Umbria, the region at the heart of Italy, has that feeling of being a mystic gem silently suspended in space and time. Since the moment I owned a car and to the moment I left my home country about 11 years ago, I regularly road-tripped to Umbria where I would embrace the region’s mentally and spiritually healing power by walking through its narrow medieval alleys and taking in the wide panoramas over silent green hills that tell stories of centuries ago. Bellaugello Guesthouse, where I’m headed, perfectly fits the mould offering its guests the luxury of forgetting about the here and now; as its Scots landlord Alec puts it, ‘The only thing that is asked to them is to be themselves.
It is mid-morning when I leave the A1 motorway at Orte and take the E45 European highway that runs for 5000 km all the way from Sicily to the north of Sweden. One hour after setting off from Rome I am reminded why this is one of my favourite trunk roads in Italy.
The Umbrian rolling hills are rising to the north-east and the villages along the road have Tolkien’s Shire sounding names like Narni, the same very name whose Latin version inspired C. S. Lewis’s Narnia; Castelleone, Lioncastle; Acquasparta, Strewnwater; Casa del Diavolo, which literally means House of the Devil.
Bellaugello lays amidst the hills between Gubbio and Assisi; the only way to get there is probably by car, with the closest international airports being Perugia’s and Florence’s.
A few kilometres past Perugia, I leave the E45 and take the Strada Provinciale that leads to Gubbio, the medieval town where, the legend has it, about seven centuries ago, Saint Francis tamed a ferocious wolf.
The road winds up for about 20 kilometres before I reach the bend with a stone wall on the left as Alec has instructed me to watch out for. I slow down, make a sharp turn right and take an unpaved, narrow road; from this moment on it will be only thick vegetation, scattered Italian country houses, farms, and breath-taking views on hills and valleys that show themselves at every bend. A series of little direction signs are staked to the ground at each fork in the road, leading the way to Bellaugello.
When the road becomes too narrow for driving, the last of these signs finally shows the entrance to Bellaugello. Past the gate, a terraced field on the side of the slope hosts two parked cars and a pick-up truck. A stairway carved in the ground descends the little slope from the parking space, then bends on the green grass around a fig tree. I grab my bag and start the descent.
The sweet fragrance of lavender and the humming of bees grow stronger in the intense afternoon sunlight as I walk by one of the lilac bushes planted all around Bellaugello; the bugs don’t seem in the least interested in me.
I reach the end of the stairs and a bigger terraced garden opens up in front of me and the brick-stone, two-storey guest house presents itself in all its bucolic beauty. I recognise the rustic, rectangular wooden table from the photos on the website and I suddenly look forward to tomorrow’s homemade breakfast served in the garden.
I lay my bag on one of the chairs and step closer to the fenced edge of the terraced garden. I inhale deeply as if to take in as much as possible of the valley that runs below, crosses the little river in between before meeting the facing hill on the other side. All the shades of green have been thrown right there in front of me. I think with delight this is how I will be spending my next two days.
“Trust me, you can never get tired of that view.” I turn around to meet Alec the landlord. He’s wearing a pair of shorts and a t-shirt that show the Italian-summer tanned skin of someone who spends the season outdoors. He’s looking at me but also looking through me at the valley beneath us with the proud and confident smile of who knows what they are talking about.
“I don’t know what I’m looking at but yes, I do trust you!” I say, turning around to take the view in one more time. Alec comes closer to stand by the fence.
“Right now, we’re in the area called Frazione Valdichiascio and that one down there,” he stretches his arms out towards the creek “is the river Chiascio.” A brief pause gives me time to absorb the panorama. “That one far behind the hill,” he raises his arms of a few degrees “that’s Mount Subasio. You can spot it for its bald top.”
After a few more observations on the local geography, he leads the way inside to sort out the check-in. We step into the main hall of the resort which also works as its dining room. The room is simply furnished and ornamented with woodcraft pieces and paintings, the way you would expect an Italian country farmhouse to be furnished. Every single piece seems to fit, like a puzzle that makes the whole picture.
Taking in the peaceful nature of the setting, I look around feeling like I’m experiencing all four seasons in a matter of moments. I spot the well-stocked wine shelf and I picture myself sitting outside on a late spring night sipping a glass or two of Montefalco. I notice the big fireplace and suddenly it’s winter as I enjoy my glass of Nero d’Avola sitting in a comfy chair next to a crackling fire.
Then, from the garden door that leads to the back of the house, I hear the sound of someone clumsily diving into a pool. I remember the website’s photos of the infinity pool right on the edge of the terraced back garden facing the valley; after all, I’m grateful it’s a hot summer day and look forward to the rest of the day chilling by the water.
In fact, not much later I’m lying on a deck chair by the infinity pool after a swim which mainly consisted of floating motionless in the water and a chat to the other four guests staying at Bellaugello. One couple, two guys from Emilia Romagna, left to go to Gubbio for dinner; the remaining guests, two gentlemen from Washington DC travelling together, decided like me to indulge a little bit more in the shade of the trees. They are now napping while holding hands on the other side of the pool.
I eventually opted for a glass of Pecorino, a white wine from Abruzzo, the neighbouring region, which is keeping me company while I enjoy that slow moment. Alec comes out for his daily late swim (I remember reading about this daily summer habit somewhere on his blog). A few laps and he joins me on the empty deck chair next to mine.
“Why Umbria?” I ask, feeling that the answer lays in the majestic view in front of me. But Alec surprises me with a much more detailed answer.
“I first came to Umbria in the late 1980s when it was a hidden, forgotten land and I adored it. Later with my partner at the time, we returned many times for holidays and he too fell in love with the region. Geographically, it seemed the perfect place to start our business. It was part of our plan to live an ‘Italian’ life, so we did not want to be surrounded by foreigners; Umbria fits that bill well.”
As an Italian, I giggle at ‘we wanted to live the Italian life’, and I ask what he means. “Apart from the drive to open a gay guest house, which itself was a long-term ambition, what was probably pushing us here was to get away from the increasing rise in the cult of celebrity worship; the must-have culture and the dog-eat-dog mentality that we were encountering in the UK. And of course, a desire for a life in the sun with real commitment and true, honest friendship values that we saw in Italy.”
I smile and take another sip while reflecting on the interesting view this man is giving me on Italians.
“On every holiday here we looked at properties;” Alec continues, “We saw over 50 in almost five years. Estate agents try and sell you what they want to sell which is not necessarily remotely the same as what the property brief was.”
“Five years to find the right place.” I point out. “What were you guys looking for, exactly?”
“We had five principal requisites in our search. It had to be south-facing with a huge view and a decent altitude.”
“Well, you can certainly check that off the list,” I say glancing over the edge of the terraced garden. Alec winks and goes on.
“It had to be surrounded by its own land and with a good supply of water.”
“Of water and excellent wine,” I comment raising my glass and thinking of the many fruit
trees I saw around and that contribute to the delicious homemade jams served for breakfast, as well as the vegetables growing in Alec’s garden.
“We wanted a place that wouldn’t be too far from town. Gubbio, one of the most picturesque places in Umbria, is a 15-minute drive from here.”
“Or Perugia. It’s a bit further away but I suppose it’s got all the perks of a small, charming town that one needs,” I add.
“Finally, we wanted a house to restore; we were not willing to take over somebody else’s dodgy restoration or bad taste, and to buy a pile of stones would have been plain silly.” And a house they did find. An old farmhouse that shows on the maps of Umbria from the 1600s. A guesthouse, a house for the guests, with so much history and so much to build upon.
That night, after a couple of glasses too many than my usual habit, I don’t feel like driving to Gubbio for dinner. The guys from DC booked their meal in advance, which guests are asked to do if they want to dine at the house. Bellaugello is not a restaurant and food is freshly cooked for guests who wish to have their meal there and give enough notice. Unfortunately, I didn’t book my vegetarian meal; nonetheless, Alec does a masterful job at putting together an unscheduled light meal of grilled vegetables, local bread and cheese which I eat in the garden with him and the other two guests.
Later on, as I rest on my king size bed in the Duca room, I look around and think of what Alec said about not wanting to take over somebody else’s dodgy restoration. He wanted to carve the place out of his mind. Yet, he didn’t want to build it from scratch. The place had to come with an ancient story, like most of the stories one can find through the narrow roads, the woods, and the silent valleys of Umbria.
Bellaugello guest house is this. It’s an ancient place where people can find the modern open-mindedness of being who they are. It is also a place that surprises you with the attention to all those details that can make your stay a pleasant stay. It is where each of the five suites, from the smallest to the most luxurious, feels like home and each has a huge shower that makes your morning routine a holiday experience of its own.
It enriches you with the regenerating simplicity of the valley covered in orange-shaded mist at dawn and with the novelty of a basket of freshly-picked figs and peaches for breakfast. It is where you can either have a guiltless sleep-in; lie by the infinity pool all day long or leave early in the morning and let Umbria embrace you. Whatever you decide to do at Bellaugello, whoever you decide to bring along, what you decide to (or not to) wear, who you want to be, here you will not be asked to justify your how’s and why’s.
Bellaugello is advertised as a ‘Gay Country House’. As an anti-label myself, I usually turn up my nose when I see labels stuck on movies, books, marriages and now guesthouses. What does that really mean, though? “The only thing that is asked to them is to be themselves”, Alec said. This, I think, is a gay guesthouse: A place where people receive and give the respect we all deserve, and where differences are not something to be afraid of but something to learn from and embrace.