The gently rolling hills, olive groves and vineyards make Umbria the green heart of Italy. (Diana Mayfield/LPI)
Leave Rome its Colosseum and Venice its canals. Let Tuscany have its masterpieces, along with its long lines. Umbria is the slow food, slow travel capital of Italy. It is the Italophile's Italy, the green heart that rolls up its sleeves and gets to work with remaining authentically Italian.
The heavily agricultural region has an impressive share of art and history, but its isolation as a Papal state during the Renaissance means its medieval history has been well preserved. Tourism marketing? No way. Umbrians are too busy lingering over dinner with friends and family, growing organic lentils or strolling through the piazza during the evening's passeggiata.
The triumvirate of Umbrian tourism -- Assisi, Perugia and Orvieto -- sees the majority of international visitors, but even four million sets of modestly-covered shoulders cannot take away from the feeling of peace that permeates the air over Assisi's Basilica of St Francis. Visitors flock to Perugia for the dozens of museums, the university culture found in cafes and on the cathedral steps, and to wander through the hilltop cityscape of medieval stone. The glow of Orvieto's golden cathedral will make you appreciate a sunset like few other places in the world.
However, to see the slow side of Umbria, step off the well-trodden path. With a bit of pre-planning, you can sample traditional fare, find the eco-conscious destinations that only locals know about and bask in the benefits of Umbria’s slow pace.
The downside of a less accessible destination is that it is, well, less accessible. Use the money saved from not paying 40 euro a day to park at a Florentine hotel to hire a guide for a day or join an excursion. Sample some of the region's famed olive oil with a culinary tour, go horseback riding and wine tasting, or spend a day cooking with an agriturismo owner in the hills behind Assisi.
Take a vineyard eco-tour
Although the Fasola Bologna family has owned their land in Perugia for generations, it is only recently that heir Lorenzo has turned Castello Monte Vibiano Vecchio Winery into a zero-emission vineyard and winery, putting in place solar cells, electric-power vehicles and planting around 10,000 trees to lessen damaging carbon dioxide emissions. Plan on spending at least three hours, taking a free tour of the vine- and olive tree-covered hills, and tasting wines in their new Green Wine Bar.
After you have visited the wine and olive oil museums in tiny Torgiano, head around the bend to Ristorante Siro, where you will be dining on pink tablecloths surrounded by local families. The bigger-than-your-head antipasti plate gives you a taste of the famed Umbrian salumi and cheeses. Considering the restaurant’s location in the centre of what we like to think of as Umbria's golden parallelogram of wine-growing -- the scenic stretch of wildflower- and olive-tree-draped land stretching from Lake Trasimeno in the northwest to Todi and Trevi in the southeast -- Siro is an ideal spot to try Umbrian wines.
Where to stay
With almost 200,000 beds available in agriturismos, villas, B&Bs, castles, country houses and converted monasteries and nunneries, there is very little reason to ever book a soulless chain hotel in Umbria. Because of this, “hotel” restaurants are often some of the best around.
The country house
Did you say you really want to get away from it all? If your idea of heaven is lounging at the pool, strolling through olive orchards and taking cooking classes, visit the Country House Montali, near Lake Trasimeno. Your charming and erudite host, Alberto, and his Brazilian-born wife, Malu, have recorded their vegetarian creations in a cookbook, but here you can learn hands on.
The converted monastery
You know what monks were missing 400 years ago? An in-monastery spa. And a shuttle service so after all that monastic silence, they could pop into town in five minutes. Oh, and perhaps an in-house restaurant with a menu filled with local ingredients and wines. Take part in modern monastic living at the Park Hotel ai Cappuccini outside the city walls of medieval Gubbio, a too-often-missed town in the rugged northeast of the region.
The spa resort
It might not have been St Francis' pilgrimage route, but you could just about walk to Relais Borgo Brufa from Perugia's airport. If you do not want to drive the 15 minutes to get to one of a dozen hilltop towns or two dozen family-run wineries, savour a slow day under thousands of twinkling lights in the newly remodelled spa or meander through the outdoor sculpture garden in the hamlet of Brufa. Hey, you are in Umbria. Why hurry?
Alex Leviton, a Lonely Planet author for the past decade, wrote all four editions of Umbria for the Tuscany and Umbria guide book.