x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Umbria and Tuscany: Italy's rustic but refined heart

The many medieval towns and villages of Umbria and Tuscany are a joy to visit, especially by bike, finds Rosemary Behan

The hilltop village of Montone was once the domain of Braccio Montone, a powerful medieval knight. Many of the surrounding settlements, like Umbertide, have Etruscan origins, which date from before the Roman era. Rosemary Behan / The National
The hilltop village of Montone was once the domain of Braccio Montone, a powerful medieval knight. Many of the surrounding settlements, like Umbertide, have Etruscan origins, which date from before the Roman era. Rosemary Behan / The National

"The real revolution is to look at the places around you with new eyes. I saw people admiring the places I was living in and I realised I was lucky." For a tour guide, Giovanni Ramaccioni hasn't travelled far, but he's right. A native Umbrian, he was born in Citta di Castello, just 16 kilometres from Sansepolcro, where we start our bike ride. His wife, Michaela, is from this town and they live in Anghiari, just 16km west in the other direction. Sansepolcro, the main city of the Arezzo region of Tuscany, was the birthplace of Pierro della Francesca, a Renaissance painter who developed the vanishing point using geometry to get a sense of depth. Mostly ignored by his peers, his work was later deemed revolutionary, and his frescoes throughout the town are now the basis for specialised art tours. Anghiari is a dramatic hilltop town loaded with history and depicted by Leonardo da Vinci, still reached via a dead straight Roman road. A similarly well-preserved Citta di Castello is home to Europe's oldest working printing press.

But first, lunch. After fitting me with a bike and helmet, Giovanni takes me to Sandy Caffè, a modern place where we devour fresh slices of wholewheat pizza and gnocchi, Cokes and cappucinos before setting off. The Upper Tiber Valley is pleasant but disappointing scenery-wise: on the way to the river we pass small factories making cigars and cologne, and factory outlets filled with cashmere jumpers and shirts. It's also the home of Buitoni pasta, owned by Nestlé. Not exactly the arcadian landscape I had imagined from the descriptions of the area, (although I do see signs for a crossbow contest), we carry on along a towpath at the side of the Tiber, itself rather diminutive and slow. Yet, this is an easy day to assess my fitness - I'm doing a very small section of Giovanni's usual "Green heart of Italy" tour, which typically takes groups of 40-to-60-year-old Americans and Canadians on a 10-day tour, averaging 60km per day. Accommodation is in small family-run hotels and historical centres, but, since a friend has a house in nearby Montone, I'm staying there.

At Citta, we stop to have a look round San Giustino, the home of the printing press. Active for more than two centuries, works from the presses are held in museums, libraries and archives worldwide. When we visit, there's an impressive display of Japanese woodblock prints and some lithographs being produced for foreign buyers, but the main attraction is the presses themselves: huge flat-bed printing presses, linotype and monotype machines and the lithographic press, built in 1880. The processes are explained by the manager, a seventh-generation family member of one of the two men who started the business.

Giovanni meets a friend on the way through town, so after a fortifying macchiato and small talk in a local cafe we set off north back to Sansepolcro, completing a circle via small backroads surrounded by fields of tobacco, artichokes, sunflowers, corn and grain. It's been just the right amount of exercise, though Giovanni tells me that our next outing in a few days' time will be more taxing.

Given the number of hills in Umbria and Tuscany, some of its finest towns are unsuitable for cycling. Two of these are Gubbio and Cortona, which my friend and I visit by car the next day. Gubbio, a spectacular medieval town of 32,000, is built on slopes so steep a bizarre system of public lifts has been installed to help residents. The main street, midway up the slope, and the huge medieval tower, and square, Palazzo dei Consoli, that sits at its end are extraordinary both in their scale and level of preservation. We're guided to a local restaurant by an elderly Italian tour guide and enjoy a platter of meat and cheese, handmade pasta with truffles and a dessert for 25 euros (Dh118) per person.

Cortona, just over the regional border in Tuscany, is similarly beautiful but, being in Tuscany, has many more tourists. Still, most of the tourist tat seems to be superficial, and, after passing through the Etruscan town walls and getting up into the centre by means of permanently-installed escalators, I admire the Romeo and Julietbalconies and buildings joined together by bridges, both practical and decorative. In the distance, we can see Lake Trasimeno. We find Ianelli Street, one of the oldest in Italy, parts of which are held up by scaffolding. Dinner is outdoors, on a Shakespearean-style terrace at a restaurant overlooking the town square. Service, as it seems to be everywhere here, is both genuine and generous.

Intrigued by the area, I return to Gubbio the next day with the car, and, driving through the medieval back gates of the city, head into the Appenine mountains via route 298 to Scheggia, along a narrow mountain pass that leads to an even narrower mountain pass, with the imposing rock dome of Mount Forcello to my immediate left. I'm in the Parco Regionale del Monte Cucco, a protected area surrounding Monte Cucco, one of Umbria's highest points. At a small settlement called Isola Fossara, I head uphill for a great view across empty meadows and mountains before heading back round to Costacciaro, a lovely town built in linear fashion along a ridge perpendicular to the Appenine range, to Monte Cucco itself, and I take the scenic road right up to the top, at 1,566m. It's barren and windswept, but worth the trip.

Back in Montone, a gloriously tiny hilltop town close to where I'm staying, we enjoy languid coffees in the exquisitely low-key and car-free village centre, which, somewhat unbelievably, hosts an annual international film festival, attended by stars such as Ralph Fiennes, who also has a house nearby, and whom Giovanni has guided. Tucked away in the back streets are some high-end restaurants and hotels, such as Locanda del Capitano (www.ilcapitano.com) and Erba Luna (www.erbalunaristorante.com).

Giovanni kindly collects me the next day from Montone, and we set off for Assisi, the touristy birthplace of St Francis and home to the Roman temple of Minerva. Again set at an elevation of 400m in the foothills of Mount Subasio, we haven't got time to cycle up, so Giovanni parks his van in the car park while we tour the famous Basilica. Its three-storey structure completely dominates the approach to the town and offers great views of the surrounding countryside. Already a wealthy town, it received millions of dollars in international donations when the Basilica was damaged by an earthquake in 1997, which, Giovanni says, have helped to further enrich all aspects of the town and its facilities. "Francis was a half-French rich boy who wanted a church without money," says Giovanni. "At the time he was considered a heretic but Pope Gregory IX had a dream of this skinny little man lifting the church of Rome with one hand." With this year's election of an Argentine Jesuit named Francis in honour of Assisi, that dream has again become reality.

We head slightly uphill to La Stalla for lunch (www.fontemaggio.it). A medieval stable, it's fabulously rustic, with a huge and ancient open cooking range, low vaulted ceilings and walls blackened by soot and fire. Owned by a geography professor at Perugia university with a passion for rich, simple, meat-based Umbrian "peasant" food, we tuck in to fresh stone-baked bread, pasta Amatriciana, and potatoes and onions baked in the fire. Giovanni brings the van to the top of the hill - a good job after the lunch we've had - and with the blessing of two friendly Filipino nuns I set off - following Giovanni in the van - along the side of the valley, through olive groves to the property of Ragani, a premium olive oil producer using the noted Frantoio olive trees. After tasting some oils and purchasing a bottle, we move on across the valley floor to Spello, 10km from Assisi. It's most famous for the ancient Baglioni Chapel containing frescoes by Pinturicchio, including a self-portrait, which date from 1500.

It's another 15km zig-zagging across the valley floor to Bevagna, and I'm beginning to tire as although the route is fairly flat, the wind is against me and it begins to rain. I dig deep, determined to burn off as many of the carbs I've eaten as possible, and we reach our destination just in time. A town of just 5,000 people surrounded by medieval walls and a moat, it's packed with historical churches, castles, palaces and a huge Roman temple, part of which has been incorporated into a restaurant and hotel. Like everywhere I've seen this week though, this place is lived-in rather than museum-like. There are also several attractive boutiques, cafes, small hotels and notable restaurants: combine this with an apparent lack of tourist hoardes, and I'd be keen to go back. Unlike so many other parts of Europe, notably Britain, where so many places have been ruined by ugly signage, demolition and development, white plastic windows and satellite dishes, Italian urban councils seem to place aesthetics high on their list of priorities. While some complain of bureaucracy, beauty has won out over blind commerce and an insistence on "modern facilities".

Perugia, Umbria's capital city, a hulking fortress city with a gothic twist, is my last stop. We wander through its handsome town centre to dense residential streets populated by students before doing some shopping. We finish with coffee and snacks at Pasticceria Sandri on Corso Vanucci. Again hugely historical and atmospheric, the prices are also competitive and we linger for more than an hour. We hadn't made it to Spoleto, or Orvieto, or Siena or Monti Sibillini - all major attractions that were on our list and within striking distance - but this was Italy, where there is always much more to see, and eat, much closer to home.


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