The first time I travelled to Europe, driving seemed like an exciting adventure. With a new husband in tow, we were young and never gave a thought to driving on the right hand side of the road. How hard could it be? Naivety is a wonderful thing.
Twenty years later with the same husband and now three children in tow, memories dulled by time, we decided to view Tuscany’s picturesque hills by car. Thinking back to hurtling along those narrow roads, only to be stopped by an oncoming tractor with seemingly nowhere to go but down a plunging mountainous edge, still evokes nightmares.
So when planning a recent trip to Italy, there was only one caveat: no driving. The problem was, we wanted to see Umbria, and according to every travel guide that talked about visiting Italy’s ‘green heart’, a car was essential.
And so the challenge was on: was it possible to see stretches of Umbria without a car?
The answer is yes. With a bit of research, we discovered it is easy to travel Umbria without four wheels, as many of the region’s main towns are linked by rail. And Italy’s rail system is wonderful – comfortable, clean and easy to navigate (even for non-Italian speakers).
We opted for Spoleto as our Umbrian base for a week. This charming hilltop town is easily reached by rail from Rome in just over an hour.
Like most Umbrian towns, Spoleto is an enticing mix of historical sights and alluring opportunities to wander its warren of cobblestoned laneways, where getting lost offers endless opportunities to explore and discover something new: a turn left here could lead to a cute restaurant offering panoramic views across the countryside, while a right turn there could find you stumbling into a tiny shop selling Umbria’s most prized delicacy – truffle, in all its incarnations: flavouring oil or pasta, preserved or even added to honey.
Of course, Spoleto is also known for its tourist highlights, most notably the Ponte delle Torri. Built in the 14th century to serve as a bridge and aqueduct, a walk across this impressive piece of historic engineering offers incredible views of lush green valleys below.
However, if seeing more of Umbria is on the agenda, simply head to the local train station.
Using local trains, we travelled to Umbria’s capital, Perugia, and nearby Assisi. Had we wanted to, we could have also visited Trevi (known for its outstanding olive oil), Terni (where St Valentine’s tomb is preserved in the local Basilica), Narni (regarded as one of Umbria’s best preserved villages) and Foligno.
Like most Umbrian towns, Assisi sits atop a gently sloping terrain, which can be reached from the train station by bus,taxi, or for the more energetic, on foot.
The stunning Basilica of St Francis features not only the beautifully encased grave of Italy’s patron saint, but some of the country’s finest frescoes, their now-faded images created by artistic greats like Giotto, Simone and Cimabue.
No less touristy, but still incredibly beautiful, is Perugia. With its historic centre partly surrounded by Etruscan and medieval walls, this village is regarded as one of Italy’s most beautiful. Days could be spent wandering its labyrinth of alleyways where high-end designer shops jostle for tourist attention with café windows displaying trays of swirling, pastel coloured meringues, flaky pastries or chocolates of every description (Perugia is home to the Baci chocolate and the town even holds an annual chocolate festival).
by Melbourne writer Jan Phyland. Follow Jan on Instagram @janphy
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