Life in an art-filled former palace in Italy, accessible only by foot

In an ancient Italian town perched on a rocky outcrop and accessible only by foot, Paolo Crepet and Cristiana Melis, the residents of an art-filled former palace, have created a guesthouse that is truly one of a kind

When Cristiana – who met Paolo when they were both working in Bologna – came on the scene in 2011, a new opportunity presented itself – the purchase of the adjoining Corte (court) building, which the couple has restored together. They opened this property as a bed and breakfast in 2013, while keeping the palace (now referred to as the Borgo) as their home. Bed and breakfast is far too mundane a way of describing Corte della Maestà, however. This is no run-of-the-mill place to stay, but a showcase of eccentric, creative brilliance. It is a perfect fit for the town, which over the years has lured the likes of directors Federico Fellini and Giuseppe Tornatore and, more recently, one of Italy’s most high-profile fashionistas (who must remain nameless) to its picturesque confines. ‘We wanted to create an experience,’ says Paolo from the kitchen table, which groans under the weight of a lavish Italian breakfast, and this is just what he and Cristiana have achieved.

The experience starts, however, at the car park before the footbridge (no motorised vehicles, other than a Piaggio truck for transporting luggage and waste to and from the town, are allowed beyond this point). All visitors – day-trippers in the main – pay a €5 fee to walk the 300 metres uphill to the medieval citadel. Thanks to around a million visitors a year, this clever ruse by the district mayor means there is a handy pot of funds for (relentless) conservation work and no communal taxes for locals.

Paolo and Cristiana at the entrance to the Borgo.

Davide Lovatti

We pass under Civita’s stone entrance archway and wend our way through cobbled streets to the main piazza. Overlooked by the dusky pink façade of the church of San Donato, it is the scene of the twice-yearly Palio della Tonna – the town’s eccentric donkey race. Beyond the piazza, through a discreet entrance overwhelmed with ivy, Corte della Maestà is revealed – and with it comes a bounding welcome from Hortensia and Olivia, Cristiana’s Labrador puppies.

First impressions deliver a riot of art and artefacts – the old and the new, the sacred and the secular, the sober and the bizarre. ‘I don’t believe in collections,’ says Paolo, who hails from a family of artists – much of whose work hangs on the walls. ‘I prefer to have a confusion of beauty.’ Together, he and Cristiana regularly scour Italy and further afield for art and antiques. ‘Art is far more than a hobby,’ says Cristiana of Paolo, adding (as she taps a finger to her temple) that she sometimes thinks he needs to see a doctor.

The sacred and the secular are united in the salone.

Davide Lovatti

Of the two old buildings, the Corte, which houses four guest rooms (there is a fifth at a separate address nearby), is marginally more restrained. Certainly, La Badessa, the principal room, is glorious, an ornate iron four-poster taking centre stage with a free-standing bath alongside, a quiet alcove of books and an open fireplace for the winter months. La Intrusa, named after a story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, has an exquisite painted panelled ceiling, a wood-burning stove and walls hung with oils. La Sonnambula references theatrical set design with its elaborate carved and painted headboard. And La Scrittice, reached via a flight of stone steps outside, juxtaposes black and pink floral wallpaper, reproduced from Virginia Woolf’s London home, with a preserved piece of a 16th-century fresco.

Through the magnificent kitchen, the heart and soul of both the Borgo and Corte della Maestà, I am led to the Bishop’s Garden, the largest of its kind in tiny Civita and a private space for Paolo, Cristiana and the dogs. Guests, however, are regularly invited for a drink among the roses or under bowers of apricot, cherry and fig – the fruit of which Cristiana often turns into a tart for tea or breakfast.

The kitchen is shared with guests staying at Corte della Maestà. The couple describe their housekeeper, Anna Porchilla (in red), as ‘our angel’.

Davide Lovatti

The garden links the Corte with the Borgo and it is here that the religious heritage of the building collides with the couple’s passion for collecting. A frescoed Renaissance altarpiece of the former chapel is the backdrop in their salone and religious iconography abounds in statues, paintings and motifs. And then there are the tribal masks, the mannequins, the books, the butterflies in jars, the mirrors, the taxidermy, the birdcages (some inhabited by living songbirds) and a never-ending feast of portraits, many of which line a tangerine-coloured staircase that descends to a labyrinth of cavernous underground rooms gouged straight into the rocks.

I search in vain for a common thread but can find no grand plan. Only, perhaps, a sense of grand passion, which seems fitting given that Paolo’s most recent books and lecture series concentrate on the subjects of courage, freedom and passion.

When he leaves early for an academic appointment in Milan, it is like the whirlwind has subsided. So, too, with Civita at the end of the day, when the tourists have finally retreated back across the bridge andan other-worldliness descends on the town. A few trattorias stay open for the last lingering visitors, but by 10pm the silence is profound. Nowadays, Civita di Bagnoregio has only eight full-time residents – not forgetting, of course, two and a half millennia’s worth of ghosts, countless cats and a pair of rather fine pedigree Labradors.

Corte della Maestà: