Umbria: A Family Escape in the Heart of Italy
If you’ve ever wanted to discover the heart and soul of Italy outside of its splendid cities, a family escape in Umbria is for you. Like its more famous neighbor, Tuscany, this agricultural region of central Italy is also dotted with Etruscan ruins, iconic hillside villages, rental villas, and agriturismos. Thanks to Loredana at Walks of Italy, we were introduced to this Italian wonderland.
In Umbria, the pace is a little slower. Rather than 80-kilometer-per-hour highways, curvy hillside roads and round-abouts connect the landscape in web-fashion, limiting the driving speed. Shops and restaurants keep traditional hours rather than staying open all day. Pedestrians greet one another on the streets. And families take leisurely strolls or gather in sidewalk cafes in the evenings.
Family activities abound in Umbria, too. Saffron festivals, grape harvesting, fishing, hiking, swimming, and bike riding are fun experiences for people of all ages. There’s never a shortage of things to do in this picturesque setting.
Umbria, less famous than its neighbor, Tuscany, is also easier to find good-value meals and lodging. Uncrowded, authentic, and laid back, it’s a magical place to get away and take in the ambiance of Italy.
Il Fontanaro Estates, an organic family-run farm in the Umbrian region of Italy, is one of those places.
My husband and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to get to know the family and to have stayed in one of their spacious and authentic villas. Our compliments go out to Lucia, Alina, and Giovanni for hosting us and for making us feel welcome. They generously provided us with an incredible experience of friendship, family life, excellent food and wines, olive oil tasting, cooking class, and tours of their stunning properties, wine cellar, and olive oil mill.
However, our experience was not just by happenstance. We found that the Pinelli family caters to all their guests as they did to us. They are extraordinarily welcoming to their guests and, as Giovanni expressed to us several times during our stay, it is their family’s belief that the “secret to life is enjoying the passage of time” and sharing what they have with others.
Our Home at Fontegirasole
The Il Fontanaro estate is the name given to the villas and historical residences located in the area surrounding the village of Paciano. Each property is unique and very much like something right out of the pages of a designer magazine. Depending on the villa, the differing floorplans accommodate singles, couples, or larger groups and families.
The Fontegirasole where we stayed is an amazing 18th century stone residence located on a gently sloping hillside in the middle of a sunflower field. This stunning two-bedroom, two-bathroom property has sweeping 360 degree views of neatly rowed vineyards, stately Italian cypress, and in the distance is the picturesque village of Paciano.
A large brick patio at the front door, complete with hammock, lounge chairs, and a BBQ grill, creates a leisurely entrance, and the infinity eco-swimming pool seemed to summon us to jump in and get out of the mid-day sun.
I hadn’t even been inside the villa yet and was already thinking about where to relax and take in this fine Italian ambiance in such a storybook setting as this.
No airplanes or traffic congestion . . . only the quiet, almost-sounds of birds as they flit from one field to the next.
The exterior of the villa is classic country-styled architecture, with massive, dark wooden shutters covering the windows and the double-doored entrance. But we were informed the shutters aren’t just for style or decoration. “Electricity is expensive here,” Giovanni explained to us, so the shutters are “for privacy, yes, but mostly to keep out the sun.”
Stepping inside, we immediately felt a sense of comfort and spacious elegance. The practical and open floor plan, authentically restored terra cotta floors, high beamed ceilings, and exposed brick archways all combine to create a warm ambiance in this two-level villa. Floor-to-ceiling windows allow for plenty of natural light and fresh air.
The first level is the living and dining area, designed for relaxing, watching TV, and culinary projects. Two over-stuffed sofas and colorful pillows brighten the room. Country-styled bookcases contain periodicals, maps, and area brochures. For younger guests, there’s a corner with an assortment of toys and games. The perfect family escape in the heart of Italy.
The well-equipped cucina has everything you would need for creating and serving an Italian feast, and the antique table is big enough for dining or for family game night. Off the kitchen is a combination half-bathroom and laundry facility.
Consistent with the host family’s philosophy of generosity, and just in case you’ve not had a chance to stop at the local market, some basic food items are provided. Just-picked veggies from their organic garden, including the rosiest and most flavorful tomatoes you’ve ever tasted, fill a basket on the kitchen table. Basic perishable items, including milk, juice, butter, and yogurt, are in the fridge, and an assortment of biscotti, breads, and baked goods are on the credenza.
No mini-fridge charges on these premises – all food items are to be eaten and enjoyed!
The second-floor bedrooms and bathroom are also high-ceilinged, with large windows that open to the countryside below. The spacious master bedroom is romantically furnished with a four-poster bed and a beautiful armoire.
A loft at one end of the room offers additional sleeping accommodations, if needed. In this particular villa, the second bedroom is geared towards younger family members and is adoringly furnished with two beds and a child-sized table and chairs.
The roomy bathroom has graceful cabinetry, stylish fixtures and sink area, and a wonderful shower with a rainwater showerhead.
In addition to the Fontegirasole, guests have options of other villas located in the hillsides of Paciano. To name only three, the Leccino is an 18th century villa with one-bedroom and one bathroom, the Brunello is a three-bed, three-bath villa, and the Fonte Cicerum is a four-bed, five-bath villa that sleeps 10 comfortably.
These properties are located on hillside acreages nestled among olive groves and grape vines, each with their own infinity swimming pools, satellite TV, BBQ grills, and wi-fi.
Just imagine yourself picking fresh, organic grapes right outside your door!
An Ideal Venue for Special Events
Alina and Giovanni will help you plan your family escape and prepare for your special events. Whether it is a wedding or a local gathering, theirs is an ideal setting in the beautiful Umbrian countryside to make it a most memorable occasion. Alina, who is a wine sommelier and culinary expert, prepares delicious and artistic dishes that are almost too beautiful to eat!
Our Authentic Italian Cooking Class
When we joined Alina for her authentic pasta making and cooking class, her enthusiasm for using fresh organic ingredients right out of their garden was evident. In her own words, she was “vegetarian in Rome, but not here where food is organically produced and grown.”
Besides organically grown vegetables, Il Fontanaro has earned the prestigious designation of being Slow Food Presidium for their olive oil. Healthy eating is important to the Pinelli family and, as Alina told us during the class, hers is “a pasta-loving, wine-loving cooking class” that’s lots of fun!
Alina will work with requests to accommodate any special dietary needs, but in our class, we prepared a meat and tomato sauce, bow tie and pici pasta, homemade cheese and zucchini stuffed ravioli, and a peach and white wine dessert. Recipes for some of these dishes are on their website.
Day Trips from Il Fontanaro in Paciano
Paciano is strategically located midway between Rome and Florence, or about an hour and a half by car or train. These magnificent cities have much to offer and are best seen by walking or using public transportation. However, some of the best sightseeing trips through the countrysides of Umbria are best done by car. We rented a car and drove to several of the medieval villages, taking our time as we enjoyed the genuine Italian landscapes, winding roads, and round-abouts.
Cortona, a steep hillside town known for the setting of the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, is a scenic 50 minutes away by car. San Gimignano, a popular tourist destination, is about two hours away, and Montalcino, known for Brunello wine, is about a 70 minute drive from Paciano.
The caring attitude of the Pinelli family can best be summed up with a quote from Alina, which is, “Behind the postcard, there is the passion of sharing our lives with guests.”
That passion, as we can attest to, includes making their guests feel welcome, and producing and sharing their excellent organic wine, olive oil, and great food. Our thanks to Giovanni and Alina for their friendship, generosity, and hospitality. We also thank Loredana from Walks of Italy for introducing us to this fine family.