By Jean and Peter Richards
A short driving trip meant to fill time and gaps in our travels in Italy turned into three memorable weeks along the Po Valley and into The Lake District just as it awakened in April.
The prospectively “dumpy” third level city was so inviting we wanted to stay for weeks.
The summer resort was magnificent in a cold, wind-driven spring rain.
The food, glorious food, was produced with care, prepared with understanding and devoured with delight.
We were so comfortable in Modena where we began that we hated to leave the Castello, a charming hotel at the edge of town, and were completely taken by the city’s beautiful Romanesque duomo which we happened upon during a Sunday evening service which brought it aliveIt was lovely time to see the flowering of Italy. The weather was fine. The air was perfumed with the scents of Spring. Azalea and rhododendron bloomed in a profusion of color. The people were still amongst the friendliest in Europe – ready with a smile and eager to help.
We’ll never remember all the details of an education in balsamic vinegar at the hands of the Pedroni family in Nonantola, but we shan’t soon forget the lunch in their Osteria Rubbiara after a tour on which we were joined by a rabbi from New Jersey on her way to Lake Como with a cabaret singer friend to officiate at a wedding. Lunch was interesting and fun, but not as tasty as the pumpkin ravioli drizzled in aged balsamico that we had the night before at a simple trattoria, Grama, in Modena. This was the great traditional cooking of Emilia Romagna: an antipasto of meats, a polenta with a perfect ragu and the ravioli, all shared.
Even lesser known towns are becoming pedestrianized in their centers, some with better results than others. Access to Mantua’s Renaissance center is but a few minutes pleasant walk from parking just outside the walls. In other places it is not unusual to have a kilometer walk in from peripheral parking and most unusual to find underground parking at the historic center as we did in musical Cremona.
The Museum of the Violin has Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati examples and a wooden pod in which sit back and listen to their pure sounds. The ancient, compact and comfortable city state boasts a rare Romanesque baptistry in brick and an important white marble church. It also honors edible traditions by making mostarda and crunchy torrone. Part of the pleasure of buying them at Formaggi d’Italia at 32 via Boccaccino was talking with the man and woman behind the counter whose enthusiasm for their products had not ebbed with the decades. We bought the mostarda in a colorful tin not just for the contents but for the memory.
We didn’t expect much of places like Brescia or Bergamo and weren’t much disappointed by Brescia. We found it a little shabby but with a very good trattoria. At GA Porteri, the local specialty was minestra sporca, a flavorful chicken broth with minced liver. The sweetbreads were softly grilled to perfection. Sadly, graffiti has found its way into Brescia and so many other places where the selfish leave their mark on the culture by vandalizing their way to a canvas.
Ancient, Celtic bifurcated Bergamo, on the other hand, was a wonderful surprise. The Medieval upper town has the important Piazza Vecchia, the oldest town hall in Italy, the Colleoni marble chapel which is a riot of style so bizarre that it works, and a tower with a spectacular view.
The modern lower town has broad avenues and the Pinacoteca dell Academia Carrara, a fine art museum with penetrating 16th century portraits by Giovanni Battista Moroni. The pleasantly rustic Taverna Valtellinese is an old-fashioned family place a ten minute walk from the comfortable Mercure Palazzo Dolcino. No one seemed to object to the little boy riding his scooter around the dining room or the couple sharing dessert with their dog. No one seemed to object to the food either which included an extensive antipasto of venison, fromage frais, exquisite lardo and a variety of charcuterie. A perfectly al dente mushroom risotto, rognons and polenta and a sampling of tarts completed the feast. With drinks, dinner came to 28€ a person. The tagliatelli with black edged white truffle of summer (tartuffo nero) the following night was pure bliss.
Hints of vistas to come rose with the Alps just outside Bergamo along the way to Bellagio winding through sleepy hamlets alongside the sparkling expanse of Lake Como.
When a summer resort is beckoning on a cold, rainy, windy early spring day, it has to have something special, and Bellagio does – a unique lakeside setting, appealing architecture, sprawling gardens, the Rockefeller Foundation at Villa Serbelloni as a cultural anchor, friendly people, good restaurants and fine hotels. Seldom have we been welcomed as well as at the Hotel Belvedere above town. This century-old hostelry still run by family wears its luxury with comfortable familiarity and treats its guests with genuine sincerity.
When night fell, wind rose driving the rain into our pores as we walked downhill to the cliffside pedestrianized town and got a hint of just what it is like in winter when much closes down. Even gloomy weather couldn’t dim the luster of Bellagio’s softly lit pale yellow hues or the vivacity emanating from the Trattoria San Giacomo atop the steps of Salita Serbelloni.
We awoke to see snow-capped mountains beyond a sun-dappled lake and spent much of the day strolling the waterside slopes of the Melzi Gardens where the azaleas and rhododendrons were near peak. At the far end, through the gate into Di Loppia Bellagio, the Ristorante Darsene was a good choice for lunch. Spaghetti carbonara, gnocchi with mushrooms and a plate of sweetbreads fueled us for the walk back through the garden and around the rusting Venetian gondola said to be transported to the lakefront for Napoleon’s pleasure.
We had a sturdier craft for excursions across the lake on another day after we were taxed to our aging limits by the cliffside steps and a walk to the promontory at the tip of Bellagio. The view of the confluence of Como’s spurs and the freshness of frito misto at Ristoranti al Ponto made it all worth it.
Within 24 hours, it seemed, Bellagio had come to life. Enough tourists filled the port to convince us how fortunate we were to get there just ahead of the onslaught.
Holidays, religious and other, were giving the start of the season a push when we reached the Grand Hotel Des Isles Borromées in Stresa. The evening promenade along Lake Maggiore had a festive air. By week’s end the influx of guests overwhelmed the breakfast staff in the dining room.
“Resorts” have figured little in our travel vocabulary. Where Bellagio was just simply quiet and beautiful in our three day stay, Stresa was what we imagined a Lake District resort to be – stunning views, boat trips to relatively uninteresting little islands, souvenir shops with imported tat and tour groups galore. Still, we enjoyed it for the bright tulip beds, flowering trees and well-tended spaces of the gardens of Villa Taranto at Verbania; for the tourist watching at Isola Bella after we skipped the palace interior and sat on its walls, and for the ferry rides on Lago Maggiore.
The 14th century monastery of Certosa di Pavia in an isolated area northeast of Turin was far more interesting. “Elaborate and richly detailed” are Michelin understatements of description for the facade of the church at this Carthusian monastery.
It is a marvel in marble surrounded by a complex in brick incorporating cloisters, cells, corners of commerce, curatives, gardens and a gallery. The cash piling up in his hand at the end was a sign that the monk must have given a worthwhile tour even if we couldn’t understand him. His ecclesiastical colleague did brisk business in the shop selling very reasonably priced potions, remedies and sweets.
Our appetite was for Eataly – the food center of global inspiration in Turin about to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Markets of any kind are a passion for us – a guide to the colors, economic conditions and culinary traditions of a culture; a chance to learn while you eat. The original Eataly in Torino offers an incredible, edible tour and a very good lunch.
Peter suggested a stop in Cuneo for a night or two just because we were reluctant to leave Italy. My reaction: “We’ve had such a fabulous trip, why make the last memory of it a dumpy little city?” – a judgment made on the basis of guides where “faded, not much to delay the sightseer,” and “worthwhile only for its annual cheese festival” in November were bandied about.
Nearly a week later, we were reluctant to leave not just Italy or the Piedmont but Cuneo itself.
© 2017 by Jean & Peter Richards
Please see accompanying article on Cuneo below