By: Stella L. Harvey
Vineyards and olive groves stretch out for miles giving the landscape different hues of lush green and providing dark contrast to the golden fields of wheat. Poppies scattered in meadows as though their seeds were dropped carelessly add a red velvet tint. Medieval hilltop towns with ancient names and architecture hang in balance and look down from above as if to say weve been here for centuries and well be here long after youre gone. The colour of the stone structures is more a shade than an actual colour. Shadows of brown, black and gray contrast the clear light blue sky. And, just when you thought your eye couldnt accept any further contrasts, bright, screaming yellow surprises as you come over the brow of a hill. Sunflowers. Fields and fields of sunflowers, their dazzling faces pointed like many a sunbather towards the warmth and light of the sun. This is Umbria the region Italians call Cuore di Verde, the Green Heart of Italy.
Rich in history, Umbria is a short two-hour drive from the frenetic pace of Rome. Around the 8th century, the Umbrians, a peaceful farming tribe, settled the region. The Etruscans and the Romans followed suit and colonized Umbria. By the 13th century AD much of Umbria was scattered with independent city-states. It remained this way until Giuseppe Garibaldi brought Italy and its separate states together in 1860 (the only exceptions remaining today are San Marino in the Emilia Romagna region and the Vatican which has its own post office and government).
Today the old hill top towns of Umbria, which once provided protection from invaders, open their doors to a variety of sights and sounds, giving the visitor a glimpse into what life must have been like. Perugia, Gubbio, and Todi boast numerous Romanesque churches, civic palaces and medieval streets and host a number of summer jazz and folk festivals. Spoleto, renowned for its summer arts festival has some of Italys oldest churches. Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, contains the Basilica di San Francesco (recently given a facelift) along with a number of other medieval churches.
The city has seen a great deal of restructuring since the 1997 earthquake that nearly destroyed it. Orvieto, situated on a volcanic crag, has a number of Etruscan remains and one of Italys finest Romanesque-Gothic cathedrals, as well as one of the nicest woodcraft studios in the region, Patris on Via Dei Magoni. And if churches and woodcraft arent your bag, you can visit vineyards in Torgiano and Montefalco, hike in Monti Sibillini in eastern Umbria, see the Cascate delle Marmore near Terni, (one of Europes highest waterfalls) or go shopping in Deruta for artigianato (Italian handicrafts) ceramics.