TODI, Italy — The brilliant winter day was crisp, clear and not too cold. The sun glinted on snowy mountaintops far in the distance, giving a golden tinge to the earthy browns and russets of closer forested hills.
I was driving the satisfying curves of a country road in southern Umbria. The air was so clear it seemed to magnify everything in sight, and every so often there would come the scent of wood smoke from a farmhouse hearth.
As I rounded a bend I slammed on the brakes so I could take in an eerie panorama. Fog, white, dense and smooth, filled the valley below like a thick, silent sea. At intervals, for miles into the distance, the church towers and old fortified walls of a hilltop town or village poked up through the calm surface into the sunlight.
They were islands above the clouds, cities in the sky, floating and dreamlike, hard to connect with the reality of mundane life, or Italy in the 1980s.
"Here is Italia Mystica," Englishman Edward Hutton wrote about Umbria more than 80 years ago, "full of lovely and magical cities and the byways of the saints."
I drove on, more slowly. Umbria sits like a misshapen mitten on the Italian boot, inland from both coasts, at just about the point where the "calf" bulges into the Adriatic.
Oddly Remote Place
Despite its central location and famous attractions such as Assisi, Perugia, Orvieto and Spoleto, it remains oddly remote from the usual tourist routes, for most visitors to Italy a place to pass through en route between Rome and Florence.
But an excursion into Umbria's hidden charms makes a perfect two- or three-day jaunt or even a day trip from Italy's more famous tourist centers, taking the traveler into a region where the tourist can still feel like an explorer.
Todi, one of those cities in the sky overlooking the Tiber valley in central Umbria, makes a good base for such exploration. It is a two-hour drive from Rome, taking the Autostrada (toll road) to Orte, then the superstrada (expressway).
I would recommend, however, taking the Autostrada only as far as Magliano Sabina (the first exit after entering the toll road) and winding to Todi through the countryside.
The drive is gorgeous, the scenery good for the soul. Umber, the color of earth, is said to have been named for Umbria and "earthy" is a good description of the hues and features of the landscape, and of the rural life style and traditions that characterize the region.
Chestnut and olive groves, vineyards and tilled fields (including in the summer, brilliant yellow fields of sunflowers) cover slopes and valleys. Housewives cook over open wood fires and sheep occasionally block the road.
The lonely ruins of 800-year-old military watchtowers loom through the trees on isolated ridges and medieval fortified villages, looking much as they did 500 or 1,000 years ago, crown hills or were built halfway up a gentle mountain.
Some, like Sismano and Casigliano a few miles from Todi, include the remains of huge fortresses. Park the car and walk inside through the village gates: You feel as if you are inside an ancient castle or citadel (you are). In Casigliano, for example, all the houses are arranged in a circle around a piazza, like pioneer covered wagons ringed for defense.
The larger towns, Otricoli and Narni, pyramid-shaped Amelia with its 2,500-year-old walls of hewn rock, the ancient spa towns of San Gemini and Acquasparta that still produce mineral water, all preserve the look of the past. It's well worth it to stop to explore the narrow streets and stark medieval churches.
Roman Ruins Nearby
Nearby are other sights, such as the extensive Roman ruins at Carsulae between San Gemini and Acquasparta.
The Gabelletta restaurant outside Amelia is a favorite stopping place. Run by an Italian and his English wife, it serves traditional Umbrian fare, specializing in grilled meats--the guinea hen or faraona is delicious--and game. The pappardelle con la lepre , wide noodles with hare sauce, is excellent and the stuffed dried figs, an Amelia specialty, make a tasty sweet.
Todi, whose history dates back to before the Romans, sprawls down the steep slopes of a 1,300-foot hill, dominating the Tiber valley against the dramatic backdrop of the Appenine Mountains to the east.
The first view of the town is the spire of the 13th-Century Church of San Fortunato jutting from the peak of the hill, the medieval stone buildings of the town flowing down the slope. All within the circle of ancient walls, some of them dating to pre-Roman Etruscan times.
At the foot of the hill sits the extraordinary and totally unexpected 16th-Century Church of Our Lady of the Consolation, a tall, white, elegant dome and rounded Greek cross.
A Beautiful Square
Todi's main square, Piazza Maggiore, is considered one of the most beautiful in Italy, even if its harmony is somewhat spoiled by its being used as a parking lot.
Like most of the town it is medieval, dating to the 13th Century, though it's built on the site of the Roman forum.