When natural disasters strike our favorite tourism areas, we’re always eager to know which properties are open and welcoming guests. We recently revisited Palazzo Seneca in the gastronomical mecca of Norcia, Italy, to catch up with co-owner Federico Bianconi.
Norcia, located on the far eastern side of Umbria, was the only major Umbrian city to experience earthquake damage in 2016 and we wondered about the fate of this beautiful historic property. We’re happy to report that the 16th-century Palazzo Seneca withstood the shaking, due, in part, to the careful attention paid to anti-seismic building standards during the restoration completed in 2008. In fact, the Palazzo, which is a member of Relais & Châteaux, was honored as the Hotel of the Year by Virtuoso in 2017.
A culinary tourism destination, Norcia is rapidly rebuilding, and hungry travelers are returning, both to savor the hotel’s Michelin-starred Vespasia Restaurant and to attend the annual Black Truffle Fair, held every February, where the world-famous tuber and the region’s fine cured meats, legumes and cheeses are on offer. The statue of St. Benedict, a native of Norcia, still reigns over the main piazza. The museum is open, as are many shops, while the cathedral is undergoing restoration. The monks are getting back to making their beloved beer, Birra Nursia.
Palazzo Seneca is operating at full capacity; its 24 rooms are among the 300 now available in Norcia. (Before the earthquake there were 3,000 rooms in the city).
Vespasia Ristorante (above right), a Michelin-star restaurant helmed by Chef Valentino Palmisano, sits besides an herb garden.
Owner Federico Bianconi, who, with his brother Vincenzo, restored the old palace, says that visitors to the region are returning, not only for culinary tourism, but also for the trekking, rafting and fishing the area is known for. The Bianconi family has been in the hospitality business here since 1850, and they are central to the city’s rebuilding effort. The Palazzo Seneca, originally opened in the early 1900s, was the first hotel in Norcia and, though the building has been restructured several times, it retains the original vaulted-ceilinged rooms of the 16th century.
In 2017, Chef Valentino Palmisano joined the Vespasia Restaurant, which was awarded a Michelin star in 2016, one of only two restaurants in the area so designated. Chef Palmisano has continued the theme of tradition and innovation, adding his own vision and using many of the ingredients the region is known for: cured meats, including the protected Prosciutto di Norcia; cheeses, especially ricotta and pecorino; herbs from the hotel’s kitchen garden and Norcia’s famous black truffles. Umbrian wines, especially from the nearby Sagrantino Wine Route, feature on the wine list. Note: Guests, especially those traveling with children, may also wish to try one of the traditional Umbrian restaurants in the Bianconi portfolio, some of which are still under post-earthquake restoration. Ask for suggestions at reception.
The entire hotel has the feeling of a private villa and is filled with antiques that came from the original owners, the Seneca family, as well as many sourced from Umbrian artisans. The weathered stone floors and thick walls insulate visitors from the hustle-bustle of the outside world; it’s so quiet here it’s hard to believe the center of town is only steps away.
The Suite Room has a wooden bed with spiral columns carved by the Umbrian artisans.
Guests will find the sleeping rooms light and airy, despite furnishings that date to centuries past. As in most historic properties, every room is different. The baldacchini (four-poster) bed in the Suite Room has been painted in creams and golds, rather than left in dark tones. This, along with the flood of natural light from the windows, reminds us that the mountains beyond beckon nature lovers.
The 540-square-foot Suite includes one bedroom, a living room with double sofa bed and a double entrance. There is a full bath with tub off the bedroom and another half bath.
Two Junior Suites connect for larger groups, such as families traveling together. There are antique wooden canopy beds, as well as writing desks from the 16th and 18th centuries. Floors are laid in vintage oak or traditional terracotta; the ceilings feature carved moldings, many of which are original. Room No. 210, named “Best Room with a View” by Italian magazine Bell’Italia, has a private terrace with a mountain view, which can also be seen from the “wet room”-style shower. The Junior Suites are about 400 square feet. Some rooms have bathtubs, while others offer double showers.
Palazzo Seneca has the feeling of a private villa and is filled with antiques that came from the original owners, the Seneca family, as well as many sourced from Umbrian artisans. Shown here is the reception.
Even the smaller rooms are attractive and spacious. Each Deluxe Room is spread over nearly 235 square feet of space and is decorated with antiques, as are the Superior Rooms. Room No. 107 (Superior) has a ferro battuta (wrought iron) bed and a brown leather sofa; the bath is fitted with a bathtub, not a shower. Various rooms have bathtubs; most have showers.
The hotel’s wellness center is evocatively located in the palazzo’s old dungeons, where there are treatment rooms, a quiet room, whirlpool bath, Turkish bath and sauna. Also available to guests is access to the Bianconi Sports Centre, with its indoor and outdoor pools, cardio fitness gym, tennis courts and more.
Among many possibilities in the eastern half of Umbria are itineraries that include the history, food, wines and natural wonders of Assisi, Montefalco, Spoleto and Norcia. Travelers may fly into Perugia and explore the region by car, beginning at Assisi or Montefalco, continuing to Spoleto, and then taking the long tunnel under the mountains to emerge in the forested Valnerina (Valley of the Nera River) near Norcia.
The Junior Suite has an antique wooden canopy bed, and closets and writing desks belonging to the 16th and 18th centuries.
Using Palazzo Seneca as a base, guests may choose activities in the town and surrounding area, including visiting the numerous food shops selling local products (cured meats, lentils and other legumes, cheeses and truffles); joining a truffle hunt in the nearby woods; trekking in the Monti Sibillini National Park on foot, or by mule, horse or mountain bike; white-water rafting; fishing; or taking a cooking or cheese-making class. An unusual opportunity for joggers, bikers and hikers is the former steam train track which runs 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Norcia to Spoleto - the track has been turned into a broad path through the countryside, making the journey traffic-free.