Renting a turnkey villa can be the perfect solution for a group of fun-loving girls to maximize their time together while enjoying Italy’s off-the-beaten path experiences. A bespoke vacation like the one that I took this past fall to Villa Ercolano in Umbria ensures that you spend more time “in the moment,” and less time worrying about logistics.
Villa Ercolano is a stunningly gorgeous eight-hundred-year-old property set into the hills of Umbria — just minutes from the charming, walled medieval city of Città di Castello (City of Castles). Eight bedrooms and four-and-a-half beautifully modern bathrooms are on the two upper floors of the villa ensuring guests a peaceful retreat when the rest of the house is rocking with late-night revelry.
The owner of Villa Ercolano, Terrie Hogan Turner, customizes each guest’s stay to suit their individual needs. She has crafted week-long itineraries in different categories including cooking classes, chestnut and mushroom picking in season, truffle hunting in the fall, and wine tasting in Cortona, Maltipaulciano, Monte Falco and local Vinsanto. She can arrange for horseback riding, food tasting tours and shopping tours as well. I was fortunate to join a group of adventurous ladies who wanted to try a bit of everything, and with the help of Terrie, we certainly did!
A Day in the Woods
Donning jeans, boots and sweaters, we rode on a wagon being towed with a tractor by part cowboy, part farmer, but sincerely charming Italian local named Ricardo. We locked arms with each other (talk about a bonding!) lest one of us pop out of the wagon bed when the unavoidable ruts in the dirt road were deep. When we were not hooting and hollering on the way up (in a good way), we were stunned into silence by the beauty of the backdrop below. The steep climb was well worth the trek up because we were rewarded with a plethora of chestnuts to gather, as well as many delicious and interesting edible mushroom varieties that we were also able to pick during our hunt.
The villa’s chef Paola came along and prepared an el fresco picnic for us, and proved to be one of the many priceless attributes of the Villa Ercolano experience. She grilled sausages and bacon wrapped chicken over an open fire and roasted homemade bread, dabbed with fresh olive oil, which we completely devoured. Sufficiently satiated from our BBQ (and slightly happy from our hour of robust red vino), we proceeded to challenged our new Italian “besties” to an “International Sing-Off.” Ricardo, his girlfriend Giusy and Paola represented their country well with an A Capella version of ‘O Sole Mio’ while we American women belted out a horrific but energetic version of the American National Anthem. First Half Score: Italy 1, USA, 0.
Back at Ricardo’s home for an evening soiree, we feasted on his homemade venison chestnut pasta, breads spread with chicken liver pâté and spicy red sauce. He served a fresh mushroom salad and fried mushrooms with a cornmeal crust from the bounty we had handpicked earlier in the day. We roasted the chestnuts over an open fire (and it wasn’t even Christmas season yet) in Ricardo’s special pan ,which we ate warm, covered in chocolate over his special chocolate gelato. A local band played Italian folk music and classic American tunes. We American won the “International Dance-Off” when they played YMCA. Final Score: Italy 1, USA, 1. Although it was a tie at the end of the day, we claim the win because it was an incredibly fun-filled day from start of finish.
Truffle Hunt and Vinsanto
It is difficult to say who had a more amusing time truffle hunting – me, or the peppy hound, Pippo, whose job it was to sniff out the expensive and elusive black truffles from under the trees. Pippo followed his nose; while I attempted to follow the fast paced pursuit in order to document the process and retrieve the goods before the pup devoured too many nuggets of the precious fungi.
Back at Pippo’s pad, we checked out his owners’ (Saverio and Gabriella) family museum devoted to all things truffle. Generations of this dynasty have been truffle hunting and memorabilia collecting; and they house the most comprehensive museum of its kind, devoted strictly to truffles. We dined simply, but well, beginning with truffle deviled eggs followed by homemade Tagliatelle with black truffle shavings and black truffle infused olive oil, and a green fig and cheese salad with black truffles that chef Gabriella created. Tip: leave more room in your luggage because they sell truffle oils, pastes and dry pastas that I promise you will not be able to resist purchasing for home.
The only way to ensure the day didn’t go downhill after tasting such magical dishes was to follow it up with a Vinsanto wine tasting in the private home of Eugenio Bastarelli and his wife Adele. They are one of the few remaining people that produce Vinsanto wines in the traditional method – drying vines hanging from the very ceilings of their second-floor living room in their abode. Aged for a minimum of five years, we tasted several of various ages of La Soffiitta Vinsanto wines accompanied by a sweet pound cake and fruit torte, both cooked in their outdoor brick oven.
Cooking Class with Chef Paola at the Villa
Chef Paola Rotini specializes in cooking with fresh ingredients sourced from local producers/farmers. We had a truly hands-on experience acting as her sous chefs. Under her watchful eye we learned the proper way to chop, slice and dice… as well as picked up several tips on plating our sumptuous meal. The art of cooking a perfect risotto is just one of her many specialties. The secret is to start with the right brand of rice (she prefers the Acquerello brand), and add homemade chicken or vegetable stock in small doses. Because it was fall, native squash was plentiful. Paola had us add just the right amount, along with creamy Burrata cheese as the last step in the cooking process. The piping hot bowl of deliciousness was garnished with an angled stripe of finely crushed Amaretto biscuit crumbs – sheer perfection. We sautéed thinly sliced zucchini and eggplant in an olive oil and buttery sauté pan and seasoned them with fresh herbs from the Villa Ercolano gardens as our side dish. Crusty Italian bread and a local red wine on hand completed the preparations for our Italian feast. Having a personal chef take us from farm to table made the evening a special occasion, and I swear I have never tasted Risotto as delightful as on that night. Chef Paola is a pure treasure!
Wine Tasting in Tuscany
Traveling to Italy’s Super Tuscan region is easy, either by renting a car nearby, or Terrie can arrange for a private driver. Scenic countryside roads to Montepulciano, abundant with iconic sunflowers, dot the landscape so make sure you have plenty of room on your camera’s memory stick to capture photos along the way.
We visited Poliziano Vineyards nestled in the rolling hills of the Montepulciano, Pienza, Cortona region of Tuscany. They produce biologic (made without pesticides and chemical fertilizers) wines of distinction. The vineyard is called Asinone (big donkey) — named for the shape of the plot of lands that resemble the shape of the back of a donkey. It was a typically cool, yet sunny fall day so the stroll through the Sangiovese vines was most inviting. We then visited the impressive cellars and ended on an even higher note with a private tasting conducted by an eloquent and enthusiastic sommelier who guided us through several important vintages. Their vino Nobile single vineyard wine was one of the first in Montepulciano, and one of the first crus of Tuscany. Their Super Tuscan 2015 Le Stanza wine is full-bodied, dry but fruity and well balanced. We each bought several bottles to take home, but I wished that I had shipped a whole case!
Historical Tour of Città di Castello
Inside the medieval walls I found a rich sense of history and commitment to celebrating its past, while mixed with a modern vibe where local shops and restaurants are embracing modern cuisine, new traditions and hosting events to keep the youth engaged in the community.
Hip coffee and pastry shops have popped up in the city center, and are proving to be quite popular meeting spots for every age. Sweet or savory, take your pick, but for me it is sugar and chocolate all the way. There was no shortage of cafe options, but Terrie knows the best of the best… taking us to her favorite spot for cappuccino and cakes for breakfast – when in Italy… Yum!
We visited the Tela Umbra cooperative loom and museum – one of the few working hand looms still manufacturing linens and garments by hand. The expert weavers consider their profession an homage to the hard-working women pioneers of the mid-to-late 1800’s and also do it out of respect for founder Alice Halgarten Franchetti who recognized that the city needed a safe environment for women and their children while they earned wages. Alice was a woman ahead of her time. She was a friend of Maria Montessori, and provided flexible working hours and a nursery school for the kids. We met weavers Francesca and Tiziana, who both clearly love what they do because they find it creative and rewarding. It takes eight hours for them to weave a meter of fine linen cloth and yards of patience. I was mesmerized by the workings of the looms and by the passion of the ladies who manned them. Running my fingers over the soft linen tablecloths, examining the intricate and ancient patterns in the table runners and knowing the story behind their creations made me tear-up. I sincerely hope this art endures forever in Città di Castello.
Up a few flights of stairs off the main drag is one of Europe’s oldest working printing press shops. Founded in 1799, Tipografia Grifani Donati produces fine prints on 19th and 20th century machines. They also offer short courses in Lithography. It was a fascinating tour of the presses that still produce books, pamphlets and invitations that marvel anything modern printers can produce, and printer Gianni is marvelous at explaining the entire process.
Like wine tasting, olive oil tasting involves a special technique that we learned from purveyor Dante Sambuchi at the foodie and wine gift shop Lo Sfizio. He taught us to “snort” the oil by putting a few drops in our mouths and sniffing in heartily to bring some of it up into our noses in order to smell and taste at the same time. It burns slightly but gives the full effect of bringing taste and smell to appreciate the differences between commercial brands and locally produced 100% authentic oils from the region. We did a blind tasting and soon we discovered how to discern a high quality olive oil from lesser quality ones. We were then treated to a Prosecco tasting of three vintages from the region where Prosecco is made. Similar to Champagne, which can only be called Champagne if produced from grapes in the Champagne region, only wines produced in these areas can be called Prosecoo. It was a unique and wonderful educational and culinary experience that I am sure to never forget.
The Villa Ercolano Experience
Each day was filled with opportunities to experience authentic Italian culture via the landscape, historical sites and the exploration of local food and wine, but we also loved our “down time” back at the villa relaxing. There are three separate outdoor verandas with breathtaking views of the vistas below. We dined most meals en plein air either under the pergola poolside, or on the sunny terrace overlooking the olive trees. Sunset happy hours were spent laughing with my new friends, sipping Italian wines while sharing our favorite memories from our daily exploits.
Predominately an insomniac, somehow on this trip I fell asleep quickly and woke up to my alarm each morning. I suspect the high thread count, lavender scented sheets and the crisp fresh air helped me sleep so soundly, but I also think it was the overall effect that I felt truly “at home” in my home away from home in Villa Ercolano that added to the deep slumber I achieved. It was a most engaging, entertaining, educational, adventuresome and restful weeklong stay. The villa has been synonymous with hospitality for 800 years, and I was fortunate to experience it first hand.
About the Villa
For information about how you, too, can rent this outstanding property for your own girl’s getaway, family reunion or special occasion, please visit: http://luxegetaways.info/villa-ercolano
Villa Ercolano rentals are offered May thru October. Rental is by the week, Saturday thru Sunday, however monthly rentals are also possible. Guests can also opt for a two-week rental as a combination: one week as an Experience Week and an additional week à la carte.
The Villa Ercolano Experience: Photos
The Villa Ercolano Experience: Videos