B&B and Beyond: Corte della Maesta, Lazio, Italy
The resurrection of an Italian village is enhanced by this stylish B&B in a former bishop's palace, says Sarah Gilbert
Saturday 27 July 2013
After you've navigated a series of hairpin bends in the road, the medieval village of Civita di Bagnoregio appears before you, rising from the valley like something from a fairy tale. Perched on top of an outcrop of volcanic tuff, it can be reached only by a vertigo-inducing footbridge. The Etruscans founded it about 2,500 years ago, and its location in Lazio – close to Rome, as well as the borders of Umbria and Tuscany – later made it important to the church, before an earthquake in 1685 caused the bishop to flee.
The bridge was bombed in the last months of the Second World War, and with no electricity or running water, many villagers abandoned their ancient homes and Civita di Bagnoregio gradually fell into disrepair. It became referred to as "La citta che muore", or the dying city, but today it's very much alive again.
A new bridge was built in the 1960s and the Civitonichi began to return, joined by a bohemian crowd of writers, artists and poets, soon followed by film directors and fashion designers. Now it has about 30 permanent residents and a stylish, art-filled haven, Corte della Maesta, set in the former bishop's house and seminary – a place to relax and recharge, with church bells for your wake-up call.
The four large rooms all have scenic views and have been decorated with a considered mix of art, antiques and contemporary pieces. La Badessa's (The Abbess) four-poster bed hails from a monastery, while in La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker), the bed's ornate headboard came from a 19th-century theatrical production. In La Scrittrice (The Writer), the iron bedstead is turn-of-the-century Sicilian. A fragment of a 16th-century fresco adorns a corner of the bedroom wall and the flowered wallpaper in the sitting room is a reproduction of that found in Virginia Woolf's London home. Its bathroom has a 1940s dusky-pink basin and a giant tub to match – La Badessa has a claw-foot iron bathtub in the bedroom – and all the rooms have locally made lotions and potions full of natural ingredients.
Breakfast is served al fresco under the shade of an ancient fig tree, surrounded by vibrant geraniums, giant hydrangeas and sweet-scented jasmine. In cooler weather, you can eat at the communal wooden table in the treasure-filled kitchen under a sparkling 1930s chandelier. Cereal, yogurt, freshly squeezed pineapple juice, cold meats, cheeses and eggs to order are all on offer, along with homemade jams and marmalade from the owners' orange trees.
Complimentary fruit, water, soft drinks, tea and Nespresso coffee are available throughout the day, and if you're peckish in the afternoon there are tempting freshly baked cakes, such as ciambelle al vino biscotti.
The renowned Italian psychologist, author and TV personality, Paolo Crepet, had been visiting Civita for years before he bought the former bishop's residence as a second home. He and his wife Cristiana got the chance to buy the attached seminary four years ago and slowly transformed it into a B&B, which opened last year. The couple are avid collectors and lovingly decorated the rooms with their own finds, including the antique piano in the lounge, known as La Tana del Lupo, or the Wolf's Lair.
Take time to explore Civita's picturesque cobbled streets and their ivy-clad, honey-coloured stone buildings. Once the day trippers have left, you'll have the village almost to yourself.
Nearby Orvieto in Umbria is known for its magnificent Gothic cathedral. Corte della Maesta can arrange horse riding, biking and horse-drawn carriage tours of the neighbouring countryside, and boating on Lazio's Lake Bolsena, set in a volcanic crater. If you hire a car, you can visit Bomarzo's extraordinary "Monster's Grove", named after the fantastical stone statues scattered around the gardens. Rome is only one hour by train from Orvieto, so you can spend a day in the frenetic Eternal City and return to the tranquillity of Civita.
The Pit Stop
Despite its diminutive size, Civita has plenty of places to eat. Just off the main square, the Osteria al Forno di Agnese (00 39 0761 792571; daagnesecivitadibagnoregio.it; mains €10/£8.60) has been in the same family for generations. Salads are plucked fresh from the garden and they make their own delicious olive oil.
Next door to Corte della Maesta, Alma Civita (00 39 0761 792415; almacivita.com; mains €10/£8.60) is another historic, family-run restaurant. Set in a grotto carved out of stone, along with outdoor tables, the restaurant serves the best of the region's bounty in dishes such as lentil soup with dried figs and all kinds of bruschetta.
Corte della Maesta, Vicolo della Maesta, Civita di Bagnoregio, Lazio, Italy (00 39 0761 792548; cortedellamaesta.com). Rooms start at €250 (£215), including breakfast.
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