La Villa Bella - The secrets of Umbria
through the doors of private villas
by Megan Pickett editor-in-chief of Hotel Bel-Air Magazine
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 is to not do anything specifically, have no set itinerary, I was eager to get my bearings, and renting a car or a driver is essential. No sooner had I set my bags down, was I ready to adjust into local mode, not only quickly learning the pragmatic use of shutters as a howling wind storm swept across the valley the first evening, but in the absolute mobility the villa afforded me. 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 full day 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.
For an additional fee, WIMCO can arrange for a cook, butler, maid or child care. Insisting that Josephina take her well-deserved Sunday off, 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 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, 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.
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.