Celebrated for its rolling hills, covered with flowers and topped by magnificent medieval towns, Umbria was described by Henry James as "the most beautiful garden in all the world" and is nicknamed "the green heart of Italy." Despite these accolades, Umbria was often overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, Tuscany. Today, however, there is a newfound appreciation for all that Umbria has to offer: It is home to one of the largest lakes on the Italian peninsula, Lake Trasimeno, it nurtured the famous 15th- and 16th-century painters Niccolò da Foligno, Bernardino Pinturicchio and Il Perugino and it boasts countless cathedrals and museums, as well as annual music and arts festivals. Umbria is also marked by Etruscan ruins, Roman amphitheaters and papal fortresses, the legacy of a region inhabited by many different groups before it was unified with the rest of Italy in 1860.
Perugia, the capital of Umbria, may be best-known as the headquarters of the famous Italian chocolate company Perugina. They make the delectable Baci (kisses), chocolate-covered nuts that are popular worldwide. The company also participates in the annual chocolate festival, Eurochocolate, in Perugia. In addition to chocolate, Perugia boasts a world-renowned university, the Università per Stranieri (University for Foreigners), which is one of the best in Italy. And in July, the town fills up for the Summer Jazz Festival. But Perugia is also a well-preserved medieval town with art that has tourists flocking there year-round. The main street in the historic center is Corso Vannucci, named after the painter Pietro Vannucci (nicknamed Il Perugino). At the northern end of the street is Perugia's main square, Piazza IV Novembre, at the center of which is the Fontana Maggiore, a 13th-century fountain covered in bas-relief sculpture. Behind the fountain is the Palazzo dei Priori, a stunning public building also built in the 13th century. It was the seat of secular power in the town, and many of the walls are covered with frescoes or inlaid wood paneling. At the southern end of Corso Vannucci is the Rocca Paolina, a 16th-century fortress built on the orders of Pope Paul III to demonstrate the papacy's power. When Italy was unified in 1860, the fiercely independent Perugians reclaimed the massive fortress as a symbol of their
triumph over papal rule.
Orvieto and Assisi are two of the most famous towns in Umbria, and a large part of their fame is due to their spectacular cathedrals. Orvieto is set on the plateau of a hill, affording the town magnificent views of the vineyards below. Legend has it that in the mid-13th century, a priest stopped to celebrate mass near Orvieto and a few drops of blood fell from the statue of Christ onto the altar cloth. This miracle eventually led to the construction of the spectacular cathedral in Orvieto, with its black and white marble stripes and intricate, multicolored façade. When work began on the church in 1290, the plans called for a Romanesque design, but Gothic details were incorporated over the next 300 years, making the duomo a mix of both styles. The stark interior is enlivened by Luca Signorelli's fresco cycle of The Last Judgment, dating back to the 15th century. Besides the cathedral, Orvieto is well-known for its colorful ceramics and for Orvieto Classico, a crisp, dry white wine. The town also hosts a jazz festival every winter.
In Assisi, about an hour northeast of Orvieto, the main attraction is the
Basilica di San Francesco, which was begun in 1228, a few years after the death of Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis, known for his love of animals and his good deeds, founded the Franciscan order of monks. The basilica built in his honor could not be more different from the demure life that Saint Francis led: It is a large and imposing structure consisting of both a lower and upper church. The beautiful frescoes, by
Giotto, Cimabue and Pietro Lorenzetti, depict the lives of Saint Francis and Jesus Christ and the Saint's remains are downstairs in the crypt.