Escaping to Umbria: Living the good life in the heart of Italy
Umbria is Italy’s hidden jewel. Situated in the heart of Italy, bordering with Tuscany, Lazio and Le Marche, it’s the perfect destination for those looking for a taste of la dolce vita without the crowds, says Julianna Barnaby.
We were gathered around the laden table, a spread of hot and cold Italian dishes before us, a few bottles of chilled wine in coolers to the side. It was a welcome sight after an early start and the perfect way to officially start our time in Umbria.
Welcome to life in Santi Terzi, a medieval Italian villa located in the historic Umbrian town of San Gemini. I’d been looking for a luxury getaway to Italy and was lured in by the villa’s cavernous interior, not to mention the impressive views it boasted over the surrounding countryside.
Online it had looked too good to be true, in person it was even better: a magical warren of high-ceilinged rooms, spacious terraces and, on the lower level, a lush garden complete with a pool and sun deck. Not forgetting the villa’s own private tower – reached by climbing a few flights of stairs, it has to have one of the best views of any building in the region.
It’s very rarely that a property exceeds already high expectations, but it’s safe to say that Santi Terzi did so with ease.
Beautiful as the villa was, I wanted to explore Umbria as much as possible during the time we had. San Gemini itself is a magnificent town: stately and composed, brimming with medieval architecture, small cafes and restaurants. It’s the Italy of E.M Forster and of the Grand Tour, seemingly unchanged by decades past.
Wandering around the town’s small roads and passageways, winding steeply upwards and down is pleasure enough in itself. There are ample places to stop for refreshment, a cappuccino in the morning, an afternoon espresso or maybe a pre-dinner aperitif. The main square, the Square of Saint Francis is the perfect place to sit down and watch the gentle pace of the town ebb and flow.
Still, pleasant as it is to watch the world go by, this wasn’t going to be one of those trips. Umbria is bursting with things to do and places to see and I wanted to do it at least some justice.
Adrenaline on the Rapids
The very first afternoon, we took to the waters of the Nera River paddles in hand to go white water rafting. If you’ve never thought of white water rafting in Italy, you really should. The rapids were just tame enough to make a complete novice like me comfortable, but fast enough to get the adrenaline pumping. The banks of the river whizzed by as we paddled furiously along the river, ducking under low-hanging branches and gripping onto the raft when we’d occasionally take a bump or two. Plus, there are plenty of other courses for more experienced rafters to test their skill and their nerve on.
The Black Diamond
You can’t go to Umbria (or anywhere in Italy in fact) without taking some time to explore the local cuisine. In the full heart of “working” for our supper, we took to the woods for “la tartufaia”, otherwise known as the truffle hunt. Umbria is at the heart of Italy’s truffle region – chasing behind the expert dogs as they snuffled and dug up the truffles helped me to understand the true value of the “black diamonds”.
After the hunt, we headed to the kitchens of the well-renowned Ristarante a Ferentillo and watched as they took the truffles and turned them into a flavourful sauce. Of course, after the hunting and the cooking came the dining.
Ferentillo hasn’t garnered a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the region without reason. Yet of all of the tasty dishes they served that lunch, my favourite was one of the simplest – a soft-boiled egg with truffle sauce and fresh ciabatta. Well worth the morning’s effort.
A New Skill
Another culinary highlight came in the form of a cooking class with local chef and Umbrian food aficionado Lorena Autuori. Lorena guided us through the delicate art of making potato gnocchi: bringing the ingredients together and lightly working them to make a dough, which we then rolled into long sausage-like formations, cut and shaped. A handy skill to have. Afterwards we sat down to dinner as she brought out dish after dish of expertly-prepared Umbrian cuisine.
Exploring on Two Wheels
It can be too easy to zip around a region in a car, but sometimes you only really discover its beauty when you take the time to explore it on two wheels. We set off from the Caprai Winery to cycle through the nearby countryside. The first section of the ride was on a road, but within a few minutes we’d diverted onto the small foot-and-cycle paths we remained on for the rest of the trip.
I began to understand why Umbria is nicknamed the “green heart” of Italy. We passed field after field of vegetables, olive groves, orchards, and of course, vineyards as we cycled along the dusty paths.
We’d stopped off a few times for quick refreshment in various pretty locations, but our first real stop was in the charming old town of Bevagna. Close to the Teverone river, Bevagna is known for its laid-back pace and beautiful setting. Two churches, San Michele Arcalangelo and San Silvestro sit across from each other on the town’s main square Piazza Silvestri.
We parked our bikes and entered into the cool gloom of San Silvestro – tall, imposing and somehow more impressive because of its austere decor. Soon enough, we were back at the Winery and ready for an alfresco lunch accompanied by the region’s famous Sagrentino wine.
Time to Relax
After all of the activity, it was always a pleasure to come back to Santi Terzi. We’d opted to take in-house bokken and yoga classes in the villa’s spacious garden. The classes were taught by the villa owner’s long-time friend and fellow resident of San Gemini, Francesco. Learning the ancient Japanese martial art, along with the history and lore surrounding it was the perfect way to wind down after the day’s activities and certainly helped to work up an appetite for the evening meal.
Otherwise, we spent long afternoons sitting in the sun, occasionally dipping into the pool to cool down, accompanied by slow, lazy conversation and a few short naps. It was everything I’d wanted from my Italian getaway. By the end of the trip, I was completely relaxed and at ease. My only complaint? That it had to end.
Tuscany Now & More (tuscanynowandmore.com, 0207 684 8884) offers Santi Terzi from £4,197 for 20 people based on travel in August 2017 for 7 days sharing on a self-catering basis. Includes a maid. Tuscany Now & More features a range of properties across the region and Italy and can provide private chefs, excursions and other services upon request.