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Visiting Umbria

Jim Franco

Photo: Jim Franco

Saint Francis performed many miracles, but the very stone on which he is said to have preached to the birds—"God . . . granted you the faculty to range in the limpid air"—is displayed in the 13th-century church of the enchanting medieval bourg of Bevagna. Good, honest inn-keeping is also something of a miracle these days—and how appropriate that it happens here.

L'Orto degli Angeli is a nine-room bed-and-breakfast folded into a romantic palazzo built on the remains of a first-century Roman temple in the center of town. Adding to the privileged, pedigreed experience of spending a night (three would be heaven) at Angeli is the fact that its guileless host, Francesco Antonini, was born in the palazzo in 1948, and his family has lived here since 1788.

Antonini resides on the premises with his wife, Tiziana, who projects a warm-and-fuzzy nimbus, and their young daughter, Laura. The couple's proximity ensures that the wants and needs of their guests are never overlooked. But unlike many people who open their doors to travelers, and whose nervous, vigilant eye you can never seem to escape, the Antoninis maintain a light, sheer presence. In their relaxed willingness to please, and their deep knowledge of those aspects of the region that draw visitors, they are model B&B proprietors.

Every guest room at Angeli is named for an angel and is under his or her protection. Tiziana took one look at me and said in a half-serious, half-amused way that she thought I could use the custody of a higher-up in the celestial hierarchy. (How did she know?) And so I was assigned Arcangelo Custode, a 300-square-foot room with polished terra-cotta floor tiles laid in a basket-weave pattern and a cupola painted in 1846 with trophies of musical instruments. Walls in the shade of lavender that set designers use to evoke the night sky have a phosphorescent quality and a wonderful, powdery finish. Tall and narrow antique marble-topped cabinets posing as night tables frame a bed whose simple blue-and-white cotton hangings, printed with small flowers, are draped from a gilded wooden pelmet. The bathroom is done in cheerful striped tiles and has a vintage Venetian mirror that might have been confected by a maestro candy maker.

There's more. A hushed vest-pocket garden has ruffly old-fashioned roses, a wisteria-cloaked pergola, and bamboo Chinese Chippendale chairs. Breakfast is just as irresistible, served in the family dining room, where a portrait of Francesco's ancestor Pope Leo XII hangs near photographs of a great-aunt. With her leg-o'-mutton sleeves and tiny waist, she looks as if she has an appointment to pose for Sargent. A sideboard is lavished with excellent salami ("We know the man who makes it"), un-aged pecorino, homemade Umbrian jam tarts, cornetti, and custard-filled brioche.

One great bonus of staying at Angeli is the chance to watch quotidian life unfold in an archetypally Umbrian town. Bevagna, on the plain just north of Spoleto, is nearly uncorrupted by tourism, almost entirely self-sufficient, and proudly inward- rather than outward-looking. At 7:30 a.m., Vittorio Cariani can be seen hoisting into the display window of his macelleria a fresh whole porchetta, the crisped face of the suckling pig wearing an outraged expression, its cavity heavily salted and stuffed with feathery stalks of wild fennel in strict adherence to an ancient recipe. At nine, tailor Folo Trabalza, who runs circles around any Hong Kong suit maker, opens for business on Piazza Filippo Silvestri, one of the most beautiful squares in all of Italy. At 9:20 a small refrigerated truck quietly pulls up to Luciano Biagetti's alimentari, delivering milk and cream from the cooperative dairy. By 9:40 a warm batch of pastarelle di San Nicolò, anise-flavored cookies resembling Communion wafers, is slipped into the vitrine at Polticchia, a pasticceria-panetteria as chaste and immaculate as a convent.

And since there can be no passeggiata without gelato, at 10:30 the machines at Bar Colonna roar into overdrive.

L'Orto degli Angeli, 1 Via Dante Alighieri, Bevagna; 39-0742/360-130, fax 39-0742/361-756; doubles from $115.


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