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Visiting Umbria

Jim Franco

Photo: Jim Franco

I was savoring a breakfast of inky coffee and warm apple fritters when a courtly old gentleman in a jacket and silk rep tie, trailed by a Yorkshire terrier, approached my table. It was late July, and I had the terrace of Eremo delle Grazie—a former hermitage lost among the thickly wooded hills of Monteluco, high above Spoleto—all to myself.

"Please don't get up," the man said. "I'm the owner, and I just wanted to know if my hotel is to your liking."

"It's beautiful," I said.

"Michelangelo thought so. When he returned to Rome after a visit here, he wrote his friend Vasari that he had left half his heart in Monteluco. Sorry for interrupting. Enjoy your stay."

I was booked for only one night. What was I thinking?Grazie is one of those once-in-a-lifetime hotel experiences.

Since 1918 the property has been in the family of Pio Lalli, Grazie's owner and a retired dentistry professor who taught at the University of Rome. Nine years ago he opened nine rooms to the passing public, holding back an apartment for himself to use as a country retreat. With instinctive foreknowledge of the high level of traveler he would attract, Lalli made none of the mean, paranoid concessions people usually do when converting a private house into a hotel. The quantity, not to mention quality, of antiques in Grazie's guest rooms—including the deliciously snug monks' cells and a grand frescoed apartment once occupied by a cardinal—is astounding. The richness of the decoration contrasted with the monastic setting makes this a very exciting place to lay your head.

My own suite, which once belonged to Fra Ginepro and bears his name, comprised three small rooms with low wooden ceilings, glazed interior shutters veiled in linen, and windows with lead mullions and handblown panes framing unbroken bird's-eye views of the surrounding hills. Trompe l'oeil paintwork is florid and theatrical (the moldings) or sober and realistic (the wainscoting). Appointments run to leather-covered armchairs that were probably already showing cracks when Brother Ginepro knew them; a Deruta pharmacy jar wired into a good-looking lamp; and a stolid chest, carved with barley-twists, in which I half expected to find moth-eaten vestments. The perfectly serviceable bathroom is fashioned entirely of white tile and laminate. And while I am not usually a fan of lumpy mattresses, if mine had been any less so, my one night at Grazie would have seemed hugely less transporting.

The hotel's past reaches back to the fifth century, when persecution drove Saint Isaac from Syria in search of a place where he could rebuild his life as a hermit. He settled on Monteluco, or "mountain of the sacred wood." Others seeking a life of prayer followed. According to Lalli, the first monk secluded himself at Grazie in the grotto that is now the wine cellar (the hotel serves lunch and dinner on request). By the time Michelangelo arrived, in the 16th century, the mountain had become one big monastery. Grazie acquired creature comforts and a new church under a later occupant, Cardinal Cybo, and in 1806 Napoleon's soldiers set up what is thought to have been an infirmary. Ask Lalli to show you their legacy—the signatures of military doctors gouged into the walls.

Like all hotels in the area, Grazie tends to fill up the last week in June and first two weeks in July, when Spoleto becomes the setting for one of the most important arts festivals in Europe. At other times during la bella stagione, amazingly, you can find yourself utterly alone.

Eremo delle Grazie, Monteluco, Spoleto; 39-0743/49624, fax 39-0743/49650; doubles from $232.


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