From its 16th-century stone façade, to its locally crafted leather and wood furnishings, Palazzo Seneca is a distinctively Umbrian affair, tricked out with a ravishing restaurant and spa. The understated masculine colour scheme is a sophisticated backdrop to the grand four-posters, antique armoires and the drawing room’s cavernous fireplace.
Get this when you book through us:
A bottle of Umbrian wine and late-checkout upon availability. For stays of three nights or more, lunch at Granaro del Monte restaurant; and, if you book a suite, a spa treatment
Double rooms from £144.78 (€160), including tax at 10 per cent.
Rates include breakfast and entrance to the spa.
The hotel can arrange cookery classes, wine tastings and horse riding nearby.
At the hotel
Spa, courtyard garden, free WiFi throughout and a library including DVDs. In rooms: flatscreen TV, DVD player, minibar and free bottled water. Guests can take adavanatge of a free shuttle service to the sports centre, which has a fitness room, pools and tennis, basketbal and volleyball courts.
Our favourite rooms
Those who like to primp and preen will love Room 107 for its enormous dressing area. This superior room has a wrought iron bed with an elegant brown leather sofa at its foot, though fans of the power shower should note the bathroom only has a bath. The Junior Suites are particularly grand and spacious, and are ideal for families, since they interconnect. Both have a gargantuan four-poster intricately carved from dark wood, and ornate ceilings, cornices and oak panelling. Water babies will love Room 210, which has an indoor wet room (the whole ceiling rains on you), and a private terrace with sun loungers.
No pool, but the spa has Turkish baths, a sauna and a hydro-massage bath big enough for six. Guests can use the indoor and outdoor pool at the Bianconi sports centre nearby.
Some cycling attire for discovering Norcia’s beauty by bike; understated Massimo Dutti threads so you can relax in style; glamorous swimwear for the spa.
Petite pets can come along too.
Little Smiths are welcome, with cots provided free for babies, extra beds for older children, and babysitting with a local nanny for €15 an hour (book a week in advance). The restaurant offers a child-friendly menu.
Sit by a window so you can admire the garden, or if the weather is clement, sit outside in the courtyard.
Relaxed European finery: a silky shirt or clinging wrap dress. Spruce up more casual threads with a Hermès scarf, tied in an insouciant knot.
Vespasia is an elegant and airy crème-caramel complexioned space, with white-linen-dressed tables, white walls, leather armchairs (straight-backed for men, curvy for the ladies) and fresh, flavour-packed cuisine. Treats such as tagliolini with fresh black Norcian truffle, and split rib-eye with pecorino cheese and breaded seasonal vegetables showcase the lush local produce.
No bar as such, but guests can request drinks, and sup them in the library, or ensconced in one of the drawing room’s chocolate-brown armchairs, by the crackling fire.
Breakfast is served between 7.30am and 10.30am, lunch from 12.30pm and 2.30pm, and dinner between 7.30pm and 10.30pm.
The 24-hour room service includes drinks, snacks and light meals, and items from the restaurant menu.
Ryanair operate flights to the nearest airport, Perugia (www.ryanair.com), which is 90 km from the hotel.
Spoleto is the nearest station, with connecting services to Rome and Florence (www.trenitalia.it). A daily bus service runs from Spoleto to Norcia.
The hotel has free parking. Rome is a three-hour drive away, Assisi is one hour and Spoleto is around 40 minutes.
Worth getting out of bed for
Wander into Norcia and admire the castellina, a fortress built in the 16th-century, the Gothic church of Sant’Agostino, and the main basilica, dedicated to St. Benedict. Pick up picnic supplies from the delis – cured ham, salty pecorino or mild cacciota cheese will stand you in good stead – and the bakery on the main drag sells moreish salt-encrusted rolls. Drive up the Piano Grande, famed for its Castelluccio lentils and summer carpets of wildflowers, and polish off your hamper in scenic surroundings. Count hang-gliders as you eat; the Mount Sibillini massif is a magnet for thrill seekers. If you start feeling envious, get your own adrenaline rush: pick from rafting, canyoning, paragliding, quad biking, cross-country skiing, Nordic walking, biking and trekking; climb up the path to the crests of the Sibylline mountains for sweeping views of Norcia. The hotel can arrange cookery classes with local chefs if you fancy learning the secrets of traditional Italian and Norcia cuisine; all lessons are followed by an informal tasting session, of course. There’s also year-round truffle hunting with the quarryman and his dogs in the Monti Sibillini National Park.
Visit another Bianconi-owned property, Hotel Grotta Azzura, and try out its restaurant, Il Granaro del Monte, at Via Alfieri (+39 07 4381 7551). Expect heart and belly to be warmed by traditional Umbrian delicacies such as tagliolini al tartuffo, and cosy dining rooms, lit with open fires. If you crave some simple sustenance, such as a bowl of steaming lentil soup, eat at Taverna Castelluccio, at Via Dietro la Torre 8 (+39 07 4382 1158). Bar del Ponte at Via Borgo (+39 07 4361 253) has the best home-made ice-cream in town – the nocciola (hazelnut) is divine. Unearth hidden treasure with a trip to Ristorante Apollinare at Via Santa Agata, Spoleto (+39 07 4322 3256). This sublime restaurant is squirreled away below the Aurora Hotel. It has a tiny outside terrace in the summer, an irreverent approach to Umbrian cooking, and a knack of attracting celebrities in town for the Two Worlds Festival, an annual celebration of music, dance and drama.
Head to Bar del Ponte on Via Borgo in Scheggino (+39 0743 61253) for aperitivi beside the river, or mouthwatering ice-cream (Smith loves the hazelnut).
Mrs Smith and I are staggering across the moonlit Piazza San Benedetto in Norcia’s mediaeval centre, heaving in crisp mountain air, a thick sheen of pork-truffle after-sweat across our rookie brows – damning evidence of Granaro del Monte’s seven-course menù gastronomica, ordered three hours earlier in a moment of foolish, first-night bravado. But what else were we supposed to have ordered? Everything we had read proclaimed Norcia Italy’s ultimate foodie town, one of the country’s black truffle centres, and the home of norcineria – the alchemic method of magicking pig into melt-in-the-mouth salami-type sausages and cured hams.
In a bid to escape the disapproving glare of stern old St Benedict, we scurry down one of the side streets and turn the corner into what we at first believe to be a truffle-induced Shakespearean hallucination: Romeo, in a fur-lined glossy puffa jacket, stands at the top of a rickety old ladder with a single red rose in his hand. The ladder’s balanced at one end against the wooden shutter of a crumbling first-floor bedroom and anchored in place at the other end by the foot of the young suitor’s best man – similarly attired, and lifting a saxophone to his lips. Two more shiny puffas are leaning against the crumbly old wall underneath the window. One begins to tap out a gentle bossa nova on a makeshift bongo, while the other joins in softly on guitar, picking out the chords of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Corcovado’. Sax-puffa slides in with a smooth, melty solo that brings a light to the room, and a Juliet to the window. Mrs Smith digs her nails into my arm. Suddenly, a crescent of puffas step out of the shadows, singing the seductive, woozy Astrud Gilberto vocal part. Juliet looks down, smiling.
Back in the cool, airy room, we discard clothes and flop onto the huge four-poster, motionless. Sweet woodsmoke floats in from the street and we conk out to the soothing tones of the Italian answer to Chris Tarrant on Rai.
Something magical has happened overnight: we’re somehow no longer full. Mrs Smith is languishing in the deep, moonstone marble bath. In a bid to hasten our descent on the breakfast table, I decide to enhance her experience by perching cross-legged on the Philippe Starck stool and talking knowledgeably on the subject of truffling (the French use pigs for snuffling; Italians seem to favour dogs; the Russians use bear cubs), local lentil and spelt crops (the most prized in the world), the surgeons of nearby Preci (world-beaters in the Middle Ages, with a lucrative sideline in helping talented young male singers hit the very highest notes) and St Benedict’s less-celebrated younger sister, St Scholastica (would we consider the name for our first female child?). Before I can get on to the local mules’ testicles, she is grabbing her shoes and suggesting a drive into the mountains (after rye toast, smoked boar, local cheese and pears, of course).
A nerve-wrackingly narrow, winding road takes us out of Norcia, higher and higher up into the mountains. The snow piled on either side of the pass grows thicker and higher with every passing kilometre, we lose radio reception completely and start encountering warning signs for mountain rams. The road levels, dips and drops us suddenly into the vast basin prairie of the Piano Grande, a gargantuan, flat expanse that, in spring, blooms with wildflowers – a different colour each week.
We stop for a beer and a vista across Piano Grande from Castelluccio, a tiny mountain-top village, famous for those lentils and for the white graffiti daubed on its walls – it allegedly serves as a means of social documentation or a means of spreading scurrilous local family gossip, depending on which book you read. As we drive back into Norcia, a wedding is taking place in the piazza – we later discover this was the big day of our hotel’s head chef. Perhaps he was the midnight serenader? Among the guests, we spot our hostess Mama Bianconi, who last night gave us a friendly guided tour of the Grotta Azzurra property across the street (also the scene of our super seven-courser), as well as the reading rooms, tea salon, sun terrace and spa of Palazzo Seneca itself. The Bianconis are the royal family of hospitality in Norcia, having run a clutch of hostelries in the town for more than 150 years. The experience has clearly paid off.
At dinner in the Palazzo’s Vespasia restaurant that night, Mama is back on duty, as are her sons, Vincenzo and Federico. All three are natural, genial hosts, and visit our table to quality-check each aspect of our stay and to talk proudly of the region’s food, people and scenery. Vespasia’s menu offers a modern take on traditional local produce, light compared with the hearty fare of the Grotta Azzurra, and we’re thankful for the mere five courses on the tasting menu.
Less modest is our approach to the local Montefalco (a rich, earthy and full red) and the astonishing grappa presented to us by head waiter Paolo. He tells us it’s been aged in seven different types of wood and we make a valiant effort at distinguishing each of the seven, before admitting defeat and curling up in our wing-back chairs. As the acoustic guitar duo opens their set with ‘Corcovado’, we close our eyes and mull over which items of luggage to sacrifice for some take-home Norcian bounty… Reviewed by Adam McDougall, the Lexi Cinema