“The best part about our vacation? The time we had with each other. It’s tricky to get everyone together since we don’t live in the same city anymore, and Rocca di Benano was the perfect place for a reunion. It’s a little sad that we have to go across the ocean for such uninterrupted family time, but we can’t wait to do it again.”
A guest wrote this about their summer vacation at Rocca di Benano, but our villa is a special place for reunions at the holidays, too. I’m speaking here from recent experience. Paul and I had a wonderful reunion with old friends over New Years this year.
We planned our holiday around the Umbria Jazz Festival, which comes to Orvieto every year between Christmas and the New Year. I had heard about it for years, but this was our first chance to experience it.
And what an experience it was! The streets of Orvieto, which are alluring under ordinary circumstances, come alive for the five days and nights of the festival. There are pop-up stores, Christmas trees, and little white lights and illuminated stars strung over cobblestoned streets. And there’s the music.
I know what you’re thinking: December and January!? What’s the weather like?
It was fine, and here’s what meteorological history tells us. Pretty good! Still don’t believe me, or even the meteorologists? Then take it from guests who celebrated New Years in Benano several years ago. Their story is here.
So the weather is nice, but the real draw is the jazz. If you’re a serious music fan, you can find the schedule online and plan your visits around favorite artists, concerts held in historic buildings, or special jazz dinners organized in some of the finer restaurants in town.
You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado, though. Just being there is experience aplenty. The music and its lively energy permeate everything. When a door to a crowded bar opens to the street, music from a small combo playing inside might waft out into the brisk night air. Best of all, there are regularly scheduled “funk-offs” in which a small band winds through a different part of town. Schedules are posted, so it’s easy to catch one.
Once the funk-off goes by, it’s practically impossible not to join the crowd and follow as they lead you, Pied Piper fashion, to a piazza where they will perform for another 15 or 20 minutes.
What a unforgettable way to ring in the New Year!
I always offer to help our guests plan their trips, and I’m happy when they accept some help. And when my friend Katie accepted my offer, I was thrilled.
Katie had agreed to act as her traveling party’s activities director, and they hit the jackpot when they assigned her to the role. She read everything I sent her, pored over this blog and Rocca di Benano’s Pinterest Board (which is sort of ironic, since she was the one who taught me the wonders of Pinterest), then drafted an itinerary that we worked on together.
Here’s the itinerary Katie has proposed for her group. Although there’s not one agenda that will work for everyone, this is one great way to spend a week at Rocca di Benano.
Read to the end to see just how good Katie is. (Hint: she even researched gelato!)
DAY 1 (Friday) — ARRIVE IN ROME
Francis Surman will meet us at the airport and take us to Hotel la Residenza (€130/night). Take a hop on/hop off double decker bus tour of Rome and/or stroll around the neighborhood. Villa Borghese park, Spanish Steps, and Piazza del Popolo are all within easy walking distance.
DAY 2 (Saturday) — MEANDER FROM ROME TO BENANO
Francis Surman will pick us up at the hotel and take us to Benano, touring along the way, including a stop in Orvieto to pick up the rental car.
DAY 3 (Sunday) — AGRITURISMO PULICARO & LAKE BOLSENA
Brunch and farm tour at Il Pulicaro (10 minutes from Benano), then …
… Lake Bolsena and town of Bolsena (1/2 hour from Benano), then …
Dinner: Either stop on the way back from Bolsena at Ristorante-Pizzeria “L Pignatto” in San Lorenzo Nuovo or make dinner for ourselves eat at the villa.
DAY 4 (Monday) — CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO & ORVIETO
… on to Orvieto (35 minutes from Civita; 18 from Benano), then …
Dinner: Ristorante Zeppelin in Orvieto
DAY 5 (Tuesday) — TUSCANY
Cross over into Tuscany and take Via Cassia up toward Pienza. Other stops could include Bagno Vignoni (hot springs); Montalcino (Brunello!); Sant’Antimo Abbey (check schedule for Gregorian chants); Monticchiello (maybe lunch on the terrace at La Porta?). Dinner options: in Montepulciano (perhaps A Gambe di Gatto?); in Orvieto on way home if we take the freeway back; or at the villa.
DAY 6 (Wednesday) — FLORENCE
Catch an early train to get to there before 10. Spend the day touring Florence. Either stay for dinner there and take a late train back or eat in Orvieto near the train station (Ristorante Trattoria da Valerio or Trattoria da Dina).
DAY 8 (Friday) — FINAL DAY AT BENANO
Lazy day near Benano, including (maybe):
- a long walk through the vineyards and olive orchards right around the villa;
- walk over to Viceno for a caffè at the bar there and a pottery demonstration;
- last visit to Visit Castel Viscardo (the market comes to Castel Viscardo on Fridays);
- last stroll around the castle in Torre Alfina.
Dinner option: Hire Alex to barbecue for us at the villa.
DAYS 9 – 12 (Saturday – Tuesday) — LEAVE BENANO / RETURN TO ROME / DEPART FOR HOME
Return rental cars, then Francis will drive us to Hotel Due Torri (€147-190/night) in Rome, touring and lunching along the way). While in Rome, take in dinner at Il Bacaro one night and at Osteria del Pegno another. Tour the Colosseum, Vatican, and go on a Rome Food tour.
There’s something else you should know about this extensively researched itinerary: Katie found the most highly acclaimed gelaterias almost everywhere they’re planning to go. Here are some of the gelataterias they’re hoping to visit:
Torre Alfina: Sarchioni’s
Bolsena: Gelateria Santa Cristina
Orvieto: La Musa, on the lower end of the Corso (the main shopping street) and Gelateria Pasqualetti. There are two Pasqualetti locations: one is on Piazza del Duomo and the other is at the corner of Via del Duomo and the Corso.
Many thanks to our good friends Kris and Ellen for visiting Benano — and special thanks to Kris for writing this post about our visit with Chef Lorenzo at Ristorante Zeppelin in Orvieto:
If I were to write a book about our recent visit with good friend Karen Smith, I’d call it “Eat, Pray, Cook.” Forget the Julia Roberts movie and bestselling book. Cooking is love when you have delicious fresh ingredients, a beautiful setting, a fabulous friend and family, lots of laughter and a charming cooking instructor. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Last month, for our daughter’s 13th birthday, we paid a long overdue visit to Italy to sample la dolce vita. As part of the trip, Ellen and I traveled to the medieval hill town of Orvieto to rendezvous with forever friend Karen, with whom I had worked many years ago in Cincinnati. Karen had urged us to spend a few days in her version of heaven on earth in nearby Benano. We left the planning to her and had no idea what fun awaited us.
In addition to all the beauty that is Umbria – rolling olive groves, twisting roads that lead to everywhere and nowhere, sprawling vistas with skies and mountains that look beautiful in both rain and sunshine — Ellen and I were treated to a wonderful day in Orvieto as students of Chef Lorenzo Polegri. Karen has known him for many years and recommended we forgo the cooking class I’d found in Florence to experience Chef Lorenzo’s instead. Let me assure you, she knows her recommendations.
Our class started with an early morning trip to the open air market, where Chef Lorenzo introduced us to local merchants and explained the difference between various cuts of meat, types of cheese, varieties of vegetables – what an education!
His energy was contagious, and despite the cold, we were engaged (and engorged!) by the time we arrived back at his wonderful restaurant, Ristorante Zeppelin, for the instructional portion of our “class.”
In a kitchen stocked with every ingredient you could dream of, all the right tools and utensils, and culinary students to clean up afterwards (who knew how great this could be?), we developed a menu and started our tasks at hand. Lovely Lorenzo, with his delightful sense of humor and near perfect English, enthusiastically explained how to prepare artichokes for breading and frying (one more thing off my bucket list).
He and Ellen then settled in to make a sensational salad, focaccia and pasta and a delicious citrus custard. Eggplants were stacked and drizzled with delicious sauces created impromptu by all of us as we toasted, tasted, tested and revised.
Who needs a recipe when you can go with your gut, Chef explained. Don’t get hung up with too many rules when you cook. Do what feels right and tastes good. And believe me, everything tasted good. Truly everything.
Ellen enjoyed the pasta prep most, I think, but was also impressed that some of our food was actually served to lunch guests at the restaurant.
She felt so grown up in her white chef’s apron and well-appointed kitchen. She passed on the Prosecco poured for us as mealtime approached but was in a celebratory mood for sure – and so were Karen and I. We toasted each other, Chef Lorenzo and the chance to savor the flavors and experience of cooking, learning and enjoying each other in such a fun-filled way.
I was so moved by the experience that en route home to the U.S. I read Chef’s new book, The Etruscan Chef, from cover-to-cover. As much a memoir as a cookbook, it evoked memories from our trip and our day with Lorenzo. It features recollections of how he learned to make umbrichelli as a young boy and offered recipes for focaccia and many other taste treats that will no doubt remind us of our time together every time we prepare them.
I encourage anyone who is considering a trip to Italy to head straight to Umbria and make good friends with Karen and Chef Lorenzo. There’s so much that’s special about them and what they do there.
Few things make me quite as happy as hearing from guests who love Benano as much as we do. With their permission, I’m sharing notes from the heads of two wonderful families who rented the villa over New Years. But first, enjoy their vacation photos (have you ever seen such beautiful families?)!
Hi Karen — We arrived safely home and went back to work the next day then battled fairly exhausting jetlag for a week….but it was all worth it.
We all had the most glorious week in Benano and Rocca Di Benano will stay in our hearts for the rest of our lives. I will dream of going back one day and daydream about being there at least once a week for many years to come.
Thank you for all your help and wonderful advice, we felt like we had you there by our side as we explored far and wide.
We were all incredibly comfortable and never felt like we were on top of each other. It’s not easy having two families living together but doing it at Rocca Di Benano made it seem incredibly easy.
Our highlights would have been:
- Civita Di Banorregio
- NYE in Orvieto
- Walking the country lane up behind Benano
- Sitting on the bench in Benano looking out to Orvieto and enjoying the incredible peace
I wasn’t well one day but the rest of our group went to the restaurant in Aquapendente (where you said Grandma still rules the kitchen) and they were thrilled with the meal. I think they would all say that was a food highlight.
Most of all, the highlight was your home, thank you for sharing it with us. Please don’t hesitate to pass my email on to anyone wanting to know how much we enjoyed it and would recommend it.
I thought you might get some enjoyment out of some of the squillions of photos of our time at Benano. I didn’t think there was any point sending you the photos of all the things you have already taken beautiful photos of so I thought you might enjoy a little taste of us enjoying life in Benano and beyond.
Thank you again, I hope you continue to be able to share your beautiful home with lots of lucky travellers and that you get back there yourself as often as you would like to.
Warmest Regards and a big thank you hug,
Hi Karen — On behalf of my family, I would just like to thank you for the wonderful time we had in Benano. The house exceeded our expectations and was the perfect base to explore the wonderful region. It must be so exciting owning that marvelous piece of History. Staying in Benano really gave us a sense of being a local. The neighbors were divine, and very patient with my terrible Italian. The house was comfortable, warm and well equipped. We took a lot of your recommendations and we didn’t have one bad day. We were worried about traveling in winter, but were absolutely blessed with the weather. In our three and a half weeks in Italy we didn’t have one rainy day and mostly blue skies. I know Orvieto suffered a lot with the torrential rains in November.
The Orvieto Jazz Festival was fabulous – we have really seen Orvieto at its best. There was a constant party atmosphere the whole time we were there. The four teens from both families are all budding musicians and the two older boys play the Sax and are really into their Jazz so it was a wonderful experience for them.
We took your recommendations and went to Civita, Deruta, Perugia and to lake Bolsena and loved them all. We ate at the wonderful Albergo Toscana in Acquapendente which was fabulous.
On New Years Eve we had a meal in Orvieto listening to a wonderful Jazz Band then went back to Benano and sat on the car park wall watching the fireworks below. It was a wonderful week and a great experience for our children.
We will definitely be telling all of our friends about Benano, but please send me links to the sites you would like me to write a review on as we are very keen to spread the news of your wonderful house!
Many Many Thanks Again,
The market comes to Orvieto on Thursday and Saturday mornings. There’s something for everybody.
Vegetables, fruit, plants, and flowers
Beans, nuts, and grains
Fresh fish, lots of cured meats, and porchetta
(Look closely. That’s a tail. It’s the real deal.)
Plenty of answers to that burning question:
“What do people do without a neighborhood Target store?”
Plenty of time for a coffee break, too. I wouldn’t mind shopping at home if there was a bar like this on my way home. The nonna at the cash register, the mind-bending variety of types of caffes being served, and the choreography of the people behind the bar topped off a perfect trip to the market.