Essential Italy

In a country that abounds with travelers’ delights—from wine and cuisine to art and ancient culture—admitted Italy fetishist CAROL STIGGER embraces the essence of her Mediterranean paradiso.

“I came, I saw, I crawled” is embroidered on one of my Italian T-shirts—and for good reason. In Italy, I hit the tarmac running, knowing that a lifetime is not enough to see the art, savor the food, and soak up the history. Yet I was determined to encrust my slice of Italy with every facet of fun.

This year, while planning to cram Sorrento into Rome—after all, it is just a day trip by train—I thought about vacation and what it means to me. New vistas, yes; exhaustion, no. Leisurely dining is lauded, but who in our achievement-oriented society talks about dawdling, especially in Italy where you can “do Tuscany” in a day? I’ve “done Italy” every which way from speed dating cities along the Naples-Milan railway to settling into Rome for a season. But now I’m back to the two-week vacation and The List.

So where to begin? I would arrive weary and yearning to relax. The second day, I would want to lounge around and—in an Italian state of mind—not fret about an agenda. After another night’s rest, I would move on to a little town, Assisi maybe, and ease my way into sightseeing with strolls along cobblestone streets. Maybe then I would be in shape for Rome’s seven hills. Rome is eternal, so what’s the rush?

A climate similar to Ventura County invites al fresco dining.

No one wanted to dawdle with me. Alone, I deplaned at Sant’Egidio International Airport near Perugia. I had never heard of it, and seemingly neither had many others since the lines were negligible. I lounged back in the private car for a half-hour ride through the Umbrian countryside. We meandered around lakes and hills on two-lane roads before finding a gravel road with a steep grade leading to my Italian paradiso : Palazzo Terranova.

The manager greeted me at the restored 17th-century country manor house with Prosecco in a crystal glass. The driver carried my luggage up stone stairs into one of the eight guest rooms, all named after operas and composers. My room, the Violetta, named after the heroine in Verdi’s “La Traviata,” is larger than my living room, and the bed could have hosted a slumber party. The private bathroom is ample, and the window frames an Umbrian valley with every shade of green unblemished by roads and houses. The Violetta is separated from the other third-floor bedroom by an inviting salon with a baby grand piano, fireplace, comfortable sofas, and antiques.

The 17th-century country house offers views of a poetic landscape. The author’s room, Violetta, was named for the heroine of a Verdi opera.

The next morning, while sipping cappuccino in a marble bathtub, my hair lathered with Palazzo Terranova’s signature white tea shampoo, I was further soothed by the variegated green outside my window and the wash of teal on antique walls. I thought of wrapping Palazzo Terranova in words for my friends and family. But adjectives felt anemic, superlatives cliché. It would be easier to nail gelato to a fresco than find words for this. Friends would have to wait. Emails are mood breakers here, but it was easy to imagine creamy white calling cards on a silver plate.

The night before, the gregarious Chef Patrizio had nodded his approval at my espresso order and called café Americano “brown water.” If a guest ordered that on this Umbrian estate, allora, he would serve the abominable brew—and then inform the offender that the estate was booked well into the next century.

Chef Patrizio Cesarini draws from his Umbrian roots yet adds a modern twist. (Sip cappuccino in your marble tub, but don’t dare ask him for café Americano.)

“Fresh” is Patrizio’s secret ingredient. He shops every morning at farms and markets for produce and meat. Menus revolve around seasonal fare. In winter, he shops for the finest wines, oils, cheeses, and vinegars to use throughout the next season. He plans menus and cooking classes for guests who still may be debating the details of their Italian vacation.

I would like to help them narrow their choices to Palazzo Terranova, but how credible is it to report that crushed raspberries cover four walls of a bedroom called the Trovatore? Two Florentine artisan painters devoted two years to painting the palazzo’s interior. Each room is a different peaceful hue with intricate designs. The wrought iron bedsteads by local ironmongers are so large they had to be assembled inside the appointed rooms. Thick, wooden doors were hewn by local carpenters, and many of the terracotta tiles are from the original structure. Furnishings are antique with modern pieces chosen to harmonize, not imitate.

I would like to meet the invisible maid who left a cappuccino beside my bed and drew a bubble bath two minutes before I awoke. Both were steaming when I opened my eyes. And how did she know exactly when I would finish my limoncello the night before? When I returned to my suite for the night, about twenty scented candles were lit in the salon, bathroom, and bedroom. The shutters had been adjusted precisely to catch a breeze wafting across the duvet.

Toasty and smelling of white tea body lotion, I headed uphill to the infinity pool, forgetting about lunch. Chef Patrizio, however, remembered. A waiter furled a white linen cloth over a poolside table and provided five-star service. Over an exquisite mushroom risotto, I planned my afternoon. The estate offers hikes, both guided and solo; truffle hunts, cooking and water color lessons, horse and bike rides, a menu of massages, and excursions to nearby hill towns such as Cortona and Assisi. The palazzo also has a collection of a thousand books, from leather-bound classics to coffee table art books.

I refused to feel guilty as I walked past the gym equipment in the pool house and headed for the library. I selected some beautifully illustrated books on Assisi and lounged on one of the estate’s many lawn chairs, each positioned to showcase a different view of the valley. Instead of turning pages, I played musical chairs, for no matter how lovely the works of Giotto, they cannot compare to an Umbrian valley enlivened by colorful songbirds and circling falcons and scented with lavender, lemon, and roses.

The manager offered a lush, fresh peach sliced on a china plate and asked what time I would like the driver to take me to Assisi the next morning. I told her I had just had my Assisi experience and would be staying at the palazzo another day.

And then another, and another. I never made it to Rome—or a hill town or a winery. I never left Palazzo Terranova until the day I flew home. Thanks to the food, the fragrance, the vistas, and the peace, I embraced the essence of Italy while dawdling, not crawling.


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