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Trasimeno, sea of tranquillity

When politicians return to Westminster, writes Chris Caldicott, Paradise is regained in Umbria
The great thing about the approaching party conference season in Britain is that Umbria is rapidly emptying of Westminster politicians. So, from September, you can enjoy Tuscany's neighbour unencumbered by New Labour or old Tories. Strict building controls forbidding any new developments outside urban areas have kept rural Umbria looking like a Renaissance painting: a destination of beautiful central Italian countryside and charming, ancient hill towns. By staying close to the shores of Lake Trasimeno (Italy's fourth largest), there is also a chance to enjoy some waterside relaxation, and tranquillity.

Getting there

Umbria's low-key status as an international tourist destination is confirmed by its lack of airport. Florence is closest to Lake Trasimeno, but usually the more expensive to reach; only Meridiana (0171-839 2222) flies direct from the UK, for a lowest fare of pounds 254.30 including tax (with a pounds 15 weekend supplement). Flights to Rome and Pisa are usually cheaper; call a discount agent such as Sky Shuttle (0800 129129) for good fares on scheduled or charter flights, such as pounds 188 return for a charter from Gatwick to Rome Ciampino on Air 2000.

International train connections offer only a slightly cheaper and much slower option. Local train connections link both Florence and Rome with Castiglione del Lago, and via Terontola with Passignano on the lake shore.

Getting around

A car is by no means essential for exploring the area around Lake Trasimeno: local roads that are little used (except in high summer) are fine for cyclists with lots of gears. This is hill country; local young men seem to view the gradients as a convenient challenge. Every time a hill gets the better of you a group of them sails past in designer cycling gear puffing with macho determination.

All the lakeside towns are connected by buses and by boat. Towns of interest further away are all accessible by train or bus. The big advantage of having a car is access to the more remote hill towns and countryside, down unsurfaced roads. Car hire is available from all the airports; a modest car costs around pounds 250 a week.

Where to stay

For a romantic option there is a place called Sauro (00 39 75 826168), on Isola Maggiore, right in the middle of the lake. The price is 80,000 lire (pounds 33) a night for two people, bed and breakfast, with dinner in their excellent restaurant at around 25,000 lire (pounds 10) a head. The best choices on the lake shore are in Passignano - including camping grounds such as the Europa (00 39 74 827405), budget hotels such as the La Vela (00 39 74 8227221), and the rustic grandeur of Villa Paradiso (00 39 75 829191).

For those in search of self-catering accommodation - and with such fine local ingredients available, it can be very appealing - there are some beautiful traditional villas up in the hills above the lake. The most stylish selection is available on the estate of Castello Di Reschio, near the Tuscan border. Here, old stone Umbrian farm buildings, accommodating two to 10 people, have tastefully modernised interiors, swimming pools and sensational views. Villas can be booked by the week in the UK through CV Travel (0171-581 0851).

What to do

Outdoor cafes and restaurants along the lakeside and in the old town of Passignano provide welcome shade for a morning coffee or light lunch, or seductive, moonlit fresh fish dinners.

Some visitors swim in the lake waters, and many more enjoy fishing. The quiet countryside around the lake is ideal for walking and horse-riding. The local tourist offices produce a guide called Tourist Itineraries in the Trasimeno District, detailing walking and riding trails.

A good day's bike ride, or easy drive, to the south, is the medieval walled hill town of Panicale. Here two fabulous frescoes - The Coronation of the Virgin and The Martyrdom of San Sebastiano, both by Perugino - can be admired in the church of San Sebastiano.

A little further on is Citta della Pieve, Perugino's birthplace - another dramatic hill town, more frescoes. Climbing above Trasimeno to the north are the hill towns of Castel Rigone and Preggio, both with restaurants serving good Umbrian food and offering stunning views.

Venturing further into Umbria, Gubbio is a timeless stone town perched on the steep slopes of Monte Ingino, the summit of which can be reached effortlessly by taking an extraordinary birdcage-style funicular which glides over the treetops. The provincial capital, Perugia, is a charming and sophisticated university town. St Francis's home town of Assisi, the Gothic splendours of Orvieto and the old Etruscan settlement of Todi are all worth the effort if time allows.

What not to do

Italy has high rates of car crime. Although the risks are considerably lower in rural Umbria than in urban Italy, remember that anything left in a car is vulnerable.

Who to ask

The Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes St, London W1R 8AY (0171- 408 1254)n