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Assisi, Todi, and Spoleta - ancient towns of Umbria

The hills of Umbria are old, round, and green. They stick straight up out of the plain, which grows grapes and olives in tawny earth that forms clods as big as your foot, so that it looks like thick corduroy from far away. Ancient towns made of pink stone sit on the hills like barnacles, surveying this lush and peaceful landscape.

You can get up to these old vantage points on day trips from Perugia. By car (the best way to go), Assisi is 20 minutes away, Todi about 45, and Spoleto is an hour's drive - but you can get there by bus or train if you have time and patience. Walk their walls, visit cathedrals decorated by Perugino, Giotto, and other masters, look out over the plains, and let the peaceful atmosphere and the golden light sink in.

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Assisi's streets are narrow and steep. The place is so quiet you can feel the cats watching you trudge down the narrow alleys and walks, as birds circle above and the rosemary, which hangs abundantly over the walls, perfumes the air. Could it be the peacemaking of St. Francis is still having its effect? He wrote the first poem in Vulgate Latin, which became Italian: the Canticle of the Creatures. He is said to have persuaded a wolf from nearby Gubbio to stop attacking people, and one day he was so happy he preached a sermon to the birds.

The cathedral built to him is immense: Brother Elias, who built it after his death, was blamed for departing from the Franciscan vow of poverty, and Giotto's frescoes of St. Francis's life are here. But the Church of St. Clare, a follower of Francis, is much simpler and more beautiful as a building. Sitting at the edge of the Assisi hilltop, it has three flying buttresses gracefully holding the ground like spider legs. The church is made in a pattern of pink Assisi stone and white travertine. From the Rocca Maggiore, a ruined fortress at the top of the hill, there's a beautiful view of green hillsides with the faintest of lines traced on them, vineyards showing through the mist.

Spoleto is a good place to visit, whether the Festival of Two Worlds (end of June through about July 10) is on or not. The festival presents symphonic and chamber music, ballet, opera, and art exhibits by world class performers and artists. When everyone goes home, Spoleto offers quieter pleasures. Next to the railroad station there's a wonderful Calder stabile.

In recent years, our guide told us, there were modern statues all over Spoleto. Now, she said with evident satisfaction, there are only three. You have to forgive anyone who has spent time in Spoleto for a certain snobbishness toward modern times. I found myself looking down my nose at one building because it had been restored - in the Renaissance. I couldn't help it. I had just seen the Emperor Vespasian's mother's house.

There is a magnificent 13th-century aqueduct, the Ponte delle Torri, whose towering arches step across a gorge, bringing sweet spring water to the city from the neighboring forest. It's a rehab of Roman remains. You can walk across it, and the view is lovely.

Turning left after the aqueduct, I walked up the city's flank and found myself at a little cafe perched on a corner of the hill, looking down the valley into the sunset. Townspeople were sitting there savoring the golden light and the green landscape; their children were eating ice cream. The cathedral is on a beautiful, wide, cobbled square. You come down on it from the hillside, and everyone looks wonderful against the light-colored cobblestones, as if they are in a gorgeous movie. The wide windowsills at street level around town were used as shops in medieval times.

Todi is a tiny town of great beauty. There is a wonderful restaurant there, Ristorante Umbria, with a patio that looks out from the hillside across the fields. A fine place to have a plate of fresh pasta with tomatoes, or perhaps truffles, a specialty of Umbri. Another Umbrian taste treat is crostini rusticci , which is grilled Italian bread with either chopped mushrooms and garlic or chopped local vegetables and something translated to me as ''greens'' (which was much tastier than that word suggests) and plenty of green Umbrian olive oil. After eating, go back out to the square and sit up high on the steps of the cathedral to watch the crusty stones bake in the golden sun. Time stands still, then suddenly it's early evening.

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There are many other little hilltop towns in Umbria, each with its own delights. The cathedrals, mostly dating from the Middle Ages, are especially worthwhile. Most of them have paintings of Bible stories for parishioners who couldn't read.

There are fewer people living in these old towns than in centuries past, but the people who are here are friendly. One woman invited a group of us in to see her storehouse, hung with drying tomatoes and grapes, just because we seemed curious about it. Hill towns are good for curious people: They're full of secrets to be found out.

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