Back in the summer of 2009, shortly after graduating from university, I had the chance to join five school friends for an epic road trip – a Grand Tour, if you will – departing from England by ferry, down through Spain to Barcelona via the San Fermin festival, the (in)famous running of the bulls in Pamplona. From Catalonia, we would head east through France and the Cote d’Azur and down into Italy, basing ourselves in the picturesque Umbrian countryside for a few days before turning north, heading home via Lake Garda, the Austrian Alps, the Black Forest in Germany and finally northern France.
This is part five of my recollections and photos of the trip, exploring the hills and Renaissance-like landscapes of the Italian region of Umbria, including Perugia, Castiglione del Lago and Lago Trasimeno.
The fourth instalment, a few days in the French Riviera, can be found here.
The warm air hits you straight away. The dry, searing heat revealed itself, and defied the greenery of the hills around. We were in a small hamlet called Varacca, really no more than a cluster a stone built houses situated on the side of a hill, at the quiet junction of two single-track back roads leading up from an olive oil factory. The settlement was just large enough to have a road sign, but not quite large enough, it seems, to be included on maps.
To the north of us, unrivalled views swept across the picturesque Umbrian landscape, a hue of blues, yellows and greens of the patchwork fields and trees, culminating in a wide circle of blue on the horizon about 5 kilometres away; the almost heart shaped Lago Trasimeno. From this elevated position, we could see also across to a neighbouring village, Paciano, a small hillside town of around 1,000 inhabitants, with the tight streets and clustered houses built defying the relatively precipitous characteristics. There is seemingly no flat ground, but yet this is not a hindrance.
Paciano can also be reached in about an hour on foot, by dropping into the small valley between the locations, and you arrive into the town via a steep network of paths picking their way through the maze of streets eventially leading into the small centre square, which wouldn’t be continental European, or indeed Italian, without the seemingly compulsory mix of locals sitting around, usually outside a local shop or cafe, simply watching the world go by.
We were staying in an idyllic setting, using a recently renovated and rustic stoned house. It was previously comprised only of a single upper level, reached by an external staircase, but now spread over two stories charming delight. The house was basic, comprising of bedrooms and a small open plan sitting area and kitchen on the upper level, with two further bedrooms and an additional kitchen on the lower level, but then I think it really doesn’t need any additional features. I think any more would remove the simple and unsophisticated character that I think fits in neatly with the region that surrounds the house.
Umbria itself is the only landlocked region of Italy that does not have a coastline. When I think of Italy, my mind immediately thinks of coastline such of the Cinque Terre or the Amalfi coast, areas largely defined by the physical geography and the boot shaped feature of the country as it juts into the Mediterranean sea. Italy simply has such much coastline you can sometimes overlook the inland characteristics of a location like Umbria, ones that are defined by the rich cultural history, vivid landscapes with towns built seemingly and impossibly into a steep hillside. It’s an area that is often overlooked by Tuscany, the neighbouring region to the west; the birthplace of the Renaissance and a region that shares many of the same characteristics, but I think of Umbria with a greater fondess.
Our first evening was spent just relaxing, and soaking up the final rays of the warm sun, firstly by having an alfresco dinner on the patio, and enjoying the views off down towards the lake/lago. After this, as the dark fell, we sat on the steps at the back of the house overlooking the view across to Paciano. It was the perfect antithesis of the previous few days we had encountered during the first week of our trip. We had experienced the intensity of the Pamplona Bull run, the vibrancy of Barcelona, and felt slightly out of place camping surrounded by the glitz and glamour of the south of France.
There is just something about the food of Italy that makes it such a special space. All the ingredients (pun intended) of the fine cultural and natural features coupled with some amazing cuisine, and with the addition of fine wines, and, against unfounded national stereotypes, a booming craft beer scene, makes me crave to want to go back again and again.
Within walking distance of the house, we were fortunate to have excellent two family run restaurants to choose from, in addition to a further choice over in Pacinco itself. The first place was Il Casale. Situated further up the track from the house, it is a fantastic, rustic eatery making the most of the abundance of local ingredients; the varied menu changing with the seasons but always remaining simplistic and of good quality. To top it off, the views down towards the lake are spectacular from the terraced patio – a tranquil and relaxing location for a glass of good red wine and some freshly made pasta.
Slightly further away from the house, but still walk-able along the track that contours round the hillsides, is Il Pozzetto. Another family run establishment, and home to some of the best pizza I have ever had. Again, simple in nature, but with basic and fresh ingredients, nothing else needs to be added to make it great.
For a relatively rural area of Italy, it astounds me that so many high quality restaurants can be found. It may seem to be a general and sweeping generalisation, but most seem to offer just basic and tasty food; it’s not fussy, just great food cooked with care and I really can’t get enough of it.
During our three night stay in the area, we had plenty of time to explore the areas surrounding Lago Trasimeno, in particular the attractive lakeside town of Castiglione Del Lago. The town is the largest settlement on the lake, and the historic centre of the town finds itself raised up above the surrounding area, perched on an elevated outcrop of land. This presumably was a brilliant strategic position during multiple conflicts and sieges throughout the history of the town. The castle fortifications, known as ‘the Fortress of the Lion’ and sounding like something from Game of Thrones, played a prominent role in these battles, having dated from the 13th Century, although before this date the town has seen numerous conflict throughout it’s early history, suffering in battles featuring Romans and later more localised conflicts between the local armies of the Tuscans and Perguians that was reflected throughout the next few hundred years in what is now Italy before the eventual unification of the regions in the 19th Century.
At the conclusion of the busy central street within the city walls lies a neatly bookended piazza square containing multiple alfresco restaurants and cafes. Located at the other end of the street to the castle, it is an ideal spot to sit in one of the many sun drenched terraces overlooking the lake. The hardest choice prehaps being which flavour of gelato to have first.
Previously, the area surrounding the town was one of four islands contained within the lake, with the turquoise blue water being gradually filled in (by human intervention) over time, thus reducing the gap between the then island and the ‘mainland’ on the shore until there wasn’t one.
Moving down from the centre of town, we descended the brick and stone staircases to the shores of Lago Trasimneno. The tranquillity of the area is strengthened, in my opinion, by a lack of a major tourist attractions and facilities in the region. The attraction of the lake and the town are enhanced by its authentic character; a true representation of a region, and one that is largely free of the plagues of tourists and associated tat that can often be found in the more ‘popular’ attractions like the Leaning Tower of Pisa or Rome (which would be our next destination, for a day, shortly afterwards).
The blue-grey-green waters of the lake were offset from the gradual tinting of the blue sky, edging ever more blue the higher in the sky your eyes drifted. Small flecks of cotton-bud white clouds individually drifted high above us as we refreshed our hot limbs in the fresh water lake, removing ourselves from the heat of the day.
The lake is the largest lake in the centre and south of the country, probably overshadowed by the more famous Alpine water fed lakes in the north of the country, Lakes Grada, Como, Maggiore, and the smaller Lugano. Almost uniquely from a lake this size in Italy, no source of major water directly flows into or out from the lake. The water levels rise with rainfall and are reduced by evaporation or small scale irrigation or local use. Trasimeno is a flat, shallow lake, prehaps only a maximum of five metres deep, and has varied in depth every time I have gazed out of its waters in multiple visits – ranging from small waves lapping at your feet on the shore edge by the town, to having to walk at least a minute or two across the long muddy beach to even reach the water at times of low rainfall.
About half an hour to forty minute drive away from the house lies the capital of the region, Perugia. A population of just over 168,000 people calls the wonderful city home – the centre of which sprawls over a hilly section of the area. Perugia itself houses a couple of universities, one of which being for international students and has a mass of other cultural attractions. However we weren’t hear to study, as we had timed our visit to coincide with the renowned Perugia Jazz Festival, which is held in the attractive centre of the city every July.
We parked the cars in a multi-levelled car park just south of the city centre, and were magically transported directly into the heart of the bustle in the centre using a series of free escalators that climb gradually up through some of the old ruins and an ancient citadel dating from the medieval period – bricked terracotta coloured archways juxtaposed against the contemporary metal structures transporting us. It’s a fascinating and practical way to arrive in the city. The narrow streets combining with a lack of parking in the city meant that we spent several laps of an area of the city before finding room in the car park. These parking issues are a well known hindrance, so I would advise to either travel into the city train or be patient in looking for a limited parking space.
As with many cities worldwide from this period, new was built on old. The final section of the escalators before they emerge into the daylight comprises of a maze of the original streets – their more recent successors built almost layer on layer on top of the existing infrastructure.
The streets were a hive of activity, with crowds mingling through the many narrow roads of the historic centre. Cafes were open late into the night, the evening air still warm enough to sit outside on the terraces. After a while, we settled on a cafe bar about five minutes walk from the centre, and joined in with the crowds, letting the night unfold with a wonderful mix of music, people and beer.
The next day, we would be ditching the cars for a trip down to Rome, travelling to the heart the capital of Italy by train.
Our accommodation for this stay, La Follia, is available for private self-catering hire through AirBnb here.