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The Olive Oil Road

Wed, 02/12/2014


I love the 90-minute drive from Rome to Umbria. 

It is a visual feast. 

In theory, the journey parallels Rome’s ancient Tiber River, as it meanders toward its source, a natural Spring high in the Umbrian hills, in Central Italy.

Outside Rome, the terrain morphs, seamlessly, from flat to hilly then mountainous.  The shift in awareness is gradual.   Nearing the Appenine Mountain range, the foliage becomes lush, verdant.  In the afternoon’s fading light, crossing into Umbria, one of Italy’s 20 unique regions, the olive trees shimmer with a silvery glint.  It is a land of silence and meditation; the spiritual home of St. Francis of Assisi.

It is also the Green Heart of Italy.

Umbria is a place of superb gastronomy—including black truffles, fine country cooking, excellent wines; plus, religious history, and of course, great natural beauty.  Annually, the region hosts the nation’s most prestigious Olive Oil competition, The Ercole Olivario, where approximately 300 of the country’s finest extra virgin olive oil producers are judged, in blind tastings, by  an uncompromising jury:  one of the their peers from each of Italy’s oil producing regions.

But, for the consumer, there are numerous opportunities for extra virgin  olive oil tastings along five routes, which comprise The Olive Oil Road.

One superb local olive oil producer has won awards at The Ercole Olivario, Marfuga Olive Oils.  Pop-in and sample their oils, tour their modern refinery, and see preserved ancient olive presses.  If fatigued, take respite in their adjoining B&B.

To discover the region’s culinary delights in a personal way, contact the Associazione Insegnanti di Cucina Italiana for a local cooking school.  Local chefs expert in Umbria’s country cuisine will host you for lessons. 

Although land-locked ( typically, this infers it will be too hot for viticulture), Umbria’s higher elevations offers its vineyards excellent exposures which have translated to excellent white wines (made from the following grape varities:  Grechetto, Chardonnay and Sauvignon). 

When food appetites have been whetted, visit one of the world-class opera and jazz festivals:  the annual opera festival at Spoleto; and the summer and winter jazz festivals, in Perugia and Orvieto, respectively.

This region of historic hilltop towns showcases medieval architecture  including the region’s capital, Perugia (home also to the Umbria Wine Festival);  plus, smaller, charming locales beckon, such as Assisi, the spiritual home of St. Francis; also, Orvieto, Todi and Spoleto.

First stop, Spoleto.  Check-in to the Hotel Clitunno.  Filippo Tomassoni, the owner, will greet you personally.  This unique boutique property is in the city’s historic medieval center.    If it is summer, venues for the world-famous opera celebration, “The Festival of Two Worlds,” (launched by Gian-Carlo Menotti in 1958) is minutes away on foot.  Its sister-festival in the U.S., is Charleston, South Carolina’s Spoleto Festival (launched in 1977).



36 years ago, Umbria launched its world-class jazz festival.  Annually, in Winter and Summer, luminaries from the jazz world convene along the Olive Oil Road, in Orvieto and Perugia, respectively, to perform.

Not long ago, the celebrated saxophonists Johnny Griffin (Chicago-born, who became a French citizen); and Ron Blake ( a Virgin Islands native, former Chicago resident, now in the NBC Saturday Night Live band) performed together, and Umbria was the setting that forged their friendship.  Griffin, who died in France last year, is fondly remembered by Blake.

Says Blake, “The setting was the Umbria Jazz
Winter Festival in Orvieto.  I was a member of Roy
Hargrove's Quintet and this was my first opportunity to record with
Johnny Griffin. The sessions became part of Roy’s CD, With the
Tenors of Our Time.  I cherish memories of that
week.  Accompanying us in that beautiful town were our families.
Between recording sessions and the festival performance schedule,
we wandered through the narrow streets and discovered the charm of
Umbria, and ate in good restaurants.
Those casual days, which were centered around fine meals — helped shape my understanding of music more so than the proverbial
 questions I was guaranteed to ask. There was also the duet concert between Johnny and Kenny Barron that left an indelible impression in my consciousness—particularly their performance of "Body & Soul." I discovered much of Griff’s style—the humor, the color and expressive cadence of his speaking voice—in his tenor playing.”

The region is also an incubator for talent.  

One of the region’s rising stars is a native of Terni, in Southern Umbria, where she attended the Terni Conservancy:  the classical pianist Cristiana Pegoraro.  Although resident in New York City, the Umbrian native returns frequently for performances.


Begin and end your Italian holiday in The Eternal City, Rome.

The historic  Hotel Hassler, at the crest of the Spanish Steps, offers splendid views of Rome’s famous hills, including Vatican City.  Dine in its rooftop restaurant, Imago, for a reinterpretation of superb regional cuisine and the best views of the city.


To get to Italy, begin your Italian experience aboard the national airline, Alitalia.  For a treat, enjoy the Magnifica Class, with its excellent food, wines and personalized attention.  Seats recline to 60 ° for restful sleep.


To assist with your vacation plan, visit:







  • Trasimeno Hills
  • Orvieto Hills
  • Amerini Hills
  • Assissi-Spoleto Hills
  • Martani Hills

For details, visit:




ARTWORK:  See next two pages


ITALY / UMBRIA REGION / The hilltop town, Trevi  / @JDumas


ITALY / UMBRIA REGION / Olive Oil jugs /@JDumas




ITALY / LAZIO REGION / ROME / Vatican City, as seen from The Hotel Hassler—at the crest of the Spanish Steps /@JDumas