milan can cost less than pounds 200 even in July; eg American Express Holiday centre (0171 930 3121) offers a fare of pounds 179 + pounds 12 tax. Tickets for Milan-Perugia can be bought locally at a cost of approximately pounds 86 return. Direct train routes to Perugia run from Milan, Florence and Rome.

GETTING AROUND

Public transport links are excellent in Umbria, although private transport may be a necessity in the Nora Valley where buses from Norcia to Castelluccio run only twice a week (Mon & Thurs July-September; Mon & Sat all other periods).

ACCOMMODATION

Hotel prices often lower than those in other Italian cities. Only during the festivals listed below, when it is essential to book well in advance, does availability become a problem.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Perugia: (00 39) 75 572.5431/572.5327, Gubbio: (00 39) 75 922.0790, Assisi: (00 39) 75 812.450/ 812.534.

Spoleto: (00 39) 743 220.311 - will also provide information re Nora Valley.

FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

Umbria Jazz: In recent years jazz lovers have chilled out at Italy's leading jazz festival to the likes of Wynton Marsalis, John Coltrane and Stan Getz in locations all over the region. This year's line-up includes Eric Clapton and Herbie Hancock (till end of July).

The Festival Dei Due Mondi Spoleto (25 June to 17 July):

Arts guru Giancarlo Menotti chose Spoleto as the venue for Italy's premier international arts festival after rejecting 30 other locations. A celebration of the established and experimental, world-renowned artists perform to the cream of society while wacky fringe performers try to make a name for themselves.

Hotel and restaurant prices soar during the festival.

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