Umbria: Italy's spiritual heart

Packed with picturesque hill-top towns, resplendent with religious treasures and offering a feast of irresistible edibles, Umbria is Italy's spiritual heart. Rory Ross laps it up

For many years, Italians have hailed Umbria as Tuscany's prettier sister, a dramatic, mountainous country towered over by the Apennines to the east. Being the only landlocked county on the Italian boot and lacking the concentration and range of cultural treasures of Tuscany and Rome, Umbria has successfully avoided the worst of the beach-seeking, culture-hungry coachloads. There are no big cities, and the people are kind, honest and Mafia-free dwellers in towns and villages that cling to mountainside niches, or perch on top of hills girdled by ancient fortifications. Through it all meanders the Tiber, in whose green valley most of the historical life of Umbria has unfurled.

The architectural vernacular is typically rustic. Traditional farmhouses have massive hearths and thick walls built on quiet, tree-lined slopes, perfect for taking in the magnificent panoramas of the surrounding countryside which makes instant painters of even the most purblind among us. It comes as no surprise to learn that this is where the first stirrings of the Renaissance took place. Umbria inspired the likes of Giotto, Rafaello, Michelangelo, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Fra Angellico, Piero della Francesca and Lucca Signorelli, who all lived and worked in this valley. They wandered about, with a mule and a box of paints, hoping to find a virgin wall or ceiling to immortalise, followed by a meal, a bed and a patron, or even a patroness. Their art is everywhere, not just in the large cities - or, in Giotto's case, gracing the walls of St Francis's basilica, in Assisi - but strewn among tiny churches, convents and palazzi.

Umbria was also the seat of the 12th-century renaissance of Christianity, and has produced more saints, hermits and religious leaders than any other part of Italy. Pre-eminent among them is St Francis, born rich at a time of chronic clerical corruption. His mother was French, his father, a landowner and merchant who operated out of Foligno. At first, Francis, born Giovanni, was a tearaway, but he forsook his wealth and, defying parental disapproval, spent his life converting people to the view that money wasn't everything. He found an unexpected ally in the reforming Pope Innocent III, who, instead of destroying him, blessed the Order of St Francis. Today, St Francis is the symbol of Assisi, which Italians regard as the spiritual centre of Italy.

One place St Francis visited at least twice during his travels was the Celestine Abbey, which lies just to the north of Assisi on a spur overlooking the Tiber. Building began in 1064. Thirty-six years and three architects later, the Abbey of San Paolo di Valdiponte, as it was then called, was completed. In 1367, Sir John Hawkwood, the mercenary whom Conan Doyle characterised in The White Company, ransacked the place on behalf of the Florentines. While the abbey survived Hawkwood as well as the incessant local warfare that raged hereabouts from the 13th to the 15th centuries, it was an act of God in the form of an earthquake that proved Celestine's undoing in 1593. Thereafter, it effectively became a quarry for other buildings. After a brief revival as a Cistercian monastery in the late 18th century, Celestine lay more or less ignored until, in 1969, another Englishman, Guy Norton, bought it. He set about planting the grounds and transforming them into a remarkable English-style garden.

You never know what you might find in a ruined Umbrian monastery. During Norton's custodianship, he discovered many curious things about Celestine, some of which evoke the more breathless passages of a Dan Brown bestseller. Besides the odd human skeleton, he unearthed behind a false wall a painting of the Madonna with child. The work was attributed to Marino d'Elemosina and dated 1313. It now hangs in the National Gallery of Umbria, in Perugia. Who knows what else might be uncovered at Celestine? Scratch the surface of Umbria, and you find all sorts of hidden treasures.

Four years ago, Norton sold Celestine to another Englishman, Graham Smith, 48, self-made creator of software company LiveNote. Smith, his Bolivian wife, Marcela, and his sister Helen and her husband, Fabrizio, have set about continuing Norton's work at Celestine, which you can visit by appointment. As soon as I arrived, one glorious April morning, I realised how wise St Francis was to come here. It feels very close to heaven.

"In July, Wellington College is going to put on a production of Julian Mitchell's play Francis, about St Francis, in the ruins of the abbey," said Smith. "The head boy plays St Francis. The mayor of Perugia and the British ambassador are coming too. I'm hoping to invite the Pope. Well, why not?"

The worst thing you can do in a garden is see it all in one eyeful, and the gardens at Celestine know a trick or two. Everywhere the eye comes to rest, there is something to beguile. And every time you look up, another glade, grotto or vista comes into view, planted with specimens that are rare, spectacular and exotic. In the middle of the Japanese garden are several enormous rocks worn and smoothed into unusual shapes, as if they were contemporary sculpture. "Er, not quite," laughs Smith. "They are actually rocks nicked from the Tiber. Mr Norton took a fancy to them."

Umbria is home to the black truffle. Ninety per cent of all black truffles in Italy come from Umbria. Celestine has its own truffle wood. "We have a chap who has a dog," says Smith. "When the dog starts going mad, he stops and digs out the truffle. They usually grow two or three inches under ground. You can smell truffle in the air."

If Umbria was the cradle of the 12th-century religious renaissance and of the later artistic Renaissance, it has more recently been at the forefront of another radical movement: Slow Food. The Umbrian table is legendary. Local traditions are handed down from mother to daughter at home. The stars of the Umbrian table are truffles and mushrooms, backed up by a noisy rustic chorus line of beef, pork and veal, eaten in the familiar sequence of antipasti, pasta, main course and then a light dessert and sometimes cheese.

To experience the apotheosis of Umbrian cuisine, I recommend Locanda Il Capitano in the immaculate hilltop town of Montone, where Giancarlo Polito and his delightful wife, Carmen, own a creamily lit restaurant with food as beautifully dressed as the women. The food and wines here offer everything you need to know about Umbrian gastronomy under one roof.

Picture-perfect, medieval, hilltop towns are an Umbrian speciality, most famously Perugia, Assisi, Gubbio, Bevagna, Spello and Todi. The following morning, Smith and I set off in his Aston Martin to explore some of them. One of the first things you notice about the Umbrian countryside is that, while almost all the buildings seem to date from the 12th and 13th centuries, little seems to have been built since. This makes any journey feel a * * bit like a trip back in time, but with added motor cars. "Umbria is traditionally the heart of communist Italy," said Smith, plying a thoughtful steering wheel as we passed Assisi on our left, with its vast basilica dedicated to St Francis.

This part of Umbria is the home of the Sagrantino grape, object of cult veneration among connoisseurs. Sagrantino is to Umbria what Sangiovese is to Tuscany, but fatter, richer and less like a mouthful of nails. A tiny grape, it packs an incredible punch, and delivers a robust, tannic wine that fills the glass with deep purple blackness. Sagrantino is unique to the region around Montefalco. We dropped in the alimentari in the main piazza where Christina, daughter of the owner, gave us a giro dell'orizzonte of Umbrian wines.

Dry Sagrantino was unheard of until the 1980s and 1990s, when Marco Caprai began producing a secco to rival fine Bordeaux that catapulted Umbria on to the wine map. Pre-Caprai, Sagrantino was only made into sweet red wine, Passito, from wind-dried grapes. If you see a bottle of this divine vino da meditazione, pitched somewhere between fine red wine, port and balsamic vinegar, buy it; only a few thousand trickle out each year. Meanwhile, other producers have followed Caprai's lead in producing dry Sagrantino, notably Scacciadiavili, Rocca di Fabbri, Martinelli and Paolo Bea.

Bea is Caprai's great rival. He operates from his kitchen table just outside Montefalco. When we arrived, his premises were given over to blocks of concrete, marble and piles of steel girders heaped among olive trees. A cement-mixer churned slowly. Clearly, either Bea is having his kitchen extended, or he is moving up in the world.

Bea's son Giampiero greeted us, and cracked open several bottles. The Beas have been making wine since the 15th century, and in many ways are still of that era. Artichokes grow among their tiny 1.5-hectare biodynamic vineyards to enrich the soil with iron. No one lifts a finger without first consulting the moon. Pruning, picking, blending and bottling take place according to lunar cycles. Why? Giampiero, his head bowed in deep cogitation over a glass of 2002 Rosso Riserva, emerged and said: "When the moon goes down, your hair grows more slowly. The waning moon retards growth. So we crush the grapes when the moon is waning in order to retard the possibility of infection. When we bottle and prune, is better when the moon is waning."

The boot of Smith's Aston Martin clanking with Bea's biodynamic bottles, we bade goodbye and drove off towards Spello, a few kilometres along the Tiber Valley. To reach Spello, we passed through Foligno, famous for paper, but otherwise unremarkable except for its modern, that is, soul-destroying, architecture.

I knew that MC Escher's mindscapes were inspired by Perugia, but I wouldn't be surprised if he'd had a hand in Foligno's traffic system, which seems designed to delay and detain the passer-by as long as possible. Spello (population 8,000) rests on a vast crag on the extreme southern slope of Mount Subasio overlooking the Tiber valley. From a distance, its stone walls, gates, towers and houses step gracefully down the mountainside in pyramid formation. Under the Romans, Spello was the "centre of the world", equidistant from north Africa and north Europe, and from Spain and the near East. We aimed the Aston Martin for Enoteca Properzio, centre of the world of Umbrian wine.

Properzio is reputedly the finest enoteca in Umbria, and possibly Italy. The interior wraps ancient architectural origins with chic modern lines and surfaces. Everything that the enoteca of your dreams would have, is here: marble floor, prosciutto slicer, coffee machine, cheeses beyond inventory, hams galore, that wonderful aroma of Italian food shops and some 2,200 wines alongside typical Umbrian products such as olive oil, honey, marmalades, sauces, mushrooms and truffles.

The owner, Roberto Angelini, served us antipasti of prosciutto, hams, salami and six types of pecorino. He put a pot of acacia honey on the table and left with the remark: "The honey only goes with the first four pecorinos." He then proceeded to give us a wine-tasting of rare and exotic bottles, each one served with a brief discourse.

Finally, to Perugia, the urban heart of Umbria: famous for, among other things, its university and its Jazz Festival, at which Eric Clapton performs this summer and which is rapidly overtaking The Hague's as the biggest in Europe. And during Perugia's Eurochocolate Festival, the town becomes the chocolate capital of Europe.

Being full of students, Perugia is young and vibrant, with an almost Parisian-style street life. What it lacks in shops, it makes up for with bars and trattorias that spill out into the streets. Do drop in at the National Gallery of Umbria to see some fabulous renaissance art, including Piero della Francesca's Annunciazione. The museum is stuffed with renaissance treasures from the various churches and abbeys that litter the surrounding countryside, including Celestine Abbey. You get the impression that there are plenty more long-forgotten treasures buried in walled-up Umbrian basements and cellars waiting to be rediscovered. Umbria is that kind of place.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Umbria can be accessed from Rome, Pisa and Florence. Rome's Fiumicino airport is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Alitalia (08705 448 259; www.alitalia.com). The capital's Ciampino airport is the no-frills hub, with services on Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). Florence airport is served only by Meridiana (0845 355 5588; www.meridiana.it). Pisa is served by Ryanair, easyJet and British Airways.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Rome, in economy class, is £2.40. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

From each of these cities, rail connections are good to the leading Umbrian cities - but a car is useful for exploring off the beaten track, which includes most of the region.

EATING & DRINKING

Enoteca Properzio, Piazza G Matteotti 8-10, Spello (00 39 07 42 301 521; www.enoteche.it).

STAYING THERE

Celestine Abbey, Civitella Benazzone, Ponte Pattoli, Perugia (00 39 075 594 1298; www.celestinabbey.com). The abbey sleeps 12; weekly rental starts at €4,400 (£3,143).

Locanda del Capitano, via Roma 7, Montone (00 39 075 930 6455; www.ilcapitano.com). Doubles start at €120 (£86), including breakfast.

VISITING THERE

The gardens and ruins of Celestine can be visited by appointment, provided the property has not been rented out. Visitors should ring the Abbey and speak to Helen Smith or her husband Fabrizio.

Antica Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea, via Cerrete 8, Montefalco, Umbria, Italy (00 39 07 42 378 128; www.paolobea.com).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; www.enit.it

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