Borgo di Carpiano, near Gubbio, Umbria, Autumn 2014.
Situated in the centre of Italy and landlocked by Tuscany, Le Marche and Lazio, Umbria has been described as the belly button of Italy. Whether an innie or an outie I am not sure, but it is a rather sweet way of describing a glorious part of Italy. Rolling hills, sun-bleached fields, walled hilltop towns, soaring mountains and vast swathes of olive groves and grape vines characterise the Umbrian landscape. And while it shares a border with Tuscany, Umbria feels a little less sleek and manicured, more rustic and undiscovered . . . . an insiders place for those in the know.
Approaching Borgo di Carpiano, a rural retreat tucked into a verdant valley about 30* minutes drive from the ancient town of Gubbio, feels rather like we were discovering another insider secret. Descending a winding gravel road bordered by dense forest, Borgo di Carpiano is not somewhere you are likely to just stumble across on an afternoon drive in the Umbrian countryside. And I get the feeling that the owners, Marilisa and Riccardo Parisi, and their loyal guests are very happy for it to remain this way. Secluded and remote – we were warned not to rely on our car sat nav - with gorgeous views of the countryside, Borgo di Carpiano is a blissfully peaceful hideaway.
A pretty cluster of stone buildings in a hamlet dating back to the 10th century, the heart of Borgo di Carpiano is a converted 17th century church. Purchased in 2001 in an utterly dilapidated state and carefully, lovingly restored over seven years, it has been given a new lease of life by Marilisa and Riccardo. Instead of Sunday Mass, the fresco-walled, wood-beamed former church now serves as a charming place for guests to gather each evening for aperitifs, smooth jazz and convivial conversation – a congregation of a different kind!
The rooms at Borgo di Carpiano (there are nine) are located either in the converted-church (ours had stunning views across the valley) or in stone cottages with private terraces and gardens, all linked by cobblestones. Our tastefully decorated room had a sumptuous bed fitted with beautiful white linen trimmed in saffron yellow, wooden floorboards, large antique armoire, separate bathroom with pretty antique tiles, and a window seat from which to contemplate the dreamy vistas (and spectacular sunrises). We slept with the windows wide open, breathing in the crisp country air - and the heady smell of woodsmoke - waking early to watch the sun rise over the distant hills.
The heat of the day – even in early October the weather in Umbria can be wonderfully warm – is best dealt with by dozing on a sunbed by the infinity pool taking intermittent dips to cool off.
And if you need further coaxing to relax (the driving in Italy can certainly raise the blood pressure!), there is a beautiful gazebo at the edge of the woods where you can jacuzzi until your fingers and toes are wrinkled, indulge in a massage (our massage therapist was brilliant) and fall asleep in a swaying hammock beneath an olive tree.
And if that doesn’t put you into holiday mode, Marilisa and Riccardo’s warmth, kindness and enthusiasm (and offers of Prosecco!) surely will.
As one guest wrote in the guestbook “Stare da voi è stato un bellissimo sogno da cui non avremmo mai voluto svegliarci...speriamo di rivederci presto!”
Eat + Drink:
Even if you are not seduced by the stunning landscapes and wonderful hospitality, go to Borgo di Carpiano for the food. Marilisa and Riccardo previously owned a boutique hotel and restaurant in Antigua and I think, judging by the guestbook comments, many of their guests followed them from Antigua to Umbria! Yes, the food is that good. Exquisitely presented and entirely seasonal, the dinner tasting menu is decided by the chef and Riccardo on the day according to what is available in the market garden and guest preferences. Highlights included plump (yet somehow light and feathery) gnocchi with pinenut and walnut pesto, cherry tomatoes and salty, tangy grated ricotta, guinea fowl marinated in yoghurt for 12 hours (must try this at home as I usually find guinea fowl tough and stringy), prawns swaddled in lardo with creamy chickpea puree, and pistachio semifreddo with chocolate sauce – sort of a grown up version of ice-cream with Ice Magic! (my favourite and judging by the oohs and ahhs from the other guests, I wasn’t alone).
Lillo Tatini, Panicale. Recommended by our friends who reside for part of the year in Umbria, we enjoyed a delicious lunch here. The ravioli stuffed with quail eggs and sheep’s milk ricotta was particularly good as was the handmade tagliatelle with ragu. And leave room for desert!
Ristorante Coccorone, Montefalco. Fantastic steak cooked over an open fire. Sit in the courtyard if you can for lunch.
There are hilltop towns to explore (we managed Todi, Gubbio, Perugia, Montefalco, Panicale and Castiglione del Lago) but my absolute must-do/one for the bucket-list was a day spent truffle hunting and eating wonderful homemade (and home grown) Umbrian dishes with Wild Foods Italy. So incredibly special and unique, it was one of the highlights of my year and perhaps my life**
Run by New Zealander Nathan Mac Ryde, an accomplished artist turned sheep farmer (he married into the family!) and his Italian wife Francesca, the Wild Foods Gastronomic Adventure takes place in the beautiful mountain village of Pettino. Exquisite views, a family who have lived and farmed traditionally in Umbria for hundreds of years, an Antipodean who fell in love with a local girl after herding sheep at 3am with her father . . . an incredible story and the stuff BBC food documentaries are made on.
Our small group consisted of like-minded food lovers from the Netherlands, America and Australia and we spent the day hunting for truffles, drinking chilled Prosecco on a rolling mountainside while snacking on slivers of pecorino cheese and freshly scrambled eggs adorned with lashings of shaved truffle, and watching Francesca’s mama hand make pasta before sitting down to a multiple course lunch (with multiple glasses of wine!) with the family. It was a wonderfully authentic experience and we were all a little reluctant to leave at the end of the day (a couple of us suggested we would make fine additions to the mountain-top enclave).
*20 minutes if you are an Italian!
** The others were backcountry skiing and horse-riding in the snow at Vista Verde Ranch in Colorado and hiring a boat for the day on the Greek island of Ithaca.
We were hosted by Borgo di Carpiano during our stay in Umbria.