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Umbria & Rome, October 2019

ellen

100+ Posts
As a preface I should explain that for the past ten years I have been developing fundraising trips for small not-for-profit organizations (churches and schools). I develop and market the trips, the participants make a donation to the organization (usually around $250 per person) to participate in the trip. The organization also makes money on the back end from volume discounts offered by the hotels.

This trip was for the benefit of a church in New Jersey, the tenth annual one from this particular church. It was the smallest group I've ever had (I cap trips at forty participants) with just twelve travelers.

For the church to expand its sources of income, ideally the participants should be a mix of members and non-members and this was the case (less than half of the group were members). This was not intended to be a religious trip or a pilgrimage but it was loosely based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

We had four nights in Umbria based about seven miles south of Perugia, and three nights in Rome. One of my lessons learned from years of these trips is to try and base in the city we'll depart from at the end of the trip, to avoid those nasty 3 AM wake up calls and a long schlep to the airport. Ideally I'd spend all seven or eight nights in one location but sometimes, as with this trip, that just isn't possible.

We arrived at Rome's Fiumicino airport a little early and had one of those tarmac disembarkations that Alitalia is infamous for, climbing down the stairs and into a bus to the terminal. Fortunately it was not raining, I've had that happen in the past. Passport control is now more automated and moved faster than in the past, so that was a plus.

Once the luggage was collected we found our tour director for the week and headed to the bus lanes to meet our driver and minibus. Soon we were on the road to Umbria, but first we had to sit through some rush hour Rome traffic before we got to the A90 ring road. We stopped for a coffee and bathroom break shortly after leaving the autostrada near Orte. In chatting with the driver I learned that this stop was required for him, there are strict limits to the length of segment he can drive without stopping, as well as the number of hours he can drive in a day and the number of hours of rest required before the next day of driving. This would become important later in the trip when we wanted him to drive us to dinner one night.

Back on the road we headed to our first stop, Todi, where we planned to just wander about and grab some lunch so we wouldn't arrive at our hotel before the rooms were ready. We took the public elevator up to the town from the parking lot and discovered we had arrived on the weekend of their medieval festival, which was a nice surprise.

Todi festival poster.jpg

The group split up for a couple of hours and several of us had a nice lunch with an amazing view on the terrace of Ristorante Umbria (http://www.ristoranteumbria.it/it/).

Lunch at Ristorante Umbria, Todi.jpg

After lunch we climbed back into our minibus and made the short drive to our accommodations for the next four nights, Alla Posta dei Donini (https://www.postadonini.it/) in the tiny hamlet of San Martino in Campo. The hotel and the grounds are amazing, they do a big business in weddings and I could see why. Even I could take beautiful photographs there.

Our rooms were ready so everyone checked in and did their own thing for a few hours, we met later for an included welcome dinner at the hotel's restaurant, Pantagruel. (I try to include dinner the first night as a way for the group to get to know one another, and also because on arrival day no one has really had a chance to explore the dining options yet.)
 
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ellen

100+ Posts
After the included breakfast at our hotel the next morning, an impressive spread, we headed off to Assisi. In listening to our tour director, Anna, bus driver Maurizio, and the local guide Verner, it sounds like the correct pronunciation is with a "z" sound, like Azzizi rather than the "s" sounds that the spelling suggests.

Several members of this group are more senior than I so walking distances and changes in elevation were an issue. Fortunately there was the elevator to Todi and in Assisi there was a series of outdoor escalators from the parking lot into town. Even so there were some stairs to climb, this is not an accessible town for those with impaired walking.

We began our visit at Porta Nuova, the southeast end of the historic center, and visited the Basilica di Santa Chiara before heading on to the Basilica di San Francesco d'Assisi at the other end of town. The total walk is only about a mile but it's up and down on uneven surfaces, which made it difficult for some members of the group. I walked a higher route than the group with one member who was having problems, we missed one of the stops and a lot of discussion about the history of the town but it was easier walking for her.

Group visits to the Basilica di San Francesco require a whisper device and start in the lower level of the cathedral. We climbed down another flight to view the tomb of St. Francis, then back up to the lower level, and up another flight to the main nave of the church.

Afterwards we got a taxi to drive some of the group to the restaurant where we would have lunch, Ristorante Medioevo (https://www.ristorantemedioevoassisi.it/en/il-ristorante/). They were not open to the public for lunch that day so we were treated to a private lunch and the showmanship of the owner. As a vegetarian I didn't partake in the roasted pig but it was an impressive show when they brought it out, still aflame, before they sliced it in front of us.

Fully sated after much food and not a little wine, we made our way back to the minibus and drove to Perugia, where we visited La Casa del Cioccolato (https://www.perugina.com/it/casa-del-cioccolato/la-casa). It was an interesting overview of Perugina's history and their chocolate making process, with as many free samples as you could stomach. As factory tours go it ranks high for the samples but just so-so for the actual factory part, you see only the packing part of the process. I love seeing the actual workings of a factory so this one disappointed on that part but no one else seemed put off by it but me.

Once again sated beyond what was probably good for us we climbed on the bus and went back to our hotel. Dinner was on your own this evening, most of us ate again in the hotel restaurant.
 

ellen

100+ Posts
Our second full day in Umbria took us to Gubbio. I'd been to Assisi before but Gubbio was new to me, brought to live by an excellent tour guide named Verner, a Belgian married to an Italian who has lived in the area for more than thirty years (he was with us in Assisi the day before and would be again later in the week at Spoleto).

We visited a church near the historic center and then re-boarded our bus for the drive up to the Basilica di Sant'Ubaldo. There is a funivia from town up to the basilica that looks like a hoot (as long as you don't have a problem with heights) but unfortunately in October it only runs on weekends. You can see a picture of the cages you ride in here: http://www.funiviagubbio.it/home.asp

The view from the basilica:
View from Basilica Sant'Ubaldo Gubbio.jpg

The basilica is lovely, the thing to look for here are the enormous candles used each year in the foot race from the centro storico to the basilica. It's hard to imagine how they carry these enormous things up that hill, even in groups. You can read more about the race and see pictures here: http://www.montesubasio.it/en/race-of-candles-gubbio/

We stopped on the way back down to walk a short way along the top of the old Roman aqueduct, another challenge for those with fear of heights. Throughout Umbria several old aqueducts have been converted into hiking trails, some are flatter than others and are more like walking on smaller versions of the walls around Lucca.

As is often the case with hill towns, once we were at the bottom again the first thing we did was get in an elevator to reach the center of the historic district and the Cathedral di Santi Mariano e Giacomo. It was a steep climb down from the church, which made me appreciate the ride up even more.

Lunch this day was at Taverna del Lupo in Gubbio (https://tavernadellupo.it/en), once again excellent food and wine, another good time was had by all.

We had planned to drive along the Franciscan Path of Peace this afternoon from Gubbio (this is a hiking path, we would drive nearby and stop at a couple of the churches along the way) but as I looked over the group, tired but happy, I made an executive decision to just head back to the hotel. The next day would be a push for everyone with a lot of walking so I figured they could use some down time.

Dinner was again on your own this evening and was the setting for a sort of "meet cute" (minus the romance that follows in the movie usage of the term) that made my week. More to follow on that.
 

ellen

100+ Posts
In my preparation for this trip I posted here on Sloweurope looking for restaurant suggestions near our home base, San Martino in Campo. I knew that there was little to offer in our hamlet beyond the hotel restaurant and a local pizzeria and I wanted some options to offer to folks who might want to venture out.

Barb and Art, a couple whose adventures I'd been following for about fifteen years from the old Slowtravel site, responded. Among their suggestions was La Locanda del Tramonto Infinito in Marsciano, about nine miles south of our hotel. I had printed out the menu and now passed it among the group as we drove back to the hotel from Gubbio. By the time we arrived everyone had decided they wanted to go to this restaurant so we called and made a reservation.

Getting there was going to be a challenge and probably expensive, twelve people in taxis in a remote area adds up quickly. I asked our minibus driver Maurizio if he would take us, for a fee. He said he wasn't allowed to because the bus was owned by his employer and he was only supposed to drive to places on the itinerary, but he agreed to take us as long as we would be back no later than 10:30 PM, so he would have the required rest time before we left the next morning. That was agreeable to us all and we made an early reservation for Italy, at 7:30 PM. (Maurizio refused to take a fee from us but I'm sure everyone tipped him appropriately.)

Based on the name (il tramonto infinito means "endless sunset") it would have been nice to be there in daylight but it was fully dark by the time we arrived. Nevertheless it was still early and we were shown to a large room with glass walls on three sides with only one occupied table. By the time we left the room was almost full.

After we were seated and had our wine delivered someone asked me how I had found this remote place. I told them that it was a recommendation from a couple who had lived in the area for five to ten years but now had moved back to the States. I heard the man seated at the other occupied table say to his companion "they could be talking about us" in English. I turned and really looked at them and recognized Barb from her avatar and from pictures on Slowtrav years ago. I simply could not believe my eyes and walked over to introduce myself.

Seriously, what are the odds that they would happen to be in Italy at the same time, in this same restaurant? I'm still shaking my head a week later.

It was lovely to meet them (but I'm sorry for interrupting their dinner) and thank them in person for the recommendation as well as for the years of enjoyable reading of Barb's blog of their Umbrian adventure.

I wish I'd taken more pictures at the restaurant but, true to my interests, the only picture I took was of the wine bottle. It was excellent.

Wine from Tramonte Infinito Marsciano Italy.jpg


The restaurant's web site is here: http://www.lalocandadeltramontoinfinito.it/
 
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ellen

100+ Posts
The next morning we were off on an excursion into Tuscany to visit La Verna, St. Francis's retreat center. It has been an active religious retreat since the early part of the thirteenth century when it was given to Francis by the Count of Chiusi.

La Verna web site: https://www.laverna.it/

Again, the only pictures I took were of the fresco captions to show my Italian professor (why passato prossimo when they are describing events from seven hundred years ago?) so you'll have to check the web site to get a sense of the place.

It's truly stunning, located on the top of a mountain. We drove through the clouds on the way up there, emerging into brilliant sunshine about a mile before reaching the retreat. There are signs asking you to remain silent while visiting (as much as possible) and when you do you realize why. Peace.

This is a perfect spot for nature lovers as well as art lovers, as the Della Robbia family were patrons and provided the artwork. You really don't need to be a Catholic, or even a Christian to get a lot out of a visit to this oasis.

After a couple of hours on the mountaintop we headed down to Arezzo for the afternoon. Given our arrival time, around 1 PM, we gave the group free time to get some lunch before a short tour of the cathedral and the town. As it turned out, everyone went to the same restaurant, Buca di San Francesco (http://www.bucadisanfrancesco.it/). The food was good but I think it was the most expensive meal I paid for in the Umbrian section of our trip.

For Tuscany Arezzo is relatively flat but there was still some semi-steep climbing on the walking tour of the historic center. Afterwards it was back to Umbria and the hotel for our last night in the region.
 

ellen

100+ Posts
Transfer days always come with challenges, I usually don't want to move and this was no different. The hotel was so nice it was hard to leave, but leave we did. We took our time because our first stop of the day was a winery and, as much as I love the stuff, breakfast is not the time I'm looking for it. Not even on vacation.

We made a short stop to wander in the small town of Bevagna and still arrived at the winery, Cantina Dionigi, a bit early. It was a beautiful day as we walked alongside the vineyards and saw (and tasted) the recently harvested grapes (harvest had ended the day before our arrival).

This is a relatively small family run operation with the second and third generations currently in charge. It's a different way of life, three generations living on the same property and working together full time all year long. I know I couldn't do it.

After seeing the wine making process it was late enough to start tasting. Included with our visit was a lunch of homemade lentil soup (with a vegetarian version for some of us), local cold cuts, cheeses, bruschetta and hummus.

I'm not a white wine drinker but theirs blew me away, I liked it better than the reds and that never happens. More on the winery here: https://cantinadionigi.it/

Cantina Dionigi Bevagna Panarama.jpg

View of Assisi from Cantina Dionigi
We were all ready for a nice long bus ride to nap off the wine so our journey to Rome came at just the right time. ZTLs cover tourist buses as well as cars so we had a "reservation" to enter the ZTL at our hotel, the Quirinale on Via Nazionale. Even with the pass the bus could not drive on Via Nazionale so we disembarked on the side street and walked around the corner to the entrance.

I've stayed at the Quirinale many times over the years, it's one of the old "grande dames" of Rome. It's a block and a half from Piazza della Repubblica so it's very convenient for public transport.

We didn't arrive and get checked in until nearly 8 PM so everyone just found where they could to eat. The place I was interested in a few blocks down Via Nazionale from us was fully booked (it was Friday night) so a smaller group of us wound up in a place around the corner from the hotel that was fine but doesn't warrant a mention.
 

ellen

100+ Posts
Saturday was a free day for the group. Six of them were going to the Vatican museums for a pre-booked tour (booked directly with the Vatican here: http://www.museivaticani.va/content/museivaticani/en.html) at 8:30 AM. I went with them to make sure they found the right entrance, the right ticket office, etc. It wasn't easy, even at 7:45 AM, more than an hour before the museums open to individual guests. There were dozens and dozens of tours group of every nationality lined up for blocks with various flags, flowers on sticks, umbrellas and/or matching lanyards identifying them. Everyone was afraid of getting separated from their group as the line moved so there was some shoving and jostling going on as I looked for the line for individual bookings. I finally found it and we waltzed right up to the security check. Just a couple of minutes later we were in the lobby at the guided tours desk exchanging the voucher for their tickets, then they were off on the tour and I headed to the metro to go back to the hotel.

My childhood best friend was on this trip so she and I, along with four other friends in the group, got on the #40 express bus across the street from the hotel and went to Largo Argentina. (I get a weird kick out of taking American suburbanites on public transit in foreign cities.) We walked from there to Piazza Navona, stopping to see the Caravaggio's in San Francesco dei Francesi along the way. Two of the group peeled off at that point, eventually we put one tired friend in a taxi and we walked across Ponte Sisto to Santa Maria in Trastevere, where she was sitting along the fountain waiting for us. The mosaics in that church never fail to amaze me.

We pushed on to one of my favorite little places in Rome for lunch, the improbably named Sette Oche in Altalena (seven geese in a swing, check out their logo): http://www.setteoche.com/ For me this is Roman comfort food, an inexpensive plate of pennette all'arrabbiata and the house red wine. All was good with the world.

Afterwards we strolled across to Tiber Island and the Ponte Fabricio, the oldest functional bridge in Rome. We walked by the Great Synagogue and Portico d'Ottavia, we passed the lovely fontana delle tartarughe and pushed on to Piazza Venezia where we got a taxi back to the hotel.

Dinner that evening was preceded by a lovely stroll along Via Quirinale and down the stairs from the piazza to Piccolo Arancio (http://www.piccoloarancio.it/?lang=en). We were seated in a small room adjacent to the main room, it was great to almost have the place to ourselves (there was one other couple). It was a cool night and the doors were wide open to the street so we had a lovely breeze throughout our meal.

Rather than have dessert at the restaurant we walked around the corner to the Trevi fountain and found an artisanal gelato shop, which we ate while strolling toward the Spanish Steps. I've never understood the attraction but it's a place first time visitors always want to see, so we went. We took the metro back (another chance to make the suburbanites a little uncomfortable) and collapsed at the new garden bar at the Quirinale. There's always room for a nightcap on vacation.
 

ellen

100+ Posts
Our final day in Rome started with a free morning, so a few of us went to church at St. Paul's inside the Walls, on the next block from our hotel. It was a long service with a baptism, which is always uplifting, but I had an errand to run so I cut out before it was over (sorry, :oops:). I wanted to get down to La Feltrinelli to buy some maps and books on Rome for a young friend in my Italian class who will be spending her spring semester in Rome. I'm so excited for her.

I had planned to take the bus but decided to walk down the hill to Largo Argentina, I've been mostly stuck in my house for years taking care of my mother so it was a joy to just walk in the city, I miss that so much.

That afternoon we had a tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, where we happened upon a modern dance performance in the middle of the ruins. They handed out a sheet explaining what it was about … I still don't get it but it was an interesting interlude.

Our farewell dinner that night was at a place I ate at the first time I went to Rome, at my aunt's insistence. It is not particularly vegetarian friendly, but I did okay. Everyone loved the food: https://www.ambasciatadiabruzzo.com/it/
 

ellen

100+ Posts
Lesson learned upon departure the next morning - if you're on Alitalia it doesn't matter which terminal your flight leaves from, all check in happens at Terminal 1. Once you've checked in and gone through the first part of security (more to come as you walk through the airport) you'll head back toward Terminal 3 (for flights to the States).
 

Pauline

Forums Admin
I heard the man seated at the other occupied table say to his companion "they could be talking about us" in English. I turned and really looked at them and recognized Barb from her avatar and from pictures on Slowtrav years ago. I simply could not believe my eyes and walked over to introduce myself.

This is an absolutely amazing coincidence of timing! What fun!
 

devarae

100+ Posts
Thank you for sharing this trip report! It really makes me want to visit Umbria! (And hungry for Italian food!)
 

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