The tiny hill towns of Umbria

If you can manage it, arrive in Perugia in a rainstorm. This ancient Etruscan city, once the most grimly ferocious of Umbria's medieval city-states, still stands proud and austere on its hilltop above the plain. It has witnessed centuries of tumult -- a state of things easy to imagine on my first three days in the town, which was then shrouded in fog, its narrow streets and houses glistening with rain.

But when the clouds lifted, I beheld a landscape that possessed the haunting power of a beautiful dream. A vast panorama of undulating green fields, dotted with cypress and olive trees and stretching away to distant blue hills, loomed close, like a feast for my eyes alone. The very air seemed to shimmer. It was late afternoon and a strong golden light bathed the fields and red tile roofs, spilling helter-skelter down the precipitous slopes of the old city.

The Carducci Gardens, just off the Corso Vannucci, Perugia's grand promenade, are a good place to begin. Here, if you lean over the stone parapet or sit on a bench beneath dark fir and ilex trees, you can see almost all of Umbria's nearby hamlets to the south and east on a clear day -- among them, the three that most evoked the region's gentle spirit for me: Spello, Bettona, and Montefalco.

Umbria's bigger towns -- Orvieto, Assisi, Spoleto, Todi, and Gubbio -- are the more usual tourist stops and have the same serene charm. But if you enjoy discovering marvelous things in utterly untouched little places, you will surely delight in these infinitesimal spots, as I did - innocent blue skies and shifting clouds; tumbling meadows and little clock-faced bell towers rising above old stone walls gay and carefree. Perhaps because they still lack the glaze of tourism, they give the sensation that the sun had shone and time indeed had stood still for 500 years, an impression reinforced by the Renaissance paintings that are the prized possessions of each little town.

In Perugia, however, forbidding mementos of medieval life survive side by side with Renaissance treasures. The palaces of the city's most infamous and powerful family, the Baglionis, lie buried beneath the Carducci Gardens, within the fortress Pope Paul III built on the spot in 1540 when he finally extinguished the last of the clan.

If dramatic contrasts intrigue you, walk a short way from the gardens down the twisting Viale Indipendenza and step through an Etruscan gateway into the subterranean chambers lining the ghostly Via Baglioni. Here you will find grim medieval houses, their windows blinded and bricked up, the arcades and stairways of the once terrible Baglionis. Their dominion extended to both Spello and Bettona, where they had strongholds that also fell in 1540.

When you emerge from the darkness, you will undoubtedly take even greater pleasure in the lively Corso Vannucci, with its cheerful cafes and cosmopolitan ambiance. Appropriately, it takes its name from the painter who, above all others, immortalized the ethereal landscapes: Pietro Vannucci was Perugino's real name, and you can stop in and see his surly self-portrait in the old Stock Exchange on the Corso, on a pilaster between his lovely frescoes of the Virtues.

Making an evening passeggiatam on the crowded Corso today, enjoying an intensely flavored ice cream cone, one finds the brutality and factionalism of medieval life remote indeed. Of course they are not entirely, but Perugia is an unusually mild and prosperous Italian city. With a population of about 150,000 it still dominates the vigorous economy and social life of the region. You can walk the city's streets alone at night, unafraid. Perugia's University for Foreigners attracts some 12,000 students from all over the world each year, eager to partake of the Italian culture and language. Although political differences occasionally flare up, the university more often deserves its nickname of ''the real United Nations.''

In short, Perugia is a good headquarters for your sojourn to this area. On the Corso is the popular Hotel Rosetta, a comfortable yet reasonably priced place to stay. Double rooms with baths are $28.50 and singles with bath are about $20. Do at least dine at the Rosetta once -- the delicious food includes hearty Umbrian dishes such as spicy pork sausages, pasta with black truffles and Scallopine Peruginom -- veal with a rich chicken liver sauce over croutons. Specialty dishes are often named after local artists in Italy; in Umbria, you can indulge in the delightful illusion that you are eating a beautiful painting.

There are less expensive lodgings in the city: numerous small hotels and pensionim either on the Corso or within short walking distance, with double room rates ranging from about $10 to $16 and single room rates ranging from $6 to $12 . I stayed in the middle-range Hotel Umbria for several days and found it clean and pleasant.

Before you leave Perugia for the tiny hill towns, be sure to make one final stop at the Palazzo dei Priori, the imposing gray stone building which was the seat of the city's independent 13th-century government. Its sheer bulk is proof of Perugia's fierce dominance over its neighbors. More important, it now houses the National Gallery, a magnificent collection of Umbrian art spanning seven centuries and arranged in chronological order.

It will take you a morning to walk through the gallery's 37 spacious, sunlit rooms, but the trip is worth it: You will see the paintings of virtually all the 15th-century Umbrian masters; among them, Gentile da Fabriano, Ottaviano Nelli, Bartolomeo Caporali, Benedetto Bonfigli, and Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, to name a few.

Two big rooms are devoted to the master of them all, Perugino, and his gifted disciple, Bernardino di Betto, better known as Pinturicchio. Gazing at these dreamlike paintings, you quickly understand one reason the Umbrian countryside has such a fascinating, larger-than-life quality: Often, you have seen it before , perhaps without even realizing it, magically distilled into art. Whether the landscape is tucked in, jewellike, as a tiny vision in the distance, or whether it is spread across the canvas in luminous blues and greens, it irresistibly draws the eye, past the dutifully painted saints, madonnas, and holy families.

You can get to the small towns either by renting a car or by traveling on local buses and trains; the distances are not great and Spello, Bettona, and Montefalco are only an hour or two away by either method. Certainly, having a car is more convenient, but I found that without one I looked harder and saw more because my pace was more leisurely.

Spello, 15 miles to the east of Perugia, was my first discovery. It has a lovely small hotel, the Bastiglia, overlooking the valley behind the city, and you might prefer to stay there, if complete peacefulness is your aim. Double rooms with baths are $16, single rooms with baths $11. I must admit that when I glimpsed the view from the hotel's terrace, I immediately checked into a room with shutters opening onto it.

The valley spreads before you like a great bowl catching the sunshine. On its floor are neat golden and green rectangles of wheat and vines; climbing the hills that rise on all sides are scattered groves of silvery olives and rows of dark, pointed cypresses, pencil thin, giving a wonderful pied and dappled effect. Cars move like toys on the white roads winding below.

Tiny Spello is nestled on a sloping foothill of Mount Subasio. Its narrow houses of rosy stone cluster tightly together as they ascend the hill toward the summit where the hotel is. To tour the town, it's actually best to start at the main gateway at the bottom, the Roman Porta Consolare,m because as you climb from here, you can trace the town's history. From this gate, three ancient republican statues, two women and a man, gaze down at you, the folds in their rigid togas unmarred by the passing of almost a thousand years. Their faces, though blank and chipped away, wear arrestingly mournful looks, as if they guarded some secret. Back through Porta Consolare and up the narrow winding Via Cavour is the little 12th century church of Santa Maria Maggiore. In one of its chapels are Spello's treasures: The breathtakingly beautiful frescoes that Pinturicchio painted for the Baglioni family in 1501. The chapel opens like a lush garden off the dim gray baroque interior of the church, where Pinturicchio lavished such brilliant hues on this elegant ''Annunciation,'' ''Nativity,'' and ''Dispute in the Temple.''

If you stay in Spello and delight in its steep, spotless pink streets bedecked with geraniums, you might relish a vigorous hike or drive to its diminutive neighbor in the hills above it, Collepino (Pine Hill). Collepino is an exquisite, tiny version of Spello: it has the same pristine streets and houses of rosy stone, an infinitesimal stone church, and even, I am told, a very good restaurant-cafe.

Mysterious Etruscan Bettona, some 10 to 15 miles to the west, is another tiny medieval city completely enclosed by its walls. Perched precariously on the last spurs of the Martani Mountains, amid pale green hills speckled with olive trees, its faceless houses and single bell tower are a vision timeless and haunting. The local people like to believe the olive trees date from the shadowy Etruscan era. Possibly they do.

In a car, I wound up almost 1,000 feet above the town to dine at a rustic restaurant called Cinque Cerrim (Five Turkey Oaks). An enormous orange moon slowly rose over a high ridge directly in front of me. Only later did I discover that the name of the mountain was Col di Lunam (Hill of the Moon). The restaurant offered plain, hearty country fare -- pizzas, fresh vegetables and salads, pork, sausages and steaks. Umbrian Montefalco, encircled by walls of whitish stone and perched highest of all in the blue sky, need not be your last stop. There are dozens of little Umbrian towns worth seeing. But this sunny hamlet, aptly called a ''strip of heaven fallen to earth'' was so exquisite the day I happened there I felt no desire to search any further. Arriving at midday I found the perfectly round little Piazza del Comune empty, save for one sauntering dog. The town's narrow cobbled street radiated in all directions from this summit. Azalea bushes with tiny pink and white flowers that emitted a faint fragrance clustered against their walls. A few steps down one steep lane carried me to the edge of space. Olive slopes dipped immediately below but beyond them stretched an immense flat valley broken only by distant blue mountains.

Fortunately I'd brought a picnic. Sitting on an old stone wall, I quietly ate my bread and cheese, bathed in peace. Nearby, in a dappled nook of the street, three women sat, sewing. Not far away, in the cafe where I'd bought mineral water, four men dramatically slapped their cards on the table in the popular Italian game of scopa.m

Montefalco's impressive art collection, housed in the 14th-century Church of San Francesco, includes Umbrian masterpieces from the 13th through 16th centuries: dark Byzantine crucifixes, faded local frescoes, a beautiful ''Nativity and Annunciation'' by Perugino and numerous works by local Renaissance Masters, including Montefalco's own Francesco Melanzio.

But the museum's crowning glory, the beautiful fresco cycle of St. Francis's life by the Florentine master, Benozzo Gozzoli, needs no guide. If you had not seen Montefalco, you might judge these scenes glowing with delicate pinks, blues , whites, and greens fairy tale-ish and naive. But in fact they capture this little Umbrian town's innocent spontaneity to perfection.

For a dizzingly splendid farewell, walk back up to the piazza and knock at No. 10 with Pietrangeli Berrito engraved on the brass plate. Signora Berrito will lead you over to the Palazzo Communalem and up the steep winding steps of the tall bell tower. At the top, the wind whipping about you, you can understand why Montefalco is called the ''Balcony of Umbria'' and why both neighboring city-states and northern invaders struggled to dominate it over the centuries. You can see almost all of Umbria on a clear day. To the north is Spello and off to the northwest Bettona and Perugia. As the clouds shifted, the sun streamed down in rays, illuminating a wheat field here, a church steeple there. Bravissimo,m softly breathed a fellow-climber, speaking for us all. Practical information

Rome has the nearest international airport. Perugia is roughly three hours away, by car, bus, or train.

To make reservations at the hotels mentioned, write or call Hotel La Rosetta Piazza Italia, 19 06100 Perugia, Italy Tel. (075) 20841 Hotel Umbria Via Boncambi, 3706100 Perugia, Italy Tel. (075) 21203 Hotel La Bastiglia Attention: Scolastra da Angelo 15 Vallegloria 06038 Spello, Perugia, Italy Tel (0742) 65277

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