Umbria, Italy – When you drive to Spoleto, you’d see rising above the medieval town a sacred mountain of Monteluco. Saint Francis of Assisi had meditated there for peace. On the ilex-covered slope, surrounded by the shadows of the trees, you’d find an old hermitage. But you won’t find any monks. The sanctuary is now an inn, schemed by an old dentist.
My wife and I had sought refuge from our work in Napoli. After checking into Hermitage Inn of Eremo delle Grazie., we stood gazing from its terrace at the rolling hills below. They sprawled like undulating quilt stitched with vineyards, olive groves, brown patches of fields, and farm houses. No sound around us but the rustles of trees, branches swaying in the autumn breeze.
“Bella panoramica, non è vero?”
I turned toward the voice.
An old man sat in the shade of a nearby portico. He smiled and his eyes became slits in his wrinkled face. He wore a brown tweed jacket. His hands were folded over the handle of a cane. At his feet napped a Yorkshire terrier.
“Yes, it’s a beautiful view,” I said.
“I am Dr. Lalli Pio,” he said, his English tinged with the musical flare of Italian. “I am the inn’s owner. I am 87 years old.” He took my wife’s hand. “I taught dentistry at Rome University,” he said, and winked at her. “I was Pope Pius XII’s personal dentist.” Then he raised her hand to his lips and kissed.
He told us his old aristocratic Roman family had bought the abandoned hermitage in 1918. After his retirement from dentistry, he left the Eternal City to spend a quiet life at Monteluco. But he soon became lonely. In 2001 he opened his sanctuary as an inn.
“Che sol nei boschi è pace,” he said. “Only in the woods there is peace.”
Those are the words of Michelangelo, the great Renaissance artist. In 1556, he wrote those words in a letter sent to his friend, Vasari, in Rome. He wrote them at Eremo delle Gracie, a place where he had sojourned to escape the stress of working for Pope Julius II.
For three nights we stayed at Dr. Pio’s inn, steeped in the warm hospitality of the old gentleman. When we left, he waved goodbye. “We shall return,” I promised.
But years have since passed. A few times we drove by Spoleto. Each time I thought of stopping, of seeing the old man. But I never did. A bit of fear, perhaps, in the passage of seasons.
In my memory, the Pope’s old dentist smiles in the shade of the portico, nestled amongst the trees of Monteluco, where only in the woods there is peace.
If you decide to stay, you’d feel like you slipped back in time. There are nine guestrooms, each named after a monk who actually lived and died there. You walk up a narrow, creaky stairs, then down along a long hallway aligned with antique chests, cabinets, clocks, etchings in frames—all dimly lit only by the sunlight through hand-blown panes framed by lead-mullioned windows. Our room was Frà Gaudentino. No radio. No television. Only solitude steeped with the mountain air of Monteluco.