The gentle hills of Umbria Small-town Italy: Rural charms, a saint, a music festival, majolica draw visitors north of Rome.

October 15, 1995|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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.

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