River deep, mountain high

Sunshine, breathtaking scenery and wine and food to die for are just the opening attractions of Umbria. But there's more – it's a great place for an activity holiday, as Jo Bayne found out.

Mount Sibillini National Park is known as the green heart of Umbria. With no heavy industry, its rivers, forests and fields are unpolluted – resulting in an abundance of flora and fauna, including tiny wild orchids, gentians, yellow and purple violets, mushrooms, deer, snakes, frogs and wild boar.

The wild landscape lends itself to a number of energetic activities: walking, climbing, cycling, hang gliding and paragliding, sailing, canoeing and white water rafting – though it's also good to just potter, admire the views and listen to the sounds of nature.

Despite the growing popularity of outdoor sports, the area remains unspoilt, largely because it is way off the usual tourist track.

A car is a good idea to get you to a focal point, but, once there, Shanks’s pony or a bike allow you to breathe some of the purest air you will find anywhere – you can’t hear cicadas, birdsong, or a frogs’ chorus from inside a car.

My companions and I were based in Norcia in the foothills of the Sibillini mountains. The birthplace of St Benedict in the fifth century, it is one of the gems of the area and perhaps its culinary capital, famed as it is for its expertise in curing and processing pork – including wild boar.

The walled town, rising out of the plain of Santa Scolastica, is 700 years older than Rome. It has seven stone gateways, plus one secret passage, seven squares punctuating its maze of narrow streets, and it has been flattened seven times by earthquakes – the last about 300 years ago. The recurrence of the number seven is a coincidence to conjure with.

Norcia has given its name to norcineria, an official dictionary term for a pork butcher. Salamis, prosciutto, mortadella and any number of sausages are just a few of the pork variations. Absolutely nothing of the pig is wasted.

It may not sound a first choice venue for vegetarians, but the area is also a prime centre for growing lentils and farro, or spelt, a barley-like grain, wild spinach, and, more famously, truffles. There are also a number of small and large cheese-makers nearby – ricotta, formaggio and mozzarella are local favourites.

Norcia is a three-hour drive from Rome. The nearest railway station is Spoleto, about an hour away. Our host, Lucio Santi, who with his wife Antonella, owns Residence Fusconi just off the main piazza in Norcia, collected us from Rome airport. The very comfortable Residence Fusconi, once the town house of one of Norcia’s noblemen, now divided into spacious holiday apartments, is one of the properties under the umbrella of the Cottages to Castles organisation, specialists in Italian villas.

Cottages to Castles, which has been growing for the past 20 years, is run by father and son Claudio and Jonathan Magoni, and Jonathan was our guide and interpreter on a five day whistle-stop tour of Umbria’s attractions.