In the last couple of months, I have been lucky enough to visit Il Fontanaro, an ethereally beautiful corner of the earth hugging the border with Tuscany on the Umbria side. I have visited both Umbria and Tuscany many times, stayed in some spectacular places (villas, castles, agriturismi) and this is it, friends. After 17 years, I’ve found my favorite place in Italy. Put this on your
wish must-see list on your Italian vacation (even your very first Italian vacation) and THANK ME LATER.
Il Fontanaro is a cluster of private villas within strolling distance of the postcard village of Paciano. You can easily reach can also visit Cortona and Montepulciano in Tuscany, and Lake Trasimeno, Panicale, and Deruta in Umbria, in the snap of a finger.
That is, if you want to leave the Fontanaro grounds.
The first time I visited, in May, I was accompanied by my dear friend Jennifer – but shortly after arriving, my group expanded to include the owners, Alina and her mother Lucia. They started out as our instructors in a private cooking class in the property’s own homey kitchen, but we were soon laughing and talking like old buddies. The four of us sipped and sampled so much that we were almost too full to prepare the meal we prepared. Mini lasagnas, homemade pasta with ragu’, and two kinds of tiramisu somehow emerged from my own hands like magic, although I suspect having a good teacher and partner had something to do with it. Most of the ingredients, including ruby-red strawberries, came from the Fontanaro garden picked by yours truly on hands and knees. The food and wine on offer there are almost beyond my ability to describe them as someone who does most of her cooking between the freezer and the microwave.
But the oil. Alina asked where we buy our oil and I told her the supermarket. She smiled and gave Jennifer and me three shot glasses filled with slightly different colored oils. She informed us that one was a high quality Umbrian olive oil conveniently part of of Il Fontanaro’s own production, while the other two were the cheap, mass-produced (though still Italian) varieties I probably have in my kitchen right now. “Go ahead – taste,” she encouraged, and we did. It was instantly obvious which one was the real deal. It felt buttery and tasted like flowers and grass. The other two tasted like a frying pan by comparison. After a quick explanation of why that is (which she can teach you, too), I was ready to buy a case. Alina – lucky girl – doesn’t have to, and carries around a vial of her family’s own olive oil with her while she travels, in her purse, just in case someone offers her something inferior.
Our list of new friends continued to expand with the resident chocolate labradors, Ettore and Bacco, and Jennifer was invited to bring her own puppies next time. It turns out, guests are welcome to bring their dogs although I must say that our villa looked like it had never been touched by a paw or claw. It was immaculate, and gorgeous, with intensely beautiful views from each room, including the bathroom.
Jen and I had such a ball that weekend that when it came time for me to once again turn thirty-something last week, I organized with three American girlfriends (Jen again, and Lauren and another Lauren) to return to Il Fontanaro to take in the sunsets, stuff ourselves with food and wine, and lounge around poolside. Friends, this says a lot – I’ve got all of Italy and Europe at my fingertips and this was my only – only – choice for a fun birthday weekend.
That weekend, as I expected, was extraordinarily fun but what I did not expect was ….. wait for it ….. a surprise birthday party thrown by owner-turned-friend Alina (with some excellent secret-keeping by Jen)! Alina went to an extraordinary amount of trouble and planning to invite a bunch of her Umbrian and Tuscan friends (some of whom I had met the first time I visited earlier in the summer), who are now all MY friends, too. Are there friendlier people on earth than Umbrians? We ate about five kinds of meat and a rainbow of veggies right off the grill, plus bruschetta with tomatoes from the garden, and multiple cakes that some darling guest had made with her bare hands. A dance floor was cleared off, and this boring lawyer danced and danced with old and new friends under a full moon (!) and among vineyards and olive groves until three in the morning. It’s been a few days and I am still just in total shock over the kindness of it all. Not to mention the wine I’m still sweating out of my system.
The girls and I were staying up the hill, away from the main house where Jen and I had stayed earlier and I can tell you that ANYwhere you stay at Il Fontanaro (villas vary by size and budget) is off-the-charts gorgeous. As we lounged around all weekend by the infinity-edge pool overlooking the valley of vineyards, the four of us started half-seriously brainstorming on finding a place to buy around there. It’s so beautiful (and fun) there you just can’t believe it. It makes Rome (my favorite city on the planet) feel like just a place to fly into so you can get up to Il Fontanaro.
WHAT TO DO:
Cooking Class: When you book your stay, send Alina an email about organizing a cooking class. They’re fun whether you’re hopeless in the kitchen like me, or a pro like Jennifer. You get to pick your own produce in the garden (I had never picked produce from anything other than a grocery store aisle). And, then you get to eat what you made!
Wine and Oil Tasting: They’ll organize this for you too. The wine tasting is great but I recommend even more the oil tasting. WHO KNEW one olive oil could taste so different from the next? Well, now you will know.
Explore Umbria and Tuscany: You do need a car for this but I think you need a car for any part of Italy outside of Rome-Florence-Venice. Don’t be scared – if I can drive in Italy, anyone can. Yes, you can rent an automatic car here! From Il Fontanaro you can get all over Umbria and Tuscany. See the map below.
Relax: Shop in town for cheese, meats, breads, biscotti, and wine, and sit around your villa on the patio or by the pool, laughing and dozing. Remind yourself that this is the reason you work so hard back home.
This area of Italy is easy to get to. It is a two-hour scenic drive from Rome, even less from Florence, and not even an hour from Perugia. Or you can take the train to Chiusi and rent a car there. You will definitely want a car to explore the region, although the next time I go I doubt I will leave the Fontanaro property. It should be acknowledged that this place is not for the budget traveler, but once you see the elegant accommodations, swimming pools, and olive groves, you’ll remember exactly why you chose Italy for your holiday in the first place. Sometimes an area has so much to offer that you don’t know where to start, so I would say, start here.
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