When we told our friends we were heading to Umbria for a week, the first question they asked was, “Where is that?”
Suzy and Bill Menard, the husband-wife team behind Via Umbria and the incredible hosts of our week-long vacation describe it best: “Umbria is considered the green heart of Italy, located smack in the middle of the country.”
After a week venturing around the picturesque landscapes, it’s not hard to see why.
There are two ways we suggest you explore this beautiful region; you can rent the Via Umbria farmhouse for a week and customize a vacation to fit your group’s needs, or you can stay at the farmhouse and join Suzy and Bill on one of their seasonal tours.
We did the latter and spent a week with a group of fellow travelers that became our aunts and uncles by the end of our stay, sampling fresh olive oil, painting ceramics, truffle hunting, and consuming all the wine in the region.
You won’t find most of our itinerary on any travel website; it was truly a unique, one-of-a-kind tour that illuminated the incredible relationships the Menards have built with virtually every artisan in the surrounding 50-mile radius of their beautiful farmhouse in Cannara.
Without further ado, allow me to tantalize your wanderlust with a destination guide perfect for your next family reunion, group trip, girls trip, an intimate wedding, a 30th birthday—essentially any occasion where you’d like to be surrounded by stunning landscapes, friendly people, incredible food, and endless rolling vineyards.
Stay: La Fattoria del Gelso
Once a bed and breakfast, Via Umbria’s charming farmhouse property is located in the small town of Cannara, a 15-minute drive from the Foligno train station. Several folks on our tour flew into Rome and hopped on the train to Foligno, making this rustic countryside retreat very accessible for International travelers.
I’m not sure how you can beat the 75-degrees-and-sunny weather we experienced every day on our tour this past fall, but apparently the spring and summer are equally beautiful, as the terrain is blossoming with vibrant sunflowers.
Speaking of sunflowers, Umbria is not to be confused with Tuscany. Umbria is the more undiscovered boarding region to the famous Tuscany. In fact, the attitude of the local Umbrians to Tuscans remind me of that with New Yorkers and Boston; they’re so similar that they are naturally competitive and fiercely loyal to their regions respectively.
La Fattoria del Gelso has eight bedrooms and six full bathrooms, sleeping up to 16 people. For 4,000 Euros per week you can have the property to yourself, complete with linens, a private pool with plenty of space for outdoor entertaining, an indoor fireplace, bikes for a jaunt around the countryside, and a working washer and dryer on site, which if you’ve ever traveled in Europe you know is worth it’s weight in gold.
The property boasts fertile ground for local fruit, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and other fresh produce that were highlighted in a pizza dinner one night and breakfast most mornings.
When you book your stay you can work with Suzy and Bill to set up a private driver, onsite chef, grocery deliveries, private dinners, and excursions. The beauty of the property, beyond the physical, is the consultants you gain access to when you rent.
No matter what vacation vibe you are going for, Suzy and Bill can help make your stay as active or as relaxed as you prefer. Their relationships with the small-business owners in the region are unmatched and was evident at every stop on our tour.
If you are up and at ‘em every morning at 8 a.m. there’s plenty to do for a full week. Trust me, we were out the door by 9 a.m. every day and didn’t get back until dinner.
Perhaps better than the daily activities themselves—truffle hunting, chocolate making, ceramic classes, wine tasting, to name a few—were the people we met along the way. I’m hard pressed to recall a trip where I met more talented, passionate, and hospitable artisans. They consider Suzy and Bill to be family, so we were treated as if we had known them for years.
Each morning, we woke up to a home-cooked spread—a part of the tour, but also an option for private guests who would like to take advantage of an onsite chef—with fresh eggs from the chickens on the property. At night we would come home and kick back by the fire with a glass of wine and a book or a board game until a delicious four-course dinner was served. When we weren’t eating family-style at La Fattoria, this is where you could find us breaking bread …
The first stop on our trip was a stone’s throw from the Assisi train station. We got acquainted with our buddies for the week over shared salads and charcuterie at a long communal table at Casa Norcia, a small butcher and restaurant named for the city where cured meats were invented. In Italian quite literally the name for butcher or salami shop is norcineria. We loved the casual, authentic vibe and front of the house market.
When you break out into late-night karaoke with the chef at a small, private dinner, you feel like you’re at home; actually, in Chef Ernesto’s case, you are. Ernesto was born upstairs. His father was the town tailor and the now Michelin guide restaurant, where we sipped on 18 year-old wine and made fresh pasta, was his family’s old wine cellar and garage.
A tour with Suzy and Bill lends itself to an off-the-record experience at Perbacco, aptly named after the god of wine. Our day started at 10 a.m. with a short walk from the farmhouse to the restaurant, which was closed for our private cooking class. We learned how to make everything from fresh pasta to torta testo, traditional Umbria bread that cooks on a plate in the fire place. We left the intimate hole-in-the-wall restaurant no earlier than 10 hours later, leaving wine cellar vacancy and our appetites behind.
On our last night we had a very special dinner at a small, charming glass restaurant in the middle of a park in Bevagna. The head chef, Simone, is close family friends with Bill and Suzy, so we were given the royal treatment. Our truffle dinner consisted of several courses of salad, fresh pasta, and more porchetta—we weren’t mad about it. The ambiance was almost better than the food itself.
Wineries in Umbria are like delicatessens in New Jersey—you can find one at every turn. Suffice it to say, a day in Umbria was not complete without a vineyard tour and tasting, or a delicious vineyard lunch! We quickly learned that Sagrantino, a complex varietal that Umbrian wineries are preserving, is one of the top wines produced in the region and we’ve been scouring wine lists for it ever since.
I’ve visited many a winery, but I can honestly say I’ve never ridden a horse drawn carriage through the vineyards. And certainly not to the backdrop of a sunset on the stunning hilltop town of Assisi. At this organic, biodynamic winery, the DiFillipo family has been employing geese to fertilize the vines and horses to plow the land since 1994, producing seven grape varietals, including Sangiovese (one of my faves).
After your sunset tour through the vineyard, head to the tasting room for a flight and charcuterie pairing. Since this was our first stop of the week, we were too naive to realize that the board pictured below was actually an individual serving and not meant to be shared amongst the group. The foreshadowing to a truly gluttonous week.
This was, hands down, my favorite lunch of the trip. We shared fresh squash blossom fritters, charcuterie, the best Rose I’ve had all year, panzanella salad and roasted porchetta, to the backdrop of a light fall breeze and 140 acres of surreal rolling vineyards speckled with wild horses—it felt like we were in a dream.
The family behind the organic vineyard hail from four generations as lumbers in Umbria, eventually becoming the largest railway producer in Italy. Once they became very knowledgeable in the wood industry, they started to produce hardwood floors and fans, before producing the barrels that are now used for wine. Fun fact: traditionally, the size of the wine barrel was constructed to produce a bottle of wine per day for a year. To this day the average wine barrel should yield about 300 bottles of wine.
You’ll find most European wineries to be certified organic, meaning the wine contains less than 80 sulfites, which is a natural element; no wine exists without sulfites. However, in order to preserve wine it is common to add sulfites to the product, which is what can lead to a nasty hangover.
The beauty of Umbria is that you can explore a new medieval hilltop town every day. Hands down, my two favorites were Assisi and Perugia.
The first hilltop town we visited swept us off our feet with 360-panoramic views of the region. The famous Assisi is the birthplace of St. Francis, the man who dedicated his life to helping the needy, and also his final resting place. A tour of the incredible two-level Basilica built into the side of the hill is a must visit. We were blown away by the peaceful setting and stunning architecture of not only the church, but also the charming town.
I have sweet memories of Perugia, the capital of the Umbria region and home to the world-famous Perugina chocolate factory. Like most towns in Umbria, it’s perched on top of a mountainside, lending to breathtaking views.
The annual chocolate festival was taking place the weekend we visited, so it was particularly romantic and charming. The city itself has an intimate feel, but is big enough to get lost for a day. Home to one of the major Universities in Italy, it had a noticeable youthful vibe.
I was looking forward to this activity the most, probably because there are only a few places in the world where wild truffles are in abundance. Truffle hunting with Pipo the dog was hysterical and a travel memory that will last us a lifetime. We were joined by one of Umbria’s most influential truffle merchant families at a gated grove on the top of a mountainside.
They prefaced our hunt by informing us this has been a very dry season, so our expectations to find truffles were low. But, Pipo prevailed! We spent the next hour yelling “Dai, Pipo, Dai! (go, pipo, go!)” and the rest of the day learning, tasting, and cooking with truffles.
As if the excursion could get any better, we headed back to the home of Saverio and Gabriella Bianconi where we observed cooking techniques and noshed on various dishes with the precious funghi. I will never forget the smell of fresh truffles that filled their entire home.
We sat down for a proper lunch in their living room to sample their take on fresh pastas, a unique savory Parmesan souffle and watercress salad, and sauces infused with the fresh truffles’ incredible flavor. Again, Gabriella proved that all you need to make an incredibly memorable meal is fresh ingredients. If only we all lived within walking distance to sniff out our own truffles!
Chocolate Making Class at La Scuola del Cioccolato
If you ever have the opportunity to take a chocolate making class, please don’t pass. That being said, if you have an opportunity to take a chocolate making class at La Scuola del Cioccolato at the Perugina headquarters, the home of the original Baci (kiss in Italian) chocolate, with a group of friends after a five-hour trip to a vineyard, please jump at the opportunity. Mixing a sugar buzz with a wine buzz lended to one of the more entertaining adventures of our trip.
While we all received certificates for participation, our productions were anything but uniform as we attempted to mimic the instructor who claimed to be “the number two rated chocolate maker in the world.” These were his words, not ours, and they did sound incredibly convincing in broken English. After tasting the treats we left with—certainly enough to bring home to co-workers and friends as souvenirs–it’s hard to believe he didn’t win the world title.
Cipilloini Olive Oil Factory
I will truly never forget the taste of fresh olive oil on a grilled piece of bruschetta from the Cipilloini Olive Oil factory. We arrived at 10 a.m., only hours after they harvested their blend of four different kinds of olives. The Cipilloini family has had olive oil running in their veins since 1850. Their produce was a case study in why Italian food is so memorable, but also very simple: if you use the freshest ingredients, you don’t need to make a meal complex.
After watching the extra virgin process, which means the olives are simply pressed and no chemicals are added to produce the oil, we were each handed a spoon and encouraged to taste the olive oil straight from the spout. Bill pulled me aside and said it was his favorite part of the trip because of how excited Suzy gets to try fresh olive oil.
This was certainly the first time I’ve ever visited an olive oil production site, but I can imagine it never gets old—it was the freshest, thickest, spiciest olive oil I’ve ever tasted. As if the morning could get any better, by 11 a.m. we had a glass of wine in one hand and a plate of freshly grilled onions (abundant in the region), potatoes, and bruschetta—all drenched in fresh olive oil–in the other.
Hot tip: Look for extra virgin olive oil that has a two-year expiration, because EVOO is the opposite of wine, the younger the better.
Tessitura Pardi Textile Factory
If you’ve never been to a weaving mill, let me tell you it is one of the most mesmerizing, fascinating sights to see. If nothing else, it will give you pause when you see a linen, curtain, or piece of clothing handmade from Italy. For more than sixty years the Pardi (best last name ever, I know) family has been known for the production of immaculate Italian home linens and decor. They also happen to own a nearby winery, where we spent the afternoon eating lunch. Textiles and wine, this family got it right.
We got to tour the (very loud) mill that produces the gorgeous table linens sold at Via Umbria, narrated by “Auntie Agusta” the most well-coiffed older Italian woman we’d ever met. We left with linens in tow for our next holiday gathering and a wish list worthy of a full home makeover.
Until you attempt to hand paint a piece of ceramic you can’t truly appreciate the talent, patience, and steady hands these artisan’s posses. We visited the talented Ribigini family at their store front in Deruta, Italy (the team behind the beautiful Geribi ceramics sold at Via Umbria), to try our hand at painting a bespoke version of their traditional peacock feather motif.
It was a fun and relaxing, albeit challenging, way to spend the afternoon as we were surrounded by gorgeous hand painted ceramics for endless inspiration. After the class, the family fires the plates in the kiln and ships them to you directly in the U.S., so the jury is still out on the final product. Regardless, we can’t wait to use them if for nothing else than to remind us of that special day in Umbria.
You don’t have to wait until your next trip to Italy for some of these experiences–everything from the ceramics to the olive oil in this guide are sold at Via Umbria in Georgetown or in the online shop.
BitchBiz: Via Umbria partners with Bitches Who Brunch. While we wrote this piece independently, we do receive compensation from the company.