The picturesque Niccone Valley is the perfect, central point from which to explore the hill towns of both Umbria and Tuscany. Located roughly midway between Rome and Florence, just north of Lake Trasimeno, it's an easy drive to the historic cities of Cortona, Gubbio, Perugia, Assisi, Deruta, Montefalco, Spoleto, Spello, Todi, Montepulciano, Pienza, Siena, Umbertide, Cittą di Castello, Sansepolcro and others.
For an up-to-the minute calendar of events, go to the tourist information office in Umbertide, located on Via Cibo just off the Piazza Matteotti and around the corner from the Bar Centrale, open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., or log onto www.umbria2000.it and click on the British flag for English, then on Cities. Town names can also be Googled for maps, information about festivals, etc.
The Niccone Valley is named for the stream that flows through it, spilling into the Tiber River at its eastern terminus near Umbertide. Part of the valley is in Umbria and part is in Tuscany; at either end are the Umbrian towns of Lisciano Niccone and plain Niccone, and a small section from Mercatale to La Mita is in Tuscany. A country road, route 416, runs through the valley, roughly parallel to the stream.
The valley was a much traveled route throughout Italy's history, and evidence of its strategic position can be seen in the castles that dot the hilltops, facing off from both sides across the border. Today the fertile plain is devoted to crops?winter wheat, sunflowers, maize, tobacco, alfalfa and vegetables. There are vineyards and silvery olive trees on the slopes and myriad shades of green in the surrounding forested hills. Farmers still raise animals and maintain kitchen gardens for their own needs, and the towns along the road supply what must be bought.
Though they are small, these villages contain bars and restaurants, food markets, banks, pharmacies and other services. Lisciano Niccone boasts two restaurants, an excellent meat market, and a grocery store. Mercatale, the larger Tuscan town next door to the east, is a full service town with two grocery stores, a gas station, and the excellent bakery Dolce Forno next to the Trattoria Mimmi. Continuing east, the next town is Mengaccini, with a tiny bar, and further up the valley the Bar Pino functions as a sort of "7-11", its little food and wine shop staying open during the lunch hour and well into the evening (closed Wednesday). Just after the Reschio Castle you will see the turnoff for the altabella Properties and Preggio, the tiny walled hill town which is home to a favorite restaurant, La Castagna (the chestnut). Preggio is well known for its summer music festival and the Sagra di Castagna in October.
Back down in the valley in and continuing east on Route 416, pass by Sant'Andrea di Sorbello, named for the noble family that ruled here for a thousand years and to this day still occupies its hilltop castle. A little further on down the road, Le Capannine di Sommavilla sells its own organic produce and wines, and offers Sunday brunch and dinners, often with music.
At the next wide spot in the road, marked by a small church next to the Bar Panini and a sign for Umbertide, you are at La Mita and back in Umbria. After a few more kilometers you will arrive at Spedalicchio, with its two tiny grocery stores. Just after the town, the unpaved road on the right marked Bastia Creti takes you to the Calagrana restaurant, whose talented chef worked in London before opting for the country life.
A thousand meters more and you are at Molino Vitelli, known chiefly for its Cantina di Girasole, owned by the Gritti family from Venice, where vineyard tours, wine and olive oil tastings, lunches and dinners are available, as well as a playground for the children. In the hills behind the cantina, try the restaurant, La Chiusa, for upscale organic dining. Molino Vitelli is also home to the alpaca, goat and sheep farm, Maridiana, which sells handmade woolen clothing and blankets.
Three kilometers further on is Niccone, the end of the valley, where Chiara presides over her popular Nonna Gelsa restaurant. Next to the post office the Bar Pink Panther is a good place to meet up with friends. A train, which runs from Sansepolcro in the north and Terni to the south, also stops in Niccone, and at 5:45 a.m. most mornings you can hop a Sulga bus to Rome or the Fiumicino airport.
At the T-junction, just past the bar, a left turn will take you through Montecastelli out to the E-45 Superstrada, the main artery to the towns which run up and down the east side of Umbria. Or turn right at the T and you will shortly arrive at our largest nearby town, Umbertide, home to shops, banks, gas stations, the big Coop supermarket, and a lively Wednesday morning outdoor market in the old piazza near the La Rocca, the tower. Follow the main street out of town in the direction of Roma for another way to meet up with the E-45 Superstrada.
A note about the E-45: When you are heading back home from southern Umbria, follow the signs for Cesena, the northern most point on the highway, from which Umbertide is an exit.
Once a Roman village, the stony, hillside city gained prominence in medieval times reaching its height in the Renaissance as duchy of the Montefeltro family who built their palace opposite the cathedral. It is known for its ceramics, architecture, museums, and colorful festivals, particularly the Ceri Race on May 15, the yearly contests with the archers of Sansepolcro, and a dramatic Good Friday procession. Musical events are held in the Roman theatre during the summer and at Christmastime Gubbio's mountainside is lit up with the world's largest Christmas tree.
Cittą di Castello
Another ancient Roman town, this one is flat and easily walkable. Traditional crafts still produced here are textiles, typography and furniture. The town hosts a truffle fair in November, a monthly antiques market, and an important summer music festival. Two galleries show the work of native son Alberto Burri, the town picture gallery has some fine Renaissance paintings and on the outskirts, a fascinating museum portrays country life as it was lived 100 years ago. The historic Terme Fontecchio hot springs is open year round.
A beautifully restored, small hill town with several good restaurants, Montone boasts unbeatable views of the surrounding countryside and memorable festivals produced by the civic-minded townspeople: a blacksmith's fair, an international film festival, historical pageants held on Easter Monday and in August, and the wonderful Festa del Bosco harvest fair at the end of October.
Birthplace of the Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the town's jewel is a museum devoted to his work as well as fine pieces by his contemporaries. There is also a lace school and museum, and the Buitoni pasta factory, the town's largest employer. Shop here for clothes, shoes, and kitchenware. The Balestra crossbow contest with Gubbio is a serious competition, embellished by medieval costumes and pageantry.
A beautiful Tuscan town close to Sansepolcro, Anghiari is quite hilly but exploring its narrow streets and alleys and discovering small gems is worth the hike. There is a wonderful craftsmans' fair during the last week of April, an antiques market every second Sunday, and the bringoli pasta and new wine festival in November, as well as theatrical and music events throughout the year. Its most famous shop is Busatti, the Tuscan weavers. Across from the piazza, Ravagni sells excellent olive oil and in November you can visit their ancient stone mill, or frantoio.
This village near Anghiari is home to Piero della Francesca's magnificent, recently restored "pregnant Madonna", which was painted for a chapel in the local cemetery and is now housed in a small museum. A video about Piero's life and work in an adjoining room is worth seeing.
The fourth largest lake in Italy is ideal for visitors desiring a peaceful interlude during a busy vacation. Fishermen still catch pike, carp, tench, eel and perch on the lake and San Feliciano's fishing museum documents that disappearing way of life. Trasimeno's three islands are home to various wild duck and bird species and Isola Polvese, the largest, is a nature preserve accessible by ferry from San Feliciano during the summer months. The following towns are located on or near the lake.
Tuoro sul Trasimeno
Now part of the Colli del Trasimeno wine route, Tuoro is famous as the spot where Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217 BC. You can hike the Hannibal trail and on summer evenings in July and August participate in a popular theater re-enacting the event. For a visit to one of the islands, take the Tuoro ferry from the spiaggia, or beach, near the Campo del Sole sculpture garden, to Isola Maggiore where St. Francis once spent a Lenten season, and where you can still see grandmothers making Irish lace and fishermen mending their butterfly nets. Try the restaurant Sauro, or picnic along the water's edge after an easy hike.
Passignano sul Trasimeno
A lovely, old-fashioned Italian resort featuring a shady promenade along the lake, Passignano is a venue for the Trasimeno Blues festival in July, for the Palio of the Boats in late July, and a fish festa in August. A great place to find Deruta ceramics without going to Deruta, as well as gelato and good restaurants.
Castiglione del Lago
A pretty walled town on the west side of the lake, Castiglione del Lago is a popular resort. From the Palazzo della Corgna, the house of the noble family, a narrow passage leads to a castle overlooking the water which now plays hosts to musical events during the summer. A tulip festival is held here in mid April, followed by an international kite flying contest in May.
Cittą della Pieve
This red brick hill town near the Tuscan border south of Lake Trasimeno is the birthplace of the Renaissance painter Perugino. In August the Palio of the Terzieri is a procession of figures in costume inspired by his works, several of which can be seen here. Ephemeral flower "paintings" created on the streets on the feast day of Corpus Cristi, and a Christmas presepe with full scale figures are among the town's seasonal attractions.
The capital of Umbria is home to Etruscan ruins, marvelous medieval architecture, elegant shops, the University of Umbria, the University for Foreigners language school, art and music schools, the Umbria Jazz festival in July, the Chocolate Festival in September, some of the finest paintings in Umbria, and much more. Park under the Piazza Partigiani and take the escalator up through an underground restored, medieval neighborhood to the Rocca Paolina and the wide Corso Vanucci. Bring a map!
South of Perugia, Assisi arises in pink stone splendor on the side of Mt. Subasio from a flat plain below the town. The birthplace of St. Francis, the hilly city is a memorial to Italy's favorite saint and his followers. Our suggested intinerary: drive up to the Porto Nuovo parking lot and park, walk through the gate and past the sweets shops to the church of St. Clare, continue on to the piazza with its fountain and the Roman Temple of Minerva, and then make your way to the Basilica of St. Francis. After seeing the famous frescoes in the upper and lower churches, take a taxi from the piazza below the church back to Porto Nuovo. You'll get a bonus tour of the upper part of the town and its fortress. Yearly festivals include colorful Calendimaggio on April 30 and May 1, and a Peace March which periodically extends from Perugia to Assisi.
There are still many Roman traces in Assisi's less touristy neighbor to the south. This is another hilly town where you'll need good walking shoes. Frescoes by Pinturicchio in the Baglioni chapel are worth a visit, as well as the Straka Coppa Collection in the Villa Costanzi. In mid June, the town's Infiorate del Corpus Domini, with its sacred images made of flowers carpeting the streets, is spectacular but lasts only from 9 a.m. till noon.
Famous to wine lovers for its Sagrantino di Montefalco wines, the "balcony of Umbria" also contains a famous fresco cycle by Benozzo Gozzoli, and shops selling ceramics and beautiful fabrics. At Easter there is a week devoted to wine and the town is an important destination for Open Cantina weekend in May. In August the Fuga del Bove, a race of bulls representing the four quarters of the town, is accompanied by pageantry, taverns serving local gastronomic specialties, historical processions and wine.
Just a few miles from Montefalco, Bevagna is a small village with Roman and medieval antecedents. Roman mosaics, important churches and an elegant, small theater are among Bevagna's treasures, which span the centuries. During the famous Mercato delle Gaeta held every year in June, the town is transformed by false construction to look like it must have in the Middle Ages, and the townsfolk don peasant dress. Ancient crafts such as ironwork, basketry, rope, paper and silk making are demonstrated.
Its beautiful buildings testify to a rich history dating back to the Romans, but since 1958 Spoleto has been known as the home of the Festival of Two Worlds, a international mix of ballet, opera, theater and chamber music, and other important music festivals are held here from spring through the autumn. Nearby, the monumental Ponte delle Torri served as an aqueduct in the Middle Ages and provides a breath-taking stroll and views.
A few miles south of Perugia, down the E-45, the approach to Deruta is lined with ceramics factories and suppliers. Turn off at Deruta Nord and drive through the length of the town for an overview of the staggering array of modern and traditional designs produced by these small factories, mostly family owned. For a more manageable shopping experience, drive up to the top of the hill, park outside the walls of Deruta's historic center, and visit the shops around the piazza. A new Museo Regionale della Ceramica is located next to the church, and a bar and restaurants are available when you need to take a break.
Near Deruta, the Lungarotti wine family has put Torgiano on the map. Visit the Museo del Vino and sample their wines at the adjoining tasting room. Nearby in a group of medieval houses is the olive oil museum, and La Spola, a gift shop which sells lovely Umbrian crafts, is next to the upscale Le Tre Vaselle restaurant. All are owned by the Lungarottis.
Beyond Deruta is Todi, often called one of the most beautiful cities in Umbria. Her crown jewels are the cruciform Renaissance church Santa Maria della Consolazione, a beautiful square, the Piazza del Popolo, and the Temple of San Fortunato. Events during the year include an antiques fair in April, a hot air balloon race and art festival in July, and a music festival in August and September.
The ancient Etruscan city of Orvieto is halfway between our valley and Rome, about 1.5 hours by car, so you might want to stop there on your way to or from the Niccone Valley. Park with the buses in the parcheggio and take the funicular and bus up to the main piazza. Sights to see are the magnificent, carved duomo faēade and Signorelli chapel inside; underground Orvieto where the ancient populace created a self-sufficient haven; and the well of San Patrizio, a Renaissance engineering feat. Shop for lace, ceramics, iron work and try an Orvieto Classico wine at one Orvieto's many fine restaurants. This is the Slow Food capital and there are many food events. Nearby is the medieval abbey of Santi Severo e Martirio, as well as Etruscan archeological sites, notably the Crocifisso del Tufo.
Just over the hill from our valley on the edge of the Valdichiana is the ancient Etruscan capital of Cortona, now famous as the locale of the book, Under the Tuscan Sun. A bit touristy but also very charming, Cortona is a good place to visit on a Sunday as many of its wonderful shops, restaurants and museums stay open. Don't miss the Etruscan Museum and the nearby Diocesan Museum, which contains a magnificent Fra Angelico Annunciation. The Tuscan Sun Festival and the Sagra della Bistecca (beefsteak barbeque) are August events. One of the best open markets in the area takes place every Thursday morning, 8-1 pm, in Camucia, the town just below Cortona.
If you are here on the first Sunday of the month, you might want to drive over to Arezzo to attend the antiquarian faire, the largest in Italy, where you will find everything from 1950s jewelry to antique marble fireplaces. The fair spills out into the surrounding medieval streets from Vasari's magnificent Piazza Grande, and encompasses the church of San Franceso with its famous Legend of the True Cross fresco series by Piero della Francesca. The faire runs all day long and is great for observing the passeggiata of the well-dressed Aretini in this, Tuscany's wealthiest city.
Note: The next area?Montalcino, Bagno Vignoni, Sant'Antimo, Pienza and Montepulciano could be seen in one day, if you set out quite early. Start with Montalcino and work your way back home. If you don't have time to visit Montepulciano, combine it with Cortona on another day. It's all beautiful countryside.
This Renaissance town to the west of Lake Trasimeno is famous for its Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. On the last Sunday of August a competition takes place, the Bravio delle Botti, wherein local men from the eight contrade push huge wine barrels up Montepulciano's hilly streets to the piazza. It's fun to explore the city's wine and crafts shops, some of which are built into ancient grottoes where wine is still stored.
A Renaissance jewel, tiny Pienza is known to architectural historians as an early example of urban planning. Built on a hill, the old center is flat and it is an easy walk to restaurants and wonderful shops selling pecorino cheesees, fine Tuscan wines, wild boar sausage, dried porcini mushrooms, and crafts such as ceramics, linens and metalwork. There is a pecorino festival, the Fiera del Caccio, on the first Sunday of September. Nearby, the Romanesque abbey of Sant'Antimo and the spa town of Bagno Vignoni are worth a visit.
Our favorite way to arrive at Montalcino is to head in the direction of Siena and cut off to the southwest at Rapolano Terme, a town noted for its alabaster and thermal baths. Continue south through Asciano to the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and stop to see the frescoes, if you have time. South of the abbey surrounded by vineyards is Montalcino, home of delicious, expensive Brunello wine. Climb to the top of of Montalcino's medieval fortress for a marvelous view of the surrounding countryside, the Crete Senese. Its ground floor houses a wine bar.
The perfect medieval city can only be seen on foot nowadays. In a city full of art, don't miss the sculptures by Michelangelo and Bernini in Siena's unfinished cathedral, and paintings by Duccio in the Duomo Museum. End the day people-watching at a café on the Campo, home of the famous Palio race. (A twenty-minute film, Palio al Cinema, can be viewed at the Cinema Moderno near the Campo.) Typical delicacies are the famous Sienese panforte, a kind of fruitcake, and ricciarelli almond cookies.
The Chianti Region
Located in the hills south of Florence and north of Siena, the zone of Chianti Classico is bisected by Highway 222 north of Siena. The part of the region closest to us centers around its southeastern corner and the town of Castelnuovo Berardenga. A grape festival is held there the last week of September. Recommended wineries to visit are the Castello di Bossi and the Fattorina di Felsina, both with highly rated wines, and the castle and gardens of the Castello di Brolio, where wine has been made for a thousand years by the family of the Barone Ricasole.
Photos courtesy of Kathryn Simon