Outlying Umbria region offers Roman holidays

Travel Weekly editor Michael Ardizzone toured the Italian region of Umbria by train, using Rome as his base. His report follows:

ome is not your typical day-trip hub. You could spend two weeks inside the city and still not see everything.

But it's good to know that an agent can design a Rome itinerary with convenient day trips to outlying destinations.

A recent trip to the Eternal City afforded me the opportunity to take excursions to Orvieto, Spoleto and Assisi, all hill towns in the region of Umbria, and each within two-and-a-half hours by train from Rome.

Some people will tell you that traveling in Europe by car is more convenient and preferable to trains. Not in Italy, and not for me. The train generally is faster and, I would argue, much more enjoyable.

The 'new Tuscany'

Umbrians are hoping their home becomes the "new Tuscany," and it seems only a matter of time before this Italian region joins its more-celebrated neighbor as one of the most sought-after international destinations for U.S. tourists.

It has much of the same appeal as Tuscany: interesting city-towns, art treasures, excellent food, wonderful vistas, the Italian enjoyment of life, but with -- for the time being -- smaller crowds.

On to Orvieto

Before this trip, my first to Orvieto, I had been told the cathedral there was the most spectacular in Italy.

How could that be? It surpasses the duomos in Milan and Florence? Not a chance. But upon seeing the cathedral, I had to agree.

Dating from about 1290, the Gothic structure features a rose window, bronze doors and colorful mosaics, while the facade has huge, intricate bas-relief works that tell biblical stories.

Orvieto's spectacular cathedral, as seen from the Moor's Tower.The interior is equally impressive, with vivid frescoes by Luca Signorelli and large, stained-glass windows.

Train travelers arrive in Orvieto at the foot of a mountain; from there, a funicular takes them to the top, where the views are memorable.

Orvieto, known for its wine since the time of the Etruscans, boasts several piazzas, numerous other churches and a few museums.

For an unusual experience, travelers should visit the Pozzo di San Patrizio, or St. Patrick's Well, about 200 feet deep and now empty.

A circular walkway -- once used by pack animals -- leads to the bottom, and a corresponding walkway leads back up. There are arched windows all along the way.

Splendid Spoleto

A small city with flower-bedecked balconies and narrow streets, Spoleto stands out on the travel map thanks to an international arts festival held there each year during the summer. (This year, it ran from June 28 to July 14; 2003 dates have not been determined.)

Sponsored by maestro Gian Carlo Menotti and his son, Francis, the Spoleto Festival features the biggest names in international performing arts.

For more details, visit www.spoletofestival.it.

Because of the festival's popularity, hotels in the area fill up quickly. Unless your clients are going to Spoleto specifically for the festival, don't send them during that time.

Spoleto, like its Umbrian neighbors, is perfect for strol-ling, stopping to eat and enjoying the easy pace of a beautiful hill town.

As in Orvieto, a highlight is its local duomo, which features restored frescoes by Fra Filippo Lippi.

In addition, a walk to and across the Ponte delle Torri, a 14th-century bridge, is worth the trip. If visitors can stand the 750-foot walk 262 feet over the gorge below, they'll be rewarded with a breathtaking view.

Saintly Assisi

There is no direct train route to Assisi from Rome -- one must make a quick change at Foligno. Arriving by train brings travelers to the foot of a mountain, and shuttle buses take them into town.

From there, it's a few minutes' walk (uphill) to the main attraction, the Basilica of St. Francis, a majestic structure that dominates the town.

Within the basilica, a series of large frescoes by early Renaissance master Giotto depict, in wonderful detail, the life of the saint.

There is a small museum with relics, including the saint's habit. The tomb of St. Francis is in a small, subterranean crypt.

Assisi also is home to several other interesting churches, including the small church where St. Francis is said to have been born.

For more information on Umbria, contact the Italian Government Tourist Office in New York at (212) 245-5618 or (212) 245-4822, or visit www.italiantourism.com and www.umbriatourism.com.

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