Lake Trasimeno is located in the centre of Italy, between Umbria and Tuscany. This is the ‘green heart of Italy’ – a land of verdant wild flower valleys and patchwork wooded hills interspersed with sunflower fields, olive groves, vineyards and lakes. The ancient abbeys and monasteries are a reminder that this is also the ‘Terra dei Santi’ – land of the saints – including both St Benedict and St Francis. Florence is to the north, and Rome the south, Siena to the west, and Perugia the east. The area includes Città della Pieve, Paciano, Panicale and Piegaro – all lovely hilltop towns, and Castiglione del Lago, Magione, Passignano and Tuoro – ancient lakeshore towns. The lake itself is the fourth biggest in Italy, with three islands and several beaches – it is also one of the cleanest in Italy. As well as swimming and pedaloing, you can windsurf on the lake, or take a ferry to one of the islands.
A lunch trip to Isola Maggiore is fun – this island is also known for its tradition of Irish lace making, which is still practised by many of the local women today, and you can also visit the island’s lace museum. In 1213, Saint Francis of Assisi arrived on retreat for the Lent fast, and one can still visit the chapel that marks the place where he stepped off the boat, after having crossed the water during a storm, and knelt in thanks for his survival. The largest of the three islands, Polvese, is the one you look out on from the villa’s terrace and is part of the bird sanctuary which extends over a large portion of the lake.
Perhaps the lake’s greatest claim to fame is as the site of one of Hannibal’s most decisive victories against the Romans – the lake was even larger then, and the battle raged between Tuoro and Ossaia (bones). Both Byron and Wordsworth have written about it – its older name being Thrasymene.
Assisi is one of the best known, and also one of the closest places to visit. It is internationally famous as the birthplace of St Francis who founded the Franciscan religious order in the town in 1208. The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi is a World Heritage Site. This lovely white city can be seen from some distance, situated on the western flank of Monte Subasio. Approx 46km.
Perugia is a major centre of medieval art – the famous painter Pietro Vannucci, nicknamed Perugino, was a native of Città della Pieve near Perugia. He decorated the local Sala del Cambio with a beautiful series of frescoes; eight of his pictures can also be admired in the National Gallery of Umbria; Perugino was the teacher of Raphael, the great Renaissance artist who produced five paintings in Perugia (no longer in the city) and one fresco. The centre of Perugia can be reached by the new funicular railway, or by a series of escalators. The escalators from the lower town lead up through the remains of Rocca Paolina which was a 16th-century fortress. The fortress was actually built over the medieval streets, and before coming out into daylight at Piazza Italia you still walk through some of these medieval streets – it’s fascinating. More modern attractions of Perugia include its role as the home of the Umbria Jazz Festival in July, and also to the Eurochoc festival in October – if you book in advance you can even have a guided tour of the Perugina factory – famous for their Baci (kisses) chocolates. Approx 27km.
Umbria boasts many other fascinating and beautiful towns and villages within an hour’s drive, including Montefalco, Spello, Deruta (for the world-famous ceramics) and Spoleto, and even Orvieto is only a little further away.
Now to Tuscany, and just half an hour away you will find Cortona – the beautiful Etruscan town, featured in Frances Mayes’ book ‘Under The Tuscan Sun’, and the film of the same name. Set on a hilltop, surrounded by its ancient walls, and topped off by the ruined fortress, it is famous for its glorious views over the Val di Chiana and Lago di Trasimeno. The small town is a treasure trove of cobbled streets and alleys, overflowing with Tuscan colour and life, combining with bustling piazza bars and cafes, as well as some excellent restaurants. Cortona is also steeped in history with beautiful churches and twelfth century architecture, plus a rich Etruscan heritage, much of which you can view in the excellent museum (MAEC). There are also frequent outdoor concerts and festas, most famously the ‘Tuscan Sun Festival‘ during the first week in August, which features singers and artists of international renown (www.tuscansunfestival.com). On a Saturday morning its lively local market will introduce you to the gastronomic specialities of the region. Approx 23km.
Montepulciano is a major producer of food and drink. Wine connoisseurs consider its Vino Nobile among Italy’s best.There are plenty of wine tasting caves in the town, but remember wine made from the Montepulciano grape isn’t necessarily Vino Nobile, which comes at a price. With regard to food, local specialities include pork, cheeses and honey, plus some pretty good shopping generally. A fantastically beautiful town – and its surrounding countryside is archetypal Tuscany. If you can tear yourself away, head for nearby Pienza smaller and a little quieter, with a pleasant walk around the walls, and still that fantastic countryside. Approx 53 km.
Siena – the drive alone is splendid – is famously home of ‘Il Palio’ – a horse race like nowhere else, between the 17 contrade (sections) of Siena, is run on July 2 and August 16, in The Campo of Siena, the unique shell shaped piazza at the centre of the city. In addition there is the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s City Hall for almost 800 years, contains (amongst many other things) the famous frescos on good and bad government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, frescoes by Simone Martini and Duccio, and access to the Torre del Mangia, from whose top you can view a beautiful panorama of the Sienese countryside. Also famous is the Duomo, Siena’s magnificent black and white Italian Romanesque cathedral including the Libreria Piccolomini, Baptistery and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo which includes the famous Maestà by Duccio. After you’ve seen all the art, you can also treat yourself to a beautiful panorama from Il Facciatone in the museum. Approx 70km.
Here are the approximate distances of some other places you may wish to visit in Umbria and Tuscany:-
Arezzo 43km, Cascata delle Marmore 110km, Florence 146km, Gubbio 71km, Orvieto 115km, Rome 142km, Spoleto 82km, Todi 57km.
Gusto Wine Tours – http://www.gustowinetours.com/Gusto_Wine_Tours/Gusto_Wine_Tours.html