About Central Italy Inland: the Heart of Italy
Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio…. central Italy is the picture-book land of cypress, terraced vineyard and hill-top citadel, of bullock-carts. The area is saturated by memories of the Etruscans, Romans and medieval wars. Places enshrined in Dante’s Divine Comedy may disappoint you because light industry and promiscuous housing have dealt harshly with their outskirts. Penetrate the districts to which the yellow signs Quartiere Medioevale or Quartiere Storico beckon and you are in a web of little streets which look much as they did when Dante and Boccaccio were boys.
This is the shortest ‘road to Rome’ of several. When you detour from main roads the routes are mountainous – Croce di Pratomagno touches 1,593 m – but the best places to visit are often along the valleys, on lines followed long ago by armies, pilgrims and Grand Tourists and more recently by railway and autostrada builders. The red sights are on or close to the autostrada: subject to congestion at both ends, Florence and Rome.
Warm springs persuaded northern Europeans to linger on the Florence-Rome axis but the major attraction was a wealth of fine arts. (How often artistic achievement goes with the turbulence of civil war.) The Tuscan country south of Florence, as much as Florence herself, was the cradle of Renaissance art. Within an hour’s drive of the Casentino you can see the birthplaces of Piero della Francesca, Masaccio, Paolo Uccello, Giotto, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Vasari, Luca Signorelli, Perugino and the architect Sansovino. Unobtrusive municipal museums and country chapels still contain those artists’ master-works.
In Italy the heritage industry is almost unknown because the heritage is central to everyday life. Tuscan and Umbrian towns are renowned for their elaborate parades, jousts, games and races, dazzling spectacles of immemorial local victories and rivalries. In summer many a village has its weekend sagra or feast – of the ducklings, of the mushrooms, of the moustachioes. In places you’ll find a festival known as sagra dei grassi (‘of the fat’) or similar, visitors welcome, special dishes and prizes for those weighing 140 kilos or more.
Halfway between Florence and Rome, the lofty fortress town of Orvieto is worth visiting for its underground cave network, Etruscan sites and abundance of museums. The best place to stay here is La Badia (see right), occupying a 13thC monastery.
The Florence-Rome railway is busy with domestic and international trains. At Terentola, on Lake Trasimeno’s north shore, the main line connects with a slow, more appealing route to Rome via Perugia, Foligno and Terni. Change at Orte for a trans-Apennine route eastward and a less-stimulating loop around Lake Bracciano. Change at Arezzo for the leisurely railcars through the Casentino and Val di Chiana.