Trip Recap: Paradise Found in Umbria, Italy
Umbria: The Basics
You’re not alone if you haven’t heard of Umbria before now. I hadn’t until listening to an amazing podcast called Untold Italy, where they were interviewing Sarah, the owner of an agriturismo in the region called La Cuccagna.
Umbria is sometimes called the “Green Heart” of Italy, and I can totally see why. it’s nestled in the center of the country between Tuscany and Le Marche, south of Florence and north of Rome (we flew in and out of Rome, rented a car and drove 2.5 hours to get to La Cuccagna). As Sarah said during our stay (and I now firmly believe this, too) Umbria has all the treasures of Tuscany with 10% of the tourists. I would also wager it allows people to spend a fraction of their budget compared to Tuscany, too.
Here are the basics of our trip, which was tacked on to the end of a trip to London to visit family.
Who: the four of us (my husband, Doug, our kids (ages 8 and 11). We met up with my sister and her two kids (ages 3 and 6) when we arrived in Rome. This allowed us to caravan on the way from Rome. Sadly, my brother-in-law had to work last minute (military duty calls) and couldn’t join us.
What: we arrived on a Sunday morning (us from London and my sister from Germany), giving us Sunday afternoon to drive to Umbria and play/relax once we arrived. We had three full days to explore, and left on Thursday morning.
When: we went the second full week in May. Typically, this time of year is much more spring-like with mild and sunny weather, but we experienced a variety of climates! Sunday afternoon was pool weather, Tuesday was a perfect day (in my opinion, which is 70 and sunny), and it rained on and off on Wednesday.
Where: For accommodations, we stayed at La Cuccagna and loved it! I’ve always wanted to stay at an agriturismo, which are still relatively misunderstood. While they may have traditionally been known to be places where you worked to offset your room and board (often on farms or vineyards), now they are essentially boutique B&B stays. There are all varieties (have fun exploring at agriturismo.it), but most are hosted on small farms, olive groves, orchards, and vineyards. Many have pools, saunas, and areas for kids to play. Ours had only six rooms, including a cottage where my sister and her kids had a full kitchen and bit more Breakfast was included (which is also common), but the real gem in staying at these small agriturismos is the hosts themselves. More on that later!
Why: My sister and her family moved to Germany last fall, so we wanted to plan a trip to come and visit them. Since they also wanted to take advantage of traveling while they live overseas, we decided to meet in Italy. We had visited Rome and Venice previously, but had never seen the Italian countryside. Since I had always wanted to stay at an agriturismo, and we all love food and wine, I was totally thrilled to hear about La Cuccagna and booked us there as soon as I had flights (last September).
What I’d Do Again
We would hands down recommend staying at an agriturismo (and of course at La Cuccagna in particular!) for the personalized care and service alone. Sarah was effectively our concierge, and every day would organize activities for us, provide recommendations, directions, and more. It was so nice for me especially, since I am often the one organizing our trips! Having a local expert that knows where the best restaurants, shops, villages, and activities are, as well as having relationships with community members makes all the difference between an authentic experience and one that follows a pattern set by the internet.
We visited several beautiful small towns: Assisi (home of St. Francis!), Gubbio, and Spello. They were gorgeous and had plenty to do to make a day of it for our crew. From knowing where the playground and gelato stops were to the restaurants with the best antipasti, Sarah helped us make it fun for kids AND the adults.
We worked with Sarah to organize a truffle hunting experience with a local expert and his dog, Lila. She uses only a local person who does this as a side business, and hunts on his own private land. She told us that many commercial truffle hunting tours pre-place truffles and then miraculously “find” them when leading groups of visitors around. Walking through the forest learning and watching Lila work her magic was so cool for all of us, and we made a lot of great memories doing this together.
We didn’t eat a bad meal once. Since Umbria is deep in the agricultural heart of Italy, the food was magnificent, and every place we ate was run by a family and made to order. Our wine tasting at a biodynamic winery using traditional farming methods was another awesome highlight (as was the charcuterie and cheese that went along with it!).
What I’d Change
I’m always one for having more time somewhere, but here I would have loved to spend just a few more days. It would have been nice to have at least one day of just relaxing at the B&B, but with only three full days to explore, we felt really needed to see and do as much as we could. If you were spending a few weeks in Italy, it would be great to combine this portion of the country with some coastline and maybe a bigger city to really see the variety of offerings in Italy.
While May was a great month to visit for less crowds, it was also not quite yet peak operating season, so there were a few things we wanted to do that weren’t up and running for the summer yet. For example, Sarah and Sal do hosted dinners regularly at their place during the summer and fall, but because we came in May, it wasn’t feasible.
Alternate times that Sarah and I brainstormed were in late September and through October when the olive and grape harvests are going on, and there are tastings and festivals in many of the farms and small towns. The weather is still great, but the height of the tourist traffic is gone.
I would love to come back to do white truffle hunting (April) or peak black truffle season (August), too.
Tips for People Visiting Umbria
- Plan in travel time – it took 2.5 hours to drive from Rome to our lodgings. Sarah kindly provided some ideas for places to stop along the way to break it up, but don’t short yourself on time to get here.
- Reach out to your host in advance, even if it’s just to let them know a bit about you and your interests. This will help them in organizing and finding things that you might like to do.
- Dietary preferences – this isn’t unique to Italy, but be aware of any dietary restrictions you might need to take in to account. There are plenty of options for vegetarians, but if you are vegan or have allergies to things like eggs or nuts, you should let them know right away, since these products are commonly used and grown in the region.
- The roads are windy, so if you get motion-sickness, be sure to bring medication with you. Also, note my first point about travel time is also applicable when getting anywhere – it will take you at least 20-30 minutes to get somewhere because you’re going up and down mountains.
- Schedule shift– we were the early eaters every night…and that meant eating at 7 or 7:30pm. I know this is a cultural thing, but when your kids are used to going to bed at 8pm, this meant a lot of late nights (dinner ending around 9:30pm, then a drive back to our place). Just something to be aware of and plan for in conjunction with the rest of the day.
I can’t say enough good things about the people and places we discovered on this trip. I love visiting new places, and it’s always hard to justify going back to the same place when there are so many other places to check out. However, it will be hard to pick anywhere else in Italy after seeing the beauty and feeling the hospitality of the Umbrian people.