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Stars Align

A private villa in Umbria, a Roman shopping spree, and the crucial element: friends who make the most of it all.

Virtuoso Life, July/August 2011.

By Kim Brown Seely

 

MEN HAVE THEIR GOLF WEEKENDS, THEIR guided fly-fishing, and that ultimate male bonding ritual, the heli-ski week, which costs practically as much as a child. But when it comes time for women to get away, we often sabotage ourselves with convenient excuses. As a result, some of us never go anywhere together. I found myself reflecting upon this sad fact recently when out of the blue my friend Kate invited me to join her for a girls’ week in Italy. 

“A what?” I stammered.

“A girls’ week in Italy. It’s perfect,” she pointed out, “with both boys in college, you’ll be an empty nester by then. No excuses!”

All we women had to do was get ourselves to Umbria – where the magical Kate and her sister-in-law had obtained a villa. Waking up a few months later in my tower bedroom in our three-story stone house, which has sat on a hillside piazza facing a small church for nearly 1,000 years, I couldn’t believe I had hesitated, even for an instant. Clearly, the girl who had never taken a girls’ trip had come home. 

I threw off my linen sheets, tiptoed across the terra-cotta tiles, and unlatched the shutters to a view of silvery blue hills. In the distance, the Renaissance towers of Orvieto rose above a golden valley. Everything was thrillingly exotic, yet most thrilling of all was our agenda: There wasn’t one. 

A young woman would come cook our breakfast, but not until 9. This meant morning was for the ladies to luxuriate. How civilized! How utterly Italian! No one went jogging. No one checked e-mail. Everyone slept in, steeped in sensuous well-being and dolce far niente. I climbed back into bed with a novel but had to glance up every few pages just to admire my room with its ancient stone walls and lace curtains.

Our house had a sturdy dining room table, and by the time the five of us drifted down for coffee in our pajamas, we’d already begun improvising our own girls’ version of an old-fashioned Tuscan holiday: We’d venture out each day, but we wouldn’t complicate things too much. One day we’d see Siena; another, we’d make a pilgrimage to Assisi, birthplace of Saint Francis and home to the lovely Basilica of Saint Francis with its Cimabue and Giotto frescoes. In between light touring we’d treat ourselves to long lunches, gelato whenever we felt like it, espresso, and, of course, an afternoon of shopping for hand-painted ceramics in Deruta.

We also decided we’d stay in at night and cook for ourselves, so we wouldn’t have to drive the winding roads back to the villa after dinner. That’s right – we were officially five women on vacation!

At first I wasn’t at all sure about the cooking part of the plan, but it turned out to be brilliant. A few of the women were accomplished cooks, and the rest of us liked to pretend. We hit a local market on the way home from Siena and left with enough provisions to play in the kitchen for days. 

To kick off our first cocktail hour, we all clambered down the villa’s narrow, dimly lit basement steps to the wine cellar, a tomb-like grotto believed to date back 2,500 years to Etruscan times. Its walls were lined with racks of regional wine and olive oil. There were two varietals: a red and a white. None of the bottles were labeled, so we chose some red ones and some white ones, lugging them back up to the kitchen. 

While we were roasting our organic chickens, boiling water for our spaghetti con melanzane, assembling salads of vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, and slicing plump figs from the terrace, we drank a toast to our hostesses and, to our surprise and delight, discovered our unlimited house wine was superb.

An evening routine was born: Two of us cooked, while the rest of us sat in the small kitchen and talked over glasses of wine; then we’d all share a delicious dinner around the small kitchen table and have more wine, talking late into the night. Those who didn’t cook cleaned up; if you cleaned one night, you cooked the next. When we ran out of wine, all we had to do was climb down to our Etruscan cellar and bring up another bottle.

Our motives weren’t entirely sybaritic, however. After we’d sated ourselves with la dolce vita in the countryside, we hopped a train from Orvieto to Rome; we’d barely parked our wheelie bags in our hotel rooms when we were out the door. Not to see the Colosseum, Saint Peter’s Basilica, or the Spanish Steps. No – and here I have a confession to make – we hightailed it to that other Holy Grail, the Via Condotti, which has some of the world’s best shopping. The famous street was packed with well-heeled Italians seeking luxury in all its forms. If there was a global recession going on, none of them seemed to have gotten the message.

Intoxicated, we staggered from store to store, shy at first, but then trying on jewelry, slinky tops, sheath dresses, cropped knit jackets with feminine ruffled collars, leather jackets, and, of course, shoes – fabulous shoes. We happened to be traveling  in the company of a world-class shopper with a keen eye, and we trailed behind her like ducklings: Once we finally jumped in and got our feet wet, we had a blast  splashing about.

We did make it to the Colosseum eventually, and we got up early one morning for a remarkable private tour of the Vatican. But when I think back upon our trip, it isn’t the Borghese Gallery that first comes to mind, or even the Pantheon, with its wondrous opening to the sky.

No, the thing I treasure most was just being in a place like Italy together – and getting to be girls together. Surrounded by shopping bags at a stylish restaurant where we’d crashed for lunch late one afternoon, we were startled when a tall Scandinavian-looking woman approached us with a deter-mined, urgent expression.

Were we sitting at a reserved table – or worse, speaking too loudly? “Excuse me, but are you … sisters?” she asked, gesturing at the five of us surrounded by antipasto platters, glasses of Peroni, and bags of beautiful things, clearly having the time of our lives. 

We looked at each other for a moment and then all said at the same time, “Yes! Sisters!”

And to this day, I believe it to be true.

 

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.