An abbreviated version of this article was recently published on CheapOair’s Travel Blog.
My wife and I recently took a short break to Umbria, the green heart of Italy, to visit my parents who are in the process of finally realizing their little Italian dream. About three years ago, they purchased a rather remote piece of land in the rolling hills of Umbria just north of the largest lake on mainland Italy, Lago Trasimeno, and are now in the last stages of completing their home on the site which was previously home to just a few scattered ruins.
Note: you can click on any of the photos for higher-resolution images.
The closest airport to the property is the tiny one located just outside of Perugia (San Egidio), the largest city of the area. It is only a 2-hour direct flight from our hometown of London via Ryanair, the Marmite of airlines (i.e. you either love it or hate it, although most people probably fall in the latter category), making it very convenient for a quick trip.
As the property is not yet habitable, we stayed for five nights in the charming hill town of Montone which, although just off the E45 motorway, is not visible from the road and therefore less visited by tourists. The small village is well worth a diversion, if only for an hour or two. Our base was the lovely and very affordable Hotel Fortebraccio, a newly constructed hotel with well designed modern and functional rooms (we stayed for €80/night).
As my parents were busy making final selections on furniture and paint colors during the weekdays, we were able to slip away and take a few day trips. We were very lucky as the weather was unseasonably warm during the days, with pleasant breezes in the evenings, enabling us to make the most of our time in Italy.
Tuscany, Part I: Volterra & San Gimignano
On the first day, we drove into central Tuscany to see the pristine hill town of Volterra and the nearby walled medieval commune of San Gimignano with its fabled collection of ancient towers. I had been to both places about 15 years ago and was eager to see if they would live up to my fond memories. While they are both prime tourist haunts, both are certainly worth a visit, and we especially enjoyed our time in San Gimignano, with its wide variety of shops, architecture and (most importantly) some very good gelato!
Tuscany Part II: Montalcino & Castello Banfi
Our second day trip took us to the town of Montalcino, which is about a 1.5 hour drive from Montone. The town is perched atop a hill that is most famous for its native Sangiovese grapes, as these are what the ever popular Italian cult wine of Brunello di Montalcino are made from.
Montalcino is yet another beautiful little village, but we didn’t have that much time to spend in the town itself as we had a reservation for lunch at Castello Banfi, one of the best-known (and the largest) producer of Brunello di Montalcino. We believed it was just outside the town, according to some rough maps we had to hand…
After attempting to use my blackberry’s GPS to navigate our way to the winery (which took us, and our little Mini rental car, down an extremely steep and narrow dirt road that lead to the middle of nowhere), then losing my rag when I realized (and finally admitted!) that we were very lost, and finally having my wife not talk to me for a what seemed like forever, we eventually made it to the castle about 45 minutes past our reservation time :). If you ever go there, please be warned that Banfi is a good half-hour drive from Montalcino!
Luckily, their Taverna Restaurant was still serving lunch and our table had not been taken. The food was quite simple for such a formal room, and generally looked better than it tasted. It was okay, but we had much better meals elsewhere for less money (see the end of this post for more details). That said, the free tour of the winery, which took place directly after lunch, was truly fascinating and entertaining, and we greatly enjoyed our visit overall.
Umbria: Deruta, Perugia & Assisi
The bulk of our remaining time was spent in and around Umbria with my family. I have to say that while Umbria may not be nearly as well-known or as well touristed as its more famous cousin Tuscany, whose central eastern border it shares, it certainly does have a lot to offer, and is often less full of foreigners and less costly than similar places in Tuscany.
The town of Deruta lies directly south of Montone down the E45. It is world-famous for its traditional, handmade ceramics industry, with a large percentage of most studios’ pieces being sold in the Unites States and other international markets. We were there to check out some potential designs for the dishes in our future Italian retreat (see below for some examples) and also meandered into the older part of the town which lies above the rows of ceramic shops that line the commercial streets below.
We found a great little restaurant down a side street in the old town, which looked promising, and indeed had very good food. Unfortunately, I can’t for the life of me remember the name now, and can’t find it on the internet either – sorry!
Our penultimate afternoon was spent in Perugia. In reality, we ended up there because one of my relatives knew there was a fantastic gelateria there, and somehow we ended up parking directly in front of it without even realizing we had done so!
I didn’t know that the place my relative had been searching for was none other than GROM, probably the most famous Italian gelato maker. In recent years, its popularly has swelled both within Italy – where you can now find a branch in most major towns (we had our first in Venice earlier this year and loved it) – and also internationally, with shops recently opened in New York, Paris and Tokyo. Anyway, it is probably the best gelato that you can get consistently across Italy, and I was very excited to be trying it again as I wasn’t even thinking about going to one on this trip.
On our last day, we made the quick 30-minute car journey to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis and home to the world-famous Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, which Christians from all over the world flock to for pilgrimage. We were pleasantly surprised at just how well-maintained this ancient town was, and couldn’t believe some if its immaculate preserved pedestrian streets. It was truly stunning.
Tuscany, Part III: The Hidden Gem of Sansepolcro & the Two Restaurant Jewels in its Crown
The one truly hidden gem of a town that we discovered on this trip just happened to be a little past the Umbrian border in the far eastern reaches of Tuscany. The town is called Sansepolcro and, while it certainly doesn’t look like much when you first drive in off the motorway, it has a little secret. Drive further in towards the middle and there lies an old walled city that is home to some very charming streets, some very good shopping and two restaurants which certainly deserve special mention, as the best meals we had on our trip were spent in them.
Da Ventura is both a restaurant and a small guest house. It is very traditional in its decor, with wooden beamed ceilings and wine bottles lining the open arched doorways.
Service is wonderfully personal and professional, and we quickly learned the one rule that all the locals abide by: order by the cart, live by the cart!
The wooden trolley is first rolled out at the beginning of the meal and is filled with an assortment of antipasti that will get you salivating. They also shave truffles on top of pasta on the cart if you order that for your appetizer.
The cart is then pushed out again for the meaty main courses. On our visit, they were offering roasted Chianina beef, lamb and pork (by far the best of the three). The dessert selection is also presented on a trolley, and they just sort of put anything you want from the offering onto a plate for you.
The neighboring table, which was made up of three Italian gentleman who were clearly locals and regulars, noticed that I kept staring at their food as it was being served – especially when the waiter just decided to give one of the men the last hunk of one of roasts, and slopped about 50 ounces of meat onto his plate along with the already large portion he had served him just before. While they were sipping on Vin Santo with their desserts, they asked me if I had tried it before, and told the waiter to give me a glass on their tab. The whole meal had that wonderful feeling throughout, and we really felt at home there even though our Italian left much to be desired.
But I would have to say the best meal we had by far was at Ristorante Fiorentino, which also doubles as a small hotel and is smack-bang in the center of the old town, a few blocks down from Da Ventura.
First established in 1807, the restaurant has been run by the Uccellini family for over 50 years. Alessio, the man who greets you at the desk upstairs, is clearly the owner and runs the show. He is a truly amazing character, who will regale you with tales of how he has played his little tricks and surprises on other customers over the years as he slowly plates up the restaurant’s wonderful homemade dessert from the impressive trolley. He has an amazing sense of humor and you can tell that this is a family affair through and through, which makes it all the more enjoyable. His daughter is a very professional sommelier and is also very affable.
The food at Ristorante Fiorentino was also a bit of a departure from the menus we had become accustomed to in the region (which tend to be very similar, traditional and not all that inventive). They serve historical Tuscan dishes but also infuse elements of Renaissance cuisine into the dishes (i.e. in those times there were many sweet and sour combinations, or piquant and salty dishes at the same time), with some particularly interesting flavor, texture and temperature combinations.
For example, I absolutely adored my starter of Legume Soup with Spelt Ice Cream. The bean soup by itself was perfectly fresh and good, but when eaten with the ever so slightly sweet spelt ice cream (which also had little bits of chewy grains scattered throughout) it was truly delicious and interesting. You can see some more photos of the restaurant below, which I believe is a fitting way to bid you adieu from central Italy. Until next time: arrivederci!