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Wild boars, Roman ruins and piles of colourful gelato: Italy’s Umbria is a fun and enchanting break for families

For hundreds of years, Roman Catholics have travelled from all over the world to witness the soaring majesty of Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis.

Just a few miles across the rolling hills of Umbria, a more modest pilgrimage has taken place for almost as long.

Magisterial: Escape the crowds in Gubbio, northeast Umbria, which has Roman theatre ruins

Every Sunday, the doughty and devout inhabitants of the vast Murlo estate gathered at the 14th-century chapel of San Savino to worship, laugh and gossip.

Today, the laughter and chatter is from my children as they leap in the swimming pool just outside the old chapel window. The chapel has been deconsecrated and extended into a large house with thick stone walls.

A holiday here is the very opposite of mass tourism. There is only the cry of a cuckoo echoing across a valley so green it could be in Surrey.

Except, of course, for the elegant cypress trees that mark out the villa’s drive and the olive groves on the hillsides.

And, if you have binoculars to hand, the wild boar, fallow deer and hares that scamper around the enchanting countryside.

Standing above the lot is Murlo castle, a four-square fortress, part of which dates to the 11th century.

The chatelaine is Carlotta Radziwill, whose husband is related by marriage to Jackie Kennedy’s sister Lee.

It has been Carlotta’s labour of love to renovate the five villas on the estate. When we hike through it all with our children, nine-year old Alice and Mike, 12, we find Carlotta and her brood playing with the animals on one of the farms.

Tranquil: The  Murlo estate's villas, including San Savino (pictured), are perfect for families

Tranquil: The Murlo estate’s villas, including San Savino (pictured), are perfect for families

Driving up to the San Savino villa two miles or so through the woods requires revving the engine up steep inclines and around sharp corners. But it’s well worth the effort.

For the first couple of days, all we want to do is sit by the pool and marvel at the views.

San Savino is a place where your children will embrace nature, whether it’s studying the birds gliding on the warm currents, the crickets in the garden or the black farm cat that follows us for more than a mile on a walk one day.

Alice christens her Cleopatra, and is miffed when she can’t take her back with us to the villa.

Rise and shine: Dine al fresco on breakfast  delivered  fresh daily to your villa

Rise and shine: Dine al fresco on breakfast delivered  fresh daily to your villa

Without the dreaded Xbox, books are read, and there are family games of Cluedo that remind us grown-ups what holidays where like when we were small.

Blissfully, every morning a housekeeper arrives to set out our breakfast on a vast old oak table. For dinner, we cruise down to Il Caldaro at the bottom of the hill, the restaurant attached to the 18-hole championship course that makes the estate so attractive to golfers.

Here, our pizzas are cooked in the flames of the original medieval oven and the local antipasti — salami, cheese, olives and puff pastry — is scrumptiously good value at £11.

The delicious red wine is from Montepulciano and is an even more gratifying £3.40 a glass.

If you’re feeling active, the estate can fix up mountain biking, which is a fine way to get around the meandering woodland trails. But our children are happy to simply potter about at the house and play frisbee on the enormous lawn.

During our early summer stay, it is unseasonably soggy, but even a downpour doesn’t stop Alice climbing out of a window so she can plunge into the pool.

Umbria boasts a series of ancient hill towns. And one day we drive a few miles south to Assisi and sit silently absorbing the vast frescoes by Giotto along the basilica walls which describe the life of St Francis.

Meanwhile, Alice and Mike wonder (out loud) how long it will be before they can dive into the mountains of brightly coloured ice cream in the gelaterias outside.

Pilgrimage: Spend a day in Assisi to take in the life of St Francis  — and enjoy the gelaterias too

Pilgrimage: Spend a day in Assisi to take in the life of St Francis  — and enjoy the gelaterias too

They collapse into fits of giggles when they walk into one ice cream parlour that sports a large hand-drawn sign advertising ‘Slush poopies’.

If you prefer to escape the crowds, head for Gubbio a little further north, a fiercely independent outpost that defied the Nazis and paid a heavy price for doing so.

It’s a magisterial place with a Roman theatre, soaring towers, crenellations, silent marble squares and even a chairlift — basically a metal basket — up to the church on the hilltop.

It would certainly give the health and safety people back home conniptions. As we soar above the trees, Alice whoops with delight.

Umbria may be Tuscany’s less fashionable cousin, but I’d choose it every time.

Travel Facts: Plan your own escape to Umbria

Ryanair (, 0871 246 0000) flies to Perugia from £26 return.

The eight-person San Savino villa on the Murlo estate (Tenuta di Murlo) costs from £2,500 per week (,, 00 39 346 734 3527).