credit: Montioni

Umbria? Umbria!

Omri Yizhak

Italians lovingly refer to Umbria as The Green Heart of Italy, with its lush vegetation and wide green spaces. It feels as if time has stood still in this land bridge between Rome and Tuscany, in the best sense imaginable. Umbria is romantic and enchanting, enticing visitors from the first moment with its endless mountains and forests, vineyards and fields, all shining in different shades of green.

Every day we meet winegrowers and vintners, with winemaking traditions honored and maintained by their families for hundreds of years. Alongside the wine, we explore in the local culinary delights: a truffle mushroom farm, a family’s olive oil press, and of course, excellent restaurants with mesmerizing views.

Umbria’s central location has denied the region a coastline and therefore does not pride itself on fish or seafood dishes. However, the locals worship the produce that nature has gifted them, a complete and perfect world in and of themselves. 

Some of the country’s best olive oils are produced here, along with legumes and seasonal vegetables such as artichokes and asparagus. The star of nature’s bounty is, without doubt, the earthy truffles, beloved by the locals who never miss an opportunity to shave over a warm, soft scrambled egg. Of course, we do not forget the pasta, hand-made in traditional shapes with typical Italian devotion, and served in so many wonderful ways.

vendemmia credit: Montioni
raccolta olive credit: Montioni

Umbria is also known for its livestock, respectfully farmed in the rolling hills, and appreciated by artisanal producers to create incredible, deep-flavored cheeses and a variety of traditional and regional sausages. Their fresh beef, lamb and pork is found in almost every dish, served throughout the day. 

The red wines of the region are famous for the indigenous Sagrantino grape, a variety that boasts extremely high tannin levels that are tamed by gentle winemaking and long aging in the bottle. Sagrantino produces wines with an intense inky purple color and an impressive concentration of dark brooding red fruit with an intriguing earthiness and rusticity that makes the drinking experience wild and spicy.

In recent years, with the rising popularity of dry white wines all over the world, Umbria’s famous Orvieto has come to the fore, blended mostly from the Trebbiano and Grechetto grapes, grown on both sides of the Paglia River as is flows through the town that gives the wine its name.

Landing in Rome and just an hour and a half drive away, we officially started our Umbrian adventure on the right foot with a winery visit, naturally. 

A magical winery awaited us, perched on a hill overlooking a spectacular and green valley with the Orvieto peeping in the background. At the rural family-run estate, the aromas coming from the kitchen of our lunch being prepared welcomed us. Francesco, the owner, proudly showed us around the winery and led us down to his impressive and beautiful barrel cellar.

We held the wine tasting on the outdoor terrace with its perfect view, each wine paired with a specific dish to highlight its features and enhance the experience. I will always fondly recall the taste of the truffle soufflé that remains imprinted in my senses.

Moving on, we made our way to Montefalco, the picturesque town that would be our home to us for the next several days. Montefalco is considered one of the most beautiful towns in Italy, and is known as the Terrace of Umbria thanks to the breathtaking panoramic view that surrounds it.

Most of the businesses, restaurants and bars are conveniently located around the town’s central square in a scene that reminded us of an old romantic film. This is also where here our excellent and luxurious hotel was located, and at a neighboring restaurant, we ended our first day with an intimate dinner, accompanied by a variety of local wines.

We started the second day in the most impressive way with a visit to the nearby Paolo Bea winery, one of the most important, valued and famous local producers in the region. Giampiero, Paolo’s son, is the winemaker and winery manager. An architect by profession, he applied his philosophy of life to the design of the winery, and the result is particularly impressive: it looks like it came out of an international design magazine. Theirs are wines of the highest quality, and sought after all over the world. The tasting experience is hard to describe in words, I will just say that every true wine lover will be thrilled.

Without noticing, it was time for Pranzo, for lunch, and nothing prepared us for the experience that was to come. Alice, an Italian mama from the movies, hosted us at her home for a cooking and baking workshop with unending energy, style and warmth. Our group quickly divided between several stations: panzanella salad, tomato bruschetta, pasta ragu and even a plum jam tart baking stand. Alice moved from station to station, teaching, sampling and of course pouring wine, because how can you cook without drinking something?

After we finished all of her chores, we sat at a communal table in the courtyard and had delicious food we had ourselves prepared, eating to our heart’s content under the pleasant Umbrian sun. Most definitely an unforgettable experience.

After a short rest at the hotel, we met to celebrate one of the most beautiful gastronomic cultures in Italy – the Aperitivo. Every day, starting at 17:00, immediately after work, people throughout Italy meet in bars and cafes to enjoy an Aperol spritz, a Negroni cocktail or a glass of wine alongside some bruschetta, Cheeses and snacks. We celebrated our Aperitivo in a magical and romantic wine bar located near the best observation point in town. One might call it “Negroni with a view”. 

Just a two-minute walk away we were treated to a perfect dinner at an esteemed and famous restaurant in town. Our third morning together began with a hunt, searching for truffles, the so-called Queen of the Forest.

At an impressive truffle farm with an iconic view, we set out with a certified truffle hunter and his wonderful dog Brichiola to search for the elusive fungi. They led us between the trees and bushes, and from time to time Brichiola would discover a perfect truffle, running back to us with it held gently in her mouth. The aroma of a fresh truffle is so impressive and addictive, as is the feeling you get when you hold one in the palm of your hand! Returning with our finds, we sat on a panoramic balcony and got to enjoy bruschetta with truffle spread alongside local sparkling wines. Not a bad start to the day, I would say.

A fascinating winery, hidden in a small valley and surrounded by mountains a short drive from Montefalco, was waiting for us. Paolo, the owner and winemaker hosted us together with Valentina, the visitors’ center manager, for a wine tasting and lunch. Their warm and familial hospitality, the quality of the wines and the food moved us, and without noticing, we spent almost three perfect and unforgettable hours there, at the end of which the whole group left with boxes of wine to bring back home. Tonight’s dinner was so memorable it is worthy of a place in the Hall of Fame of travel experiences.

In a modest farmhouse on the outskirts of Montefalco, with an adjoining vineyard and a stunning view, we met Giorgio Brunozzi. This impressive young man gave us a wonderful evening that started with a toast in the vineyard in front of the sunset, continued with a vineyard safari in his open jeep and ended with a lengthy dinner that he and his best friend cooked for us, along with a tasting his excellent wines.  It was a Friday night and the kept wine flowing, and with the homemade local food, invigorated our senses. It was an exemplary intimate event that we will remember forever.

We woke up the next morning, slightly hungover, a reminder of last night’s experience. A good breakfast, a few cups of espresso and we were ready to go. 

The town of Assisi is famous in the Christian world as the second holiest place in Italy, after the Vatican, thanks to the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order.  Assisi is romantic, fascinating and bewitching, and looks as if it was especially built as a set for a film from the Middle Ages, and rightly so. There we met Maura, a knowledgeable local guide who took us to all the fascinating hidden corners of the town and inside the famous basilica. From there we continued to visit another magical and scenic place, to an olive oil estate on a large hill, with two impressive villas, a wide lawn and an unbelievable panoramic view from which even see neighboring Tuscany. 

The impressive and successful farm and oil press is managed by three charming and hospitable sisters and their brother, all of whom who never seemed to stop smiling, laughing and having fun with our group. Following a tour of the production hall, we had an olive oil tasting with an impressive lunch and lots of wine, as usual.

We spent the last day of our trip in nature with a visit to the ancient Marmore Falls, followed by some free time in the magical town that was our home for the week, where we took advantage of the beautiful weather with (how else?) an early Aperitivo of generous drinks and exciting food.
 On the way to the airport, just before we said goodbye, we all knew – this is not the last time we will visit this region. 

True, maybe Umbria is still not the first destination that comes to mind when you think of Italy, but that’s about to change soon, trust us. There is something special about the combination of an authentic area, not too frequented by tourists, with a simple and pleasant local populace, green spaces, magical towns, fascinating cuisine and fine wines that will make anyone fall in love with it.

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