About 60 miles outside Rome, surrounded by gentle green hills, lies the medieval mountaintop town of Todi. Outside Todi lies the hamlet of Asproli, a bucolic collection of old stone farmhouses, sleeping dogs and olive trees that march in long lines toward the horizon. Asproli, like all of Umbria, is not a large place, not a busy place, not a new place.
But it is a fine place to begin a ramble through the Italian countryside, which I did in June. The idea was to avoid the crowds of Rome and Florence, to wander by rental car from one medieval hill town to another, to eat and drink well, and to keep my nightly hotel bills under $90.
Umbria's hills lie north of Rome and southeast of Florence, in a landlocked region that includes dozens of ancient towns, where 13th-century piazzas stand above first-century Roman forums, which lie above the ruins of Etruscan strongholds.
Umbria is probably not a common word in most households. But most Americans know more about the area than they might imagine. Umbria's most famous town is Assisi, where St. Francis is buried. There's also Spoleto, which stages a world-renowned summer music festival, and Deruta, which for centuries has been a leading producer of those hand-painted blue-and-yellow majolica ceramics that brighten the windows of pricey boutiques around the world.
I had only four nights in the countryside, which meant some sacrifices. I bypassed Perugia entirely, though it is Umbria's biggest city (population: 129,000) and is said to have the region's best art museum. I set aside Orvieto, home of a spectacular church and widely admired white wine, for a future story. Wary of festival crowds and holding no advance reservations in town, I made only a quick pass through Spoleto. I deferred the lesser-known but intriguing towns of Narni, Spello, Trevi and Montefalco for another trip. That left me with a pleasantly compact itinerary: five towns, all within 50 miles of each other.
The biggest attraction in Umbria is Assisi, which draws 4 million visitors yearly, many of them priests and nuns from around the world.
Every morning, tour buses roar into the parking lots in the lower town and disgorge pilgrims, who immediately make for the Basilica di San Francesco, where the remains of St. Francis are buried and where a series of frescoes by Giotto, Lorenzetti and others outline the life of the saint. The usual second stop, at the other end of town, is the 1265 Basilica di Santa Chiara, which stands between massive arched buttresses, improvised halfway through the 14th century when it looked as though the whole thing might fall down. The town sustains scores of hotels and souvenir shops, especially along Via San Francesco, which leads from the main square to St. Francis' church, and the celebration of St. Francis' canonization early every October fills the place to bursting.
South of Assisi lie Umbria's two glamour towns, Spoleto and Todi. I took on Todi first, and spent the night five miles outside town in an "agriturismo" lodging called La Palazzetta.
For anyone traveling by car, or even by bicycle, an "agriturismo" lodging is worth contemplating. With agricultural employment steadily falling in Umbria and elsewhere, the Italian government has been encouraging farmers to open up lodging operations, thereby preserving the countryside and giving visitors a chance to taste the region's historically rural character. The latest government listing cites more than 175 such properties in Umbria.
Todi proper (population 16,000) angles its way up a steep hillside, visible for miles around. As you head up the slope, you pass the 16th-century white dome of the Church of Santa Maria della Consolazione, most prominent building in the skyline, then the Church of San Fortunato, which was begun in the 13th century and completed in the 15th. The center of things is the Piazza del Popolo, where alongside the usual newsstand and cafes I found an antique store called Old Time, its track lights throwing flattering beams on 18th-century doodads. Other shops displayed glittering grappa bottles and ceramics in rainbow hues.
Why the creeping chic? About 10 years ago, a University of Kentucky professor singled out the town as a model sustainable city -- an honor widely translated as an anointment of Todi as the best residence in the world. Soon wealthy, artsy Romans and Americans were reported buying up villas in the area, including former Yale University president Benno C. Schmidt Jr. and New Yorker European correspondent Jane Kramer, and their tastes have clearly had an impact. During my visit, the art museum housed a world-class photography exhibit, and the town's annual arts festival, undertaken in the '80s, was coming up in September.
North of Todi, near the Tiber River, lie Deruta and Torgiano, unremarkable old towns but for a single distinction each. In Deruta the distinction is ceramics; in Torgiano, it's wine.
Ceramics production in Deruta dates back at least to 1290, and since about the 16th century, blue-and-yellow designs have been the hallmark of Deruta majolica. I first browsed the outlet stores in the otherwise uninteresting modern part of town and found umbrella stands running at about $100, roughly half what they go for in the United States.
Torgiano, a few miles north of Deruta, is the base of operations for the Lungarotti family, which produces some of the best-regarded red wines in all Italy. The family also runs a wine museum and a high-end hotel-restaurant, Le Tre Vaselle, where I had the best meal of my trip, a two-hour adventure featuring pasta with black truffle sauce, sliced beef in balsamic sauce and rosemary, roasted potatoes with orange rind, and on and on.
So now I'd seen the famous town, the quality-of-life town, the ceramics town and the wine town. That left only the forgotten town.
Like the others, Gubbio sits on a hillside, its oldest neighborhoods guarded by ancient walls. Unlike most hill towns, however, Gubbio is near the bottom of the slope, and when you step into its streets and narrow alleys of locally quarried stone, you see steep, green Mount Ingino looming above and around you. At the top of the mountain, connected to town by a funicular, is the basilica of Sant-Ubaldo. Against one wall of the church stand three heavy wooden structures that look like coffins on sticks, each about 12 feet high, with no discernible purpose. But on Gubbio's one day a year of nonobscurity, these are the principal props.
Each year on May 15, the people of Gubbio (greater Gubbio's population is about 30,000) are joined by thousands of visitors in the celebration of the Corsa del Ceri. In an exercise at least 900 years old, three teams of the town's men race up the hillside through Gubbio's narrow old streets, each team bearing overhead one of the 12-foot "ceri" with a wax representation attached. Think of Pamplona without bulls, but with just as much human bedlam.
Each "ceri" is said to represent one of the town's three patron saints, but many historians suspect that the Christian symbols have been grafted onto an old pagan exercise, and there's no telling what that was about.
If you go . . .
Getting around: Your best options are renting a car or taking trains. Rental cars, most affordable if reserved from the United States, usually begin at $250-$300 per week. The country roads are well-maintained and well-marked. All the towns in this story are easily reached by train except Gubbio, whose nearest train station, Fossato di Vico, is 12 miles away. One source of rail information is Rail Europe's New York office at (800) 438-7245.
Where to stay: In Assisi, the Albergo Umbra (Vicolo degli Archi 6; tel. 011-39-75-812-240, fax 011-39-75-813-653) is just a few steps off the town's main piazza, and unlike many Assisi hotels, tends not to be mobbed by tour groups. Rates: about $81 for a standard double room, breakfast excluded. In Gubbio, the Hotel Bosone Palace (Via XX de September, 22; tel. 011-39-75-922-0688, fax 011-39-75-922-0552) is an old palace with high ceilings, frescoes, restaurants and a central location. Rates: about $85 nightly for a standard double room, breakfast included. For high-end lodgings in tiny Torgiano, Le Tre Vaselle (Via Garibaldi 48; tel. 011-39-75-988-0447, fax 011-39-75-988-0214, an old palace that was transformed into a 62-room hotel/restaurant in 1978, often hosts conferences and groups. Rates: about $175 nightly for a standard double room. If you have a rental car, consider taking advantage of agriturismo properties, typically farmhouses that have been rehabilitated for duty as lodgings. Innkeepers may not speak much English, but rooms are often rich in character, and rates are often lower than those of city-based hotels. One example: Five miles outside Todi, in Asproli, there's La Palazzetta (tel. 011-39-75-885-3219, fax 011-39-75-885-3358), whose proprietor speaks English. Rates: about $81 for a standard double room, breakfast included. At all agriturismo properties, booking in advance is strongly recommended; the Italian Government Tourist Board has a free pamphlet listing the properties.
Rates quoted here are based on an exchange rate of 1,600 lire per $1.
For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board (630 Fifth Ave., Suite 1565, New York, N.Y. 10111; tel. (212) 245-4822.