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Visiting Umbria

Jim Franco

Photo: Jim Franco

Is Tuscany, as some coldhearted forecasters would have it, on its way to being "over," like Provence and the Hamptons?Although we wouldn't go that far, we are crazy for Umbria, which has all the allure (and then some) of its more starstruck neighbor, minus the attitude. Etruscan sites, medieval hill towns of stone the color of flax, ravishing Renaissance frescoes, a famously reductionist cuisine, and a tapestry of valleys, lakes, and forests—all are on the menu in Umbria, the green and contentedly landlocked region that composer Gian Carlo Menotti praises for its "sunny austerity." And that's not even counting the lodgings. Umbria has perhaps the highest concentration of original hotels, inns, and bed-and-breakfasts in Italy. Check in now before, Tuscany-style, the whole world does.

Like any deeply rural landscape you encounter for the first time, the Upper Tiber Valley can seem like the end of the world. I approached it from the north in a rather delirious state, having just made a killing at the Prada outlet in Montevarchi. At Arezzo I pulled over to do the math: only 40 miles to the hamlet of Ronti and my destination, Palazzo Terranova. Word had filtered down about a redoubtable, obsessive Englishwoman who had converted a never-completed early-18th-century villa into a sumptuous inn with just eight rooms. I stay in hotels for a living, so, while I'm not blasé, my motor is not easily raced. I was dying to try out Terranova.

But as I drove and drove, and then drove some more, Ronti threatened never to appear. The mountain switchbacks stopped being charming and became merely annoying. The scarcity of farmhouses in the green, silent countryside devolved from an amazement to a menace. And even the most detailed map of Umbria got me only so far. (Terranova's all about discretion—there are no signs directing you to the hotel.) The late-afternoon light had the same transparent quality that van Gogh admired in Provence, but what good would it do me if I ran out of gas?

Any self-satisfaction I felt in finally pulling up to Terranova was buried under sweat, a coat of dust from the last steep stretch up a potholed dirt road, and rage—as it turned out, although the inn was supposed to have faxed me directions, they'd forgotten. But at last I got it: even with directions, reaching the palazzo is meant to be a heroic adventure, as designed by its owner, Sarah Townsend.

"The anxiety of the journey makes arriving at our paradiso even more wondrous," she exclaimed. Indeed, every inch of Terranova's sensational 1,800-foot elevation is calculated to heighten the spiraling expectancy you feel while scaling it.

Once there, you become a principal player in Townsend's exquisite little Anglo-Italian operetta about life at a luxury inn on an Umbrian hilltop. Her genius lies in playing the profound rusticity of the heaven-meets-earth setting against every weapon in the five-star hotelier's arsenal: refinement, grandeur, sophistication, and style, from the studiously mismatched Ginori breakfast china to the snowy hand-crocheted bedcovers, from room colors out of Piero della Francesca frescoes to pastoral-chic bouquets that mingle branches of bay with pom-poms of starry agapanthus. In a place that maxes out at just 20 guests, there is a full-time chef—that's a chef, not a cook—and a local woman whose main job is to make bread and pasta. Service is more than professional. It's nuanced, imaginative, human. Townsend goes out of her way to ensure that you have her cell phone number, and the laundry form has a space for "spelling out any special washing instructions." Is there such a thing as housekeeping with emotion?If so, it is found at Palazzo Terranova.

Like other backwaters that seemed impossibly isolated when they were new to me, Terranova's pocket of Umbria, after just a couple of days, began to feel not all that remote. Twenty minutes away is Città di Castello, a historic town stuffed with trattorias, gelaterie, enoteche, salumerie, food shops specializing in regional truffle and porcini products, antiques dealers, and boutiques selling household linens, majolica, and artisanal wrought-iron furniture. While only an idiot would pass up a day trip to such a vibrant destination, it comes at a price: leaving the nest of Sarah Townsend, who says, "I just like people to be happy and comfortable—in my space."

Palazzo Terranova, Loc. Ronti, Morra, Perugia; 39-075/857-0083, fax 39-075/857-0014; doubles from $305.


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