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TRAVEL: Nights, days, and spring in Umbria

Tiber, father Tiber, waters a wholesome paradise in the Italy of oak woods, vineyards, honeysuckle, wild boar and ancient priests. Switching-off all else, four rambled there

FROM beneath leaden British skies, a long weekend under the bright blue canopy of Italy sounded like a good idea. So we telephoned the Agri-Tourismo people (a national registry of  countryside bed-and-breakfast places), who booked us in. It sounded nice. It turned out to be amazing—a castle overlooking the Tiber Gorge and its own vineyards, with all the food we could eat (and more wine than we could drink, though we gave that a try), all for £30 a night each.

We paid off the driver who had picked us up in Orvieto (a two-hour train ride from Rome) and went inside. How lucky for us. They smiled: we had chosen a quiet week. We had the castle to ourselves.

Umbria is magnetic. Steep-sided green hills are speckled with oak forests, vineyards and cypress-hedged pastures where lean, long-horned cattle graze. Isolated hills rise from the midst of wide valleys, topped by medieval walled towns containing cathedral, streets and plazas, all perfectly preserved, or by Romanesque monasteries, or classical ruins. Cicadas sing in the trees, wildflowers carpet meadows and forest glades, and red-roofed, fortified farmhouses line the dusty lanes. It is everything Italy should be.

As Mediterranean landscapes go, however, the atmosphere here is less of old pagan gods and wood nymphs, and more medieval. It would be no surprise to come upon a knight on his destrier and a wimpled lady on her palfrey at the next bend in a forest trail. And it happens—except that the knight is usually wearing leather chaps and an Armani shirt and the damsel (Bellissima!) is in faultless Harry Hall—for this part of western Umbria, near Rome, is horse country.

Maremma horses seem to be a cross between Spanish horses and three-quarter-breds—rangy, with old-fashioned elegance. Bred hereabouts, in winter they are ridden to boar hounds. Now, in the sticky, wonderful heat, our party of four were bent on hedonism. A country walk would be nice—especially with a picnic and bottles of Orvieto wine—but nothing more strenuous than this and a swim in the clear pool above the gorge, to give us an appetite for supper.

Seldom has a holiday been so perfect. Our four days blurred effortlessly, one into the next, in an unbroken round of sleepy pleasures. Up in the cool mornings for coffee on the castle rampart, now our private terrace, looking out at the landscape. Then a wander into the greenwood, surprising occasional roe deer and trying (not very hard) to identify the myriad birds and flowers.

Every day we took a separate track away from the castle, and each led us to a different picnic spot. A ruined castle on one day, overlooking a waterfall. On the next day, a  wide, sunlit clearing where hay was being made and the drowsy air was heavy with the scent of cut grass and cut flowers—perfect places for exploring, for a snooze, and perhaps even a quiet sneaking off into the shadows of the trees, there to dally, as Shakespeare wrote, with a hey and a ho.

That first night we did indeed have the castle to ourselves. It held no sorrowful ghosts. All who had lived here over past centuries must have been as content as the elegant present owner. She drifted in during breakfast or dinner, a small dog trotting at her heels, to make sure everything was to our liking, leaving a trail of expensive scent hanging in the air. Meanwhile an army of maids padded quietly about. Even when other guests arrived to disturb our splendid isolation, the idyll was unbroken, for they were as entranced as we, and the rambling old place, with its courtyard and tower rooms and wings, was big enough to accommodate half the Countryside March.

If the days were magical, the nights were doubly so, with a warm,  honeysuckle-scented breeze and fireflies dancing in the dark. On the final night, Katy and Kristin having turned in, Tom and I took wine and glasses and followed a track into the forest, below the castle wall. Soon, conversation ceased and we sat, enjoying the scents, the feel of the grass, the  sigh of the wind, the singing of the insects and the firefly light show. Then a snuffling, grunting sound, coming clearer, closer to where we sat. Wild boar had come to feed, only yards away. We sat stock-still, half fearful, half entranced, listening to the porcine family grumble, bicker and dig for roots and truffles under the night-time oaks. 

From convention’s viewpoint, we had been bad tourists. Three days in Italy and we had not visited so much as a single museum, gallery or Roman temple. So on the morning of our departure we called a cab to pick us up early and take us to Orvieto for a walk around this fine medieval town. We did not regret it. Orvieto is a mini-Sienna, an unspoilt 14th-century set-piece, its narrow, stone-built streets radiating out from a central Gothic cathedral of black-and-white-striped marble. Inside are incredible frescoes—of beautiful Botticelli-like people in skin-tight hose and flowing ringlets being marched off to heaven and hell (an elegant Apocalypse) while supermodel angels and body-builder devils organise events. 

The restaurant we found served the same wholesome, Umbrian country cooking  (pasta, meat, then fruit) as did the castle. And walking the streets brought into view hidden plazas, each one complete with a fat, black-frocked priest, or a bent, silver-haired widow, or black-eyed children playing football, or lovers leaning on a scooter.

But charming as the town was, beautiful as the sun-drenched countryside outside the train window was, I yearned to be back in that lazy paradise we had just  left. It might be good to return in the soft, wet Mediterranean winter and follow the boar hounds. It might be nice to go back and explore Umbria more thoroughly. But probably it will be simply to do what we did that wonderful summery weekend—almost nothing.

¶ The castle and estate of Titignano (tel 0763 308322) is a recognised Agri-Tourismo Italian government-registered inn. Bed and breakfast prices started from as little as £63 per room per night depending on the season (this  got us half board, with picnic lunches extra). If you do not speak Italian, pay a little more and get a reliable tour operator to book it for you (or a similar place, should  Titignano be fully booked). Carefree Italy (01293 552277),  Bridgewater Travel (0161 707 8547), Simply Tuscany and Umbria  (020 8541 2222), and Italian Life Holidays (0113 281 9998) all know the region well. If you wish to tack a few days in Rome on to the trip, and perhaps have a guide to show you around, AHA (Art History Abroad) cannot be beaten. This small group of English-born, Italian-based art historians know the restaurateurs of Rome as well as they know the sights, opening up the  city to visitors in a way that no other tour operator can. Long weekend breaks with AHA cost from £700 and they can add on extra days in Orvieto too. Ring them on 020 7582 8082; or send an email on info@ arthistoryabroad.com; or use their internet web-site, www.arthistoryabroad.com. Go flies daily to Rome at prices from £125 per person, return, if you include a Saturday night.

June 2001

 

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