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.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

The sound of music, and more

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.

Walk this way

Perugia, which is more of a city than a town, boasts a National Gallery with masterpieces by Duccio, Fra Angelico, Signorelli, Perugino, and many other well-known artists.

A 15-minute walk from the center takes you to the Etruscan tombs of the Volumni - not to be missed. The Etruscans predated the Romans, coexisted with them, and were eventually conquered by them. The multi-chambered burial vault of the Volumni family and the many carved Etruscan sarcophagi on display are evocative links to the long, brilliant, culturally layered past of modern Italy.

Throughout history, traders, travelers, and pilgrims have made their way to and through the boot-shaped Mediterranean country. At "Le Due Torri" in Rocca Deli, a passionate scholar named Fabio Ciri shows visitors the ancient holy trails, prepares pilgrim food, and can even be prodded to dress for his guests in authentic pilgrim garb.

There are rooms for vacationers, hikes can be arranged with Mr. Ciri's sister Manuela, and visitors come away with a deeper understanding of why people walked the pilgrims' path and what they might have experienced along the way.

After sightseeing, you'll probably long for in-depth experiences in the local villages. The Parker Co., best known for its villa rentals in Italy, has added a program called Actividayz, where visitors can opt for everything from taking cooking classes in a 12th-century castle to hiking treks. (See box on next page for website.)

The truffle safari the company offers is a favorite. An Umbrian firefighter named Luciano Becaficco is a truffle hunter, and his dog, Birillo, has been trained to sniff and scratch for the pricey fungi. Mr. Beccaficco regales visitors with wonderful information about truffles as Birillo follows his nose, scratches in the earth, and scores mushrooms.

No matter what else you do by day, the nights (and midafternoons) are for eating. Eateries everywhere in Umbria are affordable, with restaurants offering specialties such as strangozzi (a pasta) and arrostocini (meat grilled on skewers).

At the small Castelana villa in Solomeo that my husband and I rented, Wanda Palletta hauled out her rolling pin and saucepans and whipped up gourmet fare with rabbit, guinea fowl, pasta, freshly picked herbs, and the ever-present spelt (a grain used in Roman times that is now very chic in Italy).

Abruzzo's cultural treasures

For those who want to experience a part of Italy that is even less well-known than Umbria, head to nearby Abruzzo.

It is hardly ever mentioned in Italian guidebooks, and even most Italians know little about it except that it has spectacular mountain ranges (the Maiella and Gran Sasso), natural parks, skiing, and endless opportunities for hiking.

What they don't know is that it's full of relatively unexplored cultural treasures.

The Maiella mountain range was home to early Christian hermits and one refusenik pope. (Pietro da Morrone was chosen to head the church because, in an age of rampant corruption and infighting, he was seen as pure and uncorrupted. He became Pope Celestino V, but he lasted only six months in the intrigue-riddled papacy before running back to the hills - literally.)

The hermitage at Roccamorice, which Pietro da Morrone carved out of the mountain rock to honor St. Bartholomew, is accessible only by climbing down a mountain and then up a set of hand-hewn rock steps.

Even more elaborate hermitages in the region can be visited in the spring and summer, when the Maiella snows have melted.

The village of Scanno is unusual because of its 9th- and 10th-century houses, women who still wear traditional clothes (they vowed to do this in 1543, during the plague, when their prayers for the healing of their menfolk were answered), and beautiful filigree jewelry.

Although the rest of the world is rife with divorce and rocky marriages, traditional customs in Scanno mandate long engagements, the involvement of the families, and marriages that are made to last forever.

Several local jewelers sell distinctive engagement rings, pendants, wedding rings, and rings or brooches adorned with angels to honor the birth of the first son.

In Lanciano, visitors can tour the old Jewish ghetto (the narrow, crowded street is still named Via del Ghetto). In 1535, a law was passed that required Jews to wear a "T" on their clothes, and then they were all forced to relocate to the Sacca area.

Today, locals point out the sites of the old synagogue, mint, and Jewish houses - right next to the contemporaneous churches.

The two communities, Christian and Jewish, were heavily intertwined and the latter has disappeared today, although many people are aware of their dual heritages.

In Loreto Aprutino can be found the first painting ever done of the Last Judgment (in Santa Maria in Piano church), the extensive Acerbo ceramic collection, and masterpieces of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

Cieti is home to the National Archeological Museum of the Abruzzi, where lifesize, terra-cotta Italic (pre-Roman) statues are adorned in outfits that make them look like South American gauchos. The museum also features cases full of jewelry, weapons, and recent finds from ancient burial sites.

Sulmona is famous for its confetti (visitors can tour the Pelino confetti factory) - but this has nothing to do with paper.

Confetti are sugar-coated almonds that come in a dazzling array of shapes, sizes, and colors. They are formed into single flowers, bouquets, or just sold in multihued assortments. They are given to guests at all important life celebrations - births, confirmations, weddings.

Eat your heart out

If you think people are friendly and the food is great in Umbria, these aspects of life in Abruzzo will bowl you over. Strangers will come up to tourists who appear to be lost and give them directions.

Everyone in Arbruzzo seems to make his own cheese and prosciutto (which is aged up to three years). Arrosticini is grilled directly in the fireplace. Lamb is served on skewers. Chitarra pasta is handmade by pushing the dough through a guitar-string metal apparatus. Gnocci are hand-rolled and served in fresh tomato sauce. Peppers dot the food. A meal can take hours to consume and cause grown-ups to cry out with childlike glee.

Umbria is on the cusp of being discovered, and Abruzzo won't remain a secret forever. So if your favorite trail is off the beaten path, you may want to start planning now.

If you go

For all tourist sites in Italy, call ahead for information on hours of operation and make reservations whenever possible. Many places close during extended lunch hours.

To learn more about Umbria:

www.umbriabest.com

www.umbria.org

www.initaly.com/regions/umbria/ umbria.htm

For information on Abruzzo:

www.abruzzo2000.com

www.itwg.com/rg_abruz.asp

www.initaly.com/regions/abruzzo/ abruzzo.htm

For one-day activities:

www.actividayz.com

For Le Due Torri, see the website www.seeumbria.com, e-mail duetorri@ seeumbria.com, or telephone 0-11-39-0742-65149.

For the Pelino confetti factory in Sulmona, see www.pelino.it.

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