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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Well-informed travelers to Italy probably already know Paul Hofmann's Cento Citta: A Guide to the "Hundred Cities and Towns" of Italy , which almost instantly became a basic handbook for visitors. The same is true of Hofmann's other fine books on the country; outstanding among them are That Fine Italian Hand and 1998's The Seasons of Rome:A Journal , which has just been published in paperback.
Hofmann was for many years Rome bureau chief of The New York Times and has lived in Rome for decades. Now well into his 80s, he brings to the printed page not only a polished style and artistic sensibility but the experiences of a lifetime spent in a country he adopted long ago and loves deeply.
In recent years, countless books have focused on the beautiful region of Tuscany, which surrounds the city of Florence. Following his own heart, however, Hofmann turns his interest elsewhere in his new book, Umbria: Italy's Timeless Heart.
Umbria lies at the center of the Italian peninsula, south of Tuscany, about halfway between Rome and Florence. Stretched out along National Route No. 3, once (and still) the ancient Roman highway known as the Via Flaminia, its farthest reaches are no more than three hours by car or train from the capital. But it will take any visitor much more than three hours to traverse the region because Umbria, the land of the ancient Etruscans, embraces the towns of Assisi, Spoleto, Perugia, and Orvieto and a generous handful of equally interesting and picturesque places.
Umbria has always attracted visitors, fromtheRoman historian Pliny the Younger to Lord Byron in the 19th century and D. H. Lawrence in the 20th. (Lawrence's Etruscan Places is about Umbria, though most of the ancient sites we can visit today were still hidden underground when he was there in 1930.)
And the reasons are obvious to even the casual visitor. Assisi: famous as the birthplace of St. Francis and for its frescoes (damaged in a September 1997 earthquake). Orvieto: famous for its wine. Perugia: famous for its Perugia chocolates and for its university (attended by, among others, many American students who failed to gain entrance to U.S. medical schools). And, of course, Spoleto: famous for its annual Festival of Two Worlds, founded by the Italian-American composer, Gian Carlo Menotti.
Every morning, giant buses bring daytripping tourists from Rome across the Umbrian valleys and up the mountains to the scenic towns, and then whisk them back to Rome in time for evening coffee on the Via Veneto. But you probably won't be satisfied with that mere glimpse of Umbria after reading Hofmann's informative and engaging book.
He seems to know every picturesque inch of this region, and he can spin out an endless string of good stories about saints and sculptors, generals and emperors, popes and poets, all as if they lived only recently. He even knows good stories about wine and olives and truffles. He'll tell you about the special properties of celery in the town of Trevi. And, believe me, you're better off learning the name of that traditional local sausage from him than from somebody else.
You might well visit one of the hotels on the "Umbrian Riviera" along the northern shore of large Lake Trasimeno. And while you're there, you'll certainly reflect on one of Hofmann's vivid tales. In 217 B.C., the Carthaginian general Hannibal, having crossed the Alps from Spain and wintered in northern Italy, was moving south toward Rome. On a misty spring morning of that year, a large Roman army was marching along the northern shore of Lake Trasimeno, near where the hotels are today. Hannibal's silent troops were hidden in the fog-shrouded hills above and caught them by surprise, destroying the entire force. Modern developers and farmers still occasionally dig up artifacts from the battle, and sometimes a bone or two.
Hofmann's text is filled with useful and specific information in addition to the old stories and personal experiences, all of it provided in the casual tone of an old friend who happens to have lived in and loved these places for most of his life.
Appended to the book is a 30-page directory with detailed information on sights, hotels, restaurants, driving directions, and telephone numbers, all designed to ease the visitor's path to the beauties and treasures of Umbria. Umbria: Italy's Timeless Heart — a history, guidebook, and warm companion all in one — is a small Umbrian treasure itself.
— Alan Ryan