Want to avoid the crowds? Try Umbria
In summertime, some parts of Italy may become overrun with tourists. But in several regions it's possible to escape the hordes.
Americans have a love affair with Italy. Three million Yankees cross the Atlantic every year in search of la dolce vita and to fantasize about kicking back and growing grapes on the sunny slopes around renovated Tuscan farmhouses.Skip to next paragraph
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The reality of Tuscany, however, is another bowl of pasta.
Although this region is still charming, beautiful, artfully presented, and dripping with art and antiquity, prices have ballooned, and visitors are often packed in like penne at top tourist sites.
A few hours from Tuscany, on roads less traveled, lies the region of Umbria, with villages that date from the time when Caesar was an emperor, not a salad.
The landscapes of Umbria may well be already familiar from the backgrounds of great Renaissance paintings. Virtually every hill is dotted with a medieval village that sits on top of Roman ruins.
Just look for the ancient duomo or cathedral on top of the hill, and head toward it.
You may get lost as you wind through labyrinthine streets, but follow the animated gestures of inhabitants and eventually you'll be admiring frescos, friezes, stone houses, narrow passageways, cisterns, carved doorways, curved and vaulted arches, marble floors, and cobblestone walkways.
One of the most spectacular of the larger towns in Umbria is Gubbio. When you arrive, head right for the tramway to be whisked up the mountain in a small, open cage.
After you've gaped at the tiled roofs of the old stone city below and the impossible green of the surrounding landscapes, the funicular deposits you at the base of the Basilica of Saint Ubaldo.
A short climb takes you into the church, where the body of the saint is embalmed and visible above the altar.
Down in the town, the stately and classically proportioned l4th-century Piazza Grande complex is a marvel of early religious and civic architectural integration, and it influenced the construction of piazzas, or town squares, throughout Italy.
Inside the Palace of the Consuls museum are seven bronze Eugubian tablets, which were found in 1444 and written by the mysterious Atiedici brotherhood between the 1st and 3rd centuries BC. They have been compared to the Rosetta stone in importance.
Incised in an early language derived from the Etruscan alphabet and also in Latin, they reveal valuable information about mystical religious rites that would otherwise be lost in the veils of history. They tell us about auspices that are based on the flights of birds, lustration (purification) of the town through animal sacrifices, and offerings made to keep enemies away.
In the Palace of Consuls, you'll also find ancient tombs, ceramics, and a breathtaking gallery of Renaissance art.
If the ceramics you see there whet your appetite for brilliantly designed and colored kitchenware, head to Deruta. The town is crowned with a medieval village, but the streets below beckon to visitors with the famed majolica ceramics that are a fraction of their cost in the US.
Spoleto is well-known for its summer music festival, but also of interest is an old fort and castle complex where Lucrezia Borgia, the woman who probably poisoned more husbands than anyone else in Italian history, is said to have been imprisoned.
Students come from around the world to study manuscript restoration at the local institute. Visitors can stop at a sumptuous Roman house with mosaic floors, or visit an archeological museum whose treasures go back to ancient times.
Each Umbrian town has its own charms. In little-known Corciano, craftsmen meticulously piece together art made of inlaid wood, and a man named Massimo Seppoloni makes and sells medieval armor - from full suits of mail to gloves and helmets, bows, arrows, and daggers.