TAKE IT NICE & ASSISI; Italy's Green Heart Is Um-Forgettable

Article excerpt

Byline: JAMES WAIDE

BREATH-TAKING scenery, beautiful architecture, charming people, fine food and wines - Umbria in the heart of Italy simply has it all.

From the bustling city of Perugia to the religious centre of Assisi, a break here will leave you desperate for a speedy return.

Known as The Green Heart of Italy, Umbria has for millennia been the crossing point of men and cultures.

Encircled by Tuscany, The Marche and Lazio, the region - at 8,456 square kilometres - may be small but it's most certainly big on beauty.

Thanks to its wonderful rolling hills, impressive mountains, green valleys, fertile plains and majestic rivers, Umbria has also been described as having a thousand faces.

Indeed, a short journey in any direction provides a dramatic change in scenery - and of the 100 towns voted as Italy's most beautiful, no fewer than six are in Umbria.

The base for my short break was the impressive four-star Hotel Villa Paradiso in Passignano, a small but charming town situated on the northern edge of Lake Trasimeno.

The beautiful lake is Italy's fourth largest with a perimeter of 37 miles and is designated as a national park.

Its greatest historical claim to fame dates back to 217BC when the Romans suffered one of the worst defeats in their history at the hands of Hannibal's Carthaginian army.

In these more peaceful days, fishing, agriculture and tourism are the most important factors for the local economy.

Passignano rises from the gentle hills surrounding the lake and is a happy combination of nature, history, peace and vitality.

The resort features more than 1,000 years of art and architecture but is now as well known as a centre for recreational activities such as watersports golf and sailing.

Enthusiasts of walking holidays are particularly well catered for with a variety of routes planned around the town.

Each is clearly marked along the way and are well worth trying. One will take you to the ruins of the Roman Villa of Quarantaia, another heads to the ancient fortress of Monteruffiano but all of them provide stunning views over the lake and right across Umbria.

In the Middle Ages, Passignano really prospered because of its position on the main route from the nearby city of Perugia and Florence but it has also found fame as a base for an Italian Army seaplane flying school.

LAKE Trasimeno has three islands and one of these, Isola Maggiore, is a popular tourist destination.

It is home to just 100 people but it has a thriving lace-making industry - thanks mainly to an Irishwoman who visited in the 19th century and passed on her skills.

Indeed, the lace museum on the island contains hundreds of exhibits with a strong Celtic influence clearly visible.

Isola Maggiore, which is easily accessible by ferry, is also famous for a visit from St Francis in 1211 and a chapel marks the point of his disembarkation.

St Francis of course features prominently in the nearby town of Assisi. It is perched spectacularly on Mount Subasio and is among the top pilgrimage destinations for Catholics from all over the world.

Apart from the outstanding Basilica of St Francis - where the saint's body now lies - there are at least three churches still surviving which pre-date his birth and also a number of Roman remains.

The Basilica of St Clare in the town is stunning too and features a crucifix that famously spoke to St Francis. Modernity has by-passed Assisi but because of its very lofty position, the views across Umbria are just awe-inspiring.

Perugia is the area's main administrative centre but again the pace of life here is unflustered.

The city dominates the Tiber Valley from a high, irregular hill and because of its strategic importance has been fought over since the beginning of time. …