TODI, Italy — It just may be the most enchanting place I've ever stayed, a 13th-Century Benedictine monastery that's been transformed into a luxurious, 11-room hotel high atop an Umbrian hillside in central Italy.
The official name of the hotel is the San Valentino Hotel and Sporting Club, "Sporting Club" because of its single, immaculately maintained tennis court and tiny swimming pool (almost more a wading pool, really). But you can forget whatever images of golf courses, Jacuzzis, riding trails and fox hunts the name "Sporting Club" might conjure up.
The San Valentino is far more sanctuary than spa, a small, rustic jewel hidden away at the end of a narrow, winding, rocky, rutted, two-mile, one-lane road just outside Todi, about 30 miles south of Perugia, almost midway between Rome and Florence.
The San Valentino is not listed in any guidebook. Thus, it was the great find of the entire 6 1/2 weeks my friend Lucy and I spent in Europe, and we had it almost all to ourselves; only three or four of the hotel's 11 rooms were occupied on any of the four nights we stayed there.
Four Years a Hotel
The San Valentino has been a hotel for four years, and the director, Maurizio Cipolletta ("It means little onion," he told us), says the people who own it are only now beginning to advertise the hotel and to seek guidebook listings.
In the meantime, he says, they've spent $4.5 million to convert and furnish it, and they've done so with, for the most part, remarkably good taste. They've managed to create a hotel that still looks and feels like a 13th-Century monastery but that has all the conveniences of a modern hotel.
How did we hear about the San Valentino? A couple of months before leaving on our trip I visited Piero Selvaggio, my favorite Italian restaurateur in the United States, to ask him for restaurant recommendations in Italy. I also mentioned that I'd heard Umbria was beautiful and that we wanted to visit there for several days but didn't know where to stay.
In the course of our chat, while sipping wine and eating cheese and flipping through several Italian magazines, Piero came across a reference to the San Valentino, which name may have jumped out at him because his own restaurant (in Santa Monica) is named Valentino. When he read the description to me I immediately decided we had to go there.
Over the next 10 weeks, seven weeks of waiting to start our trip and the first three weeks of the trip (in France), the one place I talked most about and most looked forward to was the San Valentino.
"It'll either be the great discovery of the trip or a great disaster," I told Lucy.
At first, disaster looked like the most likely outcome.
We couldn't find the damn hotel.
When I had written for reservations I sent my letter to the town of Fiore di Topi, the name I scribbled down while talking to Piero. I received my confirmation by return mail. But there was no Fiore di Topi on any map. There was only a tiny town called Fiore, not far from a larger town called Todi.
Scribbled Down 'Todi'
I figured I must have scribbled "Todi" so hastily (and so sloppily) that it looked like "Topi," and the Italian postal service, its dismal reputation notwithstanding, had seen to it that my letter got to the San Valentino anyway. We decided that Fiore, near Todi, must be the place, and we decided, further, that we'd be smart and head straight for Fiore, bypassing the larger city of Todi.
Not so smart.
As we later learned, there are plenty of signs in and near Todi, directing motorists toward the San Valentino. Indeed, the first "San Valentino" sign is just off the main Rome-to-Florence autostrada, about 20 miles from the hotel. Unfortunately, because we were so "smart" about circumventing Todi and going directly to Fiore, we didn't see that sign.
Nor did we see most of the 12 other signs (I counted them the next day) along the route. We did finally see a couple of signs, though, one of which pointed straight ahead and the next of which, a little way down the same road, pointed back the way we'd just come (even though we'd seen no possible turnoff in between).
We consulted an elderly man on a bicycle. He didn't speak English.
Then we noticed another car whose occupants seemed to be as lost as we were. We had already passed each other twice when we saw the driver of the other car ask a passer-by for directions. Then we saw the passer-by point toward a narrow, unmarked, dirt road.
We quickly took off along that road, figuring that if the other party was also headed toward the San Valentino, we might have a better choice of rooms (and quicker help with our baggage) if we arrived first.
But we drove for what seemed like 20 minutes and saw no further signs. Or anything else. The road was barely wide enough to accommodate our small, rented car. We kept driving over rocks so large that I was afraid I'd break something. Or careen over the side. About the time I was ready to give up, there, suddenly, was the San Valentino.
Other Car Pulls Up