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Undiscovered Umbria

“Gubbio, what is there?” That was the response of my tour group as we floated out of Venice and hopped aboard our bus. It seemed we would never get out of Mestre, the industrial town just to the west of Venice. Finally we broke through the tangled web of tractor-trailer rigs and were on the Adriatic coastal road heading south into Italy. As the afternoon wore on we passed one small town after another. The little two-laned road seemed to never end. Finally we cut inland across the mountains and into the region of Umbria.

Gubbio, our homebase for the next three nights, lay at the foot of Mont Ingino. Peter, our driver, and I navigated our way into the town center but soon came to a dead-end at the town’s main square. The roads were all too narrow for our bus, but our hotel lay somewhere up ahead. I got out, walked through the square and continued up the small cobbled street looking in all directions for the hotel. I had the address, but that did not seem to help in this medieval tangle of one-laned alleyways. I was on the correct street, but it seemed to continue uphill forever. By luck I discovered a small iron gate inscribed with “Hotel Gattapone.” There was a buzzer nearby, I pushed it. Momentarily I was greeted by a monotone voice, “Bouna sera, Hotel Gattapone.” I responded in my best Italian, “mi chiamo David McGuffin con gruppo.” “Si, bienvuto, io basso,” the monotone voice responded. The gate sprung open and I headed down the stairs to the ground level. 

Soon I was out the front door walking just a short distance back to the main square to retrieve my friends who had patiently been waiting on the bus. We unloaded our luggage with what seemed the whole town looking on. I don’t believe they were all that accustomed to having a tour bus in their town. We rolled and carried our bags up the hill, across the cobbled streets and into our hotel. The gentleman at the desk and I spoke, a little in English, a little in Italian, but we got everyone a room and settled in for our three night stay in Gubbio.

Umbria is a little region sandwiched in between the two biggies of Tuscany and Latium (Rome). This region is often overlooked on the tourist’s itinerary. However as we found out it has much to offer, especially in the area of cuisine! Later that evening we dined at the Taverna del Lupo, a five-diamond rated restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. For a starter we were served cured ham sprinkled with bits of apple, pineapple, and peaches all smothered in a delightful sauce. The tangy fruit complemented the rich and wild taste of the ham. Our pasta came next lightly seasoned with tomatoes and peppers giving it a bit of a zing. The main course consisted of tender veal in a mushroom and truffle sauce accompanied by roasted zucchini and potatoes. A generous serving of bruschetta and special fried bread rounded out the main course. As if we needed more, the meal was followed by home-made ice cream with a berry sauce for desert. Water and wine was included with the meal all for the fantastic price of about $30!

One morning I decided to walk through town and up to the Basilica di Sant’ Ubaldo on Mont Ingino. I began early, wandering through the steep cobbled streets taking in the peacefulness of a town just waking up. At this hour only a few shopkeepers were out tidying their storefronts and settling into the day. Quickly I discovered it was impossible to take just a stroll in this town. In the direction I was headed the streets snaked their way continuously uphill making my heart race and blood pump at a faster pace than normal. I took a break at the Palazzo Ducale finding a little courtyard with a magnificent view of the town spilling below and the valley beyond. There was even a little cafe where I purchased a Magnum Bar (my favorite ice cream on a stick) and enjoyed the view.

From the palace the road ascended steeply beyond the Doumo, turning into little more than a one-cart cobbled path. Finally I reached the Porta di Sant’ Ubaldo, one of the six remaining medieval gates into the town. Here the road turned to gravel and slowly wound its way through the olive groves and evergreen forest. As I trudged on, I was treated to a cool breeze and more awe-inspiring views of the Umbrian hills. I meet a gentleman coming down at a much fasted pace than I was going up. I greeted him with a cheery, “buona sera.” He chuckled, correcting me in Italian, “boun giono,” pointing to his watch and saying, “e nove.” “Good morning, it is only nine.” I too chuckled, winced, and realized I had greeted him at nine in the morning with a “good evening” instead of “good morning.” 

Half an hour later I arrived at the Basilica standing on the mountainside overlooking the town. The Basilica has gone through several remodeling jobs over the centuries and what stands here today is from the 16th century. It is worth a look inside to see the giant “candles” (ceri) which are carried uphill during the annual festival of Corso dei Ceri. Even more interesting is the withered corpse of the local patron saint, Ubaldo, forever preserved, and on display, in a glass casket high above the alter.

I was running out of time and decided to take the little funicular down the mountain. This one-man “cable cab” is operated by the local monks and consists of a small cage just large enough for a person to stand upright in. I paid my fee, walked out to the monk and was hurried into the moving cage. In a moment I was suspended high above the hillside en-route to the town below. Once I got over the initial feeling of falling, the ride became enjoyable and a pleasant way to end my morning adventure. 

In contrast to Tuscany’s amber and red tiled villages those of Umbria take on a white, almost angelic tint. Obviously it is the character of the local stone from which the buildings are constructed. As in Tuscany, Umbria’s towns are often situated on a hilltops overlooking sweeping vistas of amber grain filled valleys, framed by distant hills covered in olives and evergreens. The setting is “classic” Italian hilltown! However, the biggest contrast between Tuscany and Umbria is in its tourism. While the towns of Tuscany are loaded with tourists day in and day out, those of Umbria lazily sit in their simple existence inviting the savvy traveler to come explore!

About the Author

David McGuffin established David McGuffin’s Exploring Europe, Inc. in 2001 to formally offer European tours. Since then, he has taken several thousand satisfied customers on memorable and educational tours to Europe.

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