And I was not disappointed. The luxury element of the trip began immediately with a relaxing breakfast in Gatwick’s No. 1 Lounge. I couldn’t quite bring myself to drink wine at 6 a.m. but the availability of it was very much appreciated. The trip was the perfect blend of action and relaxation activities with the theme of food and wine woven throughout, while being utterly spoiled in the most incredible villa in the picturesque historic town of San Gemini – truly my idea of heaven.
San Gemini is a charming historic town in Terni, just south of Todi. Almost untouched by tourism, a town of quaint alleyways, cobbled streets and cool churches. Where a hidden archway could take you to the most breath-taking view or into a small square where you can almost smell the thousands of years of history that have taken place. The only non-Italian I met on our entire trip was a fascinating American professor who had moved to San Gemini to head up the archeological digs of the nearby Roman village of Carsulae (one for a future visit). She encapsulated my feeling about Umbria perfectly, saying:
“Tuscany is loved because one is obliged to love it – simply because it’s Tuscany; but Umbria? Umbria has the power to take a piece of your soul – it either sucks you up or spits you out.”Umbria was described by our tour guide as being commonly and unfairly referred to as “Tuscany’s poorer sister”. Umbria has the same rolling hills, vast vineyards, beautiful weather and historic villages on every hillside, but is not yet saturated with tourists, allowing you to experience a raw, unabridged Italy. I felt as if I were among a very privileged few who have been able to experience and see one of the most beautiful parts of the world before it gets truly discovered.
There was incredible light quality and shadows, a constant background hum of bees in the lime trees above, and the scent of lavender, mint and honeysuckle as we drank wine (and there was much wine) on the verandah. There was also something quite dream-like and other-worldly about our trip, as if we were in a film set, and every scene had been carefully choreographed to show us the most surreal and perfect side of Umbria. For example, while water rafting (more about this later) we all jumped out the boats to have a little ‘swim’, and as we came to a pause in the stillness of the water, two beautiful wild horses galloped down to the water’s edge and entertained us for a while with their foot-stamping and head-shaking. It was utterly mesmerising. OK, so wild horses can be quite dangerous and we were all but trapped in the river until they chose to leave, but it was a moment I will never forget.
Just wow. It’s not hard to see why our stunning period palazzo ‘Santi Terzi’ has been dubbed ‘the Italian Hogwarts’. Once home to the neo-classical sculptor Canova, it sits proudly at the highest point of San Gemini. This villa has recently been impressively renovated by the owner, and maintains many original architectural features; it oozes Italian charm. Santi Terzi sleeps up to 20 people so would be perfect for a group of friends, an extended family group, or even a small wedding party. With unrivalled views across the Terni valley, a postcard-worthy outdoor pool and a maid, a stay here really is a decadent yet authentic taste of Italy.
White water rafting
If ever there was a way to get a group of strangers who had only met a few hours before to bond quickly, it’s to make them all don wetsuits and go white-water rafting together. The rafting here is in the Nera River in the Valnerina region of Umbria – one of the most beautiful and rugged areas in Umbria. After a quick lesson in basic raft techniques, our fast-bonding team experienced two hours of fun and adventure, including a quick break to jump in and let the water take us for a ride.
Italian cooking lesson
Two minutes’ walk down the hill from our villa, tucked away down a side street of San Gemini, lives Lorena – the Umbrian chef. She lives and works out of her home, a former monastery with her very own 17th-century tomb in the hallway. She welcomed nine of us into her home, but she has that gift of being able to make every one of us feel as if we are the most important person in the room. After a hands-on lesson in making gnocchi and pesto, she joined us at the table to enjoy a four-course meal, and of course, more wine. I learned that when she is not teaching tourists how to cook, she is combining her passion for food with a passion for the disadvantaged and invites local disabled children into her home for cookery and life-skills. Lorena is one of the reasons I fell in love with San Gemini.
Cycling and wine-tasting
A leisurely 20km bike tour through the stunning Umbrian countryside, discovering the old town of Bevagna with its beautiful churches and the delightful village of Torre del Colle was the perfect way to work up our appetite for lunch and wine-tasting. I can honestly say that after a tour of the Arnaldo Caprai Winery, I have a new appreciation of wine. I found myself using words like “elegant”, “personality”, “oaky” and “restrained” to describe the wines I was tasting – a slight difference to my normal approach of, “Yep – tastes nice.”
I didn’t even know I liked truffles. Turns out I really really do – which is unfortunate as they sell from around £250-£1,250 per kg, depending on season. The experience began with a short walk with the dogs to the trees where they immediately follow the intense scent of the black truffle, a culinary speciality of the Valnerina region. It’s surprisingly exciting as you see the dogs pick up on the scent and start to dig for the precious culinary prize. The hunt for truffles doesn’t last long as the heat of the day intensifies and gets too hot for the dogs to work. So, after a detour via an old church and an olive oil tasting session (because when in Italy…), we head back for lunch to the restaurant, Piermarini, to cook and taste the fruits of our morning’s efforts. After an inspiring cooking lesson (they make it all look so simple), where I possibly ate my own body weight in ‘starters’, we then all relaxed in the gardens to enjoy a three-course meal, which began with an Umbrian speciality of soft-boiled egg with truffle sauce – delicious.
Tuscany Now & More (tuscanynowandmore.com, 0207 684 8884) offers Santi Terzi from £4,197 for 20 people based on travel in June 2017 for seven days sharing on a self-catering basis. Includes a maid. Tuscany Now & More features a range of properties across the region and can provide private chefs, excursions and other services upon request. Airport lounge access available through no1lounges.com/. Tuscany Now & More organise all the experiences and excursions. These can be included and organised as a part of any stay at Santi Terzi or any of the other Tuscany Now & More properties.