Italy. The mere mention of it conjures up romantic images of incredibly delicious food and wine, stunning landscapes, and quaint villages with tiny shops that you can stroll in and out while savoring the fact you’re in such a beautiful place.
Visit Italy, however, and you’ll soon discover those visions of romantic, peaceful bliss you had planned turn out to be, shall we say, inaccurate. The problem isn’t with Italy itself; the problem is that those same romantic images that attracted you to Italy just so happened to attract a few others as well. And when I say a few others, I mean countless legions of tourists that have managed to overwhelm virtually all of Italy’s main attractions. As a result, there are really two versions of Italy: Italy for tourists; and Italy for those who live in it.
But before you think I’m telling you not to visit Italy, let me be clear: I’m not. Instead, my advice when visiting Italy is to choose wisely. Those romantic Italian images you’ve dreamt about do exist, but to find them, you need to venture off the beaten path. Get away from the tourists, and you’ll experience Italy as it should be experienced: as a stunning, unspoiled destination steeped in history that’s remained largely unchanged for the past few centuries.
This is Umbria
For travelers seeking countryside views and the allure of Italian food and wine, the traditional choice is Tuscany. But if you’re considering Tuscany, allow me to recommend Umbria as an alternative. The landlocked eastern neighbor of Tuscany, the region of Umbria shares many of Tuscany’s desirable attributes, but for the most part, it largely manages to do so without the fanfare and the crowds. The food is better, the views are beyond perfect, and many of the medieval hilltop towns are virtually untouched by tourists. It’s a region that blends art, culture, history and beauty, and yet most of the places I had the pleasure of visiting were completely devoid of the Americanized tourist-oriented feel that’s infiltrated so many other places.
Of the four-and-a-half weeks I spent in Italy – two of which were in the region of Umbria – it was in Umbria where I felt the most Italian. I drank espresso at a tiny café with a handful of locals; I dined in a restaurant where the only staff was a husband waiting outside to usher you in while his wife brought you plate after plate of authentic, home-style Italian cuisine; and my son played soccer on the old stone streets with some of the kids that lived in the town. Every minute of my time in Umbria was magnificent.
So how did I arrive in Umbria? It began with a recommendation from a friend.
“If you’re going to Italy,” he said, “you can’t stay in a hotel. You have to rent a villa.” It seemed simple enough, until I actually started looking at villas. The problem wasn’t finding an available house to rent – there’s a vast assortment of villas to stay in. The problem was picking one. Unlike hotels that note tens or hundreds of reviews written about them, house rentals offer up a brief description and a few photos – not exactly confidence-inspiring when you’re spending two weeks in the secluded Italian countryside. When I told my friend of my dilemma, he recommended a company by the name of Petersham Properties.
Based in the UK, Petersham represents a variety of vacation rentals around the world. More importantly, however, is the fact that the Petersham team actually goes out and hand-picks each of the properties they work with, so they have an intimate firsthand knowledge of all the properties they represent. From there, Petersham handles every element of your trip. Transportation, sightseeing, cooking classes, wine tasting – they’re like your personal concierge during your stay.
When I went to Petersham Properties, I had yet to pick a property, or even the specific area I wanted to stay. I told them the amount of time I wanted to spend in Italy; the general region I wanted to visit; and some of the things I was looking for in the property. From there, the Petersham team worked with me to craft the perfect vacation package, and as I’m about to detail, the job they did is one that can only be described as remarkable.
Welcome to Palazzo Terranova
In working with Petersham, my list of requirements was expansive. I wanted privacy, luxury and relaxation. I wanted a view of the Italian countryside. I wanted to be able to experience Italian culture and cuisine. There was more, but I don’t want to sound pretentious. Ultimately they recommended two properties, the first of which is a 17th century estate known as Palazzo Terranova (I’ll be detailing the second estate in a separate article).
Hidden amongst the Umbrian hills, Palazzo Terranova is an escape from the rest of the world. Your GPS isn’t going to find it, and if you book a rental car, be warned: things are going to get a little rugged. But once you’re there, it’s a place worthy of the journey.
My first night arriving in Perugia, and then Palazzo Terranova, things felt eerily unfamiliar compared to the other parts of Italy which I had already experienced. The drive started out traditionally with plenty of cars and people, but as we drew closer to the Palazzo, traffic diminished, then disappeared, before we finally ascended up the rutted gravel road leading to the Palazzo itself. After a few minutes questioning our vehicle’s prowess in navigating such terrain, we finally reached the Palazzo’s gates. The road smoothed, and the Italian cypress lined driveway framed beautifully the soft glow emanating from the Palazzo. Not to boast in my fortune of finding such a place, but I have to tell you: if you’ve ever fantasized about the romanticism of staying in a 17th century Italian villa, the reality of it (at least when speaking of the Palazzo) exceeded every pre-conceived notion I had. Upon first sight, it was the most romantic and stunning place I’ve ever seen.
Entering the Palazzo only added to the allure. There’s no check-in area – you enter through the Palazzo’s front door as if it were your home – and after passing through a brief entranceway, you enter an intimate seating room with a huge stone fireplace and a piano once played by Elton John during his time at the Palazzo. To your right is the dining room, home to one of the Palazzo’s most notable pieces of art, and to your left is the bar and another intimate dining area, where my wife and I would come to enjoy numerous candle-lit dinners.
The suites themselves start on the next floor up – there are eight in total – and all are magnificent. Exhausted from our day of travel, we decided to forego a nighttime stroll of the property and head straight to our room. A soak in the marble tub, a few glasses of wine, and our day of travel was already forgotten. Before bed, however, I opened the doors to the Romeo and Juliet balcony, and although dark, I made out briefly what appeared to be a large canine figure running across the grounds. “Someone’s pet dog? Possibly a wolf? This is the country after all, although I’m not sure wolves are native to central Italy” I thought.
As it turns out, both were true. It was indeed a pet, and it was indeed a wolf. It was a pet wolf named Boris, who lives on the grounds of the Palazzo. Why? Because the owner of the Palazzo heard stories of another wolf living in the area, and he wanted one as well. As it turns out, Boris is somewhat leery of guests, as initially he tended to be content simply observing us from a distance. But as the week went on, his fondness for us grew, and by the end of our time at the Palazzo he became a wonderfully affable companion. He loves tug-of-war and fetch as much as any red-blooded canine does, and for my three year old son, Boris easily ranked as one of his favorite things at Palazzo Terranova. Should you have an aversion to pet wolves, however, they will keep him contained during your stay. But believe me, nothing adds to the ambience of staying in such a royal place more than having a wolf roaming the countryside along with you.
Palazzo Terranova Suites
Residing in Palazzo Terranova is nothing like residing in a hotel. Hotels tend be neutral and unadventurous in an attempt to not offend anyone’s particular tastes. Palazzo Terranova is the opposite. It’s colorful, adventurous and filled with personality. A tremendous amount of detail and thought went into the restoration of Palazzo Terranova, and you can feel the intricacy of the restoration in every room.
My wife and I personally resided in the La Traviata suite on the first floor – an expansive pale yellow and green room with adjoining dressing room and bathroom and views of the Umbrian landscape. The room was massive, with multiple sitting areas, a desk, and what may have been the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. Calling it exceptional is an understatement – perfect is more appropriate.
Having the Palazzo to ourselves, we could have chosen any of the other seven suites, and all were magnificent. Every suite is huge, all boast soaring ceilings, and each notes a completely distinct décor and color scheme. My main recommendation is to pick a room with views of the countryside, as it’s simply magical to wake up and watch the fog sweep across the hills.
In addition to the suites, there’s also a pair of sitting rooms (one on the first floor and one on the second) that are centered amongst the guest suites, both of which offer additional space to relax, read one of the Palazzo’s endless supply of books or enjoy a cappuccino outside your room.
Palazzo Terranova Dining
When working with Petersham Properties in reserving Palazzo Terranova, one of their key recommendations was reserving a chef during the stay. My wife is an incredible chef in her own right, so it was something we deliberated about, but ultimately we followed their recommendation. And it’s a choice I can’t recommend enough.
Chef Alex excelled at creating absolutely impeccable dishes for both lunch and dinner. Meals were all 3-4 courses, perfectly proportioned, and thanks to his use of fresh, local ingredients, perfectly exemplified what you’d expect from Italian cuisine. If you’re questioning whether a private chef can prepare meals that live up to your expectations, don’t. Chef Alex defied logic. During my month in Italy, I didn’t eat a better meal than the ones prepared at Palazzo Terranova, and in truth, I’ve eaten at AAA five diamond restaurants that haven’t brought me as much joy as those of Alex.
Paired with the dining, the service was absolutely world-class. As it was my first time renting a villa, I didn’t know what to expect from the overall dining experience, but after experiencing it, it was flawless. Service was carried out with a precision you’d expect only from the world’s finest restaurants – never overbearing, but perfectly precise and attentive.
The overall dining experience at Palazzo Terranova was exemplary, and along with the service, it’s one of those things that ended up being one of the most memorable elements of our time at the Palazzo.
Palazzo Terranova Service & Amenities
Despite its grand scale, Palazzo Terranova is markedly warm and intimate, due in large part to the staff’s desire to make everything as perfect as possible. It’s true of the service itself, and it’s true of the amenities the staff selects for you. Laundry was washed and pressed looking better than the way you bought it. Massively gorgeous bouquets randomly showed up in our bedroom. Soaps, linens, and every other amenity offered were all exemplary, exceeding what you’d find a five-star hotel, even by American standards.
And while the exceptional service can tend to be overbearing, at the Palazzo it never was. One of my fears in renting a staffed villa was that there’d be a pervasive feeling of being watched. But as it turned out, the exact opposite held true. It felt as though the Palazzo was ours, and we had the perfect team there to attend to our needs.
Describing the Palazzo staff as staff, however, isn’t wholly accurate. Technically, they were our staff, but truthfully, after spending a week with them, they felt more like family than hired help. The Palazzo is really their home, and they welcomed us into it. They went out of their way ensuring our time at the Palazzo was perfect, they showed us Umbria in a way we never could have experienced it by ourselves, and our kids simply adored them. We loved every member of the Palazzo Terranova team, and it’s the staff more than anything that we most fondly look back on during our stay at the Palazzo.
Palazzo Terranova Activities
In planning a trip to Palazzo Terranova, there are both on-site activities and excursions to the surrounding areas. We worked with Petersham Properties to plan the activities for the entire week, which eliminated any guesswork or planning when we actually got there. Transportation, meals, what to do, what to see – all was choreographed beautifully in advance and subsequently executed perfectly.
On the Palazzo Terranova grounds, a few basic activities you can enjoy include a swim in the infinity edge pool overlooking the Italian countryside, a workout in the fitness center, enjoying a book from the library, or relaxing on one of the grounds’ numerous outdoor seating areas and enjoying the stunning vistas. During at least one night of your stay I highly recommend booking the pizza party, which offers the quintessential Italian al fresco dining experience. It started with Chef Alex firing up the wood-fired stove in the morning, and for dinner, Alex and my family crafted our favorite pizzas with a variety of local ingredients. As if that wasn’t enough, we then made our way outside to enjoy the pizza on the outdoor terrace, along with a lovely bottle of Rosé and stunning sunset views. (And if you’re wondering how many pizzas we made, I lost count at 7).
Venture outside Palazzo Terranova, and you’re in the perfect location to take in a variety of art and culture. One of the first things my wife and I did was travel to Sansepolcro – a town with roots dating back to AD 1000 that was the birthplace of early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. In Sansepolcro we visited the Museo Civico, where you can witness one of Piero’s most well-known works – The Resurrection – a stunning fresco depicting the resurrection of Jesus dating back to roughly 1463. It’s a work of art that’s not only magnificent to behold (Aldous Huxley called it “the greatest picture in the world”), it’s also one that singlehandedly saved the town, as British officer Tony Clarke defied orders during World War II to conduct a mass shelling of Sansepolcro after learning of the fresco’s existence.
If, on the other hand, you’re in the mood for a culinary adventure, two fantastic options include a truffle hunt with Tartufi Bianconi and/or wine tasting excursion. For the truffle hunt, the day began with a guided stroll in search of the ever elusive truffle – a feat we met with tremendous success thanks to our two wonderfully talented canine companions – followed by a trip back to the family-run truffle headquarters (it’s their home, along with a small facility for them to package their unbelievably delicious truffle goods). While there, we had the pleasure of receiving an intimate cooking demonstration and witnessing the art of true Italian home cooking, which was then followed up with a multi-course family meal enjoyed with our hosts. Every course was not only sensationally good, each was brimming with more truffles than I’ve ever witnessed on a single plate. It was phenomenal.
The wine tasting, on the other hand, didn’t rank quite as well as the truffle hunt, although once you’ve been served copious amounts of truffles, you’re going to be hard-pressed to better such a delectable culinary experience. For the wine tasting we headed to Montefalco, an area in Perugia highly regarded for its wine production. Once there, one of the first things we decided to do was pose in the vineyard, although this turned out to be somewhat of a bad idea, as Italians take their grapes seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they have motion sensor alarms in place ensuring their grapes safety. Alarms went off, a security team came running, and we were half questioning whether or not we were about to be tazered. Despite the security lockdown, however, we still managed to get our photo with the vineyard, although our grand vision of stealing the vineyard and taking it home with us failed miserably.
Following “the incident”, as we’ll call it, we were then given a tour of the facilities and led to the main store area, where we sampled various wines from the region. If you’re a wine aficionado, it’s worth heading to Montefalco to gain insight into the actual wine production. If you just love drinking wine, however, opt for the truffle hunt. You’ll get incredible food and wine, you just won’t get to see how the wine is produced. Or better yet, just do both.
Once you’ve taken in and enjoyed the incredible Italian cuisine, my final recommendation is visiting the nearby ancient hilltop towns. Some are small, some are somewhat larger, but all are different and have different things to offer. The thing they all have in common, however, is that the majority are unspoiled by tourists. If you want to experience Italy and feel Italian, this is how you do it. Whether it’s stopping by a tiny café, a quaint shop or a family-run restaurant, there’s simply not a better way to feel the true essence of Italy.
Palazzo Terranova Special Events & Guest Houses
Although my time at Palazzo Terranova was purely for relaxation purposes, it’s easy to imagine a wide variety of scenarios the Palazzo would be perfect for. A destination wedding, of course, would be magical in the Umbrian hills. A corporate retreat, anniversary party, birthday – there’s really nothing you couldn’t execute beautifully at Palazzo Terranova. Outside, there’s a variety of areas to host larger dinners; inside notes an intimate bar and dining room; and off the wine cellar is a solarium like dining area perfect for a candle-lit dinner.
In addition to the main home, it’s also important to note that Palazzo Terranova boasts two additional homes – one on its grounds, and one next door. The larger of the two is a restored country house named Colonnata, which is really a magnificent home in its own right. Available for rental independent or with the Palazzo, Colonnata is a more causal alternative to the formal, luxurious feel of the Palazzo, and boasts 4 bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms, a kitchen, living and dining areas. There’s also a pool and outdoor dining area that allows to you enjoy the stunning Umbrian landscape.
The second home (known as La Palazzina) is a smaller restored farmhouse on the grounds of Palazzo Terranova noting two bedrooms, living and dining areas and a kitchen. For events that require privacy during a portion of the festivities, such as a bride and groom preparing for their wedding, La Palazzina is the perfect companion to Palazzo Terranova, as despite its close proximity, still offers a unique separation and privacy.
Ultimately, no matter what the event is, if you’re looking for a luxurious, intimate place to host your private event, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a place better capable of doing so than Palazzo Terranova, as the homes, grounds and service are all world-class.
Palazzo Terranova Conclusion
Of every place in the world I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, it’s difficult to pick one more alluring than Palazzo Terranova. It’s a place so magnificent it defies what I previously thought was possible from a destination. You typically tend to think a tropical island getaway and some secluded beach somewhere as your best chance of cutting ties with the world. But of every place I’ve visited, including said secluded beaches, I’ve never felt more relaxed and more rejuvenated than I did while at Palazzo Terranova. It was like the rest of the world just stopped, and for a week, I was at complete peace.
If you want to experience the quintessential Italian feel you’ve heard so much about – incredible food, incredible countryside views, and incredible architecture – you’ll be hard pressed to do better than Palazzo Terranova. It’s a place that exemplifies everything great you’ve heard about Italy, and it does so absolutely perfectly.
To learn more about the Palazzo Terranova or to inquire about your own booking, visit Petersham Properties, who I can’t recommend enough for their excellence in helping me plan and book my own personal vacation experience.