We all know that Italy is a country steeped in ancient history, and each region has its own special set of cultural charms where this is concerned. It’s one of the beautiful things that makes Italy in general such a huge attraction, most especially for us Americans with our comparatively short history. To see the ancient ruins from the Roman Empire, the still-functioning structures from the Middle Ages, the towering Cathedrals with their incredible domes and towers is something we simply cannot do in the States. The culture in Umbria possesses a wealth of this kind of heritage as well as a natural beauty giving the region the nickname, “The Green Heart of Italy.” It is called this partly due to its physical location landlocked in the center of the boot, and partly due to its beautiful, rolling green hills fed by the lakes and rivers that sustain its verdure.
From underground Roman cisterns to modern art museums and jazz, to the outdoors to fine ceramics and everything in between, the culture in Umbria has something to offer literally anyone. And in this post, I’m going to discuss my personal experience from my October visit in Umbria and then provide you with some amazing resources to help you learn more yourself. Not that there is a proverbially “beaten path” just yet in Umbria, but our visit was a little bit “off path” in that it didn’t include the cultural powerhouses of Assisi and Orvieto this trip (though we have definitely visited before!)
As you may already know, Robbin and I had the great pleasure to visit Umbria in October on a fantastic post tourism conference tour with TTI/TTG and with the wonderful Strada del Sagrantino. We began our adventure in the beautiful town of Todi with its famous city center, the Piazza del Popolo and just outside the city, the glorious Temple of Santa Maria della Consolazione (pictured below). It’s difficult to capture images that really do any justice to the majesty of cathedrals like this. They always make me feel how tiny a part of this vast universe I am and give me a huge admiration for the craftsmanship that existed in ancient times. These are real treasures of Umbrian culture and history. Umbria is also home to many UNESCO World Heritage sites (Italy has 51!) as well as several “Longobards in Italy” sites. Assisi is Umbria’s best known site .
Exterior of Temple of Santa Maria della Consolazione
While Robbin and I were in Todi there happened to be one of the festivals that make Umbria so famous. This one is called the Challenge of San Fortunato where there is a truly impressive Medieval re-enactment including archery competitions (one of Umbria’s hallmarks) sword fighting, dancing and a grand procession (shown here.) These kinds of festivals occur all over Umbria at various times during the year and it really is a feast for the senses! I’ll share some of the better known festivals of Umbria at the end of this post.
This amazing tiny theater Teatro della Concordia in the precious Medieval village of Monte Castello di Vibio has just 99 seats and gorgeously restored frescoes on the walls and ceilings. They have a regular theater season, host special performances and also private events.
The amazing people at the Strada del Sagrantino began our visit in Montefalco, yet another absolute gem of a city rich in tradition and history. The image below is the symbol of Montefalco and is in the very center of the circular town “square.” We walked all over the city, exploring the many churches like St. Claire and St. Augustin as well as the St. Francis Museum complex with its amazing frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli. They are also known for their tiny micro-vineyards that are historically protected and grow just in front of and over even small entrances to the ancient stone homes. We also had the good fortune to have dinner at the restaurant OLEVM in Montefalco where they thoughtfully prepare delicious, wholesome meals from organic and local foods as well as the wonderful Locanda del Teatro that we mentioned last week in our Umbria Food post.
Montefalco Town Square Center
As we continued our travels, we visited the village of Bevagna, renowned for its Medieval Festival based on its well-preserved districts called Gaite of the town devoted to weaving in Gaita San Maria (no website) , candle making in Gaita San Pietro, paper making in Gaita San Giovanni and coin making in Gaita San Giorgio.
Even when there is no festival in sight, Bevagna is an absolute gem of a village and not to be missed if you visit Umbria; and not only for the enchanting Medieval character, but also lovely, modern shops as well as delightful restaurants like Delizie del Borgo that we shared in our previous post about the Foods of Umbria.
This is part of the reproduction of a Medieval spinning wheel in the Gaita San Maria. It takes 2 people to operate—one stands inside it and walks around in a circle pushing the wheel around and the other person observes the spools on the outside and changes them out as needed. Silk is collected from silk pods, spun into thread, dyed with vegetable and mineral dyes, then woven on an antique loom with stunning results. (You KNOW I had to buy something!)
There is a long process to get to the beeswax candle, from extracting the material for the wax, clarifying it, melting carefully over a wood fire, creating the wicks, and then gently pouring the wax over the wicks to finally create the candles themselves. And the aroma is amazing! Robbin and I both got candles. It was irresistible.
And this is the utterly charming candle maker from the Medieval Village of Bevagna
Gaita San Pietro
Not only does Umbria boast incredibly preserved Medieval weaving traditions, but it also has outstandingly high quality, modern products as well, as evidenced by our visit to Tessitura Pardi. They are a manufacturer of fine, natural fabrics. They create everything from bedding to outdoor cushions, to beautiful scarves of every density, pattern and color. I admit that I was initially skeptical about touring a modern manufacturing facility, but Robbin and I had a first hand tour with one of the owners, the gracious and elegant… It was an absolutely fascinating experience to say the very least! The intricate machinery with all its moving parts performing almost like a symphony to create the resulting natural fiber fabrics in exquisite detail and quality.
The impossibly impressive and massive looms at Tessitura Pardi
One of the fine examples of the weaving expertise at Tessitura Pardi
It is impossible to fully cover the wide range of cultural possibilities that exist in Umbria in one post. The options above are just what Robbin and I were able to cram into a week of trying as hard as we could to see as much as humanly possible. There are other equally enchanting cities and cultural activities in Umbria; a few are listed below in the resources.
Coming soon: The Wines of Umbria and How to Travel in Umbria