Monday, November 11, 2019

Under the Umbrian Sun: A Villa in a Less Crowded Corner of Italy

In the 1980s, I wandered around Europe with a small group of high school and college friends. Aligned somewhat with our graduations from college, the trip served as our initiation into independent travel.

Italian villa rentals often feature a garden, balcony,
courtyard, or loggia. 
To commemorate an anniversary of our trip, most of our original group (plus a few spouses and children) planned a reunion trip.

Since my first trip, I’ve been visiting Italy regularly, but have grown increasingly dismayed to find that many corners of the country have grown ridiculously crowded. While the major cities of Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Siena, and Sorrento are tough to beat for history, charm, and culture, they’re also teeming with tourists, particularly during summer months. And with all the crowds, I find it increasingly difficult to experience that sweet sense of la dolce vita—one of my primary joys of visiting this Mediterranean country.

I realize the topic of crowds of tourists isn’t exactly late breaking news. Recently, there have been more than a few articles discussing crowds pushing top sites to the breaking point. Just how many visitors can fit into Piazza San Marco or Florence’s duomo, they ask?

The ancient town of Orvieto sits atop a hill in
the southwest corner of Umbria.
The good news is that you don’t need to find out. By opting to explore some of Italy’s less crowded, but equally historic and charming corners as we did, you’ll spend less time in queues and have more time to experience la dolce vita—as well as the charm, history, food, and drink that are integral parts of any trip to Italy.

For our most recent trip, we rented a house in the rolling hills of Umbria and cars to explore the surrounding countryside, including spots in nearby Tuscany. While Tuscany’s golden and rolling, cypress-studded hills are what you probably imagine when someone says “Italian countryside,” there’s more to that than Tuscany. Umbria, an often overlooked—and uncrowded—region, is right next door.

During our week’s stay, day trips were no more than an hour’s drive and included Cortona, Assisi, Orvieto, Cittá della Pieve, Cetona, and several smaller villages so tiny they consisted merely of a cluster of stone homes, a church, and sometimes the ruins of a small castle or tower. With the exception of Assisi, none of these towns was crowded. And even popular Assisi offered many quiet streets and—critical to the coffee and wine drinkers among us—plenty of empty seats at café tables.
The columns of a Roman temple in the
heart of Assisi. 

In order to enjoy the charming villa, shady pergola and refreshing pool—all of which offered soul-expanding views of the countryside—we typically spent mellow mornings lounging in the loggia and then headed for a nearby town between 11:00 and 2:00. Several times, we spent late afternoons in towns such as Orvieto and Assisi and then had early dinners in notable restaurants before wending our way back to the villa. On several evenings, we finished the day with a nightcap on the lawn under a sparkling blanket of stars.

Though we weren’t dealing with the crowds of Rome or Venice, our trip wasn’t stress-free. A primary source of this stress was confronting the daily question of what to do: stay in the villa and soak up its charm and that of the rolling, sun-kissed countryside or explore the alluring villages and small cities of Umbria? Unlike so many other decisions in life, there was no wrong answer.

Oh, and then there was the stress of losing internet access. When none of the adults could connect, we chalked it up to unreliable service. As it turned out, the cause of the disruption was a few teenaged girls who absconded with the wireless modum so they could more easily (and privately) text boyfriends back home.

Our villa rental offered expansive views of verdant Umbrian countryside.
For the few evenings we prepared simple dinners at the villa, we started with sundowners on a terrace with the surrounding countryside bathed in yellow, gold, and orange. And then we sat down under a jasmine covered pergola for simple pasta dinners we prepared from ingredients we found at local stores and markets. There was wine and candlelight and plenty of storytelling and laughs.

Between these memorable dinners and the ones we enjoyed at restaurants in nearby towns and villages, I experienced plenty of la dolce vita—set to birdsong and laughter and without crowds of tourists.

To plan your own villa trip in Italy, see below.

Tips for a Villa Vacation in Italy:

  • Fly into a major city and pick up a rental car at the airport or take the train to the city closest to your villa and rent a car there. We also often stay a few days in a city on either or both ends of a week’s villa stay. 
  • There are several sites that offer villa rentals across Italy. Make sure to research the location—some villas can be remote. We prefer rentals that are a 10 to 15 minute drive to a nearby town or small city. For rentals located in sleepy villages that offer restaurants and stores within walking distance, you can up the relaxation factor by walking more and reserving the car for longer excursions. 
  • Umbria has more than its fair share of excellent restaurants. Plan your visits so that you can stroll a village during the day and have dinner at a restaurant before heading back to your villa. 
  • First visit to Umbria? Take in Assisi, Orvieto, Citta della Pieve, Cortona (just across the across the border in Tuscany), and Cetona. 
  • Renting a villa in the country can have some disadvantages. Wifi wasn’t the most reliable and the signal only usable in half of the first floor and adjoining terrace. And some villas can be very remote which can mean 15 to 30 minute drives to the closest grocery store or village. 
  • Many villa rental agencies offer a grocery box to get you started. Order it. You’ll get eggs, coffee, bread, and other necessities to make the first morning enjoyable. In many cases, rentals begin on Saturday afternoons and given that many stores are closed on Sundays, it’s a good way to make your first villa day a relaxing one. 
  • For Italian villa rentals, try Ville in Italia or Villa & Charme
  • Visiting Rome on your way into or out of Italy? Visit the old school and positively delightful Armando Pantheon in the supposedly haunted shadows of its namesake ancient pagan temple. (Reservations are essential.) 
Restaurants in Umbria: 

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