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It is becoming a yearly event on the occasion of Sue's birthday for us to take a short holiday somewhere of her choice. I spotted a 5 day break in a hill town in Umbria in the Daily Telegraph. The hotel looked nice and it included a cookery lesson from the hotel chef, half board and transfers for a little over £380 each. It was, of course, sold out on the vital date in September but the nice lady said she would try and get us an extra room direct with the hotel. She did manage it but then wanted an extra £200 each so I declined her kind offer.
By this time Sue had decided she really fancied another Italian escapade so I found us a really nice boutique hotel B&B in Todi of which she approved. When I came to book the Ryanair flights to Perugia I discovered that if we stayed a week instead of five days, the saving in fare cost more than paid for the extra two nights in the hotel. The whole 7 day trip including car hire worked out less than the original 5 day package holiday break but we did have the extra cost of dinners. It just shows how you can often find better deals by DYO although I have not managed to beat Easy Jet's packages in the same hotels.
Ryanair are the only airline flying to Perugia and only from Stanstead. As the flight was at 7.30am we travelled over the day before and stayed in a little pub close to the airport. The flight was on time and at 11am local time we stepped off the plane into glorious warm sunshine which was to stay with us for the whole time in Italy.
Todi is just under an hours drive south of Perugia. We parked in the large car park and took the free funicular up to the town centre. Our hotel was the Residenza D'Epoca San Lorenzo Tre, situated just off the Piazza del Popolo right in the centre of the town.
We checked in and were given a residents pass so we parked in the car park free of charge, saving us €30. A local family had lived here for hundreds of year and all the antique furniture and pictures had been kept when the property was converted. A total of 18 guests could be accommodated and we all sat together for breakfast, mostly Brits but two Norwegians were brushing up their Italian at a local school.
As you can see from the adjacent photograph the views from the roof terrace were outstanding and the photograph at the top of the page of the Duomo is taken from the same spot. It did tend to get too hot in the afternoons and you then had the option of retiring to the garden which was shaded.
Todi dates from 8th century BC and became a Roman colony in 217 BC.
There are many lovely old churches and palaces here which the guides tell you can be visited but it seems the current economy has introduced austerity so the main museum is closed and only the Duomo, Roman underground waterworks and a small museum remain open in the centre of town although you could climb to the top of the San Fortunato church tower for a view from the highest point.
Down below the town centre is the Santa Maria della Consolazione and we walked down one hot afternoon through the shady Parco della Rocca only to find that closed from 12.30 to 3.30pm. This is a huge domed Renaissance church begun in 1508 and took a hundred years to complete. We climbed back up the hundreds of steps which required a refreshing ale at the top! We drove down later when it was open.
The last time we were in this neck of the woods we were in Orvieto where we were treated to some great food and wine at the Trattoria La Pergola. We emailed them on Saturday to book a table for Sunday lunch and they did not disappoint. We drove over from Todi and managed to find the restaurant by my built in sense of direction and superlative memory (much to Sue's disgust who has neither) just after they opened. We shared a huge antipasta plate of charcuterie and crostini then Sue had tagliatelle with a duck ragu while I indulged in strangozzi with Amatriciana sauce which was spectacular. Strangozzi is a thick spaghetti local to Umbria and the sauce originates in Amatrice about 170km East which was destroyed in a terrible earthquake a few weeks ago. Two Euros went to the earthquake survivors for every dish sold.
My superlative memory and sense of direction let me down slightly on our return to the car which may have been down to the Orvieto Classico with lunch, then when we found the car I drove off on the left, much to the consternation of cars coming the other way! We drove back the pretty way, 37km over the hills and were told the road was the original way you used to walk to Orvieto from Todi and it had 365 bends!
Orvieto is known for its white wines while Montefalco is more of a red wine region and the town itself is yet another Umbrian hill town perched high above the Clitunno valley. The major tourist attraction in Montefalco is the museum inside the Saint Francesco Church and the frescos here are by many of the artists who painted the frescos in the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.
The church has been deconsecrated and is now part of a museum. You leave through a small cafe where you are offered a tasting of the local olive oil and wine. We sat outside in the sun and a very knowledgable and pretty Montefalcon explained the differences in three different olive oils and red wines. Although the wines were all good the stand out one was made with the Sagrantino grape which is only grown in this area and in small quantities. It is not unlike a Barolo wine but is very tannic and has one of the highest tannic levels of any variety in the world. The wine produced has a high alcohol content between 15 and 16% just like Amarone only much more affordable.
The views across the valley are superb and stretch from Assisi in the North East across due East to Spello and Trevi further south, all situated on the lower slopes of Mount Subasio which we climbed with the help of Desmond Diahatsu a few years ago.
The town is charming with many shops offering you free tastings of wine and olive oil so you could graze away all day if you were so inclined!
We set off for Spello which we should have visited when we were staying in Assisi previously. We had been told it was worth a visit but unfortunately they were digging up the main street which rather spoilt the ambience. We climbed up to the belvedere at the top of the town where there is a nice view across to Assisi. We were unable to resist a little deli on the way up where we purchased some Pancetta together with a Wild Boar Salami with truffles from Norcia to take back.
Our next visit was to Spoleto. I have said before that Italy has so many beautiful towns and cities that it must be difficult for the local tourist authorities to find reasons for people to visit a place without a unique attraction and Spoleto is one of these places.The Michelin green guide mentions it but gives little information so we were not expecting much. We were pleasantly surprised.
Daphne Satnav took us to the centre where we parked and looked up at the town built on the side of a mountain surmounted by a huge castle which in Italy they call a Rocca. We set off walking up through the town and found ourselves in the Piazza della Libertią where I obtained a tourist map and recovered from the climb with a coffee. It was then that we realised there were three sets of escalators leading up from three different car parks but not the one we had parked in.
We were then at the level of the Roman Theatre so we first visited that. Spoleto can trace its beginnings to 11th century BC before it was conquered by the Romans in 241 AD and became a Roman colony.
In 576 it was elected the capital of the Longobard Duchy and remained independent until the 12th Century when it was subjugated by the States of the Church.
We walked across to the Piazza Pianciani and located the percorsi meccanizzati No 3 in the form of a lift which we entered but discovered it only went down whereas we wanted to go up. I asked a local who said that no, the lift only went down? The lira eventually dropped that the escalators were underground and the lift took us down to them. This one was a gently sloping moving walkway like they have in airports which we rode up to the next lift out of the subway at Piazza Mercato and after a short walk we emerged on the Piazza del Duomo where the exquisitely proportioned Cattedral di S. Maria Assunta was bathed in sunlight.
The interior of the Cathedral was just as beautiful and we began to realise that we did not have enough time left in the day to do the town justice so decided to return the next day.
This time we parked at the Ponzianina car park and took the No 2 escalators right up the mountainside to Rocca Albornoziana. The castle was built between 1359 and 1366 as a symbol of Papal domination over the city. From 1814 it was used as a prison which continued until 1982.
The castle was supplied with water by a 13th century aqueduct across the steep sided valley called the Ponte della Torre.
We went back down to the Piazza del Duomo where the only cafe charges a braccio and a gamba for a beer but in such lovely surroundings who could complain.
Looking up the Spoleto valley you could just make out Montefalco and Spello but we could see another town high above the valley, a little nearer which turned out to be Trevi. Trevi in Umbria is one of four Trevi's in Italy, the best known being in Rome where you will find the famous Trevi Fountain.
We drove to the top of the town where there was a big car park and quickly found the tourist office which was adjacent in the Villa Fabri. Two young ladies with very little to do told us we were free to wander around this 16th century villa which was full of frescos. One caught our attention which was a doorway in which a man was lurking. Sue immediately named him Lurkio after the Frankie Howard character in his TV comedy Up Pompei!
Trevi reckons itself the Olive capital of Umbria but the only shop we could find that might have sold them was shut but had a notice on the door that if it was shut to phone a number and someone would be there in five or ten minutes. We didn't phone in case they didn't sell olives but the town is surrounded by olive groves as far as the eye can see and there is an olive oil museum which we didn't find.
Trevi was the last place we visited and our last Todi restaurant experience was disappointing. I should have mentioned the best Todi restaurant we found was Ristorante Pizzeria Le Scalette where we enjoyed a fillet steak to die for and pork loin with a balsamic sauce which Sue said was the best she had ever eaten. This was washed down with a bottle of 2009 Montefalco Sagrantino for a mere €24. A perfect meal and the bill only came to €63.
The weather during our stay was a perfect 25 degrees C for the duration and when we arrived at Stanstead we were astonished to be met with a similar temperature but it then took us an hour from leaving the aircraft to the arrivals hall due to huge queues to have your passport scanned by machines that do not work properly. We had been through these machines before at Heathrow so knew the score but things have got worse since. Now there is no alternative once you join the queue. My blood pressure rose when I arrived at a notice that said it was 20 minutes to the border and another which said "Welcome to GREAT Britain". Some welcome.