Discover 2000-year-old ruins and roman-engineered marvels of architecture, lush vineyards and unspoilt scenery, iconic communes where retail chains are banned, the best truffles in the world, a mysterious underground chapel, and a torture chamber used by the Inquisition, refined palazzos, and hotels where to kick back and take in the most splendid views. Italy’s hidden gems & bucolic villages are located just an hour away from Rome and bordered by Tuscany. Flying under the radar has its perks – think no line-ups, no obstructed views by thongs of tourists blocking the front of a basilica, and luxurious hotels for under $200 a night. 

By: Christine Elizabeth Laprade

 

The heart of Italy bursts with UNESCO World Heritage settlements and historical villages. Thankfully, there’s still a handful of areas that remain authentic and unconquered by the masses, while remaining surprisingly affordable. Some medieval Italian villages are so incredibly stunning, with their architectural sights and evocative monuments, frescoed churches, and shiver-inducing, decadent local specialities, just like the ones listed below. A few of these spellbinding hamlets are located in the province of Perugia, in Umbria. Each of these outposts is equally ravishing – think narrow limestone stairs dotted with flower pots, a commune perched on a hill and surrounded by olive groves, whose walls preserve Roman treasures. Imagine a small restaurant hidden at the end of a magnificent alleyway which leads to a courtyard beautifully lit with candles, that serves the ultimate freshly made pasta. Think of artisanal shops with an elegant display of golden & fruity olive oils from Colli di Assisi, wine, and D.O.C.s such as lentils from Castelluccio (the best in the world according to Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi), black truffles from Norcia (world famous), rare mountain cheeses, salami, and a plethora of other delicacies. In the mood to be blown away? Then immerse yourself in the all-encompassing beauty of Umbria’s belt of ancient towns.

 

Assisi:

Founded in 1208, this holy city is jaw-dropping – and what cinematographic dreams are made of. Architecture aficionados, take a very deep breath, as you’re in for a treat! Get ready to climb up hills and crooked old stone steps covered in moss and dotted with lanterns. On the (spiritual) map thanks to its saint patron, Assisi, it regularly sees throngs of buses stop at its eponymous basilica, the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, as it is the most important places of Christian pilgrimage in the country. Once you have passed the old vaulted passageways and defensive walls, it’ easy to see why Assisi was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site 20 years ago. Dominated by two old medieval castles, this beauty hosts not only the basilica of St. Francis and its magnificent 18th-century frescos, but is also a swanky foodie destination, packed with wonderful small shops and lively wine bars. Let’s not forget the sweeping views – the views! Built on a hilltop, the city offers the most charming cobblestone streets and architecture, complete with swoon-worthy trattorias where to sip a glass of D.O.C. Sagrantino di Montefalco and nibble on Pecorino Stagionato in Foglie di Fico as the sun sets…

Rest: This refined hotel consists of a 15th-century palazzo set in the historic heart of town: Hotel Dei Priori Assisi. Find within modern amenities, English-speaking staff, tons of character, complete with a Roman well, dating back to the 2nd century AD! The hotel also hosts a fab restaurant, is super quiet, and offers prime views over the main square, in the old town.

Visit: Make sure to turn the GPS on your phone off and to get lost in the labyrinth of picture-perfect anonymous streets and winding alleyways. The more you climb, the better it gets, thanks to the rewarding views over the old city. Time well spent: head over to the Museo Civici for its prime collections of Roman artefacts set in a crypt/excavated area and a splendid setting. Rocca Maggiore is the main castle looming over the city and 800 years old. A must!

Eat, Drink and be Merry: Hostaria La Tradizione is set in an inconspicuous building and will leave you drooling at the thought of its local and traditional specialties! It’s an incredibly simple, convivial, and solid dining destination. Truffle chips are brought as you peruse the menu. Feast on the lovely Umbrian charcuterie board and house antipasti & make sure to give their meats a try, just like the fresh pasta dishes… We learned after our visit that the hostaria is gluten-free friendly as well. One of the top picks in town.

For a glass of spumante or a local red from Montefalco, make sure to sit on the outdoor terrace located on the 2nd floor of the Ristorante Taverna dei Consoli. With prime views over the main piazza, this tavern not only looks inviting but its light & fluffy gnocchis, as well as the risotto with radicchio and black truffle, are simply divine.

 

Narni/Montefalco:

With Neolithic remains in the area, we have come to know the name of Narnia (now Narni), a Roman colony, since 299. The city is responsible for an important school of painting, but it’s mythical realm and the underground world is mainly what fascinates legions of travellers. This all came about when the remains of a church dating back to the 12-13th century, part of a larger complex: the monastery of San Domenico was discovered by a group of children back in 1979.

Montefalco will appeal to wine lovers and foodies alike, perfect for unwinding and revelling in the Italian way of life.

Rest: A short drive away, the Palazzo Dragoni is an exceptional, luxurious former palace set in the heart of old-town Spoleto. The 16th-century residence is just stunning! Opulent and quintessentially traditional, the establishment’s breakfasts are out-of-this-world, and don’t get us started about its chic balconies and amazing views over the valley. Prices from $170 per night

Visit: Intricate Masonry symbols and a torture chamber used by the Inquisition will assuredly make for a novel visit. Throw in a visit of the secret tunnels of a chapel covered in some of the oldest frescos in town. For the complete facts and an intimate VIP-like guided tour, check out narnisotterranea.it.

While in Montefalco, wander around town, as the medieval hill town is simply ravishing. Munch on gourmet antipasti with the locals, admire the Middle Ages looks laid out by artists, and explore the colourful winding streets spiralling like a snail. Stumble upon hidden treasures and artworks at the church of San Francesco, indulge in wine tasting (we liked the standout Sagrantino grape variety), and go on a wine tour. Montefalco is a popular denominazione di origine controllata wine created back in 1979, while the Montefalco Rosso is a wine you will find the Italians drinking. The town is handsome and its reds neighbour the super Tuscans. A real gem! For suggested wine itineraries or any additional info, check out stradadelsagrantino.it.

Eat, Drink, and be Merry: One thing is for sure: a militantly chosen seasonal menu awaits! In Narni, Ristorante La Rocca is a stellar best, with its white tablecloth, romantic setting, and scrumptious seafood.

Montefalco’s main piazza is chock full of gorgeous cafés and terraces where you can sample the local wine & produce, and it hosts a slew of solid old-school family-run places where to feasts on its star ingredients: truffles, ham, olive oil, lentils, and sheep & goat cheeses. Coccorone has a stellar tasting menu, seductive medieval arches, and a small garden. The expertly roasted ingredients, the fireplace, and professional service make this place perfect for a romantic dinner.

 

Trevi:

The commune located on the flank of Monte Serano is everything we like: authentic, unchanged, elegant, and non-commercial. Here, you’ll see every Italian cliché we truly were hoping for: sharply-dressed men talking lively at a nearby café, beautiful children playfully running up and down the street while their mama is preparing a home-cooked meal, church bells ringing throughout the day… Sigh. Think of your very first fond memory of Italy, and you’ll find yourself transported right here, in Trevi. Pass through the outer walls of the old town, visit the Cattedrale di San Emiliano, purchase some olive oil, stare at the Roman walls that ensconced Trevi during the first century BC. The Centro Storico consists of a plateau, where all the medieval buildings and points of interest are located. Make sure to saunter endlessly through the colourful streets, especially on a Sunday morning.

Rest: The Castello di Postignano is a medieval hamlet founded between the 9th and 10th century A.D. on the slopes of a hill along the road connecting Spoleto, Foligno, Norcia, and Assisi. The multi-building hotel is comprised of 22 old houses that were restored, then converted into elegant suites.

Visit: The Museum of the Olive Tree is set in an old convent – a must-see. Sit on the steps of one of the 20 churches located in Trevi, then stop by the Museo S. Francesco. Trevi’s main appeal lies in its purest way of living, in true dolce vita fashion. Olive groves abound – check out this iconic 1700-year old olive tree nearby.  

Eat, Drink, and be Merry: At the end of an inconspicuous alley dotted with olive trees, lanterns, and potted flowers lies a terrific eatery. Taverna del Sette is everything we’ve ever dreamed of. You’ll be delighted by an ornate staircase, vaulted arches, a candle-lit courtyard at night, a parmesan celery tart to die for, fresh & local fare, delicious grilled meats from the charcoal oven, and a cosy and affordable menu – patrons are in for a wonderful dining experience.

 

Norcia:

The earthquake-prone region (which was badly hit in 2016) offers breathtaking views of a national park as a backdrop and hosts a famous Michelin-starred restaurant utterly worth splurging on. The tightly-knitted, sophisticated community is as charming as it gets and is a true foodie & fashion haven. This is, after all, the small town where the prestigious Brunello Cucinelli clothing is made! The cashmere king’s legacy is legendary.

Visit: Make sure to go hiking or ride a bicycle through the wild Umbrian valley, visit the monastery that overlooks the city, take a moment to bask in the stupendous views, and then walk back to the main square and indulge in some quality retail therapy and a pistachio gelato at Bar Gelateria Da Benito.

Eat, Drink, and be Merry:

The pecorino & wild boar products from the jewel crown of Umbria are a culinary force to be reckoned with! It’s pure culinary magic. Vespasia’s tasting menu is iconic (this is a one-Michelin star institution, after all). Sample the terrific Birra Nursia beer, brewed by the Benedictine monks of Norcia with water from the Sibylline mountains. You can even purchase it on the premises.

 

Unchanged since medieval times, the rewarding historic enclaves of central Italy assuredly make for an enticing option for the more discerning traveller.

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