Our driver seemed an affable chap when we got into his taxi outside the railway station in Orvieto, but now Simone is muttering under his breath. I sense he’s not praising the extraordinary view. ‘Palazzone no good for my car,’ he says as the taxi struggles with the rough dirt track that winds through the vineyard up to the Locanda. ‘I not come here again until they make good road.’ I shoot Mrs Smith an anxious glance. This doesn’t bode well for our three car-free days ahead.
With a not-insignificant amount of luggage, in the full-bore heat of an Umbrian afternoon, Mrs Smith and I are deposited outside the magnificent 14th-century Locanda. Smiling, we wait – and wait – for the same welcome that has apparently greeted pilgrims at this ancient site since 1300. The silence, as they say, is deafening. Unlike those mediaeval itinerants, did I not call Lodovico Dubini, Locanda Palazzone’s owner, just yesterday, to confirm the time of our arrival? This time it’s Mrs Smith’s turn to mutter as we reluctantly heave our bags up the steps. ‘Palazzone no good for my back.’
But Mrs Smith’s back pains dissolve in an instant when she meets Lodovico’s son, the handsome Nicola, clad in his Hard Rock T-shirt. With a swiftness and dexterity that belies her years Mrs Smith manoeuvres both luggage and Nicola into the central glass elevator and ascends to the first floor before you can say ‘prego’. I, on the other hand, take the massive staircase that allows my design eye to run a swift inventory over the Locanda’s cavernous, double-storey reception room. ‘Rustic modern’ is the phrase my mind selects. Twin Eames chairs (Herman Miller, 1956, whispers my inner pedant) and a majestic Castiglioni Arco lamp, which bears the elegant proportions of its 1962 vintage, not unlike Mr Smith himself.
Someone knows their mid-20th century design at Locanda Palazzone. In our suite are a pair of red Tulip chairs (Saarinen mouths Mr Pedant, silently) which, though arguably at odds with the ‘authentic 14th-century style’ mentioned in the brochure, nevertheless work dramatically in our coolly neutral split-level junior suite. All this design talk calls for a drink and Mrs Smith doesn’t disappoint. She has already found the Riedel glasses and pulled the cork on a crisp bottle of Palazzone’s own Terre Vineate, with which we toast our arrival in this magical location. Our view – across the silent vineyards to the gentle Umbrian hills and golden Orvieto’s distant duomo – is what we came for. The walls of our suite are bare of art, but as Mrs Smith poignantly remarks, our view is all the art we could possibly need, framed as it is by the twin arches of a perfectly restored mullioned window.
In our upper-level bathroom, Mrs Smith and I cluck approvingly at the Bulgari toiletries, the sleek Hansgrohe fittings and the cleverly automated Velux skylights. The Italian default setting of quality. Towels, bedding and mattress tick all the proverbial boxes too, but Mrs Smith points out with concern that there really is very little other than wine with which to refresh ourselves in the suite. She pours another glass to mask her disappointment at the lack of herbal teas.
A dip in the heavenly pool (can there be a greater pleasure than swimming invigorating laps beneath a cloudless Umbrian sky?) and a restorative nap later, we Smiths are enjoying dinner on the Locanda’s terrazza. I’m telling Mrs Smith that it was John Mortimer who coined the phrase ‘Chiantishire’. While that term is specific to the very British romance with Tuscany, I’m thinking John might have cast a wry and affectionate eye over this little corner of Umbria. Two English couples bicker in a polite sotto voce, as only English couples can, nodding their approval to the courteous waiters like the elderly spinsters in Fawlty Towers. And in their midst, Lodovico is charismatic host, sommelier and ring-master, proffering Palazzone wines. Campo del Guardiano for the lasagne con mozzarella di bufala e fiori di zucca, robust Piviere for the arrosto di manzo and sweet Muffa Nobilis for the soufflé al limone con frutti di bosco. Mrs Smith doesn’t know the Italian for ‘bring it on’ but the gesture for ‘fill my glass’ is universal. Dinner, by the way, is dangerously good. Molto, molto buono.
Before bed, we notice that Orvieto, just 4km distant, is ringed with lights. The illuminated façade of the Duomo hangs gently above the rooftops. Tomorrow, I suggest to Mrs Smith, we should breakfast early and walk into town. We will climb the steep hill and enter Orvieto’s mediaeval walls at the Porta Maggiore. We will visit the famous cathedral and lunch at Il Gigli d’Oro and we will seek out the life-size figurines of Betty Boop at Il Gioco. Simply because we can. We will sample more Umbrian wines at Il Vincaffe and shop for gifts at L’Emporio delle Arti. And if Simone doesn’t want to drive us back to Locanda Palazzone, we’ll walk back too, past Rocca Ripesena and across the vineyards.
Or, suggests Mrs Smith, we could just stay here and look at our view. Orvieto can wait another day. Mrs Smith has a point.