I love Umbria. It’s such a beautiful part of Italy – though I will immediately concede that’s a bit like saying Leonardo da Vinci painted some lovely paintings. It’s true, but it’s also trite. The thing is, this part of Italy is burdened by such a surfeit of God’s bounty, it’s difficult to express just how stunning it all is. And even if you’re not particularly religious, it’s impossible not to be moved by that vast sweep of grassy fields punctuated by ancient farmhouses and glowing 15th-century city forts sparkling from one distant hill to another.
It suffers a tad from little sister syndrome, often yielding the spotlight to its brassy, brasher sibling Tuscany – which, to me, always feels a little too obvious, its landscape heaving with vineyards, looming forests and mediaeval towns humming with tourists. Too much in-your-face beauty. All the more reason to nurture a tender spot for Umbria’s softer land-locked wildnerness, wider plains and longer horizons.
In Umbria, under a domed sky the varieted shade of a Giotto watercolour, something loosens up inside you. And though we’d eased the rented car out of Perugia airport barely 40 minutes ago, the air was already working its magic. By this time, we’d left the spaghetti junctions of the autostrada and were winding our way through the narrow lanes of Poreta.
The hamlet’s sense of quiet is perfectly matched by the rustic quality of the Borgo della Marmotta. Here, cloistered by high stone walls, a cluster of 17th-century farmhouse and stables have been transformed into a bijou hotel of barely 20 rooms. Rooms are set in what were once the hamlet’s stables, granaries, pens, mills and sheepfolds, and come styled with natural grace: wood, stone, linen and cotton. Even the paint is made from lime and natural pigments. The palette, like the philosophy, is low-key (though pops of tangerine and aqua brighten up some bedrooms). It’s all the product of Filippo’s mother, who led the hotel’s sensitive interior design.
There’s neither flash nor chintz here. It’s not that kind of place. Just a sequence of cobblestoned passages leading to rooms and out into pockets of greenery. Great vibrant bunches of wisteria drip from pergolas. Pots of lemon trees cast shadows on the sun-warmed flagstoned terrace. Olive groves open into a picture-perfect swimming pool framed by a vine-cloaked arbour.
‘Look at these roof beams,’ said Mr Smith, amateur builder as he padded through our Arancino suite, admiring the peasant chic decor of deep sofas, white-linened bed, antique armoir and cool stone floors. I went up to the tiny sauna to relax while plotting the evening’s dinner at nearby Spoleto (tip: the superb and absurdly cheap 14-course degustation dinner cooked by a 71-year-old mamma at Osteria del Matto is a must, especially since the Borgo doesn’t serve dinners. Ask the receptionist for directions). The hotel has only been open a few seasons. A gym and movie room are still in the works, though the rooms, in part due the provenance of the buildings and the striped back quality of the decor, already have a charming, lived-in patina.
Clearly, it’s been a labour of love, its tale made all the more engrossing when we discovered during evening cocktails in the hotel’s large living room that the owner Filippo Montani Fargna and his patrician family counted among their ancestors, one Pope Leo XII. ‘On my grandmother’s side,’ said Filippo. Tall and urbane, with doleful eyes and a fine trimmed beard, he looks like he just stepped straight out of a Botticelli; while his mother, silvery hair cropped just so, wrapped in a lush pashmina and a dazzling smile is simply majestic.
With a trinity of family dogs underfoot, sunk deep into sofas with a glass of spumante, jazz on the stereo, and a sidetable burnished with flame-toasted farm bread rubbed with garlic and drenched with olive oil from the estate’s 12,000 trees, it was easy to put out of mind, for a while at least, the outside world and just concentrate on this feeling of bonhomie. And a strange sense of having come home. That night, as we slept, a soft rain fell.
Happily, we’d arrived just in time for Easter and the next day, carried by the tolling of tenored bells from the village church, we came back from a walk up a gently wooded mountain pass to find everyone prepping for the Easter Sunday lunch. Loaded with platters and bottles of wine, staff hurried back and forth through the lawn between the main house and the kitchen/dining room. Filippo’s mother, wrapped in a new shawl, calmly navigated the activity, supervising the kitchen while stopping here and there for a chat with guests, her three dogs never straying too far on the rain-wet lawn.
It was a gastroholic feast – vast plates of food, simply cooked and barely seasoned so that the natural flavours sang through. Delicate gnocchi, their golden globes draped with sweet pea puree. Sunflower-bright polenta. A wheel of ricotta cake. A fragrantly charred cut of spring lamb slow-roasted for so many hours it surrendered without protest to the scrape of a fork. Custard tart with burnt sugar. If I were the sensitive type, I might have wept with happiness. Instead, I helped myself to seconds.
‘I love cooking,’ Filippo’s mother confided as she cut more lamb onto my plate. These were her family recipes. That night, we slept gently, without dreams.