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Moravola, Umbria, Italy

We have a water witch and an architect-chef to thank for this minimalist hideaway in the Umbrian wilderness.

I travelled around Umbria for ten days on my own, reviewing hotels for a website. “Awful” people would joke, “someone’s got to do it, hey.” In reality, my reviews mostly concluded that the borgo, locanda or spa hotel was “fine if in the area”, after the prerequisite lists of facilities, amenities, number of bedrooms.

This one was different. I survived the treacherous approach and parked up to find co-owner Seonaid lying on a deep outdoor sofa with her cats. She didn’t get up to greet me but invited me to join her. I did, and a cat started noodling around me before pummelling my leg. Very allergic to cats, I wondered when the tour was starting.

The 1000-year old tower sits on the border of the ancient feudal lands of Montone and Gubbio and was used as a lookout through centuries of war and land dispute. The conversion of this crumbling structure was an ambitious project undertaken by Seonaid and her partner Christopher, an architect with a great deal of resilience (and wherewithal) to take on such an unforgiving building with no services or infrastructure so high up in the hills.

The first stumbling block was a pretty big one. No professional could locate a water source, so, as a last resort, they engaged the services of a local witch who apparently had the gift of divining water. After months of expensive consultants, scientific instruments and all available technology, the 16-year-old “strega” used copper divining rods to identify the exact position to drill down. The project engineers drilled through the rock to a depth of 90m and hit the precise point where two veins of water met in the ground.

And so the project could begin. Christopher, a former Norman Foster associate, designed an inner structure within the ancient building to house seven bedroom suites around a central staircase. It’s sustainable by design as the thick stone walls are insulating and the central staircase helps air circulation. A spa (which was under construction when I visited), 25m infinity pool and several cantilevered terraces sit comfortably in the land around the tower, sleek but gentle and sympathetic to the medieval hilltop setting. The combination of glass, steel and stone is softened by olive trees and wispy grasses.

Interiors are pared back with simple, bespoke furniture. The sparseness left me free to appreciate curved walls made from poured concrete, still with the imprints of their woodgrain mould, and micro-cement surfaces in a desaturated colour palette inspired by the paintings of Piero della Francesca. It’s a minimalist’s haven, so if you’re into that then you will love Moravola. But even for me, a lover of stuff and patterns and antiques, the sophisticated design and flawless ‘medieval-modern’ aesthetic here is hard to dislike. It is destination architecture at its finest.

Seonaid said that wealthy families will rent the whole villa for a party, arriving by helicopter and staying a week at a time. It’s otherwise mostly couples seeking an unusual hotel experience (high-end, private, pull-up-a-stool-in-the-kitchen casual) book a handful of nights. Design pilgrims come to admire the architecture.

Each bedroom is a suite with a floating steel staircase from a seating area to the bedroom above. This makes the views from bed particularly special; I opened the windows and climbed back into bed in the early morning to watch the coral pink sun rise over the hills. The low-slung bed frames are custom built and made up with heavenly bed linen from Zucchi Collection.

The only other furniture in my room was a big handless cupboard which I couldn’t work out how to open. Eventually I found the hanging space, a couple of glass water bottles and a coffee machine inside. There’s no minibar as guests are encouraged help themselves to snacks from the kitchen, or track down a member of staff (there’s no bar or reception in the classic way) to make a sandwich or a cocktail.

Christopher, who is as accomplished a chef as he is an architect (a serious overachiever), serves food inspired by Italy’s slow-food movement. He uses local and home-grown produce to create delicate dishes that are the antithesis of region’s traditional, heavy fare. The menu, which changes daily, is written up on a big chalkboard in the kitchen. I was lucky to try his tempura courgette flower and sage leaves, garden beetroot salad with pecorino, fish risotto with squid ink and a panacotta with winter berries.

I love eating alone and especially like this: in the Italian hills, on a table next to a fire with a book, a glass of wine and the leisurely delivery of small-plate food that I haven’t had to choose. Guests here don’t feel like customers but like friends hosted in a beautiful home, as many rave reviews of Moravola will attest. If you fancy it, note that dining is just for overnight guests and even residents must reserve ahead.

I had a bath before bed in a sunken stone basin. While it took an hour and 45,000 gallons to fill, toiletries are from sustainable German brand ‘Please Turn off the Water while Using Me’ so: balance. It felt gloriously extravagant if not a little uncomfortable.

From my bedroom window, I watched fireflies flit around the trees. Crickets chirped. I closed the shutters and the intense darkness and silence elicited a deep sleep.

Breakfast was served on the terrace, and never did a plate of food look so architectural. Chopped fruit arranged in perfect lines. Bowls of granola, yoghurt and honey in neat bowls. Freshly squeezed juice, warm bread and pots of local conserves were also arranged in rows in front of me. I ordered baked eggs from the short a la carte menu.

Looking at the deep valleys and tall green hills around me, I thought how astonishing it is to take in a view that has been the same for centuries. Here I was on lookout, like the medieval allies before me. On a practical note, although it feels completely isolated (and I mean bang in the middle of nowhere), and the approach requires a driver with nerves of steel and a head for heights, it’s just a 20-minute drive from the busy E45 and a 10-minute drive to the medieval town of Montone.

What did I pack?

I was working so the contents of my suitcase was pretty boring, but if I ever come back, I’ll pack silky kaftans for swishing barefoot around the pool with the addition of leather sandals and chunky jewellery for dinner.

Bottom line:

If you like good architecture, hotels that do things a bit differently and creature comforts in the wilderness, you will love it here. Bundle it up into an itinerary with Reschio and Palazzo Seneca for the ultimate (and, if you throw in Eremito, incredibly varied) Umbrian adventure.

Localita Moravola, Zona Corlo, 06014 Montone, Italy
moravola.com
From £250