Beautiful Umbria – now even better!
Umbria is Italy’s ‘green heart’ – a land of wooded hillsides, medieval hill towns and abbeys. And, of course, fabulous food lovingly crafted from the produce of the local farms and gardens. It’s a place to slow the pace of life to a steady walk, with time to appreciate the countless pilgrims and Umbrian farmers that have walked these ways over many centuries.
While our trails through the lush Sabine Hills to the south of Spoleto are long-standing favourites here at On Foot, we’ve recently redesigned the holiday, providing new options for our walkers. And there are shorter versions too, for those short of time.
The eight-night version of this route meanders southwards from Spoleto, partially following the Via Francigena (Way of St Francis), to the hill town of Labro. This medieval village was rescued from decay in the 1970s, and you’ll stay in one of a group of stylish, architect-designed dwellings scattered through the narrow streets.
Pass the Santuario di Greccio, where St Francis is believed to have created the concept of the Christmas nativity scene, and on to more hill towns, each more impossibly lovely than the last. Abbeys are the theme of your last day – first the thriving Benedictine community at Farfa where you can take a tour, and finally the lofty ruins of San Martino with a view all the way to Rome if you’re lucky!
The alternative nine-night holiday follows much of the same route, but with your final three nights at the delightful agriturismo of Le Mole sul Farfa and the addition of a circular walk to Salisano. Le Mole is a special place, where your hosts are Stefano and Elisabeth who designed our original route.
The excellent cooking is all vegetarian, using much of their own produce, and has won over many a sceptic! You may also be able to visit the remains of a Roman villa on their farm, which is being slowly and carefully uncovered. Availability here is often limited, so do book well in advance if you’d like to stay here.
A chance to improve your culinary skills
A particular highlight of this walking holiday is discovering the wonderful produce and cooking at your overnight stops.
As well as Le Mole, there are several other agriturismo stays on the route, where you can try out some local specialities and get a taste of the farming life too.
Take a day out at Casperia for a cookery course, or learn how to make pasta as the Umbrians do at Il Fienile di Orazio, where you can also see the goats being milked, make some cheese or go foraging.
You can find all the details of this holiday on our website or call +44 1722 322652 to speak to Debbie, who knows the route well.
Explore the lesser-known Italian lakes
In the north of Italy, where Piedmont meets the Swiss border, the lakes of Maggiore and Orta glisten in the sun between chestnut-clad mountainsides. These lakes are the focus of our walk, which will also take you to the top of Mottarone and glimpses of snowy Alpine peaks beyond.
The gentle pace of this self-guided walking holiday allows plenty of time to wander through the historic island palaces and many gardens of the area, and also the churches, chapels and monasteries along the route. This was the playground of the wealthy in earlier centuries, and while other lakes further east now attract the most glamorous visitors, the waterside towns of Maggiore and Orta have settled into a modest gentility, with a mountainous back country that remains truly rural.
Begin your holiday with two nights on the tiny Isola Pescatori (Fishermen’s Isle) of Lake Maggiore, and warm up the muscles with a walk alongside little Lake Mergozzo – or explore the island palaces and gardens instead. Then climb to the top of Mottarone via the village of Gignese (where the making of high-quality umbrellas and parasols was the key local industry). Your mountain-top stay in a pastel-coloured villa with stupendous views is a highlight – here Sabina and Ivan have created a renowned small restaurant, showcasing Piedmontese cooking and wines.
The descent to Lake Orta is through pastures and birch trees to the lakeside villages and pretty Orta San Giulio. Discover the 20 chapels of Sacro Monte di Orta, with their life-size depictions of St Francis, or take a boat to the little island to walk the pilgrimage circuit.
NEW FOR 2023 – walk to Madonna del Sasso
Our new final hike on this route is on the far side of Lake Orta, climbing to Madonna del Sasso, the cliff-top church that features in the background of all your photos across the water. From this viewpoint you can look back to Mottarone in wonder at your achievements.
Madonna del Sasso, or ‘Our Lady of the Rock’, sits on a granite rock 350m above the water. The current 18th century church replaced a smaller 16th century chapel, and houses a statue of Our Lady of the Rosary that was associated with a number of miraculous healings.
The area in front of the sanctuary, the ‘Cusio Balcony’, was previously known as ‘il prato della tela’ (the laundry green) because the local women would gather there on hot summer days to bleach their homemade fabrics. From here there are views of the lake, Mottarone, the Alps and further to the south the flatter land in the direction of Novara.
The Sanctuary is the final destination on Le Valli della Fede (Valley of Faith) pilgrim trail which links the minor churches of the central and eastern Biella area with Lake Orta.
Autumn brings a beautiful quality of light to the Italian hills and a glowing palette of colours. Peter and Jane Hamilton eventually walked our Umbrian route in October 2021, after having to rebook several times due to Covid, and sent us some fabulous photos from their trip.
(image above: lakeside Piediluco)