I’m so at home that I invite the real owner of the Montagnola estate, Vittoria Iraci Borgia, along with Carmela Guzzo, her factotum-cum-culinary-magician, and their families to elaborate multicourse feasts. When they arrive, bearing lovely gifts for the hostess, my friends and I sweep out to welcome them, the picture of gracious beneficence. We proffer Campari-vodka-grapefruit juice aperitivos, along with crostini alla Romana and arancini before moving on to the main feast as the sun starts to set.
Global recession? What global recession? If you don’t count discretionary spending (read eight pairs of shoes from the Prada outlet in Montevarchi), my dolce vita sojourn is cheaper than a week at many beach houses stateside. For 2,400 euros (about $3,400 at $1.42 to the euro) for the whole week, we rent the six-bedroom (each with private bathroom) Caprareccia, the simply furnished, staggeringly beautiful hilltop jewel of La Montagnola’s rental offerings.
Umbria is to Tuscany what Sonoma is to Napa — a little less trafficked, a little less touristy, a lot less money. It is dotted with historic cities and towns, from the imperious, intellectual Perugia, to the spiritual and high-minded Assisi, to the wine-lover’s paradise, Montefalco, home of sagrantino di Montefalco, one of Italy’s finest and most robust red wines.
The region also has a number of beautiful, yet simple and rustic agriturismi (farm rentals) that are available by the day or by the week. These range from rooms in farmhouses to large villas on vineyards to country house estates, like mine. They are, by and large, far less expensive than a hotel, with the added benefit of the freedom to sleep late and eat breakfast when you want, shop in the local markets for artichokes and try your hand at Italian cooking in your own kitchen. It’s a great way to play house (well, play villa) with friends.
I found my own villa back in 2003, through Vittoria’s cooking class at La Montagnola, her family’s 1,500-acre olive oil estate 15 minutes south of Perugia. It was a gloriously hot day, and we made stuffed tomatoes, white pizza in a wood-burning oven, and biscotti. The rest, as we say in Italy, is la storia.
After the class, Vittoria took us up a gravel road. We bounced past row after row of olive trees, their jade-tinged branches brushing against the car. Around a bend, a picnic table sat awaiting the olive pickers who would be coming at harvest. The landscape felt like a nature preserve. Finally, at the top of the mountain, we arrived at Caprareccia.
I stepped out of the car, mouth agape. Two peacocks were strutting to the far end of the swimming pool, pondering the panorama before them: gently undulating olive hills, a medieval castle in the distance, a scattering of sienna-tiled rooftops, the spires of Assisi in the distance. Behind the pool stood Caprareccia, its windowed shutters closed to keep its rooms cool in the warm midday sunshine.
A hedgehog scurried between two rosemary bushes before disappearing. “How much?” I croaked. Vittoria’s reply — 2,400 euros, or 400 euros per bedroom for a whole week — had me babbling instantly:
“I’ll take it,” I said. “Sign me up for next year. First week of July. The whole house. It’s mine, you hear?”
And mine it has been. Every year, my friends and I uncover a little more of the shine of our mountain and valley and the area’s towns. Last year we discovered that the deli section in the hypermarket in San Martino has roasted pigs, which when enjoyed with a crisp Orvieto Classico on a picnic table back at our villa, can go a long way toward helping one uncover the meaning of life.
We have learned the best restaurant for dinner with a view — the hilltop Osteria I Birbi, just outside Torgiano, where we can sample bistecca alla Fiorentina on the patio. The best drive: along Lago Trasimino through San Savino at sunset. We investigate just about every single zucchero bowl that Deruta, the heart of Italy’s pottery industry, has to offer, and then decide that, actually, we prefer the sugar bowls at the pottery place in Torgiano, the village down the mountain from La Montagnola.