Not so much a train, more a way of life

The San Sepolcro Flier doesn't so much fly through the Upper Tiber Valley in Umbria as wobble. Still, the locals just don't care

If there is a more direct way of getting on good terms with the people, places and paintings of central Italy than the San Sepolcro Flier, then I don't know what it is. Half a dozen times a day, this train - sometimes two or three carriages, sometimes just one - makes its journey along a single-track line through one of the most interesting parts of the country.

If there is a more direct way of getting on good terms with the people, places and paintings of central Italy than the San Sepolcro Flier, then I don't know what it is. Half a dozen times a day, this train - sometimes two or three carriages, sometimes just one - makes its journey along a single-track line through one of the most interesting parts of the country.

At one end is the beautiful walled city of Perugia, the Umbrian capital, high on a rock. One of its glories is the National Gallery of Umbrian Art, a school which the great critic Bernard Berenson called "at once the most pleasing and the most famous". Though it doesn't contain as many famous paintings as, say, the Uffizi in Florence, it is free of the crush of tourists that swamp Florence from Easter to the end of the summer.

At the other end of the line, to the north, is San Sepolcro, a quiet market town just over the border in Tuscany, birthplace of Piero della Francesca, the 15th-century painter. The railway climbs gently through the Upper Tiber Valley, its surrounding mountains and woods, and its fields of tobacco, sunflowers, maize and vines. Its passengers are, in order of appearance throughout the day, factory workers, schoolchildren, students and country people.

It should be admitted that the title San Sepolcro Flier is an affectionate nickname for the service of the FCU, the Central Umbria Railway, which has wobbled, both literally and metaphorically, over the decades between private hands and public administration and, today, is stuck somewhere in the middle.

It survives quietly under the sort of obscure Italian political bargain of the sort which has kept the Italian railways and their delicious side-tracks safe from some Mediterranean Dr Beeching. Most of the FCU stations are unstaffed: you put your hand out to stop the train if you are boarding it and you tell the ticket collector if you want to get off. If there is no ticket office open when you board, you just pay on the train.

Angelo Galmacci was my ticket collector. He's a handsome, bearded, friendly man who is enthusiastic about his line and its history. We struck up a conversation shortly after Umbertide and before long, he and the driver and I were up at the front chatting hard. "Would you like a copy of my history of Verna?", he said and offered me a well-produced pamphlet about the history of a hamlet across on a hill to our left.

Verna, it said, was populated from Stone Age times. The Romans passed that way and, in 1287, the local bishop claimed a fee for the occupation of the castle consisting of masses of corn, hundreds of gallons of wine, 12 meals a year for himself and his family when he was visiting, fodder for the horses and lodging for 20 soldiers.

Angelo clearly loved the history of the places on his line. Past Citta di Castello we wobbled, on towards the frontier. "There's the Dogana, the customs house," said Angelo.

It has been a long time since customs duties have been collected on goods passing between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the papal lands such as Umbria. But through some surveyor's oversight, the group of houses round the customs were for centuries listed as being neither in Umbria or Tuscany, a fact which gladdened the hearts and filled the pockets of the inhabitants.

Borgo San Sepolcro is a jewel of a city. Much tinier and quieter than Perugia, it is set in the valley rather than on a rock and has none of that city's modern commerce, although it is the area's main market town. Travelling salesmen set out their stalls in the square and proceed to flog cheap shoes, sausages, truffles and salami.

Behind its walls, Borgo has preserved the beauty it must have had in the early 15th century, when Piero was born there. The Museo Civico contains the finest collection of his work. Indeed, when it was a religious house it was on its walls that the artist painted one of his finest murals. "It may be questioned," says Berenson, "whether another painter has ever presented a world more complete and convincing, has ever endowed things with more heroic significance."

Round the corner from the Museo is a lovely Romanesque cathedral with windows of translucent alabaster. The organist was practising his Bach as I arrived. Was I, I said as I pinched myself, in heaven?

Since Debonair's collapse, there are no longer any direct flights between the UK and Perugia. The easiest links are with Rome, either with Go (0845 60 54321; www.go-fly.com), or Ancona or Pisa (Ryanair, 08701 569 569, www. ryanair. com), from Stansted

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