Experiencing Umbria through a Private Villa
by Megan Pickett editor-in-chief of Hotel Bel-Air Magazine
While it is said that one cannot truly understand a country until one has lived there, renting a villa in Umbria, reveals a secret side of the region that one suspects most cannot discover. Unlike stays in even the finest hotels, the very point of renting a villa is to be transported to an inner world that is distinctly, intimately idiosyncratic of a place. It is an ideal escape from the fussing and cosseting that a hotel ensures when wishing to go local. Be it a seaside cabana in San Tropez, a sun-baked Provençal mas or a centuries-old, family-owned villa in Tuscany, renting a private villa offers the outside visitor that peek into the private lives of homes less ordinary. In my case, it was the peaceful, five-bedroom stone farmhouse, Villa Monti, nestled into the rolling green hills of Umbria, Tuscany’s “little sister” which remains relatively buffered from the ravages of tourism. Up a pebbled drive, a good six kilometers off of any real roadway, Villa Monti crowns a hillside with 360-degree panoramic views of what seems to be the entire region, and a clear shot over the charming hill town of Todi (a favorite weekend escape of urbanite Romans and an idyllic representation of Umbria’s historical melting pot of Etruscan, ancient Roman and Medieval influences that keeps this “Green Heart of Italy” beating).
Yet Villa Monti is just one of many villas dotting the Italian countryside from which one could spend a glorious week in. In fact, such idyllic accommodations require advance consideration, and while I freely admit to being swayed by romanticized notions borrowed from a weepy E.M. Forster novel of spontaneously stumbling upon a great house, a bit of research is a must to weigh the pros and cons of the mind-numbing multitude of rental agents and villas available to choose from. Often word-of-mouth advice from experienced villa renters is the best option for finding a one-of-a-kind places still inhabited much of the year by families who have owned them for years, or in some cases, centuries.
…and for those who don’t have a friend who is an experienced traveler to your destination of choice, the next nest thing is consulting with a villa rental agency. Specializing in creating vacations in private villas and distinctive small hotels throughout Italy, France, Greece and the Caribbean, the West Indies Management Company (WIMCO) has been servicing discerning clients for three decades. A team of well-traveled villa specialists regularly visits and often stays in each of the 1,800 properties represented, and works with local management and concierge companies to ensure top-notch accommodations and on-site service. Even before departure, WIMCO made a point of sending me a detailed packet about Villa Monti, complete with driving instructions and tips (when in Italy, pack a sense of humor and an iron stomach), telephone numbers of the villa’s manager, recommended local grocers, cafes and restaurants.
Upon arrival, WIMCO’s approach is to take you on a tour of your villa, show you how everything works, hand over the key to the front door, and leave you to your own peaceful devices (although their local represntatives are just a phone call away at all times of day or night). We learned from the kind house keeper – who came to clean the villa each day – that the house dated back to the early 19th century, with some additions and restorations made in the 1980s by the father of the current owner (a director of the national Italian TV channel). While the thought of a cocktail hour swim in the circular pool that offered views over the heavy, ripening vines and olive groves was intriguing, the wind had picked up as sunset apprached—the first signs of automno – and I opted instead to settle into a cozy sofa in the living room.
Villa Monti’s décor reeks simultaneously of aristocratic good breeding and laid-back, carefree charm that has seen many years of family gatherings and boisterous bashes. Little wonder, for a central stone fireplace and French doors that open onto the patio overlooking a circular pool—all carefully designed by the family patriarch—practically demands a good house party. We half expected the cast of Gosford Park to descend at any moment for cocktails.
Save for the house’s “bones”—elaborate beamed ceilings, exposed stone walls, terracotta tiled floors—the details offered the only clues to our mysterious owner. All the classic components of a rustic villa are there: a large fireplace and hearth whose heady aromas from fires past had infiltrated the needlepoint sofa and ottoman that invited conversation; deep window seats for an afternoon whiled away with a good book; a rich wood-paneled two-story biblioteca filled with tomes in multiple languages about Egon Schiele, investment strategies, Art Deco and billiards—one of the owner’s more obvious passions, as evidenced in the gorgeous entry hall billiard table complete with bronze lion heads for pockets. Ubiquitous botanical paintings and hunting scenes throughout the villa were offset by eyebrow-raising lithographs of libertine ladies and naughty aristocrats hinting to the master of the house’s cheeky sense of humor.
A peaceful home for the week
While there were five quaintly appointed rooms to choose from, each with its own full bath (including a Sheherazade-inspired Arab themed room with a domed ceiling painted with gold stars and custom-made Moorish lattice shutters), I couldn’t resist the master bedroom, primarily for its Old World claw-foot tub centrally placed to maximize the views to the west. Outside, a terracotta veranda with wicker lounges overlook a prim apron of rose-lined lawn (noticeably mown the day before our arrival, yet another WIMCO touch). In sum, the house is the very essence of solitude and peace. No room service, no bellhop, just the utter sense of contentment. With not another house for several miles, we could do little but surrender to the local pace—slow, slow, slow.
Ideal for family reunions or a week-long house party—something to consider when planning a villa stay is appropriate usage—a separate entrance on the side allows fellow guests the privacy to come and go as they like, returning in the evenings to the villa to recount their day’s experiences.
While for many, the purpose of renting a villa in Italy is to not do anything specifically, have no set itinerary, I was eager to get my bearings, and renting a car is essential. Within an hour’s drive I had the best Umbria had to offer: the university town of Perugia and Assisi, both contributing much religious culture to the Italian art scene, and the smaller, less spoiled towns of Todi, Spoleto and Orvieto. Rome, Siena and Florence are each within two hours’ drive, making for easy day trips and hiking, horseback riding, wine tasting (especially of the regional favorite Montefalco Sagratine) and a schedule of summer concerts can all be arranged. We grabbed our map and planned our day’s itinerary.
The sun campaigned hard to beat through the clouds, but to no avail as our first day trip was spent visiting Umbria’s capital, Perugia, one of the original 12 Etruscan lucumonies (city states) from the 6th and 7th centuries B.C., and more importantly, home of those famous baci chocolates. Another hour west, Assisi, home to Italy’s patron saint, St. Francis and Giotto’s famed frescoes of the Basilica di San Francesco rounded out a day of sightseeing, returning us to the villa in time for a quick dip in the pool and a trip into neighboring Monte di Castello, to fetch Sunday morning provisions: frusca, a loaf of chewy bread akin to the French batard, milk and eggs. My advice: Go as local as possible. Being a bit of an anomaly in town pays off as the kindness of strangers produces the friendliest results, perhaps in procuring some of the morning’s fresh produce or a link or two of a proud butcher’s hand-cured prosciutto.
While we could have hired a private chef to prepare dinner, we took advantage of the region’s seasonality and Umbria’s bounty. Menus around Todi were ripe with fresh porchetta, roast piglet stuffed with rosemary, and fagiano all’uva, pheasant cooked with grapes. In autumn, the tartufo, the prized white truffle that permeates the air, is blissfully inescapable, found in risottos, atop pizzas, and the shining star of the local specialty, strengozzi al tartufo, an elegant, uncomplicated pasta dish, especially at the Antica Hosteria de la Valle (via Ciuffelli 19, Todi), a tiny trattoria of just eight tables where taking the recommendations of the owner, who was just finishing Sunday supper with the famiglia, resulted in one of my most memorable dinners ever.
But then, such experiences were exactly what I had come hoping to find. The freedom of a private world that runs according to my own agenda was, in the end, exactly in order. If the villa rental bug bites hard, take pleasure in knowing that every subsequent holiday can be taken in a different villa, for each has its own storied past with its own perspective, mood, patina and décor; or one can return year after year to the same villa, adopting it as another home.
On our last night, we curled up in the window seat of the bibliotheca to a full moon, crystalline sky and a twinkling Todi. Between sips of the local Montefalco wine, we swapped our own versions of Villa Monti’s past life, imagining what a convivial, cozy family gathering would be arriving in a few months for the holidays, or whose it would be the following week. At least—if but for a few days—it was still all ours.
Thirsty for a week in your own private villa for rent in Umbria? We recommend: HII VIG, HII ARC, HII VIB
Writers bio: Based in San Francisco, Megan Pickett is the editor in chief of Hotel Bel-Air magazine, published by Modern Luxury Magazines. Her work has appeared in Chicago Social, Angeleno and DailyCandy among other magazines. Previously, she was senior editor at Chicago Social in Chicago and features editor at Hong Kong Tatler in Hong Kong, PRC.
Interested in more Italian adventures? Explore everything from chocolate factories to underground tunnels in these three Umbrian hill towns: A Weekend in the Umbrian Hill Towns