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A Perfect Trip to Northern Italy and the Lakes – June / July, 2014

Following is a summary of our recent trip to Northern Italy, and it was a spectacular vacation.  We managed to squeeze in five private wine tastings during the 8+ days, so it was a bit of a working trip as well, sort of.  Here’s the play by play:

Thursday: We started out early to try and limit stress and possible traffic issues close to JFK, and arrived in Greenwich, CT for lunch at Meditteraneo.  This was a very nice restaurant right on Greenwich Avenue, with a very Meditteranean vibe, excellent service and a good lunch selection.  Cheri had the grilled chicken with a green salad and I had a simple pizza margerita.  Everything was fresh and tasty.  We would definitely come back here.

Following a bit of a traffic snarl we parked at an offsite valet lot and were shuttled to the terminal.  We did run into a bit of a hangup with American Airlines over our boarding status, which was related to a credit card issue, but this was resolved and we headed to the Admiral’s Club to pass the three hours until boarding.  At this point we discovered both of our phones were non-functional, yet this turned out to be a local issue and our phones were actually fine.  So all in all things were going OK.

Friday: The flight was smooth and uneventful, and we landed in Milano early.  Our driver was waiting, and Fasto turned out to be informative and funny.  He is a retired gentleman who fills in as a tour guide and driver at times.  We took off in his car (this was a bit worn but worked fine – this wasn’t town car service), and he took us along the smaller road by the lake up to Stresa, pointing out  interesting facts about the small towns we passed.  He did drive a bit fast along the winding roads, zipping by bicyclists periodically, but we arrived intact at the Hotel Isles de Borromees.

The Borromees

The Borromees

This is a grand hotel, with an old world elegance and impeccable service.  We had read some negative reviews about the Borromees, yet we cannot find a single fault with the place after staying there.  Our room was a Junior Suite, well appointed with a sitting area and a wonderful private balcony that looked out over Lake Maggiore and the Borromean Islands.  The views were

The balcony view at the Boromees

The balcony view at the Boromees

spectacular.  You can read more about the Hotel Isles de Borromees here.  We wandered the town a bit and met our tour guide, Lella, who pointed out some of the high points of Stresa and some good restaurants to try.  We said arrivederci to Lella for a bit and wandered some more.  Lunch was pizza at a little bar overlooking the lake, inexpensive and quite good.  At about 3:00 we found the jet lag hitting hard, so we took decisive action.

Since the weather was not forecast to be stellar for the next few days we ordered some room service coffee and sat on our lovely balcony for the next hour juicing up on caffeine.  We could have sat there for far longer, as the scenery is truly magnificent.  The Alps surround the views, with the lake and the islands in the foreground.  As it cleared a bit the further mountains began to emerge.  On a truly clear day I imagine you could see all the way to Switzerland.  This is really a beautiful place.

With a second wind provided by the caffeine we set out again for the town, stopping at the other hotels

View from the Sky Bar

View from the Sky Bar

along the lakefront for a peek.  At the Hotel La Palma we took the elevator to the roof and had a drink at their Sky Bar.  This was a very modern and chic bar with incredible views of the lake and mountains, as well as the lakeside drive if you aren’t afraid of heights and could stand at the railing.  There is also a pool on the roof as well.  All in all this hotel had a very good vibe, with an elegant, but more modern lobby than the Borromees.  An enticing lobby bar also beckoned.

La Cambusa

La Cambusa

After the drink with a view we went into the town and met Lella at a very magical place, the  La Cambusa wine shop.  Here we met the owner Rosaria and her son Ruben, who manage an amazing collection of wine and spirits and are

Gaja anyone?  Anyone?

Gaja anyone? Anyone?

just wonderful people.  Surrounding you in La Cambusa is a dizzying assortment of Italian wines.  There is an 11 bottle run through vintages of Gaja Barbaresco.  Similar assortments of the big names in Italian wines also abound, with Sassicaia, Tignanello and others you would expect.  What you don’t expect is the breadth in each however, and the sheer variety in each varietal.  There are walls of Barolo and Barbaresco, a wall of Barbera, a wall of Brunello and countless others.  The real treasure here, however, are the bottles of smaller producers you will have never heard of, but which Ruben knows well and can describe in detail.  These might be small production Barberas that are fuller and richer than any you have ever tried or even knew existed.  It could be a native Piemonte white wine with herbaceous notes and a rich texture made with a grape totally foreign to you, or just unexpected as the Riesling was.  It is all of these things and more.  We wrote a separate article on La Cambusa, as it really needs a broader treatment, and you can read that here.

While there we enjoyed a wine tasting, with Rosaria and Ruben hosting, sauntering off periodically to attend to business, but playing the most gracious hosts throughout.  We tried amazing wines, and amazing value wines.  These were $30 -$40 reds that rival anything I’ve had in this price range and beyond. The Barberas were stunningly rich.  We bought a bottle for the room.  I wish it were more affordable to ship them or we’d have a case sent home.  Perhaps I will find it in the US.

The only thing left for day one was a bite to eat, and we accomplished that at the Piemontese Restaurant, an elegant establishment with both an indoor and outdoor seating area, and an incredible wine list.  We treated ourselves to sea bass and tagliatelle with a beef ragout before walking back to the hotel and passing out.   Tomorrow was another day in paradise.

Saturday – today we slept in, thankfully in a quiet and dark room.  I can’t remember having slept that soundly in a very long time, which probably also is related to jet lag and sleep deprivation as well.  Anyway, after a very nice breakfast at the hotel we were headed off to the wine shop to try another wine Ruben was getting in that day.   This wine proved to be so good you can forget our earlier comment about it being too expensive to ship wine home, because we had a case shipped after trying it.  So now you can get it in America, but only at our house.  Then we were off to a wine and cheese manufacturer in a little medieval town not far from Stresa, with Lella again as our guide.

The village of Oira

The village of Oira

Located in the Ossola Valley, very near to the Swiss border, here the art of wine making has been practiced for over a thousand years.  The vines are supported on pergolas, forming a canopy of leaves and fruit.  Old stone pillars, a testimony to the granite, marble and slate quarries that dot the area, support the pergolas.  This is the way they have always grown grapes here, and the 60 or so small growers in the Ossola cling to the traditional ways, preserving them against the ever growing modernization of the wine industry worldwide.

The area was granted DOC status in 2009, and they produce a variety of wines from local grape varieties.  Their flagship wine is the Prunent, which is a clone of Nebbiolo well suited to the mountain terraces.  We tried the latest vintage, 2011, and found an elegant,

The cheese aging room

The cheese aging room

complex wine that had a very unique terroir character.  It was similar to other Nebbiolos but different at the same time.  A slight earthy funk added an extra layer to the flavor profile.  Overall we very much enjoyed it.  The other red we tasted was the Munaloss Vino Rosso, their entry level red, which was bright ruby, lighter bodied and carried good acidity.  This is an excellent food wine and at 12% alcohol drinks much like a better quality Beaujolais.  It’s a blend of Nebbiolo, Croatina and Barbera.  It’s also a €5 bottle of wine, so it’s quite inexpensive.  The Prunent is also a good value at €17.  There is a distributor out in California that is importing Cantina Garrone wines.

They also make spirits, and I tried their two grappas, one from the Prunent and the other from the grape blend of their Ca d’Mate (Nebbiolo, Croatina and Prunent).  The Prunent was younger, without extensive wood aging, and was clean and crisp.  The Ca d’Mate had 12 months of oak barrel time, and really carried a complex and smooth flavor profile reminiscent of a single malt scotch.  I liked them both, and both checked in at 40% alcohol.

Solid granite roof

Solid granite roof

The village that Ca d’Mate stands in, Oira, is old and charming, with an architecture unlike anything we have ever seen.  It is steeped in history and tradition.  We visited the cheese factory that the family also owns (and we had the cheese with our tasting – it was excellent) as well as the village church.  On a misty, cloudy day the overall impression was one of solitude and strength, as the stone buildings seemed to be a permanent part of the landscape.  It is a

With our host Matteo

With our host Matteo

beautiful and charming place.

Our host was Matteo, son of the current owner.  He’ll be going to University to study enology, hopefully including an extended stint internationally apprenticing at a winery or two, and will someday be making his own wine.

The trip up the valley was worth the drive by itself, as the rugged mountains climb away on both sides and the fog and clouds clung to them and seemed to flow down the ravines.  This is really a magnificent place.

Dinner was at Cafe Torino in town, and was quite good and incredibly inexpensive.  Cheri had eggplant parmigiana and I had the veal osso bucco.  On a rainy night with few people out Torino was bustling, and based on the value we know why.

Sunday – today was the Borromean island tour, which meant boat rides and outside walking.  It was overcast and rainy, and then it really started to rain, but after coming all the way to Italy you just go.  We

The gardens on Mother's Island

The gardens on Mother’s Island

slapped on our raincoats, packed umbrellas and hit the road.  Lella had arranged the boats, and a pickup close to our hotel.  We started at the Mother’s Island, which contains a botanical garden and a manor house which was a retreat for the Borromean family.  There’s not much else there, but the gardens are beautiful and the house is impressive.  The art alone is staggering, hanging everywhere are portraits and Rennaisance pieces which have to be worth millions and millions of dollars.  The house on Isola Madre is more livable though than the next property we visited, whichever was the palace on Isola Bella.

This was ostentatious, as befits a palace.  the King of Spain stayed here, and a throne was in place for him.  You can see it today.  Napoleon also stayed here, and his room is on the tour route as well.  Opulence rules, with fifty foot ceilings and gilded everything.  Of particular interest are the grottos, lower level rooms completely surfaced with local lake stones.  It has a definite under the sea feeling and is quite unique.

The green staircase

The green staircase

When you exit the house the gardens beckon, although deceptively restrained

The incredible garden wall

The incredible garden wall

as you pass up the stairs and through a green passage.  When you emerge one of the most amazing sights anywhere greets you, as the wall behind the garden terraces rears up with flowers, plants and assorted greenery interspersed with incredible statuary, and likely a white peacock or two.  White peacocks stroll around here like it is nothing unusual.  The gardens are beautiful, complex and extremely visually impressive.  This was on a rainy day as well.  I really would like to see them in the sunshine to see how they change in the light.  Maybe next time.

Since we were already wet we just walked back into Stresa on our return, looking for a trattoria to have a bite for lunch.  We found one that was still open,and had a nice leisurely lunch, including some wine, under an awning on the main piazza.  The awning was good, as the thunder rolled in, the skies opened, and the heavens threw an amazing amount of water on the area.  People scurried to and fro for a while and  then the town emptied out.  We just watched it and stayed relatively dry.  We didn’t venture back out until it slowed.

Dinner this evening was in the hotel, or at least it was supposed to be.  There happened to be an Oakley

Dinner at La Palma

Dinner at La Palma

business meeting going on at our hotel, and they were partying it up at a loud happy hour.  When we discovered the same group would be eating in the dining room we opted to stroll to the Hotel La Palma instead, and had a very nice meal looking out at the lake.  Both Cheri and I opted for the steak which was well cooked, extremely well seasoned and came with fried potatoes.  Add in a salad bar and a bottle of Barbaresco (in this case a 2007 Marchesi di Barolo) and there was very little to complain about.  We went to bed quite content.

Monday – today was a side trip to Lake Orta, one of the events Cheri had been most looking forward to.  When researching a bit for this journey she had discovered Lake Orta, and showed me a picture of an idyllic lake with a small, old European town and a

Isola San Guilio

Isola San Giulio

charming island.  Now, having been there, we can say that the pictures and writeup do not come close to doing justice to Lago Orta.  Serenity flows throughout the surrounding mountains and into the town and across the lake, all coalescing on the island of San Giulio, where the sisters of San Giulio mark their days in silent prayer year round.  Here there is little to do but ponder quiet memories and thoughts.  The Basilica di San Giulio is spectacular, adorned head to foot with frescoes and is a haven of quiet beauty.  If you climb down the stair under the nave you can see the Saint himself, as he rests in a gold and glass sarcophagus upon a raised platform.

Streets of Orta

Streets of Orta

Across from the island is the town of Orta, a beautiful and peaceful town with buildings dating back many centuries and a wonderful sense of place.  This

Piccolo on the main square

Piccolo on the main square

town is exactly as it should be.  There is some shopping, some food and spectacular views in every direction.  We shopped, we ate lunch at the Piccolo Bar on the waterfront and we reluctantly left this place of quiet serenity.  If you come to northwest Italy you must visit Lago Orta.

Our day was far from done, as we had Lella drop us off at the cable car station and we hopped on a car up the mountain to Mottarone.  A ski resort in the winter, Mottarone provides 360 degree views from it’s peak.  You can see the Swiss Alps, Monta Rosa, Lake Maggiore, Lake Garda and Lake Orta.  There is a restaurant at the top cable car stop, which resides a ten minute walk from the peak.  They also had a chair lift running, which we took to the top of the mountain.  Coming down was a bit scarier for Cheri, so we walked down the path and settled at a table on the huge deck of the restaurant, where red wine and unbelievable views occupied the next hour.  Finally we descended the cable car and returned to the Borromees.  It was fairly early, so a gin and tonic on a comfy sofa just outside the entrance seemed logical.

The view from the terrace at Verbano

The view from the terrace at Verbano

We dressed a bit for dinner, as we had arranged for a private boat to take us out to Isola Pescatori, where we would be eating.  There were several restaurants to choose from, but we didn’t get past the first one as the terrace at Verbano was simply too beautiful to pass up.  Looking out across the bay towards Isola Bella was a wonderful end to the day, and the dinner was excellent as well.  A bottle of Roero, the 2011 Bric Valdiana, complemented delicate dishes of local fish.  The restaurant began in 1896, and certainly shows no signs of stopping.  You can read the details of our meal at Verbano here.

This was a magical day we will never forget.  Tomorrow we transfer to Alba and the heart of the Piemonte wine country.

Tuesday – the ride from Stresa to Alba takes a solid two hours, and you leave the mountains for the very flat farmlands in between, where endless rice paddies almost make you think you’re in China.  After a while the hills start to emerge, and when you approach Alba you are surrounded by rolling hills, all of which are covered in vineyards.

The town of Alba itself is like many others in Italy, with a charming old section surrounded by a more modern, working environment.  The old part of town was fairly empty when we walked through, although to be fair it was the early afternoon closing time for the shops.  We had a nice lunch in a quaint restaurant, one of the few times we encountered someone who spoke no English, and returned to our hotel for our pickup time and the first of our winery visits.  The wineries, or cantinas here, are not generally open for public tours, although most do support visitors by request.  Without a doubt they are worth taking the time to see, as this is a unique area, with a fairly unique grape, and quality abounds throughout the region.

Vineyards of Barbaresco

Vineyards of Barbaresco

We started in the village of Barbaresco at the Albino Rocca cantina.  Here our host was Daniella, who now runs the establishment with her two sisters and

Barrel tasting at Albino Rocca

Barrel tasting at Albino Rocca

brother in law.  Their father Angelo had passed in 2012, after about 30 years of pushing excellence at the cantina. This is a family business, and it is evident in the passion and attention to detail.  We tasted through many of their wines, and across the board they are impressive.  We also had a chance to do some barrel tastings here.  You can read more about our visit to Albino Rocca here.

Returning to Alba for the evening left a different impression, as the town comes to life and the piazzas host everything from impromptu soccer games to elegant

Rooftop views of Alba

Rooftop views of Alba

dinners and general socializing over a glass of wine or two.  There is a homey feel to the town, and it is genuine as the number of tourists here is limited.  We returned to our hotel with a very different opinion than we had formed earlier.  The hotel, the Hotel Casillano, is just outside the old section of the city and is quite new and modern.  Our suite on the seventh floor was spacious and very well appointed.  We managed to have a drink in the lobby bar, but did not eat in the restaurant other than breakfast.  The breakfast here, as at all Italian hotels we have stayed in, was excellent.   Read more about Hotel Casillano here.

Wednesday – today was Barolo day, and there were two cantinas on the agenda.  Where we had started with a smaller family run winery, we moved up in scale in Barolo.  The first Cantina was Borgogno, located in the town of Barolo and  about twice the size of Albino Rocca in

An in town cantina - Borgogno

An in town cantina – Borgogno

production.  The cellars here were larger, and very impressive, with old

A wall of patiently waiting Barolo

A wall of patiently waiting Barolo

fermentation tanks still evident and walls of aging Riserva lining the hallways.  We loved the tour and the wines.  You can read more about Borgogno here.  In the afternoon we moved on the Fontanafredda, which dwarfs the other two and produces 7 million bottles a year.  This is a village more than a cantina, and the wine making infrastructure is huge.  Still, the old is evident and there is an old world feel to the cellars.  We had an excellent lunch here in the smaller restaurant, and there is a larger one which is Michelin starred and open for

Fontannafredda - a big cantina!

Fontanafredda – a big cantina!

dinner.

Chiara was our host for the tour, and at was followed with a tasting directed by

In the tunnels of Fontanafredda

In the tunnels of Fontanafredda

the wine maker.  This was held in a large, new formal tasting room and was more academic that our other two events.  We like Fontanafredda, but it was probably our least favorite of the three.  More details on Fontanafredda are in our blog here.

Thursday / Friday – this was another travel day, and a three hour drive brought us back to the mountains, and Lake Como.  This lake is both similar and also quite different than Lake Maggiore.  In Maggiore the mountains are always there, but they are behind you, and leave a strip of land between the angled slopes and the water’s edge. In Como the mountains come right down into the lake, and the towns and buildings cling to them,

View from the terrace at Hotel Tremezzo during lunch

View from the terrace at Hotel Tremezzo during lunch

hovering almost over the water.  Only a single, narrow road separated our hotel from the lake, and our small balcony provided amazing views of the far shore, Bellagio on the point and Varenna beyond.  This is also an incredibly beautiful place.

While the weather did not always cooperate, we did manage to see the gardens

A quiet spot in Varenna

A quiet spot in Varenna

of Villa Carlotta as well as take the boats to Varenna and Bellagio.  The gardens are grand in scope and execution, and well worth an hour or two.  They were also conveniently right next to our hotel and across from the boat dock.  We’ll give you more details in another blog on The Lake Como area.

Boat dock in Bellagio

Boat dock in Bellagio

The Grand Hotel Tremezzo is exactly that, grand in appearance and in service.  We took advantage of its amenities over our two day stay, as the weather encouraged less outdoor time and the hotel offered a most pleasing alternative.  Our dinner in La Terraza, the hotel restaurant, our last night was something special.  It was a fitting end to a wonderful trip.

You can read more about the hotels from our trip here.

The return trip was fairly uneventful, and left us wondering when we might return, and hoping we do.

If you visit the Lake Maggiore area we suggest you contact Maggiore Discovery to help arrange your visit.  They were very helpful, know the area in depth and provided excellent service at a very fair price.  Our trip would not have been the same without their help. You can visit their website at http://maggiorediscovery.com/.  Tell Fabri we recommended them!

A votre sante!

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