FEELING AT HOME

A couple in Umbria offers an intimate Italian experience

Tuscany’s trademark rolling hills and laid-back lifestyle represent the Italy that weary souls often dream of. But Umbria, the adjoining central Italian region, best known as the home of St. Francis of Assisi, offers equally picturesque charm without the throng of tourists. No longer referred to as Tuscany’s “gentler sister,” Umbria, and its charming hill town of Spoleto, offers its own unique travel experience.

Spoleto is a city steeped in both ancient and medieval history and modern civility (it was a Roman colony more than 200 years before the birth of Christ). With less than 40,000 people, part of Spoleto’s charm is its narrow cobblestone streets. Here, folks stop to “take a coffee” in one of the town’s many piazzas, or public squares, as well as chat with friends during the nightly passeggiata, or evening stroll. This is what attracted 32-year-old Chicago native Aminah Ricks to this town. She has since founded Il Regalo (www.ilregalo.com), a business that exports Umbria’s trademark handmade Deruta ceramics, handcrafted Montefalco linens, and gourmet foods. She has also, with Fabio Cuzzi, launched Il Regalo Tours, a travel service that offers visitors an intimate experience.

“Maybe a person who comes here is not just looking for the standard tour, but something introspective, more spontaneous,” says Cuzzi, who’s also lived in Spain and Canada. “It’s a return to the simple life.”

Adds Ricks: “Personalized tours based on the preferences of our clients is our specialty, and we include places not listed in the major guidebooks to create a tailored and unique experience.” There are a number of activities that include local businesses. Food enthusiasts might want to take a cooking lesson at Spoleto’s Ristorante Apollinare (www.ristoranteapollinare.it) with chef Andrea Scotacci or learn the secrets of olive oil pressing. “If a person likes gourmet food and great wine,” says Ricks, “we can provide information [about] the best preparation tips and what wines to pair it with.”

Practical art lovers can discover how handmade Deruta ceramics take shape; they can also stroll the region’s medieval streets in search of architectural gems. Nature highlights include guided walks and hikes through surrounding forests and pastures.

Another reason to visit Spoleto: the internationally renowned, two-week-long Festival dei Due Mondi, or the Festival of Two Worlds (www.spoletofestival.it). This summer’s lineup featured Afro-Brazilian performances from DanceBrazil.

Il Regalo Tours will soon offer its own villas and bed and breakfasts. Until then, Ricks and Cuzzi are hosting guests at Spoleto palazzos and hotels that offer great views of the surrounding locale.

“When you travel,” says Cuzzi, “you’re always looking for a contact to tell you where to go, when to go.”

“And since we live here in this Umbrian experience,” adds Ricks, “we aim to always share the best of [what] we live and know.”

Spoleto is easily reached from Rome (express trains takes less than two hours) or Florence (about three and a half hours). For more information, visit www.ilregalo.com/tours.

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