TUSCANY WITHOUT THE TOURISTS?
That is how this beautiful region of central Italy is often portrayed. True, you'll find relatively few crowds of visitors in Umbria. And as in Tuscany, you'll come across many lovely medieval towns and villages atop hills clad in pine and olive trees. Yet, in terms of character and style, Umbria is gently different to its more famous neighbour. While Tuscany is bold and striking, Umbria is understated and contemplative, exuding a sense of timelessness and a wonderfully serene atmosphere.
Less than half the size of Tuscany, Umbria relishes its promotional slogan "the green heart of Italy". And that's not an overblown description: it lies in the middle of Italy. The region's lush good looks result from a generous supply of water: Lake Trasimeno lies to the west, while the Tiber and its tributaries wind through Umbria's leafy valleys and ravines.
Umbria is well endowed with parks, too, particularly the lovely Mount Subasio and Mount Cucco parks on the eastern border, which is formed by the Apennines. Quite apart from such natural good looks, Umbria, like Tuscany, offers intriguing traces of a rich past. Yet whereas Tuscany dazzles with its Renaissance art, Umbria reveals subtler treasures. Many of its old towns incorporate ancient remains of Etruscan and Roman settlements, while its art reflects an otherworldly, ethereal outlook in contrast to Tuscany's more intellectual drive. And, more pragmatically, Umbria is back on the no-frills map with new direct flights from Stansted to Perugia, its buzzing little capital, on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com).
ART AND SOUL OF UMBRIA?
Artistically, spiritually and indeed emotionally, the small town of Assisi is Umbria's crowning glory. It was here that one Giovanni di Bernardone was born in 1182. The son of a rich merchant, he was nicknamed Francesco, or Francis, because his mother was French. After spending much of his youth as a gadabout he dedicated himself to a devout life of simplicity and poverty, gained a reputation for befriending birds and other animals, and established a new monastic order. St Francis died in Assisi in 1226 at the age of 44. The day after his canonisation in 1228, work began on a monastic church complex commemorating him. Ironically, given the unworldly philosophy of St Francis, the complex is huge and glorious, and was decorated by the finest 13th- and 14th-century artists. It comprises two basilicas: the darker, lower church adorned with astonishing frescos by Simone Martini and the great master Giotto; and the bright upper church with works by Cimabue and a fine fresco cycle attributed to Giotto (lower basilica open 6am-8pm; upper basilica open 8.30am-6pm; closed for church services; admission free).
A severe earthquake in 1997 caused enormous damage to the complex, yet the churches and the artworks have been painstakingly repaired and reassembled. The restoration was by no means only for art's sake: the Basilica of St Francis is one of the most-visited pilgrimage sites in Italy and tourists here join large flocks of devout travellers.
Beyond the basilica complex, engaging Assisi offers a great many other absorbing sights for a town of its size - not least the Roman Temple of Minerva incorporated into the church of Santa Maria (open 7.15am-5pm, closed for church services, admission free), and the Rocca Maggiore, a 12th-century fort presenting terrific views over the town and the Umbrian countryside.
The Italian specialist Citalia (0870 909 7555; www.citalia.com) offers an attractive, self-catering package to Assisi, with accommodation just outside town in a medieval country house now divided into apartments. This spring, a seven-night break in a studio flat at the Villamena Apartments (00 39 075 802 422; www.villamena.info) costs from £414 per person (based on two sharing), including flights from Heathrow to Rome and car hire; renting direct costs between €380 (£255) and €555 (£373) for a week.
PRETTY AS A PICTURE?
Perugia is not only a glorious and picturesque jumble of Etruscan, Roman and medieval architecture, but it also contains a striking collection of art.
Your first move in the capital should be to head to the National Gallery of Umbria in the lovely Palazzo dei Priori just off the central Piazza IV Novembre. Here you can gaze at some of Italy's finest altarpieces, not to mention works by Umbria's own most revered painters. Pride of place is given to two stunning works by the (admittedly Tuscan) Renaissance greats, Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca. Several rooms are devoted to paintings by Pietro Vannucci, better known as Perugino (so named because the artist spent many years in Perugia). The teacher of Raphael, Perugino was a master of space and harmony, even if many of his later works have a slightly saccharine tone at odds with modern tastes. The gallery is open 9.30am-7.30pm daily except Mondays, admission €6.50 (£4.40).
The Umbrian capital is also a hugely rewarding town to walk around. Among its more extraordinary sights are San Pietro, a jewellery box of a medieval church coated inside with paintings and frescos (open 8am to noon and 4pm to sunset daily; closed for church services; admission free); the Temple of Sant'Angelo, a fifth-century round church partly built with Roman remains (currently closed for restoration but you can still look at the amazing outside of the* *structure); and, perhaps best of all, a network of escalators pragmatically taking townsfolk up and down Perugia's steep hill while also running through the remains of an Etruscan fort. Conveniently set just at the bottom of the escalator route is the four-star Sangallo Palace Hotel (00 39 075 573 0202; www.sangallo.it; doubles from €126/£85 per night including breakfast). This venue is less grand and far more cheerfully friendly than its name suggests - and indeed it recently won the 2006 Italian Hospitality Awards. Other accommodation options include the very central three-star Hotel Fortuna (00 39 075 572 2845; www.umbriahotels.com; doubles from €101/£68 including breakfast), some of whose 51 bedrooms sport painted ceilings and balconies.
ANY OTHER HANDSOME TOWNS?
Take your pick from a wealth of choice. Gubbio, north-east of Perugia, boasts a large Roman amphitheatre and is also considered to be one of the most finely preserved medieval towns in the whole of Italy. Compact little Corciano, west of Perugia, dates from Etruscan times and is packed with Renaissance buildings within its 13th-century fortifications. Walled, traffic-free Spello has ancient, steep streets and well-conserved Roman gates.
Spoleto, further south, is glamorous and arty. It contains a Roman theatre (still in use) and a stunning 12th-century cathedral. For two weeks every summer Spoleto hosts one of Europe's most vibrant festivals. The Festival dei Due Mondi embraces the globe, sharing Italian zest with the diaspora in America and Australia. Only Italy, though, can boast mouthwatering markets of the kind that you find compressed into the centre of Spoleto.
The 50th-anniversary Festival dei Due Mondi (00 39 0743 220 320; www.spoletofestival.it) will take place from 29 June to 15 July this year. Accommodation is scarce during the festival, but a special office helps festival-goers find space: call 00 39 0743 220 773 or visit www.conspoleto.com.
Over to the west, Todi also offers a summer music festival. The highlight of this town is the huge cathedral and wonderful medieval main square, Piazza del Popolo. West again, the magnificent city of Orvieto is celebrated for its (largely) 13th-century cathedral which rises spectacularly above the town - and the excellent wines that are produced in the vicinity.
Few of the millions who have visited the Trevi Fountain in Rome have called in at the town of Trevi, perched on yet another Umbrian hilltop 20 miles south of Assisi. The two locations are unconnected except in name, but there is nowhere better than Trevi to appreciate the great sweep of the Monti Martani that rises in the east from a placid plain - and to enjoy the eerie lull of an Italian afternoon.
I'D LIKE TO STRETCH MY LEGS
Umbria is laced with hiking trails. The most cherished is a pilgrimage path, the 40km Sentiero Francescano della Pace from Assisi to Gubbio. It retraces the route St Francis is said to have taken in 1206 after he renounced his riches, and it offers two fullish days of gentle walking. Along the way it is possible to spend the night at Vallingegno Abbey (00 39 075 920 158; www.abbaziadivallingegno.it; doubles from €99/£67 including breakfast) where the saint himself is supposed to have rested. More information on the route is on the website sentierofrancescano.provincia.perugia.it.
Meanwhile, comfortable walking holidays in Umbria are offered by a number of UK companies. Inntravel (01653 617 906; www.inntravel.co.uk), for example, presents a six-day scenic walk through dreamy landscapes that Perugino painted. Your luggage is transported between overnight stops.
The trip starts at the medieval village of Castel Rigone and takes in Lake Trasimeno, the church of San Sebastiano in Panicale where the artist produced what is probably his finest fresco (a martyrdom of St Sebastian). It continues via the panoramic Mount Pausillo before reaching Citta della Pieve, where Perugino was born in 1446. The holiday costs from £558 per person (based on two sharing), which covers accommodation with breakfast, four dinners and three picnic lunches - but not transport to the starting point. Other UK companies offering walking holidays in Umbria include Headwater (01606 720 099; www.headwater.com) and ATG Oxford (01865 315 678; www.atg-oxford.com).
GET ME TO A NUNNERY
With a generous number of Umbria's ancient convents and monasteries converted into wonderfully atmospheric hotels, divine accommodation is a regional speciality. In the Upper Tiber Valley, about half an hour's drive north of Perugia, La Preghiera (00 39 075 930 2428; www.lapreghiera.com; doubles from €150/£101 per night including breakfast) was built as a monastery in the 12th century. It is now a gracious 11-bedroom B&B. The owners, British architect John Tunstill and his wife, Liliana, prefer to describe La Preghiera as a country house rather than a hotel, emphasising friendly informality and the way that visitors are treated not as clients but as guests of the family. The facilities range from billiards to an honesty bar, and the grounds contain an eco-friendly swimming pool.
Further south there's a retreat just outside Spoleto near the village of Monteluco. Concealed in woodland, Eremo delle Grazie (00 39 0743 49624; www.eremodellegrazie.it; doubles from €207/£139 including breakfast) is set on the site of a fifth-century-BC hermitage. Over the course of time the religious centre became the ochre-coloured building that still stands today, appropriately creaking with antiques and wood panelling. Its 11 stylishly comfortable bedrooms have been refurbished from cells once inhabited by monks.
Also near Spoleto is the extraordinary Convento di Agghielli (00 39 0743 225 010; www.agghielli.it; half board from €83/£56 per person per day based on two sharing a room). This tranquil, 11th-century convent complex is now a family-run retreat run on ecological principles. It is carefully furnished with entirely natural fabrics (lime and earthen paintwork, untreated cottons). It even has its own bucolic farm where sheep and geese wander the fields. The retreat's 16 simply decorated bedrooms retain something of a convent-like air while also happily providing the usual range of hotel amenities from minibar to television. There is a spa offering shiatsu and ayurvedic treatments.
I'D LIKE A PLACE OF MY OWN
There are magical old stone villas and quiet country houses to rent in Umbria. Bear in mind, though, that it is an increasingly popular area for holidaymakers from Rome. So you'll find that summer rentals get snapped up quickly.
A specialist in Italian and Croatian properties, Cottages to Castles (01622 775 236; www.cottagestocastles.com) offers a range of options in Umbria, from cosy retreats to large villas for house parties. Casa Fuori Mondo is a sensitively refurbished five-bedroom house sleeping up to 10 and costing from £2,470 weekly. It is set on a hilltop that offers sweeping views over a patchwork of fields and woods to medieval Todi across the valley. The grounds, dotted with pine and cypress trees, contain a swimming pool and shady terraces. Pian della Valle is a one-bedroom apartment in an idyllic farmhouse in the Orvieto area. The owners live in one wing of the property. According to season, they supply guests with home-grown vegetables as well as lending them mountain bikes. The apartment costs from £480 per week. Other companies offering villas in Umbria include Vintage Travel (0845 344 0460; www.vintagetravel.co.uk), Wimco (0870 850 1144; www.wimco.co.uk), and Iglu Villas (020-8544 6401; www.igluvillas.com).
FOR A REAL TASTE OF UMBRIA?
This is a land rich in wine, truffles, olive oil and wild boar. You can easily construct a gourmet tour - with Orvieto supplying the refreshments. Norcia, in the valley of Nera over to the west, is renowned for its prosciutto and wood-oven-baked bread; Torgiano, just south of Perugia, boasts very well-regarded vineyards and oils - and offers both a wine and an olive oil museum (each open daily from 10am-1pm and 3-6pm; admission €4.50/£3.00 or €7/£4.70 combined ticket).
Pork in all its diversity is a staple in Umbria, whether as porchetta - a whole roast piglet - or pulverised into salsiccia. Before their demise, those pigs prove useful in snuffling out tartufi (truffles). Around Citta di Castello in the Upper Tiber Valley white truffles are unearthed in autumn. To complete the feast, nibble a Baci - which means "kiss". The chocolate-covered hazelnuts are made in Perugia.
A happy combination of exercise and epicurean adventure is offered by The Chain Gang Cycle Tours (01392 662 262; www.thechaingang.co.uk), with a seven-day gourmet cycling tour of Umbria. The trip starts in the south-west and gradually moves northwards, taking in vineyards, churches, frescos and good restaurants en route to Orvieto, Todi, Assisi, Perugia and the Tuscan town of Cortona. Departures are in September and cost from £925 per person (based on two sharing), which excludes international travel to Italy but includes bike hire, accommodation in comfortable two-star hotels, evening meals and breakfasts, and wine-tasting fees. You can learn how to conjure up an Umbrian feast on a break at the spectacular Villa di Monte Solare (00 39 075 832 376; www.villamontesolare.it; doubles from €164/£110 with breakfast). This 28-room hotel is set on an olive and vine estate. It lies down country lanes west of Perugia and close to Lake Trasimeno. Gourmet on Tour (020-7871 0848; www.gourmetontour.com) arranges four-day cookery courses here from €700 (£470). The price includes accommodation, all meals (with wine at lunch), cookery lessons and local guided excursions.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from Stansted to Perugia's little airport at Sant'Egidio, about 13 kilometres from the city. Other gateways to the region - Rome, Pisa and Florence - are a rail journey away from Umbria's towns; for timetables, prices and tickets in advance see www.trenitalia.com.
Rome's Fiumicino airport is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow and Gatwick; Alitalia (08705 448 259; www.alitalia.com) from Heathrow; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) from Leeds/Bradford and Manchester. The capital's Ciampino airport is the low-cost gateway, served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Belfast, Nottingham, Gatwick and Newcastle; and by Ryanair from Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Luton and Stansted. Pisa is served by Ryanair from Stansted; easyJet from Bristol and Gatwick; British Airways from Gatwick; and Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com) from Coventry, Bournemouth and Doncaster. Florence airport is served by only Meridiana (0845 355 5588; www.meridiana.it) from Gatwick.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
Insight's 2006 guide to Umbria (£7.99) has a handy pull-out map; the latest edition of Cadogan's Umbria guide (£12.99) was produced in March 2006. For news of festivals and events in Umbria contact the Italian State Tourist Board in the UK (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it) or the Umbria Tourist Agency in Italy (00 39 075 575 951; www.umbria2000.it).