Everybody knows that Italy is beautiful, but there are many glorious and, luckily virtually unknown parts where the food and scenery are more spectacular and unspoilt than anything you will find on the tourist trail. Exploring towns such as the medieval walled Norcia or Catelluccio wield infinitely more pizazz than stumbling your way through the sea of fake Fendi bags in Pizza de Spagna or waiting in line at the Sistine Chapel.
Welcome to a part of Umbria where the food is divine and the scenery ravishing, where you can wander for hours in the hills without seeing another soul. It’s just a couple of hours from Rome, a secret paradise where few tourists venture, although canny Romans make the car trip out at weekends to stock up on the highly prized local hams, salami and truffles. Our base was the beautifully restored 16th-century Palazzo Seneca in the heart of the exquisite walled city of Norcia, where the sound of monks singing vespers echoes from the church crypt every evening.
Norcia is a gem. A circuit of the Roman walls takes less than an hour, and every corner of the cobbled backstreets reveals views of distant, velvet green peaks. I’m only shocked that this enchanting place isn’t more widely known but sadly, my photos don’t do it’s beauty much justice.
Norcia is the birthplace of St Benedict, founder of the Benedictine monastic system. Above is the Basilica dedicated to him, situated on the main square and still attached to a functioning Benedictine monastery. Though the present facade was built in the 13th century, it stands on the remains of one or more small Roman buildings, sometimes considered to have been the actual house in which the saint was born.
Someone told us that it is impossible to have a bad meal in Norcia. They were right. We came here by chance after a very long walk and enjoyed a meal I will remember forever. We had lentil and pecorino tart and sausage stuffed zucchini followed by polenta with sausages and wild boar pappardelle with a huge ceramic jug of white wine. It was a feast and we paid €24 for everything.
I ordered this truffle egg at the restaurant of Palazzo Seneca where we ate by candlelight in the herb garden whilst the sun set in the background. I know it sounds fairly uninspired but it was so authentic and without pretention or artifice that it didn’t feel remotely cliché. The food was so also good that we came back the following night.
Sipping a Negroni after a long days walking and watching the sunset from the hotel terrace.
The library at Palazzo Seneca is home to some beautiful books both old and new. The wonderful thing about the hotel was its coolness and peace so you could escape from the afternoon heat here to read. It also brought back not so distant memories of exam revision in the V&A Library.
Incredibly, the following photos were all taken on the same walk which really shows the diversity in the landscape. From bright green vegetable fields to honey hued corn I stopped at every five paces to take photos.
After the remarkable journey in Norcia, the time came to say goodbye and take the ninety minute journey back to Rome. The lovely (and very handsome) Vincenzo, owner of Palazzo Seneca, told us about the wild flowers in the nearby town of Castelluccio and that it was craziness not to see them before we left.
Castelluccio itself, a tiny settlement perched on a hilltop that was for most of the year completely isolated until the dirt road was improved in the 1970s. Even now, in early summer, with a brisk wind blowing off the valley floor, the semi-abandoned village was windswept and empty, and feels like a town in the Wild West. One of the ruined dwellings is covered in graffiti – the locals used to paint slogans here naming anyone suspected of having an affair.
Castelluccio only has around 150 inhabitants and is also the highest settlement in the region at 1452 metres. To be elevated in the middle of this basin and surrounded by such vibrancy was pretty spectacular. As we walked up the very steep, dusty path to find some food, I couldn’t stop saying ‘wow’! For miles there was flatness and colour and then these huge, rolling hills covered in yellow and blue. We found a tiny place to eat next to a crumbling barn and had omelette with truffle, ricotta with pink pepper and some cooked liver with bread.
We then made our way to Spoleto train station where we took a direct train back to Rome. I definitely had my doubts about the beauty of Norcia due to the serious lack on information about it online. Thank God this is the case though. The singing monks, the peace, the children playing in the square at midnight, the incredible food in every restaurant and the warm people. I could go on but as Vincenzo said to me, you’d be a lunatic not to find out for yourself.
GETTING THERE: Fly to Rome on Alitalia and take the hour and a half train to Spoleto. If you stay at Palazzo Seneca, a car will collect you from here otherwise you can take a taxi to the city centre.
SLEEP: Palazzo Seneca is just off the main square and part of the Relais & Chateau group. Extremely luxurious whilst not being extortionate and the in-house restaurant is very special. They also offer cooking courses which focus on using the local ingredients. There are also many gorgeous B&B’s in great locations and a Best Western just outside the city walls.
EAT: Like I said, it is impossible to eat badly here. We went to Il Granaro Del Monte for lunch which was good and the following day to the Cantina Del Norsia which I would highly recommend. For dinner both nights we stayed at the Palazzo Seneca because I loved sitting in the garden and the food was historic. I had heard that Il Castoro, located near the village of Preci is excellent as is Il Cenacolo which is inside the city walls.
ACTIVITIES: The walking trails are all in the Monti Sibillini National Park so wherever you go will be lovely. The information office can give you all the maps and directions you need so you don’t find yourself on an advanced walk or in my case, if you’re wearing wedged trainers.
Castelluccio is a must see in the summer months too but don’t bother going all the way there if it’s cold because nothing will be open or in bloom.