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Visit the Hilltop Villages of Tuscany and Umbria in Italy

Escape the Tourist Crowds and Settle into the Local Scene

Village of Panicale, Italy in Tuscany.
Surrounded by verdant hills and small farms, the village of Panicale sits atop a hill halfway between Rome and Florence.

The mass in the Chiesa Collegiata di San Michel Arcangelo (Church of St. Michael the Archangel) was ending and so, as they do every Sunday, the young altar boys left the priest’s side and went forth to mingle with the worshipers. They shook our hands and wished us peace before returning to the altar where the priest gave the final blessing in his most solemn tone. But then, to signal that life is also a time to be merry, he grabbed one of his young assistants and tousled his hair.

The youngster laughed, the priest laughed, the parishioners laughed. This would be a good day.

After leaving the church, most went to their homes just a few steps away because nothing is very far away from anything else in Panicale, one of the small towns that peer down on the rest of Italy from the hills of Tuscany and Umbria. But some of us gathered on the patio in front of Aldo Gallo’s small tavern off the town square. There we sipped and noshed, while discussing where to go next.

Restaurant in Panicale, Italy.
Aldo Gallo’s restaurant in the town square is a popular gathering place for both locals and visitors in Panicale.

My wife Lyn and I selected Panicale as a home base for a few reasons: it’s halfway between Rome and Florence, and we had friends who had been there before and gave it high marks. Equally important, the cost for food and lodging is almost minimal compared to prices in the cities.

Also, we were more interested in seeing the countryside than touring the metropolitan areas, so Panicale was ideal because it is close to several other hill towns that are easily accessible by car.

Panicale is a walled community with an off-season population of about 50. Every building inside the walls is literally attached to every other building. The church and an apartment complex share a common wall, and the town hall is squeezed in between two private residences that share a wall with the apartment we rented. The streets are cobblestone and narrow, the locals lean out of second-story windows to chat with friends in the square below, the markets sell fresh produce, homemade pastries, and a good variety of meat and cheese; the clock tower goes “bong” on the hour and “doink” on the half-hour.

Once accustomed to the fact that signage on the Italian back roads is almost non-existent, we were free to roam, so we did. Our language skills were limited but sincere and that, coupled with maps we purchased before leaving home, got us anywhere we wanted to go. The first stop was usually Tavernelle, a larger town about five miles away and site of the nearest gas pump and ATM.

Early on, we selected Montepulciano as a destination, primarily because we liked the way the name rolls off the tongue. It’s not a long trip as the crow flies, but a couple of hours if the crow is driving a rental car on twisting hill roads. The moisture from an early morning rain still glistened on the tiles that cover Piazza Grande as we dined on the sausage and bread we brought along.

We had accepted the fact that by avoiding the cities we’d miss all the major cathedrals that are the usual highlights of any trip to Italy. But, to our delight, we found magnificent churches in every town. The Church of St. Francis in Montepulciano awed us until we came to the Church of St. Agnes, which was stunning but could not compare to the Temple of San Biagio in a valley a short distance below the town.

We chose Assisi as our site of the day. We had been to Assisi before, so we were aware of the splendid Church of St. Francis there, but took a wrong turn and were amazed to find an awesome cathedral dedicated to St. Mary of the Angels in Bastia in the flatlands below Assisi.

From above the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Umbria.
The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi during a festival in his honor. Photo ©Transitions Abroad.

During the 2-week stay, we ate in restaurants only sparingly, opting instead to buy salami, cheese, and bread at the grocery stores we passed almost daily in Tavernelle or Chiusi. This not only reduced expenditures but also offered great opportunities to converse with the storekeepers. We usually ate in our apartment at night, then wandered down the hill to Aldo’s tavern for a glass of wine. After the third evening, we were locals and were expected to give full accounts of our day.

Naturally, we did make a few exceptions to the dining rule. Although it’s very small, Panicale has three excellent restaurants. The exceptional food and personalized service at Albergo Ristorante made it our favorite. Down the hill less than a mile away in the even smaller town of Paciano, we paid under $40 for a delightful meal at La Loggetta, a quaint 3-story restaurant that’s smaller than 20 feet wide.

Meanwhile, back on the road, we ate spelt soup, chickpea soup, scamorza cheese and prosciutto sandwiches, mozzarella panini sandwiches, and artichoke pizzas, none of which cost more than $7. We sampled local wine and beer at $3 per glass and bought top-quality souvenirs in quaint little shops tucked away in the alleys in Orvieto, Cortona, Castiglione del Lago, Todi, and Citta del Pieve. If we arrived around lunchtime, we followed the local workmen into the restaurants they selected, assuming they’d know where the good food and low prices were. It worked every time.

Duoma Cathedral in Orvieto, Italy.
The magnificent duomo in Orvieto is less than a half-day drive from Panicale.

With the possible exception of trying to find a parking space in Orvieto, there were no downsides. Although we missed a couple of turns, we never got lost. And in those occasional instances when we needed better directions, we approached the citizenry with our map and broken Italian and were never shown anything but the utmost courtesy.

So we visited towns that aren’t in the tourist mainstream, and going it alone instead of with a tour group saved us more than $1,000. More importantly, it was the best vacation we’ve ever had.

For More Info

Our apartment in Panicale averaged about $65 per day. Panicale also has two hotels. Bed and breakfasts abound in the area, and they range from efficiency layouts like ours to farmhouses to huge country villas.

Some of the best meals we found were in Assisi (Pozzo della Mensa), Orvieto (Ristorante Maurizo), Cortona (Pizzeria Croce del tra Cortona), Radda in Chianti (Eateria Dante Alighier) and Pisa (Trattoria del Michele). If the desire for dessert gets overwhelming, there are wonderful little pastry shops in every hill town, and gelato dispensaries are numerous.

For more information visit Bella Umbria for lists of events and for hotels, and airbnb or VRBO for B&Bs, and vacation rentals, which are generally much cheaper, flexible, and more comfortable.

Related Topics
Independent and Solo Travel
Italy: Collected Articles and Resources

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