Who wants to be doing the same boring things as everybody else while you’re on holiday? To ensure you appreciate everything our regions have to offer, we’re talking to our local experts to find the hidden gems and unexplored delights that make our favourite holiday haunts so special. This time we’re heading to one of our luxury villas in Umbria to talk friendly locals, truffle hunting and Elton John with Chrissie and David, owners of Villa Chiesa.
Tell us a bit about yourself…What do you do, how long have you lived there and what makes you an expert in the region?
We (that’s me, Chrissie, and my husband David!) are both in our early 40s and moved to Italy twelve years ago. After we got married, we decided we wanted to live a different life. David is an Australian teacher from a farming background, and I’m an English accountant, also from a farming background. We were in love with the idea of living in the Italian countryside where our children could grow up surrounded by nature and live a simple life. Our shared passion for food and wine meant a property in the heart of Umbria would be ideal for us, so we started our search. Having travelled extensively before the move, we had a strong idea about what makes guests feel welcome and comfortable and were intent on recreating this in Umbria! We decided to buy a property with separate buildings, as we wanted our property to be self-contained and private, but to be near to us if guests had questions or needed advice. The property was a ruin when we found it, but the views were to die for, and the location was perfect. Once we transformed the gardens and added a pool, we knew everything would fall into place.
Why should people travel to your region at least once in their lifetime?
Umbria is one of the most beautiful regions in Italy. It’s called the Green Heart of Italy for a good reason and has all the charm of the beauty of Tuscany but with far fewer tourists! There is an enormous number of stunning hill towns (including Spello, Montefalco, Bevagna and Perugia, to name a few). The Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi and the Duomo of Orvieto are two of the most beautiful churches anywhere in the world. The frescoes will have art enthusiasts in raptures, and the wines of Montefalco (and recently other areas) have received international renown. There is so much to see and do, and no trip to Italy is complete without including Umbria.
And what makes people come back time and time again?
The people of Umbria are very friendly and welcoming, and in the course of a week, people feel they are only scratching the surface of what there is to see. The area is developing too, as each year there are more events and things to do. While the architecture and atmosphere remain the same, the history of the place is something it takes a while to get your head around!
Summarize the region for us in three words!
Cuisine, culture and events.
Have you had any famous visitors or well-known events take place in the region?
Umbria is becoming the place where famous people come to relax and unwind without fear of being disturbed. Neil Patrick Harris (who compèred the Oscars this year) married locally last August and had Elton John perform at his wedding. Events like this are becoming more commonplace as people of wealth and taste seek out the beauty of the region and look for a great location to bring friends and family to. There are also special events like Steve McCurry’s exhibition of photographs of Umbria last year, or when Gubbio was thrilled to host many of the dinosaur skeletons from the New York Natural History Museum two years ago.
Are there any interesting historical stories about the region?
Hannibal camped just over the hill from Chiesa Del Carmine at a little township called La Bruna on his way to wage war on the Roman army. In terms of the number of people involved, this battle is still the largest ambush in military history and was the worst defeat inflicted on the Roman army as over 15,000 soldiers were either killed in the battle or drowned in the lake as they were driven back by the forces of Hannibal.
Time for some travel inspiration – give us your recommendations:
First thing to do – drop your bags and… Hit the shops! The shops are full of wonderful Italian produce, cheeses, salamis, cured meats, wines and mozzarella like you have never tasted before! You should cook, eat well and relax… or in short, live like an Italian.
Don’t miss! The world famous Umbrian Jazz festival has a line-up every year that includes jazz greats such as Herbie Hancock and Al Jarreau, but also features other genres including gospel choirs from New Orleans, R&B singers like Alicia Keys, international acts like Sting and Elton John and this year includes Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett singing duets. There are lots of free concerts as well as big names – it’s a big week of music in Umbria.
Best restaurant? Antica Osteria in the main terrace of Montone for local, Umbrian cuisine and death by truffles, ideally accompanied by Montefalco Sagrantino wine or blended reds from our own newly emerging vineyard!
Best drinking spot? Enoteca Properzio Spello – the finest wine bar in Umbria and with the most incredible selection of both Umbrian and other regional gems backed up by a profound knowledge of wine.
Best activity? There is no better way to explore Italy’s fourth largest lake than by boat. Acqua Dolce has both sail and motor boats for hire, so take a picnic, cruise around the Islands and then moor up and explore. The stunning views of the landscape are all the better from the water, and there’s nothing like swimming off the boat in the middle of the lake.
Something free to do? Join in the passeggiata hour in any of the hill towns near Villa Chiesa. Walk the streets at dusk, people watch, stop for an aperitvo or gelato and live like an Italian. The sense of fun and wellbeing you get from joining a community as they get out and walk, laugh, chat, and meet up with old friends is very special.
Best spot for an amazing panoramic view? Above the Basilica of Assisi near the rifugio where St Francis spent time talking to the animals – there are fantastic picnic spots where locals go flying kites, play football and escape the summer heat. The views are incredible, and you truly feel like you’re on top of the world.
Best things to do for families? Participate in a pizza night, rolling out the dough, adding your favourite toppings and then helping David cook your pizza in our 400-year-old wood-fired pizza oven, then eat your favourite pizza and eating it outside under the stars. In May and early June, you can also watch the fireflies emerge. They are only found in places where the environment is incredibly clean, and Umbria is definitely one of these. Children often think of them as fairies, and it is amazing to sit outside and watch the fireflies attempt to attract mates or prey by emitting a cold light and watch as their numbers increase during the course of the twilight.
Best things to do for adults or a group of friends? Join an organised truffle hunt with well-known truffle hunter, Peppe Fumanti, in the hills around Pietralunga and Montone. Enjoy following his faithful dog as it pursues its nose in search of white or black truffles, depending on the time of year. Then enjoy lunch in Montone of scrambled eggs, bruschetta, homemade tagliatelle and organically reared Chianina beef covered in shavings of your truffles.
Best kept secret? Montone – voted recently one of the ten most beautiful hill towns in Italy and very few guests who arrive have ever heard about it. It is a tiny hill town only 20 minutes away from the villa, normally deserted and sometimes feeling like a bit like a film set with old men playing cards in the corner, pigeons fluttering about, kids kicking the football and Italians going about their daily lives. It has four fantastic restaurants (one Michelin level), a festival in August to commemorate the thorn from Christ’s crown kept in the church in the town and another in the autumn called Festa del Bosco that celebrates all the good foods that can be found in the woods at this time of year (like chestnuts, wild mushrooms, and truffles). There is also a film festival organised by local resident Terry Gilliam where local film stars release their new films – Ralph Fiennes and Colin Firth to name a few!
Best day tour activities? Pack a picnic of local produce from one of the local markets which rotate around Umbrian towns and head up Mt Tezio for a hike. You drive to the Rifugio and then meander slowly up the mountain, meeting truffle and wild asparagus pickers, hunters getting their dogs into training for the season and mountain bikers. It is a walk I have done with my young children (6 and 8) and once up top, just stop and picnic and enjoys views to Mt Amiata in Tuscany behind Lake Trasimeno on one side and to Mt Subasio and the Apennines on the other. Depending on the time of year, you can see snow caps or the sheen of water evaporating off the lake in the heat. It is incredibly quiet except for the noise of the bells around the necks of the cows grazing on the hillside, and you can look down on the city of Perugia from your position of vantage. If it’s springtime, pick some wild asparagus yourself to take home and enjoy with poached eggs and truffle shavings or tossed through fresh pasta. Then return to the villa and let the children wear themselves out in the pool while you get into that book you’ve wanted to read for the last year but never found the time!
What do you think first-time visitors will find most surprising about the area? What should they always pack with them?
Summer in Umbria brings warm temperatures, so pack your sunscreen and make sure you stay at a property with a pool! After a day of exploring, a dip is exactly what you need.
What would your perfect day in the area comprise of?
A visit to Umbertide market in the morning and a porchetta roll for breakfast, then picking up some of the local cheeses, vegetables and cured meats that Umbria is famous for. Then a trip to Gubbio, taking in the Piazzi Fora Grande (central square) and Corso Garibaldi some shopping and then take the funiculare to the top of the mountains above for lunch and views of the stunning countryside. An afternoon at the 18 hole Robert Trent Jones Antognolla golf course, and an evening eating the wonderful produce from the market al fresco with the family.
What’s the one experience that really captures the essence of the region for you, and why?
No trip to Umbria is complete without trying wild boar. This delicious meat is slow cooked with herbs and wine until it falls off your fork. When accompanied by lovingly made fresh home-made pasta, a view of the Umbrian countryside and a glass of great Umbrian Sagrantino wine, you have a quintessential Umbrian experience!
Feeling inspired yet? Have a browse through all of our luxury holiday villas in Umbria.