Modern life in the ancient towns of Umbria, Italy’s green heart

By Albert Stumm, The Associated Press

ASSISI, ITALY  — A hilly patchwork of yellow and green Umbrian fields unfolded on both sides of the road as I zipped around hairpin turns in my little red Fiat, feeling every bit the race car driver.

Of course, this being Italy, what I thought was death-defying speed wasn’t fast enough for drivers coming up behind me.

They barely hesitated, passing me on blind curves on the otherwise nearly deserted road. It was a bit unnerving, but over a week, hopping between Umbria’s hill towns, I relaxed my grip on the steering wheel and found that getting there was half the fun.

On my way to the village of Todi that first night, I kept pulling over for the views. Between serpentine roads and stops to take pictures, it took me nearly an hour to travel 10 miles to the village from the stone farmhouse where I stayed.

Umbria is a landlocked agricultural region known as the green heart of Italy. A drought earlier this year rendered many hillsides tan instead of green — drooping sunflowers with browning leaves were a common sight — but I still encountered one of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever seen.

Once I arrived in Todi, I parked and took a free funicular, like a diagonal elevator, to the top of a mini plateau. The smell of wood smoke lured me from the Piazza del Popolo to the literal edge of town, the clifftop Ristorante Umbria, for a bite and a view of the sun dropping behind distant mountains.

Assisi, Italy, in the Umbria region. The small town is filled with buildings made from a characteristic mixture of pink and tan limestone.

Albert Stumm, The Associated Press

Assisi, Italy, in the Umbria region. The small town is filled with buildings made from a characteristic mixture of pink and tan limestone.

A cluster of travertine-block buildings just off the piazza looked in the twilight like a medieval theme park, but the town’s winding cobblestone alleys were alive with the real sounds of children’s sing-song chatter and dinner dishes clattering through a window. A news show blaring from an unseen TV brought me back to modern times.

These signs of real life in Umbria’s ancient towns were ever present but never failed to surprise me. In Foligno, young couples with baby strollers were well-represented in a crowd listening to a free concert in the main piazza. In Gualdo Cattaneo, the town’s millennials take over a cylindrical fortress on weekend nights to run a co-op bar with 360-degree views of the valley. Only in Perugia were locals harder to find, but that was due to a jazz festival drawing thousands of visitors.

Bartenders, tour guides and hotel workers said visitors have dipped since earthquakes shook central Italy last year. But even before that, Umbria was less busy than some other regions. The area is sometimes compared to Tuscany, with food and wine as abundant as the vistas, but without the crowds. That’s partly because it’s not served by high-speed trains. Instead, visitors can take regional trains from Florence. I flew to Rome and drove two hours to get there.

By the end of my week there, I had learned how to handle the Fiat, like when to slam the four-cylinder engine into first gear to shoot up those hills rather than crawl. I used the move to get around a brave cyclist on my approach to Assisi, whose arid stone buildings were camouflaged from a distance by beige hillsides. Like a desert lizard, up close the town’s brick facades and streets were speckled with a range of sand-to-brown shades, flecked with pink limestone.

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