Umbria, situated right in the middle of Italy, is known as the ``cuore verde'' (green heart) of Italy. As I sat on the mostly glass bus that took us on the two-hour drive north of Rome last July, I drank in not only the green heart - the grape arbors, the olive trees, the lush tobacco fields - but the dazzling fields of bright yellow sunflowers. I marveled at how much of Italy is cultivated. By the time we reached the charming medieval town of Perugia, I had forgotten the manic bustle of my New York life and was ready for a quiet stay in the region that many native Umbrians regard as a place for reflection and retreat.
My reason for being in Perugia, however was the Umbria Jazz Festival - an event hardly suited to moments of quiet contemplation. The streets were already alive with the sounds of a visiting Dixieland band from France. A gaggle of street musicians was giving them some competition at the Fontana Maggiore in the main square.
I was staggered by the study in contrasts. Here I was in Perugia, a charming and well-preserved medieval town, to hear 20th-century American music. Well, why not? The Umbria Jazz Festival is a 12-year-old musical celebration, sponsored by Alitalia Airlines, the Umbrian Tourist Board, and Perugina chocolates, and it's one of Europe's most prestigious cultural events.
After settling into the Hotel Brufani and grabbing a quick nap, I ventured out into the streets to soak up a bit of the flavor of Perugia before the evening concert.
I soon discovered that the town is a fitting spot for a music festival - a real cultural center, in fact. It boasts two universities, an academy of fine arts, a conservatory of music, an art gallery, and an archaeological museum.
Further explorations found me inside the Town Hall, built in the 13th century and ablaze with colorful frescoes and coats of arms with stories of animals and scenes from the Bible. Not far away is the Collegio di la Mercancia (Guild of Merchants) built in 1467 with a vaulted ceiling and dark inlaid wooden walls carved in incredible detail with gothic flowers. Its sister building, the Collegio de Cambio (Guild of Bankers) is decorated with bright frescoes, painted by Perugino and Rafael at the end of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Perugia dates back to the days of the Etruscans, and the next day I stumbled on an ancient Etruscan well, hidden deep inside stone walls and passageways and dating back to the 3rd or 4th century BC. Although the water level is rather low today, that well once supplied water to an entire city.
Like so many Italian towns, Perugia has gone to great pains to preserve its ancient ruins. The center of the city, which is closed to traffic and situated high in the hills, is reached by modern escalators that ascend through Perugia's formerly buried medieval and Renaissance ruins. One rides a series of these up through the interior of ancient stone structures. It's a fascinating tour through history, revealing the old streets, churches, and homes that were uncovered only in the 1960s.
The Hotel Rosetta restaurant, a few doors down from the Brufani, turned out to be the meeting and eating place for visiting musicians and people connected with the festival. And no wonder - the food at the Rosetta is varied and delicious, and the waiters most helpful to those of us who were struggling with our meager Italian.
The next few days found me and my traveling companions taking side trips to three of the neighboring Umbrian towns: Assisi, Spoleto, and Orvieto. At Assisi we visited the Cathedral of St. Francis, of course, which houses not only the tomb of the Saint himself, but impressive frescoes by Giotto.
But the most beautiful cathedral was in Orvieto, a town famous for its pottery. The sides, back, and interior of the church are built of alternating wide stripes of black and white stone, and the entire front fa,cade is a riot of colorful mosaics depicting scenes from the Bible.
That afternoon we ate at La Badia, a 12th-century castle-turned-hotel/restaurant, just outside Orvieto. Simply charming - and some of the best food on the whole trip.
Our tour of Spoleto took us on a walk through a region where truffles, a specialty of that town, are found. I was surprised to find out that they are dug up not by pigs but dogs.
We had the pleasure of eating lunch at the Panciolle restaurant in a lovely outdoor caf'e facing a small park, where the local specialty was featured: strango - a pasta dish smothered in a sauce made of mushrooms and the famous Spoleto truffles.
The evenings were spent back in Perugia, listening to Buddy Rich, Al Jarreau, Sphere, Ahmad Jamal, and other jazz greats. After the main concerts, hundreds of fans packed the local clubs to hear still more jazz.
This July 10-19, Cab Calloway, guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonist Dexter Gordon, and Miles Davis will be among the featured artists at the festival. Practical information
For further information write Umbria Jazz, PO Box 228 06100, Perugia, Italy; or Jazz Times, 8055 13th St., Silver Spring, MD 20910.
Alitalia, Trans World Airlines, and Pan American World Airways have daily non-stop service from New York to Rome. SwissAir and Lufthansa stop in their European gateway cities. Contact your travel agent for specifics.