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A walk in Umbria Add to ...

I loved him for that, and I loved his country just as much. From that point on, we adapted a little better to our Italian surroundings. Since it was officially sweet to do nothing, my sunburned daughter decided to skip much of the walking and accompany the baggage in Lara's van, where the two young women discussed the shopping opportunities in Spoleto and the pleasures of travelling on the back of a Vespa with a man who is not your father.

I didn't take offence. I still got to walk, after all, and at a good brutal pace that didn't feel quite so much like open-air window-shopping. When I found myself staring nervously at a far-off shape that turned out to be a wild-boar carcass, or trying to calm an English couple who were certain they were lost on a lonely mountain (been there), or struggling to climb an almost vertical hillside -- so steep that every time I stopped to catch my breath, my boots started sliding downward -- I felt glad that Liz was off comparing lifestyle notes with Lara.

I wish she'd been with me, though, when I followed an abandoned train line over a mountain toward Spoleto, coming across a railway viaduct in what was now the middle of nowhere, or walking a delightfully eerie 200 metres through a curving pitch-black tunnel. Nothing on our trip felt more unlike a Tampa shopping mall than those few seconds of menacing darkness, and I know she would have laughed when we actually saw the light at the end of the tunnel -- a cliché come to life.

She missed the pleasure of climbing for a good 90 minutes out of a deep river valley, and the layered views of distant landscapes you got when you finally allowed yourself to turn around. "Do you see that mountain?" I would have said, pointing off into the distant mists. "We were standing on it four days ago."

And all those tiny, compacted hillside villages, with their claustrophobic passageways, and postage-stamp piazzas and prowling cats -- they felt much lonelier without her by my side.

But within a few hours, I'd cross the glorious aqueduct into Spoleto's streets or march down the tree-lined canal into the perfect village of Scheggino, where we'd meet up and compare our days. She'd have as much to say about absurd Italian TV shows and courtly hotel managers and local underwear shops as I would about cliffs I'd nearly fallen off when my cap clipped an overhanging branch, or walking sticks I'd improvised to get my sore feet down an impossible gravel track.

And then together we'd go out and study the trout in the fast-flowing river beside the hotel, how they rest almost motionless waiting for their dinner to hurtle by them -- a fine Umbrian parable for what can be achieved by sitting still and seeming to do nothing.

GETTING THERE

Bordered on the west by Tuscany and on the east by the Apennine Mountains, Umbria is easily accessible from the main A1 highway or by train from Termini station in Rome. The Eurostar to Spoleto in the southeast part of the region takes 75 minutes and costs about $19Cdn.

Perugia is the major city in Umbria, well-known for its Italian courses offered for foreigners. Assisi, Orvieto and Spoleto are treasuries of art and culture.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Gattapone: Via del Ponte 6, Spoleto; phone: 39 (0743) 223 447.

Albergo Aurora: Via Apollinare 3, Spoleto; phone: 39 (0743) 220 315.

Hotel Del Ponte: Via di Borgo, Scheggino; phone: 39 (0743) 612 53; Web: www.bellaumbria.net/hotel-delponte.

FOODS OF THE REGION

The food in Umbria is simple but delicious -- look for local prosciutto and salami; crostini topped with wild-mushroom paste; Castelluccio lentils; spelt (farro) cooked like risotto or in a tomato broth; pasta such as strangozzi or pappardelle sauced with truffles; stewed wild boar; river trout; Umbrian olive oil; pecorino cheese and rich red wine made from the Sagrantino and Sangiovese grapes.

HIKING

While Tuscany is well-served by walking tours, Umbria remains off the beaten track. The British travel company ATG Oxford, which offers both escorted, independent and specialty walks (including trips that focus on Umbrian wildflowers and truffle-hunting), has designed its own network of routes along sheep tracks, gravel roads, riverside paths and forest trails. The author's trips was titled Unknown Umbria. For more information, call 44 (1865) 315663 or visit the Web site at http://www.atg-oxford.co.uk.

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