To the east of Italy's most celebrated countryside lies unsung Umbria, a region rich in history, art, food—and hotels. Christopher Petkanas clocks more than 500 miles on his odometer to find four that make the grade
Jim Franco
| Credit: 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.

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.

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.

Like many of the world's best innkeepers—the ones behind highly personal establishments worth crossing the globe for—Rosemarie and Filippo Iannarone were destined for other pursuits. She studied to be a math teacher. He went to law school. When they fell in love in Rome 30 years ago (Rosemarie was on a school trip from her native Germany), an inn where they would one day tempt guests with fig jam and mille fiori honey they would make themselves was not on the conversational agenda.

The discussion about breakfast seductions did eventually take place, but not until 1988. That year the Iannarones bought a handsomely restrained 1780 villa, uninhabited for 25 years and hidden on a beautiful and dusty country road that seems to stretch to infinity. Just seven months later the couple hung out a shingle announcing an inn with nine rooms (today there are 20). They called it Monte Solare, after the 1,955-foot mountain—the highest on Lake Trasimeno—that casts its shadow nearby.

The villa has an aristocratic and pleasingly symmetrical façade of creamy yellow stucco. Window and door surrounds are in that most noble of building stones, rich, gray pietra serena. The gay candy box of a chapel, dedicated to Saint Lucia, has a pastel coffered ceiling that was painted in the 18th century, and is the site of classical music concerts in summer.

A limonaia offers the potted lemon trees beside the box-edged giardino all'Italiano a place to wait out the winter. A second, so-called secret garden with a purposely wild, unkept look is planted with viburnum hedges enclosing linden trees, parasol pines, and cypresses. It leads, if you can find your way out of the delightful maze, to a pool (one of two) dug into a natural platform, the perfect perch for studying the rippling silhouette of the hills and reassuring geometry of the olive orchards. I give out pool awards wherever I travel, and if it weren't for the lining material that makes the water such a ridiculous shade of turquoise, Solare's would have taken first prize in the Most Unsplashy category, sub-category Umbrian Countryside. The inn gets special mention, on the other hand, for observing my Plastic Garden Furniture Act: there's not a scrap of it anywhere. A more divinely removed yet civilized setting is impossible to imagine. On the estate's 138 acres, the Iannarones grow olives for their own first-rate oil and grapes for a DOC Colli del Trasimeno red. Almost by necessity, a stay at Monte Solare means becoming intimate with both, whether in the restaurant or cooking classes, or at the Thursday wine tastings. Making easy work of such grassroots dishes as tagliatelle with a sauce of freshwater shrimp and shredded zucchini skins, the restaurant also offers what Filippo says is the world's widest selection of Umbrian wines (more than 140). Unlike many food programs run by European hotels, the classes at Solare are hands-on: you actually get to cook, filling your own ravioli, rolling out your own stringozzi.

I could be extremely happy in any of the guest rooms (all are comfortable and pristine), including the newer ones in a former olive press and a stone outbuilding where silkworms were once raised. But with their novel antique metal beds painted with wood grain or inlaid with mother-of-pearl, their satin-striped coverlets, and their triptych dressing table mirrors, the original villa accommodations are definitely the ones to snag. They achieve a rare combination of sobriety and elegance.

7 Via Montali, Colle San Paolo, Panicale; 39-075/832-376, fax 39-075/835-5462; doubles from $180 with breakfast and dinner.