“I have lived in Umbria all my life, but didn’t discover Norcia and the surrounding area until more recently. It is not an obvious place, hidden high in the wild Monti Sibillini National Park, but for me it has become very precious. It is a place for which the term “unspoilt” could have been invented – wandering round it you feel that life has hardly changed since medieval times, and not just because of the wonderful architecture. Life is authentic and rural here in a way scarcely seen now, yet Norcia is also very sophisticated in its places to stay and dine. Plenty of people come here purely to eat; the local produce is phenomenal – I defy anyone not to leave two kilos heavier.
Norcia also has, for me, an important spiritual dimension. Whether that comes from the beautiful Benedictine monastery that dominates the town I am not sure, but I find it a place of healing, renewal and contemplation – I often like to visit for a weekend that’s completely removed from the modern working world. The climate helps: because it is 600m high, the air is sparklingly fresh, so you feel naturally energetic, yet the place itself embodies peace and serenity.
Driving to Norcia from Perugia or Florence, you suddenly come upon the little city with its medieval fortress-like walls, rising out of nowhere in its valley, and surrounded by big, bare hills without so much as another house in sight. The landscape reminds me of the vastness of Mongolia, where our cashmere comes from. We did a shoot there and added extra pictures shot in the Monti Sibillini, and they blended perfectly. You enter the town through a grand arch and are met by a wonderful panorama of medieval architecture, fanning out from the main square, which is the heart of town life. To the left is the church and monastery of St Benedict, who was born here in 480 AD and whose statue surveys the square. All around are other churches from the 13th to 15th centuries. Benedict may have lived 1,500 years ago, but I still find his philosophy of strictness and kindness – “be a demanding taskmaster and a loving father” – very persuasive.
Before you explore, settle into a hotel. The grandest is the Palazzo Seneca, a beautiful medieval building that has been restored with all the modern comforts in cool, pale-walled rooms with exposed stone and antique wood or iron four-poster beds. After your journey, you may welcome a stint in the hotel spa’s Turkish baths. Norcia also has a great tradition of agriturismo – working farms where buildings have been stylishly converted to rooms and where the meals are mainly created from farm produce. They are all family-run, like most of the town’s restaurants, which means the staff have a real interest in pleasing their customers, and if you go back a few times you really get to know them. Il Casale degli Amici is only 3km from the town centre – a perfect walk to work up an appetite – in a beautifully converted, 500-year-old farmhouse. If you have a car, Antica Cascina Brandimarte at Castelluccio is the place, with rustic barns updated with pale drapes and splashes of bright colour. Both are very good value.
Whether or not you are staying at Palazzo Seneca, have dinner at its restaurant. Vespasia is the chicest spot in town and it introduces the stars of the local cuisine in a modern way, with simple but extremely high-quality ingredients. Norcineria – exquisite cured meats – are the most famous, but there are also legumes and grains: tiny lentils, grown on the high piano around the town and sown as soon as the snow has melted; roveja, which is a wild pea; and spelt. And, in season, wonderful black truffles. I am a great fan of this cooking – ingredients this good require little dressing up.
Morning is the best time to explore Norcia and I recommend visitors take a walk to get the feel of the place, perhaps through the circle of verdant streets just inside the walls. Everyone takes the time to chat or just say hello; this really is the cradle of the slow-life movement. But the most striking thing is the silence. In the square there is no traffic, so chatter – and later music – is the only sound.
The narrow streets and passageways that crisscross it are a delight to wander. Off the main square you’ll come across the Portico delle Misure, a colonnade where nine stone basins were used as measures for grain and spelt in the medieval market. The metal scoops remain, hanging from the wall like a gauge of time and space, reminding us of our history. Even the town hall dates back to the 13th century, and it sits next to the main basilica, juxtaposing the temporal and the spiritual. The monastery is private, but in the crypt, which is open to the public, are the remains of the house where Benedict was born. There are cafés in the square, but I prefer to drink the pure, ice-cold mountain water from the beautiful fountain at its centre, as pilgrims would have done centuries ago. The town’s museum is in the Castellina, an impressive fortress with artefacts from the Etruscan period onwards, which provides a great history of the region.
Culture and walking should be rewarded by a good lunch, and in my opinion there’s nowhere better than the Osteria del Gobbo in the main square. Traditional yet modern, it is run by a mother and son; the menu changes according to the fresh products available and the season, and it’s always delicious. Then it’s time, perhaps, for a little shopping, where, of course, food is the priority. I love the shops run by Norcini and my favourite is Fratelli Ansuini di Mastro Peppe, owned by a fourth-generation butcher who is passing his trade on to his children. There I buy cured meat and ham, pecorino cheese, spelt and saffron, before moving on to Moscatelli Tartufi Norcia for black truffles, though these only grow between May and August when there is hot sun alternating with rain.
The monks, of whom there are now only 16, have built a monastery brewery and you can buy their very good Birra Nursia in their shop, Corvus et Columba. Rustic antiques from Emanuela D’Abbraccio are also among my favourite buys.
For me, the evening is the time to drink a little Birra Nursia in a café on the square – Bar FM is a good one – smoke a cigar and watch authentic town life passing by. I recommend dinner at Dal Francese, for truffles in summer and beautiful grilled lamb in cooler weather. Nightlife is surprisingly busy too, though more genuine and spontaneous than in a big city. There are many young people here – drama and music students who give free performances in the town’s theatre, a converted 14th-century church called the Gothic Auditorium San Francesco – and those who come to the many summer sports camps. They often sit on the steps in the square, chatting, singing and playing guitars until the early hours, but it is rarely too raucous.
Sundays in Norcia are very special for me. I have always followed Saint Benedict’s ideals and in recent years, since becoming involved in the restoration of the monastery, I have become close to the prior, Father Cassian, who is my spiritual adviser. I leave home at 5am to see him – they have a strict schedule – and find even the drive through the woods uplifting. On Sunday mornings, the monks sing wonderful Gregorian chants in the basilica, which you can go to listen to, and the bells’ ringing makes me recall their “ora et labora”, or pray and work, mentality. Then I recommend walking back through the town’s archway to take in the stupendous view of an untouched landscape, with the Sibillini Mountains hemming in the town and the highest, Monte Vettore, rising up protectively. Hardy visitors can crest the ridges, but there are many shorter rambles, like the one along part of the disused railway running between Norcia and Spoleto that passes through the once‑isolated hamlets of the Nerina valley. It’s a wonderful escape in a medieval idyll before plunging back into modern life.”