Editor’s note: Umbria is a beautiful region with lots of places to visit especially when you’re traveling with kids. Here’s what Shannon Kenny, our guest author and Editor-in-chief of Italiakids.com recommends.
And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different – deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.
– C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia
As director of Arte al Sole, my young children have had the great fortune of growing up visiting Umbria every summer. In offering families specific recommendations for traveling to the region, I like to begin with a general suggestion to simply give in to the adventure that the landscape offers, and let the children’s imagination be as much a guide as your travel itinerary. Some of our more memorable times in Umbria have included simply watching the gigantic fireflies dance in the woods at dusk, discovering a glistening hedgehog quill that became our talisman at the villa for good luck that week, and ascending the castle ramparts of Lake Castiglione, telling tales of Hannibal’s crossing and musing about what remains of that historic battle beneath the lake now.
Although up for some scholarly debate, it is widely held that author C. S. Lewis borrowed the name Narnia from the Umbrian town of Narni (Latin name Narnia), as a land of forested rolling hills bordered by a mountain range and punctuated by rivers winding through pastoral valleys to sparkling seas of legend in the way beyond, protected by noble castles and people passionate about the land. In fact, in explaining where you are going to your children, this description would suffice!
A visit to the town of Narni today, in southern Umbria, is an opportunity to experience the passage of time from the pre-Roman era to the Renaissance through world-renowned monuments that establish the city in the terrain and in the regional history. As a strategic fortress on the Roman road Via Flaminia, the largest bridge in the ancient Roman world still stands today, straddling the River Nera, the Ponte d’Augusto, built in 27 BC of marble blocks. Other sites include the medieval castle fortress of Rocca Albornoziana, and the Abbey of Monte Cassino. For the more adventurous, the city is also significant for the remains of the Formina Aqueduct, built under the Emperor Tiberius in 27 AC, which can be toured underground to see this feat of engineering up close.
Heading north from Narni, our family stays at Colle San Paolo, a central base for exploring the region, where your local villages include storybook hilltowns such as Panicale, Piegaro, and Paciano. For antiquity buffs, this is Etruscan territory, and even further back there are Neolithic and Bronze Agesites of interest. For art aficionados, these small towns offer a chance to see the work of Perugino and other pre-Raphaelite artists in an intimate setting. Nearby attractions and activities for families include a visit to Lake Trasimeno, with quaint beach clubs on the lake and playgrounds on the waterfront. Families can also visit the islands in the middle of the lake. Parents and children alike will enjoy a visit to the fortified castle in the town of Castiglione del Lago.
Be sure to climb the turreted towers for breathtaking views, and dine in one of the lake view restaurants in town with kid-friendly covered terraces. Perugia is another family-friendly destination, especially with the option of booking the “Chocolate Tour” at the Perugina Chocolate Factory. Also near Perugia is the Città della Domenica adventure park. Our favorite restaurant in this area is Masolino (tel. 075. 837151, Via del Filatoio 4), in Panicale, call a day ahead to book a table on the tiny terrace overlooking the landscapes evoked by C. S. Lewis above. I am gluten-free (“senzaglutine”) and the kitchen always accommodates me nicely, particularly if I mention this when booking our table.
As your adventure continues, be sure to save time for attending local music or regional festivals. Umbria Jazz in Perugia every mid-July includes a kids’ program. One of our favorite historical festivals in the area is the Infiorata in Città della Pieve, held the last week of June in honor of the city’s patron, Renaissance patriarch Luigi Gonzaga, the patron saint of youth and piety. Each year, according to a particular theme, the streets of this meticulous Renaissance hilltown are lined with “paintings” rendered strictly out of the parts of flowers, with heraldric flags lining the cobblestoned streets and markets of sweets and artisanal wares in the piazzas.
Of course these are just a selection of our favorite spots in Umbria to evoke the wonderment for families—there are many more sites of interest should you have more time, among them Todi, Gubbio, Assisi, Orvieto, and the many options for hikes or river excursions in the area.
About the Author
Shannon Kenny is the Editor-in-Chief of Italiakids.com, an online resource for families traveling in Italy, Director of the children’s cultural program for Arte al Sole, with 6 locations in Italy, and Founding Partner of Elaia Travel, a specialty travel concierge with expertise in family travel to Europe.