'Are you really that addicted?" my friend asked when I'd mentioned my travel plans. I was to spend three days in Umbria, in the countryside 20 miles north of Orvieto, in what appeared to be a monk's cell. No television, no wi-fi and no mobile phone reception.
Umbria, of course, is no stranger to "simple" holidays, home to scores of agriturismi – farm-style B&Bs where you live with a family, eat home-grown food and indulge in wholesome, rural pursuits. It's something I've done many times. But this trip was different. This time I was off to a luxury hotel, although my destination, Eremito, hardly seems such. A play on the Italian word "eremo", meaning hermitage, it bills itself as a complete retreat from the outside world.
Buried deep in the countryside, in the middle of a forest reserve – Eremito is 30 minutes from the nearest road, along mud tracks and across a river only accessible by 4x4. The nearest village is an hour's walk up a mountainside. The 12 single rooms (there are no doubles – couples must take two rooms) are modelled on monks' cells. And while they're immensely comfortable – memory foam beds, dinner-plate showers, hand-stitched antique hemp sheets – they don't look it, with iron bedsteads, sackcloth curtains, and the basins, desks and window seats all hewn from local rock.
It's a hermitage for those seeking refuge from the 21st century, and it was exactly what I needed. I don't think I am addicted to my phone, television or wi-fi, but there's that exhausting need, today, to be permanently online – to reply to a text, update a status or respond to that all-important email. Out-of-office auto-replies often simply mean we'll get back to someone a little later than usual, not that we're really out of contact. It's a subtle tyranny, this inability to be out of touch. And I needed a break from it.
Of course, I could stay at home and switch off my phone, but at home, there's always something that needs doing. Go away for a weekend, and there are places that need seeing. At a traditional Umbrian agriturismo, for example, I'd feel obliged to make the most of my trip by visiting all the surrounding towns, ticking off all the medieval cathedrals and eating out instead of staying in. If there were a pool, or a gym, I'd feel obliged to get in it. Instead, all I desperately wanted was to be obliged to relax – akin to the forced disconnection of a long-haul flight, only with better food, prettier views and comfier environs.
As the day approached, I was part thrilled, part terrified. I manufactured the mood by arriving on the train – making a languid, three-day journey of it, with overnight stops in Paris and Milan (after Eremito, I would finish in Rome, happily totting up more than one thousand miles on the rails). By the time we were rolling through the hills of southern Tuscany, having ticked off the Alps, the Po Valley and the giant brick dome of Florence's cathedral from my window seat, I was beginning to unwind.
At Fabro-Ficulle, Eremito's nearest station, I whiled away the wait for my pick-up by sending a last few, desperate emails over a plate of pappardelle soaked in boar ragù. It was the last meat I'd be having for a while – at Eremito, your three meals a day are vegetarian, largely sourced from the hotel's own vegetable patch.
Marcello Murzilli, Eremito's owner, knows a thing or two about relaxing. He traded in his career as a jeans designer in 1997 to open Mexico's first luxury "eco-lodge", Hotelito Desconocido. For his second hotel project, he wanted to disconnect even further. So he returned to his native Italy, bought an entire valley bordering a 7,400-acre national forest, and reconstructed a ruined building set half way up one of the mountains. Except, instead of redoing it faithfully, he rebuilt it as a modern monastery. Umbria, he says, is where Italy's monastery tradition was born.
Through Eremito's huge front door is a cloister-like, fairy-lit corridor. The reception desk sits in the lounge beyond this: darkly lit, with thick stone walls exposed where tea lights flicker in inbuilt niches, illuminating vaulted ceilings propped up by chunky wooden beams. Next door, the dining room is modelled on a monks' refectory with long communal tables.
Upstairs are the celluzze: the bedroom cells. Eremito may be a "secular monastery", as Murzilli terms it, but Italy's Catholic heritage has provided its iconography. Upstairs is a tiny chapel, where twice-daily (voluntary) psalm-reading sessions, spoken in Italian, have a meditative quality. If a niche doesn't contain a candle, there's a little holy statue. Each cell is named after a different saint, whose history is carved over the bed. Gregorian chants, as well as classical music, are piped around the ground floor and the lawn.
Surprisingly, at no point does it feel oppressive. During my stay, Murzilli and his brother, Sergio, the chef, were the only people to take part in the prayers – held just before the morning yoga session. The shelves hold texts from all religions, alongside architectural magazines. The building may resemble a monastery, but the floor-bound seating and bright cushions in the lounge inject a taste of the East.
While Eremito isn't a religious retreat, neither is it your typical "spiritual" holiday. Dinner is taken in silence, seated side by side at those long tables, and while there's certainly a mindful quality to it, there's no instruction or dissection – it's entirely what you make of it. The heavily structured day I'd worked through on other retreats was also notably absent. Murzilli is planning special events – yoga, wellness, even writing retreats – but essentially, Eremito is about not having all that.
On Day 1, it was almost unnerving – what am I supposed to do? On Day 2, I realised that was exactly the point. Once you've exhausted the two local walks, and used the hot-tub and steam-bath, there's nothing to do. Nothing, that is, except relax in the garden, watch the light shift over the valley, and listen to the birds in the forest, and the roar of a waterfall cascading into the river below. You can talk, if you want – the atmosphere is of a friend's house in the country, and Murzilli and his five-strong team are delightful hosts. You can check email, if you must – after all that panic, it turned out there's a small spot in the garden with mobile signal, though I stayed strong. And you can sleep. For the first time in my life, I took to commandeering a deckchair for a daily post-lunch siesta. For the first time in months, I allowed myself to sleep as long as I wanted to (that turned out to be 12 hours).
After three days, instead of itching to escape, as I'd anticipated I would be, I was instead desperate to hide away for longer. There's nothing to do at Eremito. That's entirely the point. And in today's world, that's as luxurious as it gets.
Julia Buckley travelled as a guest of Railbookers (020 3327 0869; railbookers.com), which offers a tailor-made trip to Italy from £549, including overnight stops at the Marceau Bastille Hotel in Paris and Starhotels Anderson in Milan, ending in Rome at the Hotel Duca d'Alba (all B&B). Rail travel from London to Rome, and a flight back to the UK, are also included.
Rooms at Eremito start at €164, full board (designhotels.com/eremito).
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