Umbria: 5 ways to explore Umbria à la cheapo

Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi
Take in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi for free. Photo: fradavecss

By Rebecca Winke in Assisi, Umbria—

With the strong euro and the weak—ahem—everything else, visitors to Italy are keeping their eyes on the bottom line and trimming the fat off their travel expenses this year. But if you’re like me, nothing makes you cranky and out of sorts like feeling you are missing out on the best of a destination because it doesn’t fit in your budget.

Which is why Umbria–the central Italian region famed for its undulating landscape, historic hilltowns, and rustic cuisine—is the place to be for anyone wanting to visit the Bel Paese without having to compromise on the creme della creme. Here are several ways guaranteed to keep your costs low while visiting Umbria:

Art and Architecture
Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi

Umbria hasn’t yet jumped on the “charging admission for churches” bandwagon—unlike Florence and Venice—so the region’s most iconic architectural monument (and one of the most important fresco cycles in the history of art) is still free.

The imposing 13th-century Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi is a breathtaking example of both Romanesque and Gothic architecture and home to works by Cimabue and, most famously, Giotto. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000 and one of the most visited monuments in Italy, the Basilica is best enjoyed in the relative peace of the early morning or late afternoon, when day trippers and busloads of pilgrims aren’t crowding the chapels.

For opening hours and events, visit http://www.sanfrancescoassisi.org/.

Music and General Merry-Making
Umbria Jazz Festival (July)

Umbria hosts over 20 music festivals each year–an astonishing number given this region’s tiny size and population—and Umbria Jazz is the uncontested king. Held each July in Perugia, this juggernaut of an international event stretches over two weeks and attracts some of the biggest names in jazz (and beyond—I’ve seen R.E.M., Alicia Keys, and Eric Clapton here, as well).

Sure, the headlining concerts may be out of your travel budget, but take a stroll down Perugia’s main Corso to enjoy the irresistable festive vibe and pop in at one of the many free outdoor concerts in the piazze downtown. For a complete schedule: http://www.umbriajazz.com/

Cantine Aperte

Enjoying the "Cantine Aperte". Photo: Fabiolabibi

History and Culture
Mercato delle Gaite (Bevagna, late June)

There is nothing like an Umbrian town during its annual festival when banners flutter under each window, taverne (temporary outdoor eating areas) sprout overnight in the squares, and street musicians, costumed processions, medieval markets, and crossbow tournaments are center stage.

Almost every town has its own historic festival and a perennial favorite is Bevagna’s Mercato delle Gaite held in late June. Each town district–or gaite—accurately reconstructs functioning artisan workshops using both the techniques and technology of the 1300s to produce items that include silk (from silkworm to cloth), paper, bronze bells, beeswax candles, and religious icons. For a program, see http://www.ilmercatodellegaite.it/ (a €6 ticket buys you a visit the ten workshops)

Wine (and, if you’re lucky, Food)
“Open Cellars” (May)

One of the most anticipated days of the year is the last Sunday in May when wineries across Umbria open their doors to the public for Cantine Aperte (Open Cellars).

Participating vineyards—there were more than 50 this year–organize wine tastings, cellar tours, vineyard walks, live music, and (in some cases) food. At the entrance to the vineyard, each visitor purchases a souvenir glass in a pouch (which you hang from your neck to keep your hands free for the buffet!) for €5, which is good for filling at any participating vineyard all day.

Each winery has its own procedure, but generally their house wines are free (in your official glass), their higher-end wines may be available for tasting for a small charge, and food can be either free or available for a small fee. You can find a list of participating vineyards here.

Nature and the Great Outdoors
Sibilline National Park

There’s a reason Umbria is known as Italy’s “green heart”, and not just because it’s a catchy hook. This region is dotted with natural parks and reserves and offers some dramatic hikes.

One of my favorites is the trail up Mount Vettore in the Sibilline National Park. Climbing from the Piano Grande plateau near the tiny hamlet of Castelluccio, the path leads to Lago di Pilato (Pilate’s Lake) famed for its tiny prehistoric crustacean, and for the legend that Pontius Pilates bones lay in its depths.

Fact or fiction? You can take your time to mull it over while you picnic near its shores, soak in the view, and rest up for the hike back down to the plain–all this for the price of the CAI Monte Sibillini trail map. For more information about this National Park, check out their Web site.

About the author: Rebecca Winke moved to Italy from Chicago in 1993 and shortly thereafter opened an agriturismo in her husband’s renovated family farmhouse at the foot of Mount Subasio near Assisi, Umbria. She spends her time taking care of guests at Brigolante, blogging about the lovely region she now calls home at Rebecca’s Ruminations, and wondering about what strange winds blew an urban vegetarian to a farm in Umbria.

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