Located just off the main Piazza San Benedetto, Palazzo Seneca is in the center of the medieval mountain outpost of Norcia, the birthplace of Saint Benedict and a paradise for gourmands. Famous for its black truffles, heirloom legumes, monastic beer and pork charcuterie – and a popular jumping-off point for excursions into the surrounding national park – Norcia is a bustle of activity as it rebuilds after being damaged in a 2016 earthquake.
Just 2.5 hours from Rome and a little over an hour from many of Umbria’s A-list hilltop villages, the town is a favorite bolthole for travel cognoscenti looking to recharge body and soul via sweeping plateau vistas, peerless local cuisine and the leisurely pace of village life.
While undertaking the meticulous seven-year renovation of the 16th-century Palazzo Seneca, owners Vincenzo and Federico Bianconi – the youngest generation in a hotelier family whose history spans 160 years – chose tradition over trend, sourcing their furnishings exclusively from small-scale artisans across central Italy and picking natural materials like hardwood and butter-soft leather to complement the palazzo’s original flagstone and period terracotta floors, crisp white and wood-panelled walls and beamed and cross-vaulted ceilings.
The result is a timeless rather than fashionable elegance, heightened by the palazzo’s monumental carved fireplaces, carefully calibrated lighting, Burri-inspired modern art, and gorgeous antiques.
In a word: extraordinary. Striking the perfect balance between professionally discreet and disarmingly friendly, the staff here – many of whom are long-time employees of the Bianconi family – go to great lengths to create a welcoming, restful atmosphere while never seeming intrusive.
There is no formal reception area, so new arrivals are greeted in the entry hall like friends, and staff is always available for information and to arrange some of the hotel’s special services and excursions.
The candlelit spa is located in the palazzo’s historic vaulted cellars and staffed by trained naturopaths who offer massages and treatments based on local ingredients like organic honey and essential oils, the sweet scent of which wafts over the whole of the hotel.
Guests have free use of the stone hot tub, Turkish bath, and sauna. The hotel has just 24 rooms, all of which share the soothing earth tones and natural materials of the hotel’s overall style and are furnished with a mix of artisan and antique pieces: beds are carved wood or wrought iron; desks are modern leather or antique wood; floors are terracotta or parquet.
As in many historic residences, each room is laid out differently, and some offer walk-in closets, outdoor balconies or inviting leather chairs. Top-of-the-line Simmons spring and memory foam mattresses, a selection of pillow types, and fine Italian linen sheets make for a restful sleep, aided by the perfectly soundproofed rooms. The spacious black or ecru marble bathrooms have combined rain shower and hand-held showerheads, and natural bath and body products.
The paucity of extra outlets or USB ports to charge devices is a small niggle, but all the better to unplug and unwind in this stunning setting. The Vespasia restaurant’s Michelin star was confirmed in 2017 under executive chef Valentino Palmisano, a Naples native who spent almost a decade working in some of the most prestigious hotel restaurants across Asia.
The fixed menus are both innovative and deeply rooted in Norcia’s local cuisine, with deft flourishes hinting at Palmisano’s Neapolitan history and Asian experience.
His signature dish? Spaghetti al Pomodoro, a deceptively simple classic that took the chef took six months to perfect.
A continental buffet breakfast is served each morning in a barn-cum-breakfast room, lined with picture windows overlooking the countryside and opening onto the garden for alfresco dining.
The spread is memorable, featuring freshly baked cakes and tortes, artisan honey and jams, a selection of Norcia’s famous charcuterie and cheeses among the selection – staff can also whip up a custom omelet. Though the atmosphere suggests an adults-only hotel, the staff at Palazzo Seneca are quick to reassure that families with children are more than welcome.
There are a number of rooms and suites large enough to add an extra single bed, and adjoining rooms. Children under 12 years old stay free.