Your Perfect Weekend Itinerary In Umbria

Umbria

Don’t let the title “Your Perfect weekend in Umbria” fool you. A weekend is far too short to see all of that stunning beauty that Umbria has to offer. But a first weekend there in the lush heart of Italy will definitely convince you to go back. And keep coming back over and over again.

Umbria, the central region of Italy, green and peaceful is impressively beautiful and it’s an amazing destination to visit all year round. It was the last region left for me to explore, having been to all the other 19 at least once in my life and I was ashamed to realise what I had left behind, but as they say, better later than never, right?

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This first time there we visited Perugia, Assisi and Gubbio, but I am already planning another trip further south to explore the other hidden gems and borghi (villages) nestled in the Umbrian hills. Yes, because the whole region is galore of rolling hills, vineyards and woods, dotted with picture-perfect medieval towns and villages and it will be impossible not to fall in love there. But Umbria is not only green nature, it also boasts an old elegance, rich history and incredible food and wine traditions.

Start from Perugia on Friday

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 We started our trip from the main hub of Umbria. Perugia is a college town that attracts thousands of international students who give a lively and active vibe to the city. Park your car in the Piazza Partigiani parking lot and take the series of escalators passing through the underground remains of the Forziere Antico and the medieval centre, which now form the foundation for the modern city above. Stroll around the city, map in hand or not and just enjoy the vibe of the brick-houses. Make sure to stop at Pasticceria Sandri on the Corso for a great espresso and some yummy pastries.  

We went to Umbria and in particular to Perugia mainly for the Eurochocolate festival and to stuff our faces with all sorts of artisan chocolate. But in between chocolate sessions, we also managed to see a bit of the city.

Umbria

Umbria

Umbria

Umbria

Head to Assisi on Saturday

Best known as the birthplace of St. Francis, the gorgeous city of Assisi lies on Umbria’s rolling hills. Religious pilgrims have come here for centuries to visit the Basilica of San Francesco (where St. Francis is buried) and the Basilica of Santa Chiara (to see the tomb of St. Clare).

Despite the tourists and pilgrim buses, you will notice that Assisi is far from being a party city and in the evening most places and shops close early. If you are coming here for some calm, you may find such solitude quite appealing and restorative.

What to do in Assisi 

Basilica di San Francesco 

If you can, avoid visiting on a weekend and remember that Sunday gets VERY crowded. I mean, Sunday is the most crowded day of the week, when day-trippers, group tours and devotes from Tuscany, Rome and beyond fill up the parking lots and churches. If you must visit on Sunday, make sure to get yourself to the Basilica of Saint Francis as early as you can to enjoy the view, the church, and the famed frescoes.

Pro traveller’s TIP
Tip: To fully enjoy the Basilica, you should get a good guidebook or rent an audioguide (€6/one hour tour; open 9:30am-5:30pm).

Umbria

Umbria

Il Bosco di San Francesco (Saint Francis’ Woodland)

If, after exploring the huge St. Francis Basilica, you feel in need of even more peaceful moments, you should head to the gorgeously restored wood with the same name. The entrance is just steps from the main door of the Upper Basilica and its the best homage to the saint’s love for nature (I would say much more than the basilica itself which is huge and pretentious and St Francis adopted a life of poverty and simplicity and such a church would have embarrassed him, to say the least….)

Hours: 10:00 am – 7:00 pm April to September;  10:00 am — 4:00 pm October to March  (the last visit must begin an hour before closing time). Weekends only in February. Closed Mondays, and the final two weeks of January.
(more info about Fondo Ambientale Italiano – FAI)

Via San Francesco

One of Assisi’s main roads which is lined with everything from the kitschiest of souvenir shops to Assisi’s civic museum.

Umbria

After a lunch made of Torta di Testo and prosciutto, make sure to wander around the little-cobbled streets of the ancient town but don’t miss the Roman Temple in the Piazza del Comune and the lovely museum under the Cathedral of San Rufino. In the afternoon, climb up to the dramatic Rocca fortress for some incredible views, but also for a great physical exercise which you always need when visiting Italy ‍

Umbria

Umbria

Umbria

 

 

 

Umbria

Umbria

Immerse yourself in the calm and peaceful Gubbio on Sunday

Gubbio is a cute little village, often forgotten on the Umbrian itineraries because it is a little off the beaten track and not really easy to reach. However, a stop there is necessary especially after spending two days in busier cities like Perugia and Assisi. The road from the latter makes up for a gorgeous drive among the Appennine foothills.

Gubbio is an archetypical medieval walled town which remained architecturally frozen in the middle ages. Be sure to dine on truffles and drink on red wines while you’re there.

Umbria
Umbria
Umbria
Umbria

Other things to do in Umbria (and that I will see next time):

  • Lake Trasimeno
  • Spoleto
  • Spello
  • Todi
  • Orvieto

Umbria

Where to stay in Umbria

Lots of options on Airbnb

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Matera, why you must visit it now

Matera

I’ll admit it. It was through Instagram that I fell in love with Matera and it became a constant, fixed, ever-present travel obsession goal. And finally, this summer – my summer of fulfilling Italian dreams and exploring my home country-  I managed to see it with my own eyes.

As much research you can do about Matera, as much as you stalk people on Instagram and Pinterest, there is not much that prepares you for seeing the shiniest Italian gem for the first time.

World-known for its famous sassi, Matera is located on the border of Basilicata and Puglia and is one of my latest (and favourite) discoveries in Italy. Walking around this cute town where the sun reflects off the white limestone is not only breathtaking but extremely fascinating because of its history but also for its stunning beauty. But things were very different not too long ago…

THE OLD ITALIAN SHAME

Matera dates back to the Paleolithic Age and once you get there, you will see that not much has changed. Matera, after Petra in Jordan, is the oldest city in the world which was continuously inhabited for more than 30,000 years. It was once considered a giant slum filled with malaria and where poor people were living in medieval conditions. In caves. Exactly as described in the controversial book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli‘ by Carlo Levi (1945), there was no running water or electricity and people were really living in very basic conditions. Truth to be told until the 1950’s Matera was also where prisoners were sent to live (and possibly die) in horrible conditions. In 1952, after the visit of the then prime minister, the Italian government ordered its evacuation due to inhumane living conditions and the city was left behind and abandoned by everyone but the addicts and the “bad people”. The residents were offered a new apartment in the new Matera, but some struggled to live their homes, livestock and families.

MATERA TODAY

The city was never completely empty until the 1980s, but it’s only in the last two decades that the government and the local authorities and entrepreneurs have launched and managed a deep and important make over and facelift. Today, Matera has re-shaped its streets, caves and general vibe. There are luxury and boutique hotels at every corner and you can dine at some of the best Italian restaurants right in the same caves that not long ago hosted entire families and their livestock, often in the same room.

After so much general effort, in 1993, Matera was named a UNESCO World Heritage sites, which means that it is considered of ‘outstanding value to humanity and is protected to preserve the cultural and natural heritage of the area.” Matera will also be the 2019 European Capital of Culture and I think this gem is totally ready to attract thousands of visitors.

First of all, let me tell you that the sassi aren’t what you think (or what I thought!). Many people think that Matera’s caves are the “sassi”, but they’re not. The sassi (literally meaning “stones”) refer to the two neighbourhoods, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, made of stone dwellings in porous limestone of tufa in the ancient town. The original living quarters were primitive cave dwellings on the other side of the canyon. Gradually, the people made their way over to build the city you can visit today. 

To really get a feeling of Matera, you need to walk (and get lost) among the narrow lanes between houses.

 

 

 

How to explore the city 

Kids, there is a new way to explore a new city and this new way is an app called Aroundly (available in the App Store and google play). Aroundly allows you to tailor your visit to your preferences, whether you are alone or in a group, looking for fun or culture, this app creates an itinerary just for you takes you around Matera (or Cagliari, Erice, Catania, Trapani, Siracusa, Trieste and many other cities) and puts you in touch with locals and new friends.

Where to stay in Matera 

Sant’Angelo Resort

When I was invited to stay at the Sant’Angelo Resort in Matera, I had no doubts to say YES and immerse myself in this stunning hotel and its ancient walls and rooms. The owners took on the massive project to transform these caves that were once humble abodes, into splendid residences, suites and luxury rooms in order to redeem and restore the noble soul of an old civilization. The result is a mesmerising resort where you are constantly spoiled by incredible views over the old town and where every little detail screams luxury, but also home. I had a fantastic stay at Sant’Angelo and I am sure I’ll go back next time I am in Matera.

As I always do when I travel for work, I opted for breakfast in bed which was served in a sumptuous basked filled with all the delicacies you would expect from such a top notch hotel.

Vicolo Fiore

If you are looking for a simpler room in Matera, then Vicolo Fiore is the go to option. Only 50m from the Piazza Pascoli viewpoint, this brand new and super cute apartment features two double rooms (Barisano & Caveoso, the names of the two neighbourhoods) and a brand new kitchen that offers all you need for a short stay in town.

You will have all the comforts and facilities you will need for a short or a long stay in Matera, including (strong) wi-fi making a perfect place for fellow digital nomads looking for a place to work and stay put for a short period of time. Another plus is the free parking (which is a massive plus in Matera which is almost completely car-free).

 

How to reach Matera 

  • Train: if you want to travel by train, the easiest way is to first get to Bari which is connected to Trenitalia (the national train system and it’s a 4-hour train ride from Rome to Bari), then go to the regional train site, Ferrovie Appulo Lucane, putting in “Bari Centrale” as your starting point and “Matera Centrale” as your endpoint. The ride takes between 1 hour and 15 minutes and 1.5 hours and it is very cheap (something like 2 euros). From the train station, it’s about a 15-minute walk to the sassi of Matera.
  • Car: as part of our #fromnorthtosouthandbacksummer road trip we came by car, but parking in the centre of Matera can be quite difficult (erm…impossible!) since it’s a big ZLT area (no cars allowed except for residents), but you can still find a solution by talking to locals or parking just outside the city center.

INTEresting FACTS and tips ABOUT MATERA

  • Matera was tagged a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993
  • Here is where Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of Christ’ movie was filmed
  • Forget your heels and wear (very) comfy shoes – ideally with a good sole as the streets can be quite slippery
  • Fully charge your camera batteries and bring a wide angle lens if you have one

BOOKS & MOVIES 

  • Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi’
  • The Passion of Christ by Mel Gibson
  • Ben Hur
  • La Lupa, 1953
  • Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo 1964, by  Pier Paolo Pasolini

WHY SHOULD YOU VISIT MATERA NOW

Today, the city (still) has a great non-touristy vibe. I don’t think it will be the same next year since Matera will be the 2019 European Capital of Culture and I am sure it will attract even more visitors in the next decade and beyond. So, if you don’t love crowded places and queuing every 10 minutes book your stay in Matera now!

Sleeping in a cave? Where else can you experience it? I am not sure, but I think Matera is the only place in the world.

As Carlo Levi said:

Anyone who sees Matera cannot help but be awe-struck, so expressive and touching is its sorrowful beauty

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Tuscany will melt your heart

There is a place in Italy where Italians were born before Italy was formed. A place where the Italian language was spoken before it was called Italian. A place of magnificent architecture, the cradle of Renissance and literature works by Dante Aligheri, Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarca that became famous around the world.

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That place is now called Tuscany, but for several centuries, its castles, walls and endless fields belonged to the Etruscans, then the Romans and later to the Granducato di Toscana. It was only in 1860 that this region, among many contrasts and revolutions became part of Italy.

Perhaps, its history and its roots is the reason why Tuscany has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than South Africa, Argentina or Australia.

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Tuscany’s capital, Florence, and the surrounding areas offer spectacular views that attract more than 10 million visitors every year.

Today, Tuscany is one of, if not the most, popular region among foreigners, with Florence being the preferred city of choice for expats in the whole peninsula.
There is a lot to see and do in Tuscany, the difficulty is really where to start.

But why do 10 millions people come here every year?

Well, I didn’t know before, but now, having spent almost a week between Florence, Siena and the postcard-looking countryside of Chianti, I think I have a few answers.

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Visitors come to Tuscany for many reasons. Many come in search of world-famous art in the many museums of the region, others to explore and enjoy the unique countryside. Foodies and wine-lovers choose Tuscany to enjoy the simple yet outstanding cuisine and local grapes. Active people to enjoy the hikes on the mountains and cyclists the rolling hills, while beach-lovers chose the Tuscan coast for a summer vacation.
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Tuscany guide is again in the usual format (like the one about London);  five sections covering:
Coffee spots
Explore (Florence, Siena & Chianti)
Eat & Drink
Books & Bookshelves
Dream (where to sleep)
Keep reading to find out why Tuscany melts the heart of every visitor.

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