Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Lake Maggiore to Alba to Torino-Italian Adventures II

When I was working on the rough draft of my late summer Lake Como-Piemonte trip, I flipped through a favorite guide book, Hip Hotels of Italy, for inspiration. I can't remember when or where I bought it, but through the years I've  drooled over gorgeous photographs of hip hotels, both grand and humble throughout Italy. One particular hotel always intrigued me for it's combination of antiquity and modern elegance--Hotel Pironi.  And  when I saw that it was on Lake Maggiori, I figured we could take a detour and stay there. After renting our car at the quiet train station in Como, it turned out to be an easy drive on the autostrada to Lake Maggiore through a small swatch of Switzerland. The hotel, housed in a 15th century Franciscan friary, is situated in the tiny, idyllic town of Cannobio, not far from the Swiss border.

Hotel Pironi lived up to all my expectations. It combined age-old frescoes, medieval stone columns, vaulted ceilings, contemporary lighting and charming rooms with terraces facing the lake

                                Looking out at Lake Maggiore from our terrace at Pironi

Here is the homey yet sophisticated sitting room on the second floor. I was reading here when a I heard thunder and a huge storm blew in. What better place to wait out the rain! We'd already enjoyed our terrace and eaten gelato while it was sunny.

It reminded me of the main floor at Hotel San Michele in Calabria. I'm a sucker for Italian style lounges.

                                               So many picturesque details at Hotel Pironi

lake trout covered in prosciutto  at Trattoria Cannobio

Because it was so wet outside, we chose Trattoria Cannobio, a short distance from the hotel, and canceled our reservation at the upscale Lo Scalo on the lake front. The trattoria crowd was happy and the food delicious and hearty.

Lemon semifreddo served in a lemon. Delish! Most of it was polished off when I remembered the camera. I wanted to order another, but resisted. Must have room for breakfast at our Hotel Pironi.

We left Cannobio after a beautiful breakfast. Among many tempting items on the buffet, they served a bowl of the famous local hazelnuts. I grabbed a few for the road as we headed south along the lake to Piemonte.

Soon we were in Alba. I can't remember getting there but I know we drove past  Isola Bella in the middle of Lake Maggiore. After an hour on the autostrada, we entered a whole new landscape and  then it felt like we were plunked down into the middle ages.

Is this the the 21st century or the 14th? Couldn't tell except for the car on the left

         After strolling around Alba on this cloudy afternoon we headed to Osteria del Arco for dinner

The Osteria was a stylish yet casual restaurant full of tourists and locals. Many people come to the area to enjoy the famous red wines of Barbaresco, Barolo, Alba and Asti. We found the whites to be delicious as well. There was a large party that evening so I was glad I had reserved well ahead.

            On Saturday in Barbaresco there was a sweet little market in front of the church.

       This was no ordinary chapel!  Instead of kneeling worshipers, we found eager oenophiles shopping for fine local wines. Clearly wine is Barbaresco's religion.

A typical landscape in Piedmont. There's a village perched on many hilltops

                        Tramping up the hill in Neive, we found Donna Selvatica, our lunch spot.

This was the view from our outside table at Donna Selvatica on a beautiful Saturday afternoon

           From our table on the balcony, the helpful waiter pointed out the vineyard where our wine                   was produced. How local can you get?

                           We started with a painterly vegetable antipasto served with yummy                                                        homemade bread and breadsticks.

...and finished with oregano and ginger cordials. In many restaurants in Italy the staff leaves the bottle on the table when you order limoncello or grappa after a meal. At Donna Selvatica they just brought their house-made delicacies. We also sampled moscato grappa poured over gelato. We lingered for hours on that lovely afternoon, drinking espresso, enjoying the view and hoping the alcoholic haze would wear off before we had to drive back to Alba.

On our second night in Alba we stayed outside the town at the lovely Hotel Langhe (the name of the region). After a day of eating and drinking we enjoyed the sunny park-like setting and the chilly pool.

                            Barolo on a Sunday morning. There was a fair going on so we didn't stay long

                   La Morra was our next tiny town and again we walked up steep sidewalks to the                                    paved piazza with modern statues and a spectacular view of the countryside.

On our way down the hill to the parking lot (cars aren't allowed in La Morra proper) we found a restaurant with outdoor seating and stopped for lunch. I insisted on trying the Aperol Spritz which we had seen all over Italy. It was as refreshing as it looked.

      Our gnocchi and sliced chicken salad hit the spot. From La Morra we drove to Fossano ,which
       was en route to Torino.

In Fossano we stayed at the elegant Palazzo Righini. We thought it a bit too sophisticated for the        unremarkable town.


Instead of eating in the fancy hotel restaurant, we chose Il Faro, another local pizzeria packed with      Italian families eating pizza on a Sunday evening. We loved it.

                                     Restored frescoes in the breakfast room at Palazzo Righini

               I snapped some pictures from the hotel before we left Fossano on a clear cold morning.

            We gawked at the new snow on the Alps as we tootled toward Torino to return our car.          .

This map shows the highlights of our stay in Piemonte with Alba on the right, continuing to Fossano   to the southwest and then to Torino in the north.

                                               An old cobblestone street in Torino

 We stayed in a charming B and B on Via Stampatore with other friendly Europeans. We ate breakfast with a Calligrapher and her husband from Brughes. She was teaching a lettering workshop and I checked out Joke Boudens'  impressive website when I got home. One of the pleasures of B and Bs in Europe!

           This adorable cat perched on our bedroom windowsill in the late afternoon sun.

        Dinner at Consorzio, a small bustling institution in Torino. We started with mussel soup

                                     ...and continued with sardines cooked four ways. Great!       

            After only one day in Torino we took the train to Milano to fly back home the following day.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Italian Adventures in the Lake District

What started as a trip to the Dolomites soon became a plan to revisit Lake Como, then a quick swing up to Lake Maggiore followed by a visit to Piemonte, which was only 2 hours south by car.  After detailed planning and reserving, we landed in Milan on Sunday Sept 1st. Having survived  the long flight and hour ride into Milan, we meandered to dinner and were welcomed by this magical sight only one block from our hotel.

Most restaurants are closed on Sunday night in Milan, so our hotel, The Gran Duca di York, sent us to Convivium, about four blocks away. It was a hot night, and inspired by our exciting view of the duomo we were looking forward to our first meal in Italy. Though not formal, the restaurant was elegant, the staff friendly, and the food divine. Our first course was huge stuffed squash blossoms, and the wine was served with delicious buttery flat breads.

We encountered this Roero Arneis throughout the trip

  Italians rarely offer salads on their menus, but Convivium's version with octopus and celery was  tender and refreshing.

Late summer octopus salad

buttery shrimp with leeks

I was giddy with delight when the dessert came. We were expecting a traditional lemon sorbetto with limoncello poured on top, but instead the concoction was served as a frothy blended drink. I have to duplicate this icy delight at home.

After a mere half hour train ride from Milan, we arrived at the tiny station in Varenna to start our Lake Como adventure.

We waited 5 minutes for the female cab driver to return from another delivery (there was only 1 cab) and she took us on the 3 minute ride to our magnificent hotel- Villa Cipressi. This is a view of the villa's famous gardens that descend to the lake.

Our room overlooked Lake Como and we started snapping photos immediately           

Then we crossed over sunny terraces to explore the fragrant gardens. The hotel welcomes visitors to  the gardens for a fee but hotel guests have the run of the property. We wandered the paths and balustrades and rested on benches until lunchtime.

We headed for the tiny villagio which is right outside the hotel gates and chose a restaurant for lunch-Albergo del Sole.

What better choice than prosciutto e melone and a special primo piatto of rice pilaf with shrimp and veg.

On returning to the Villa, we found the staff setting up for a large wedding on the terrace right below our room. Anticipating the disruption, Dean inquired if there was another room farther away from the party. Fortunately there was another building which turned out to be the ancient remains of the original villa built in the 15th century, which had an entrance displaying frescoes in various states of restoration.

Our room was huge, much quieter and more atmospheric, though it did require various sets of huge old keys to lock and unlock it. In the evening we were picked up near the hotel and taken up into the hills to Il Caminetto, a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves.  Though it was a scenic drive and the dining room was cozy, the food and atmosphere were slightly off and the owner was grumpy.  We decided that a Rick Steves recommendation guarantees an all American crowd. It's much more fun to take our chances and eat with other European tourists and locals who don't rely on his guides.

Il Caminetto dining room

We were greeted by this illuminated church when we returned to Varenna from our dinner in the hills. We walked back to our villa, delighted to be in Italy again!

More beauty found in Villa Cipressi's gardens

 We learned the next morning at breakfast from Australian guests that there are weddings almost every evening at Cipressi. The Villa is a victim of it's own breathtaking beauty and revelers come from all over the world to get married there. This trend has increased since George Cloony bought a villa on the lake. The wedding on our evening was Russian and though parties are supposed to disperse at 11, Italians have difficulty asking guests to leave and they tend to linger under the stars until later.

  The next morning we had a lovely breakfast on the terrace and headed to the dock to find our boat for Bellagio.

The boat ride to Bellagio took only 15 minutes and when we arrived at the bustling terminal we called our Hotel Silvio to pick us up (actually we had trouble calling and I had to seek help in a nearby hotel.) There are no cabs here. The young woman at the desk was very helpful and soon someone from Hotel Silvio came and took us the short distance to our hotel. I was lucky to have chosen one away from the touristy center and in a quiet spot on the way out of town.

Our terrace overlooking Lake Como at restful Hotel Silvio

A typical scene in hilly Bellagio

We had planned to board another boat to visit Villa Balbianello that day, but we decided to stay in Bellagio and hang out at Villa Melzi instead. As luck would have it there was a set of stairs right outside our hotel that took us down to the lake and a path that went into Melzi's grounds and on into Bellagio proper. We happily wandered around the gardens and spent hours just sitting, enjoying the lush greenery and looking out at Lake Como.

Villa Melzi in spring with a view of the path by the lake. These flowers weren't blooming in September

The villa in September when we were there

I'm trying out my new lightweight sun hat on a bridge in Villa  Melzi's gardens

Dean relaxing on a beautiful day in Bellagio

Gusti  or flavors of the day

Just outside the garden gates,  the lake path took us to busy Bellagio where we had our first gelato.  Dean had the cioccolato and nocciola combination and I had my favorite pistachio (not pictured.)  It did not disappoint.

For dinner we ate outside on the terrace of our hotel. On that beautiful warm evening it was a pleasure to dine al fresco. The restaurant specialized in  lake fish, and I chose it because the blurb in Trip Advisor promised that it was popular with locals. Both the setting and the food were exceptional.

We shared a fish sampler to start

We enjoyed local lake fish on both Lake Como and Lake Maggiore. Above is a fish we had not heard of before

I had a raspberry tart with a fork stenciled in cocoa

The next day we took the two hour slow-boat trip to Como. What a way to spend the day! That ride, which stopped at numerous small villages and passed by many more, is one of my favorite memories. And we finally got to see Villa Balbianello. Next trip we'll allow more time on this magical lake. To see what it really looks like, check out Monty Don's Italian Gardens on Netflix. The Fourth episode is called "The Lakes" and towards the middle of the episode, Monty Don traverses Lake Como by boat and spends time at Villa Melzi and Villa Carlotta right across the lake.

Photogenic Vlla Balbianello appears in films such as Star Wars and James Bond's Casino Royale. You Tube has both scenes

Another typical small village photographed from the boat

We disembarked in Como, found our hotel and then wandered into the old town to find the duomo

Another day, another duomo. Como's is especially grand

We happened on this little market in the late afternoon and bought fruit

We spotted a little restaurant in tiny Piazza Roma and knocked on the door to make a reservation for dinner. It turned out to be a winner; a family-owned restaurant with the 18 year old son and his sister in the kitchen and another son taking care of guests. The meal started with a glass of Prosecco and ended with tiramisu. Again the evening was warm enough to eat outside and to walk back along the lake to our modest Hotel Engadiner, where we had stayed years ago.

More fish, simply prepared at Piazza Roma

The next day we rented a car at the (thankfully) small Como train station and headed north through Switzerland to Lake Maggiore ....   To be continued in the next installment