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DAY 3 – Soft Seclusion in Umbria

Food + Wine, Hotel Reviews, Italy, Travel Tips



Hills of Umbria (near Morra)

The hills of Umbria in late March - imagine the greens of summer

The hills of Umbria in late March - imagine the greens of summer

Today I found myself at a truly beautiful spot, WAY off the beaten path. So far off, the path actually had craters in it deep enough to sink my tiny Fiat Panda entirely. Tucked up in the Umbrian hills with nary a neighbor, Palazzo Terranova is quite the demure lady.

The other side of the Palazzo taken from the pool area

The other side of the Palazzo taken from the pool area

Formerly owned by a vivacious Englishwoman, the hotel has come under recent management in the last three years and as a result, has smartened up a bit. Gone are many of the previous knick-knacks and lace table clothes, replaced with a decidedly more masculine approach, particularly in the bar and ground floor lounge area.  Fortunately the second and third floor sitting rooms maintain the elegant romance of the 8 guestrooms (all so wonderful, I cannot wait to return with my husband someday) and the overall feel of the place is soothing and serene with bouquets of fragrant Lilies and flickering candles bestowing the owner’s heavenly blended scent.

The first floor sala

The first floor sala

I cannot say enough about the soft, pleasantness of the guestrooms at PalazzoTerranova. So, instead, I’ll post my photos of the grande dame of guestrooms; Troviata.

Guestroom Troviata (each are named after operas)

Guestroom Troviata (each are named after operas)

The romantic bathroom of Guestroom Troviata

The romantic bathroom of Guestroom Troviata

Immediately upon entry to my room, Violetta, I was soothed, having been lulled by the room’s violet palette, the gauzy linen curtains, the elegant hand painted designs on the walls, the framed antique portraits and most of all, the enormous, four-poster iron bed with freshly pressed linens and bountiful down pillows. (The room has changed slightly since this photo below and is even more alluring and attractive.)

Guestroom Violetta

Guestroom Violetta

The candle flickering in the corner on the dressing table along with the lavendar-colored silk bench and deep-set linen sofa complimented the feminine feel of the room sweetly while the terracotta floors and high ceilings offered a subtle grandeur.

photo-violetta3 The bathroom was equally as splendid with a darling claw-foot tub, separate marble shower, terracotta floors and similarly stenciled painted wall designs. The large shuttered window gazing out to the hills below was the fine ribbon/bow on a delicately wrapped gift – somewhat expected yet always appreciated. photo-violetta2

Guestroom Bellini

Guestroom Bellini

Another favorite and oft-requested room is Bellini. I found the bathroom to be especially charming. All the rooms can be seen on the website so you may easily choose your preference. I strongly suggest asking for one on the back of the house – facing out to the hills.

Bathroom in the opposing room

The bathroom of Guestroom Bellini

The staff at the property is wonderfully affable – greeting me with smiles and later bidding me adieu all in a line.  I felt deliciously spoiled as I was treated to a massage this morning that was nothing short of superb. Being pregnant, massages are like gold, but can often be too weak if the masseuse is too hesitant given the massive belly. Luckily, this velvet-handed woman was right on target, applying draining techniques to my legs and feet (oh the swelling I endure!) and just the right kind of kneading on my aching back.  She also used pure olive oil for the massage given its non-perfumed scent and high quantity of Vitamin E.  Apparently, the Romans used Olive Oil for skin rituals far before they ever brought it to the dining table.

The vista from the Palazzo

The vista from the Palazzo

After the massage I was offered the distinct pleasure of going on a truffle hunt, a popular pursuit in the surrounding area, along with hunting porcini mushrooms. The hotel arranges both tours for guests with a private guide.  The grounds of the Palazzo are actually prime themselves, filled with white truffles from November to right about now (March) and then the black ones begin in mid-June.

Truffle hunger with his faithful companions and the palazzo in the background

The kindly truffle hunter with his faithful companions and the palazzo in the background

Accompanied by his two faithful pooches (Chiana and Pipa), my guide and hunter-extraordinaire told me about the rigors of training these highly sensitive dogs and how there’s nothing sweeter than spending his early mornings walking the forest with one of them in tow. I was amazed at these dogs’ keen sense (the brown one is older and therefore more proficient). Given that it is late in the season, many of the findings were no larger than marbles yet the dog would sniff them out under layers of thick grass and shrub. To watch them dig away excitedly was my closest experience to a treasure hunt.

The dogs digging at a spot and the hunter protecting their find

The dogs digging at a spot and the hunter protecting their find - lots of "FERMA FERMA and DAI, DAI" can be heard during this moment.

What struck me the most was that the guide would have to run to the dogs as soon as they started digging for fear that the dog may eat the truffle before he can pry it from their jobs. It seems they find them quite tasty as well. We walked around the hills for a good 30 minutes and I never once got bored watching the dogs scour and eventually located various sizes of truffles.

Our loot - the smaller ones are almost more impressive given their tiny size and the magnitude of the dog's nose

Our loot - the smaller ones are almost more impressive given their tiny size and the magnitude of the dog's nose

The food at Palazzo Terranova was inventive and well presented though somewhat spotty for me. This can be easily attributed to my inability to eat rare-cooked meat these days, meaning dinner wasn’t ideal with lesser-cooked pieces of quail with the starter and a rare cut of beef as the secondo. My favorite dish was at the lunch – a shaved zucchini marinated in Spanish vinegar then set under shaved carpaccio with some arugula. It was simply delicious. The Palazzo offers cooking classes with their chef using, of course, truffles and porcinis when they are in season. There are also wine tasting tours available upon reservation.

The dining room

The dining room.

The Palazzo is keen to serve local, Umbrian wines and encourage tourism in the area. The hotel offers set itineraries for surrounding art tours (heading back towards Cortona, as well) and local craftsman.  Weddings are also possible at this lovely villa and would not doubt make a small affair quite memorable. Overall, the hotel is a wonderfully, secluded spot – a hideaway for sure. I would highly recommend it for a two-day stop with the heavy intent on romance and relaxation.

Posted in: Food + Wine, Hotel Reviews, Italy, Travel Tips

Published by Meg, Monday, March 29, 2010 No Comments

Day 2 – Tuscany for the Gadget and Fitness Fanatic

Hotel Reviews, Italy




The view

The surreal view

With a hilltop vantage that is the envy of the small town of Bibbiano, Borgo Finocchieto is spoiled with rolling landscape views that boldly include such Tuscan gemstones as a small river running through tilled plots of land, the hillside medieval village of Montalcino and even, the magnificent abbey of San Maggiore.  Even now, in late March, the Tuscan sun brightens the green earth to fluorescent status offering dramatic contrast between the shaded hillsides and the electrified valleys. The extremeness of the Tuscan color palette never fails to impress, no matter the time of year. Here at Borgo Finocchieto, the vistas are all encompassing.


The center square of the property with the manor house straight ahead and one of the smaller cottages on the right

Each of the Borgo’s nine manor house guestrooms feature shuttered windows and small loggias from which the expansive view is perfectly framed. A relatively new property, Borgo Finocchieto has a capacity of 44 guests, spread out between the rooms in the large manor house and four separate guesthouses.  Intended originally for the owner and his friends, family and most of all, high-powered colleagues, the spot is beyond equipped to handle any corporate function with a conference room complete with a stage and large screen viewing area, highly advanced touch-screen controlled audio/visual equipment and space for 16 individual computer monitors and desks. According to the affable Marco, the Borgo’s man-on-the-ground, the owner often rewards his hardworking staff with time at the Borgo. Not bad at all!


The manor hosue to the left and one of the three bedroom cottages to the right

Beyond business, the remarkable estate also features a separate state-of-the-art gym (seriously, this gym makes any fancy, boutique hotel gym look like a joke) with an attached sauna/spa room.  Fitness is clearly key here with a tennis court, basketball hoop, a fleet of high-quality road AND mountain bikes and marked trails for jogging, hiking and biking.


The massage chair right in front of the cardio machines is one of the better dangling carrots that I've ever seen

For those truly on vacation, the spacious, tiled pool is lovely with a sweeping view over the valley and a small terrace setup for al fresco lunch or afternoon drinks. The Borgo wouldn’t be as impressive as it is without the wine cellar, featuring local vineyards and the requisite big label Brunellos. My favorite amenity though, is perhaps not the most obvious yet certainly appropriate to the setting – a sanded Bocce court with overhead lighting so the game can continue well past dark.


The Bocce Court

The Borgo accepts both individual and full-buyout bookings. They have yet to host a wedding onsite but there’s no doubt it would provide a stunning backdrop for a small ceremony less than 50 people. (They won’t take more than that).


The largest cottage

What I like most about the Borgo is its particular mixture of luxury offerings. While the guestrooms are quite plain, with simple terracotta flooring, rich wooden furnishings and quaint hand-painted headboards, important elements of comfort such as Tempur-Pedic mattresses, excellent quality bath products from Milan, rain showers and high-thread count sheets are all accounted for along with today’s electronic necessities like full service wifi and a personal ipod dock in each rooms.

An example of the headboard (the comforter is usally heavily dressed with nicer satin linens - forgive the photo)

An example of the headboard (the comforter is usually dressed with nicer satin linens)

The Borgo’s common rooms, like the wonderful library and arched brick bar, are equally handsome spots and appear (and were, in fact) fastidiously designed. The library, whose books belong to the library and are marked so that you don’t bring them home, boasts a wonderful collection, including a row devoted to authors who have been on property. I could have spent many hours whiling away through those bookshelves. The Borgo’s sole TV room (save for the one off the master suite) is all that would ever be needed, with a comprehensive DVD library, playstation and wii and enough cushy couch space for a big group to settle in for a double feature on a rainy day.

The winding driveway through the Borgo

The winding driveway through the Borgo

All of the staff at the Borgo, namely Marco, Carolyn and the chef, Luigi, are wonderfully attentive and accommodating. They make it clear upon arrival that their mission is to appease your every whim. From organizing day trips and restaurant outings to explaining the rules of Bocce to booking an in-house massage, Marco and Carolyn are ready and willing. Luigi is also eager to share with guests his various recipes and generously gifted me with a jar of his house made salt blend, guaranteed to improve any roast I attempt in the future.  A wonderful spot smack in the middle of it all, Borgo Finocchieto makes for an excellent group stay (especially those active-minded types) where no modern luxury seems to have been overlooked.

Posted in: Hotel Reviews, Italy

Published by Meg, Friday, March 26, 2010 No Comments

Brussels for a Night

Hotel Reviews


Brussels, Belgium

December 5, 2009

Now that I’m a registered resident of the EU, I figure it’s within my civic duty to visit as many neighboring capitals and charming spots as possible. Given my last-minute nature, the inaugural visit was bound to be close by and relatively short.  NB: I vow as I grow to a more mature European inhabitant to become more elaborate in my planning.


Fortunately, Brussels, Belgium’s astoundingly beautiful capital city, was a first stop that did not disappoint! Our one-night adventure happened to fall upon the city’s annual Sinterklaas celebration – December 5th.

We caught the parade just as it was going by our hotel towards the Grand Place

We caught the parade just as it was going by our hotel towards the Grand Place

The guys walking on stilts were quite impressive!

The guys walking on stilts were quite impressive!

Without getting into too much detail (for fear of the ensuing debate and gasps the full explanation will cause), I’ll quickly explain that Sinterklaas is the Dutch and Flemish celebration of Saint Nicholas’ visit from Spain, on horseback and boat, to reward the good children with presents or – and this is where it gets weird – capture the bad ones with the aid of his black faced helpers, Zwarte Piet, and bring them back to Spain in burlap sacks. They also toss cookies and candies at the kids too. When I say toss I really mean chuck at their heads.



Zwarte Pieten

Zwarte Pieten

So, checking all bias towards odd cultural celebrations aside – I can state that both here in Amsterdam and in Brussels the crowd absolutely loves the Sinterklaas tradition and its hard not to follow along.  I was lucky enough to get to experience both locations since Sinterklaas came to Amterdam a few weeks early. I dutifully bought a zwarte piet purple cap and indulged in an Oliebol (fried dough ball).

Back to Brussels — Much to our delight, our hotel, the refurbished and elegantly appointed HOTEL AMIGO, part of the Rocco Forte collection, was smack in the middle of the action, just a stone’s throw from the Grand Place and a mere seven minute walk from the train station.

The classic facade

The classic facade of the Hotel Amigo

The gingerbread house hotel was quite a sight, even more so with Christmas wreaths and a massive tree in the foyer. The check-in and concierge were ever so helpful and kindly adapted to my vacillations between poor French, basic Dutch and fluent English without a raised eyebrow.

The affable doorman in the distance

The affable doorman in the distance

Our room, a Classic King, was no more than 400 square feet with a comfortable squishy bed and elegant linen coverlet.  The signature Olga Polizzi (Rocco Forte’s sister and constant decor guru behind each of his properties) touch was evident through the striped wool throw blanket, striped pillows and the curved headboard.

This room is bigger than ours

This room is bigger than ours but the fresh, clean-cut decor is the same

Alas our room looked right into the wall of another building so we kept our curtains closed and chose instead to focus on the beautiful marble bathroom and its wonderfully heated floors. Every time I experience heated bathroom floors I always marvel and how ingenius they are and how “someday, when I have money”….  I also drew a sumptuous bubble bath with the Rocco Forte bath products which bubbled quite tremendously and enjoyed my view of the bathrooms’ framed drawings and figurines of Belgian’s favorite comic star: TinTin.

The framed portraits in the bathroom

The framed portraits in the bathroom

The hotel could not have been more helpful with suggestions for my planned culinary tour of the city. My main objective of the trip was to verify that Belgian food was leagues above Dutch.  The concierge wisely steered us (and reserved us) at multiple spots, including brunch the following day at fancy spot called Lola, where the waiters were confident their spot was the best in town.  It is slightly more formal than we had wanted (we were feeling more brasserie style) but the food was excellent. I’d recommend it for dinner though rather than brunch.


With our plans set, we headed off into the celebratory crowd of Sinterklaas revelers towards the throngs in the Grand Place and the various food and craft stands at the Christmas market.  Of course, our first stop – one we were advised by all who have been to Brussels before – was at a street waffle stand.


We opted for a half chocolate and a half creme anglaise. It was perhaps the most delectable thing I have eaten since I have been in the low countries.


My husband Friso devouring his chocolate half while I wait impatiently for my creamy one

Wow – I’m writing that about the waffles being the most delicious thing and realizing its the honest-to-G truth. I may have to head back sooner rather than later….

Happily giddy on sugar, we strolled towards Brussel’s famed GRAND PLACE which is the city ‘s main square with the city’s town hall. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  For Christmas, it is splendidly adorned with lights on all the elegant old buildings, a massive Christmas Tree and a life size manger.

Friso in front of the city hall and the blue-lit tree

Friso in front of the city hall and the blue-lit tree

Our favorite element though was the evening light show that splayed across the cathedral building timed to the music spun by the host of DJs underneath the eaves. It was quite spectacular.

It displayed all sorts of colors, shapes and even letters

It displayed all sorts of colors, shapes and even letters

The show began around 5pm and lasted until 11:30pm. We loved being able to watch it earlier and then return to it on our stroll home from our hours-long dining evening. We also made sure to hit the Christmas Market and indulge in some of its finer offerings – Bratwurst, beer and homemade soaps.

The crowds in the market

The crowds in the market

Overall, our less-than-24-hours trip to Brussels was a decadent success. We ate our way happily through the city with high points such as Oysters at the Cain Caillerie (which doesn’t seem to have a website) and chocolate mousse and tiramisu at Cafe Vaudeville. Luckily the Hotel Amgio also has a nice, fully equipped fitness room that was empty but for us on Sunday morning.

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Posted in: Hotel Reviews

Published by Meg, Wednesday, December 9, 2009 No Comments

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About Meg


Meg is the founder of luxury travel consulting company, Friend of a Friend Consulting. Her three books, Italian Hideaways, Caribbean Hideaways and England's Hideaways are published by Rizzoli. Passionate about travel, hotels and wine, she continues to write freelance travel pieces and is currently pursuing a Masters in Wine through the WSET.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are solely my own and do not reflect separate business relationships with the subject. Whenever posts are supported financially, they are designated as such.