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A heavenly retreat

Past, present and brocantage at Corte della Maestà

The bridge looks daunting, but chalk it up as part of the adventure. Iron Man and Iron Woman we are not, so the spectacular views of Italy’s Calanchi Valley serve to distract us as we trudge along the modern and very busy 300-metre pedestrian-only bridge ascending almost vertically into the teetering medieval mountain town of Civita di Bagnoregio, about 90 minutes from Rome. A little truck ferries luggage up and down the bridge, much to our relief. From afar, our first impression is “this must be a film set; surely this can’t be real.” We have time-traveled back to an Etruscan village, built 2,500 years ago and sculpted on volcanic rock perched atop the mountain.

An earthquake devastated the hamlet in 1695, and today, although only 11 people live in the village full time, it’s attracted adventurous tourists beguiled by the bridge and the elegant Corte della Maestà hotel. Entering through the ancient stone archway, every step is history. Narrow cobblestone passageways and walls festooned with climbing roses meander off the main piazza, a dizzying maze to the uninitiated. Having just come from the teeming crowds in Rome, we crave “dolce far niente”—slowing down to enjoy the beauty and the sweetness of doing nothing.

Our charming host and hotel manager, Cristiana Melis, is waiting and she leads us through a hidden leafy wooden door that opens into Corte della Maestà (translated to “court of majesty”).

If the literary classic The Secret Garden enchanted you as a child, Corte della Maestà’s walled enclave with its towering arbours and olive trees, potted blue hydrangeas and hidden statuary will captivate all your senses as an adult.

“I discovered Civita almost 30 years ago visiting a patient of mine,” explains owner Paolo Crepet, a well-known Italian psychiatrist, author and TV personality. “It’s constructed like a dream but it’s not a hermitage, it’s an emotional experience,”

Paolo and wife Cristiana have spent decades renovating the chic antique-filled property, once a 14th-century bishop’s palace, now transformed into a boutique hotel. The two met years ago when she was an arts publicist for an exhibition of Federico Fellini’s illustrations for many of his legendary films. In fact, one of the hotel’s first guests was film director Giuseppe Tornatore, who won an Oscar for the heartfelt masterpiece Cinema Paradiso and is a long-time friend of Paolo.

Their mutual love of the arts and scouring antique and flea markets, Paolo’s passion for auctions and Cristiana’s intrinsic ability to make everything at once both homey and exquisite (she should have been an interior designer) make our stay the highlight of our 25th wedding anniversary trip to Italy.

All four-bedroom suites are stunning. Resembling old master still-life paintings, each harbours its own treasures and fascinating back-stories that Cristiana has conceptualized with antiques mixed with contemporary furnishings.

It’s no coincidence that we are staying in La Scrittrice (The Writer Suite) with its own private entrance off the garden. The cabbage-rose-patterned wallpaper in the sitting room mimics the rose-clustered pergola outside and is a reproduction plucked from Virginia Woolf’s London home, as is the antique writing desk. An original 16th-century fresco has been left untouched on the wall of the cosy bedroom and a wrought iron headboard towers over strewn plump pillows. The bed is topped with a chartreuse mohair blanket for chilly nights (there is a different colour in each suite), which Cristiana imported from New Zealand. Her penchant for antique portrait paintings, mostly of women, helps decorate the walls.

The Abbess Suite, which opens onto a little balcony, takes its name from the ornate wrought iron four-poster bedframe that once belonged to the abbess of a monastery. It’s a tribute to the book The Abbess of Castro by Renaissance writer Stendhal. An early 19th-century French oak fireplace and iron bathtub complement the suite’s interior.

A vision in gold, with an ornate headboard acquired from a 19th-century theatrical production, The Sleepwalker Suite is an homage to the theatre and to Italy’s grand tradition of opera, while The Intruder Suite looks out through windows over the valley and the house of the late Argentine poet and writer Rodolfo Wilcock, a great friend of famed Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Unusual wall sconces, beaded lamps and gilded mirrors cast and reflect shadows on the ancient stone walls of each suite.

Entering the hotel’s la cucina (kitchen), it’s hard to know where tp rest your eyes first as it overlooks an immense garden planted with fig, persimmon and lemon trees. A crystal chandelier from Brussels, circa 1930s, dominates the vaulted stone ceiling, antique copper dessert molds adorn blue Italian tiled walls, and beautiful serving pieces from France are everywhere. They all reflect Cristiana’s obsession for brocantage, the art of collecting vintage items.

“It’s been a passion of mine since I was a girl,” she confides. “It was so much fun visiting second-hand dealers and flea markets in France and Italy looking for unusual objects and treasures.”

And the breakfast! The la cucina, under the supervision of the couple’s playful black and blonde Labrador sisters, Ortensia and Olivia, is the rustic centre of activity in the mornings. There are jams and jellies made from the garden’s abundance, heavenly cappuccinos, the freshest eggs and prosciutto, cheeses, cream puffs and tarts (hmm, maybe walking up and down the bridge is a good idea), all presented on decorative china and vintage glassware. Hazelnuts on the table, we learn, are grown in the nearby valley for Ferrero Rocher, makers of those luscious gold-foil covered chocolates and Nutella.

One morning Cristiana surprises us by setting up breakfast on a pink, hand-printed Lisa Corti tablecloth, on a table under a wrought iron gazebo in the courtyard.

“How in the world did they get the gazebo up the mountain?” I ask, dumbfounded, learning that it had to be brought up the bridge in sections and reassembled piece by piece.

Elsewhere in the hotel is the cavernous stone Wolf’s Lair, a cosy hideaway with an enormous fireplace. Once the ancient cistern, now converted into a home theatre, it’s filled with books, games, a Forneris piano and, of course, a large film screen. Imagine watching Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, glass of wine in hand.

Venturing out of Corte della Maestà for dinner we are delighted at the number of restaurants off the main piazza. They receive fresh produce supplies almost daily via moped deliveries. Not only do Osteria Al Forno di Agnese and Alma Civita serve delicious specialties but, to our surprise, we meet several fellow Canadians dining there.

Corte della Maestà is truly the bridge between past and present—a heavenly retreat from our daily lives.


Corte della Maestà is located in the mountain village of Civita di Bagnoregio. The train stops at nearby Orvieto. From Rome, it’s about 90 minutes. If you drive, there is parking at the beginning of the bridge or Cristiana Melis can arrange for a driver to pick you up at Orvieto Station.