November 2015: Candle festival in Abruzzo, Toulouse-Lautrec in Pisa, a weekend in the Valtellina

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Welcome to the November edition of the Hidden Italy newsletter.  This month includes: a Candle festival in Abruzzo, Toulouse-Lautrec in Pisa, an elegant restaurant in a prison in Milan and wonderful autumnal weekend in the Valtellina, a spectacular valley north of Lake Come – I hope you enjoy it!

Hidden Italy in November 15

Hidden Italy in November 15

There was a big rush on the 2016 guided tours, all pretty much booked up now although there are still places on the September tour to Venice and the Italian Lakes, lead by my good friend Carmelina (2 to 14 September 2016).

We now have an Instagram account (#hiddenitalywalkingtours) to go along with our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/hidden.italy.walking.tours).  Follow us for a little vicarious Italian travel experience!

Events in Italy in November

Events in Italy in November

Festival of the Candles, Candelara, Pesaro-Urbino, until 13 December (www.candelara.com).  Candelara is a pretty little village 7 kms above Pesaro on the Adriatic Coast.  True to its name, each year a festival dedicated to candles are celebrated with markets and music and all things wax.  The highlight is when the village is blacked out twice on Saturdays and Sundays, the lanes and squares only illuminated by thousands of candles.

Museum of the Frescoes, Convent of San Francesco, Verona (www.museodegliaffreschi.comune.verona.it).  In the Middle Ages, the rich palazzi, churches and convents that lined the streets and squares of prosperous Verona were completely covered in frescoes.  Changing fashions and time means that most of these have gone (although are still in placea round Piazza delle Erbe).  Many fine examples that have been preserved are now on display in the recently restored Cavalcaselle Fresco Museum, starting from 10th century.

InGalera, Casa di Reclusione, Milano-Bollate (www.ingalera.it).  The first restaurant in a jail has recently opened in Milano.  The idea came from the ABC Cooperative and is part of a rehabilitation project.  Under guidance of a professional chef and maître d’, 9 prisoners work in the kitchen and restaurant producing very fine and innovative dishes and reasonable prices, including pumpkin gnocchi, pappardelle with chestnuts and sea bass with a green crust and eggplant and majoram – yum!

Exhibitions in Italy in November

Exhibitions in Italy in November

De Chirico a Ferrara, Metaphysics and the Avant guard,  Palazzo dei Daimanti, Ferrara, until 28 February (www.palazzodaimanti.it).  Giorgio de Chirico spent four years in the charming city of Ferrara (a short drive from Bologna) creating what became known as ‘Metafisica’, one of the most influential movements of Italian art in the 20th century, his eery images of the city playing a crucial role in the development of Dadaism and Surrealism.  This important exhibition includes over 80 works, including many by contmeporaries influenced by his work:  Carra, Morandi, Magreitte, Dali and Ernst.

Toulouse-Lautrec: Light and Shadow of Montmartre, Palazzo Blu, Pisa, until 14 February (www.palazzoblu.org).  The colours of a generation and a style of life.  Better than anyone else, Henri Toulouse Lautrec captured in his work the atmosphere pf Paris at the end of the 19th century, one of the great moments in modern art.  Paintings, drawings, sketches and the complete collection of his celebrated posters tell the story of this extraordinary adventure.

Benozzo Gozzoli, The Medonna of the Belt, St Francis, Montefalco, until 30 December (www.museodimontefalco.it).  After 167 years, the magnificent ‘Madonna of the Belt, a tempera and gold altar panel painted by the Umbrian in 1450, returns to its home – the lovely hilltop town of Montefalco.

Hidden Italy October weekend: Valtellina, between Italy and Switzerland

Hidden Italy October weekend: Valtellina, between Italy and Switzerland

The Valtellina is a long narrow valley that runs east into the Alps from the northern tip of Lake Como, with the Swiss on the north side and the Italian Alps to the south.  Since Roman times, the Valtellina has been a gateway to the colour and life of the Mediterranean world for the traders, pilgrims and armies crossing the mountains from northern Europe.

Over millennia, the steep rocky slopes of the Valtellina have been tilled and shaped, the industrious inhabitants creating over two and a half thousand kilometres of dry-stone wall terracing, which are still meticulously maintained.  With its pebbly clay soils and abundant sun, particularly on the northern slope, vineyards have thrived in this valley for centuries. 

The Valtellina is also the home of other delicacies: bresaola (air-dried beef); some of northern Italy’s finest cheeses (including Casera and Bitto, only made from cows’ milk produced in the summer alpine pastures, aged from two months to ten years) and its most celebrated product is pizzocheri, strips of buckwheat pasta, usually cooked as a robust one pot meal with butter and abundant cheese.

With fine walking and cycling along historic trails with spectacualr views, there are many good reasons to visit the Valtellina, particularly in October/November when it is harvest time, the mushrooms are sprouting and the spectacular autumn colours are out.

How to get there:

Car:  Take the A9 autostrada from Milan to Como and then the Strada Statale #36 from Como up the eastern side of Lake Como to Corico then hang a right on the Strada Statale #38 into the valley.  Train:  Regular trains run from Milan Cadorna station to Lecco-Colico-Sondrio-Tirano.  Plane:  The nearest airports are Bergamo-Orio (120 kms) and Milano Linate (140 kms).

Where to stay:

Wine Hotel Retici Balzi, Poggindenti, Via Panoramica 2.  The brainchild of Armando Lanzetti, this elegant 4-star hotel is nestle in the middle of a vineyard.  Each room of this elegant 4-star hotel is named after a local grape, with a large image of the area where it is produced and has beautiful views of the vines.  Doubles from 110 euro.

Hotel Vittoria, Sondrio, Via Bernina 1.  This modern 4-star hotel in the ‘capital’ of the valley is surrounded by parklands and has 38 rooms.  In summer the hotel organises walking excursions into the surrounding mountains and national parks.  Doubles from 118 euro.

B&B Contrada Beltramelli, Villa di Tirano, Via Beltramelli, 41.  This beautiful hotel was created with the restoration of a complete farming hamlet.  It has a celebrated restaurant which specialises in traditional Valtellina cuisine.  Double from 80 euro.

B&B Palazzo Lambertenghi, Tirano, Via Ligari.  Possibly the pick of the places to stay in the valley, this very special hotel is set in a restored aristocratic 15th century tower house in the centre of Tirano, the most interesting town in the valley.  It is part of the Italian Historic Hotels association and is also a museum.

Where to eat:

Vineria Tirano, Tirano, Via XX Settembre 25.  A relaxed restaurant offering traditional dishes with a twist of innovation served in a beautiful courtyard in the centre of Tirano, eg fritelle tiranesi (buckwheat pancakes) with cheese, gnocchi with blueberries, sage and butter; beef braised in the traditional style.  Around 40 euro per person.

Osteria Roncaiola, Tirano, Via S Stefano 2.  In the shadow of the charming little church of St Stefano, this old-style inn offers a ‘Valtellina smugglers’ menu’, including local specialities such as sciatt (round crispy fritters that hide a tasty melted cheese heart); pizzoccheri and scallopine.  From 21 euro per person.

Ristorante Combolo, Teglio, Via Roma 5.  This small village claims to be the home of pizzoccheri the local buckwheat pasta (the restaurant is part of the ‘Academy of Pizzoccheri’), so there is only one reason to come here.  From 18 euro per person.

La Presef, Mantello, Via Lungo Adda 12.  Apart of the Fattoria La Fiorida, this Michelin-starred restaurant is probably the finest in the valley.  Part of a large estate, its inventive interpretation of traditional cuisine is based on rigorously local ingredients.  Chef Gianni Tarabini creates a new menu each month (although there is always a place for the suckling pig).  A six menu costs 75 euro per person, wine excluded.

What to do:

Friday:

Check into your hotel and have dinner.

Saturday morning:

Visit the vineyards.  To get a bit of context it is probably best to start your explorations of the valley’s vineyards at Teglio, first visiting the 15th century Palazzo Besta, with its 16th century frescoes.  From here you drive to the nearby village of Chiuro, home of two the most important vineyards in the area:  Nino Negri (founded in 1897) which is based in a 15th century castle.  It’s most celebrated wine if the 5 Stelle Sfursat but it has a wide range of other wines to try.  Close by is Balgera (1885), which specialises in aged wines.  Its had beautiful stone cellars and tasting rooms.  It’s flag ship wine is a Valtellina Superiore ‘Il Fondatore’ dedicated to the company’s founder Pietro Balgera.

Saturday afternoon:

Time for lunch in Tirano, the most interesting town in the valley.  Only two kilometres south of the Swiss border it has a long rich history as a staging point for much of the traffic that passed through the valley in centuries past.  It is also the starting point of the famous ‘Trenino Rosso del Bernina’, a small 100 year-old cog-wheeled train that links the Valtellina with St Moritz (see Sunday’s activities below for details).

Apart from the charming lanes of the historic centre, also worth visiting in Tirano is the 17th century Palazza Salis, a sumptuous historic residence of over 6000 sq mts, with extensive frescoes and a hidden garden and the Palazzo Lamberghetti both an historic hotel and a national museum, rich with antiques and period furnishings.  A short drive from Tirano is the Madonna di Tirano, a beautiful Renaissance sanctuary that reflects its Venetian history (the Valtellina was critical to Venietian trade for several centuries).

To finish the day, head for Bianzone and the Tenuta La Gatta vineyards.  Based in a 16th century convent.  Apart from its fine wines the vineyard also has spectacular views, sitting high above the valley and there is beautiful trail that weaves through the terraces with breath-taking of the mountains and valleys.

Sunday:

There are three good options for Sunday, depending on how energetic you are feeling!

Option 1, touring:

A bit of touring, starting with a stroll through Sondrio, the ‘capital’ of the Valtellina.  A large modern town, Sondrio still preserves many traces of its past as an important commercial crossroads.  In the historical centre, Piazza Garibaldi acts as a link between the old town and the modern town.  It is lined with the Pedretti Theatre (1820) and the cloisters of St Gervasio and Protassio, with paintings by Pietro Ligari, the most important artist of the valley.  It’s also worth climbing up the narrow Via Scarpatetti, a twisting lane that takes you up to the 11th century Masegra Castle and the Colombaia Tower, with its 16th century frescoes and stunning views.

From here head south down the valley to Mantello to visit La Fiorida, a large farming estate, which includes two restaurants (including the Michelin-starred La Presef), a wellness centre and shop selling the farms produce.  Every Sunday a “zero-kilometre menu” based rigorously on the farm’s produce is served in the Nestrelli Salon.  On Sundays they also offer a guided tour of the farm, including the stalls, the milking sheds and cheese production.  You could finish things off with a visit to their wellness centre, with its hydromassages, Turkish baths, sauna and ‘aromatic showers’.

Option 2, cycling and hiking:

The ‘Via dei Terrazzamenti’ is a 70 kilometre trail that weaves high through the terraces and vineyards of the northern (sunny) side of the valley.  It is possible to hire both traditional and electric bikes from Valtellina Rent a Bike in Tirano.  An easy loop is to climb up to Villa a Tirano and Bianzone and then drop back down to the valley picking up the Sentiero Valtellina and follow the Adda River back into Tirano, which takes an hour or so (cycling) and between 3 and 4 hours walking), covering 15 kms.

Alternatively, if you’re feeling really energetic, get up early and take the Trenino Rosso from Tirano up into Switzerland to the charming little town of Poschiavo (1014 mts).  From here pick up the historic stone walking trail that takes you up to the Bernina Pass (2328 mts).  This marvellous medieval trading path is well sign-posted and marked (we are in Switzerland after all) and takes around 6 hours.  From the pass you can catch the train back down to Tirano.  If you are really keen, you could overnight at the pass (Hotel Ospizio Bernina) and then continue along the path down to Pontresino and on to St Moritz, ‘capital’ of the Engadine.  Walking notes and maps are available from the tourist office in Tirano.

Option 3, training:

The Trenino Rosso is one of the most famous and spectacular train rides in the Alps.  It starts in Tirano and finishes in St Moritz in Switzerland, a long but fabulous day trip.  The trip on the Bernina Express through this World Heritage Site crosses 196 bridges, goes through 55 tunnels and across the Bernina Pass at 2,253 metres above sea.  It takes a little over two hours each way (details on www.sbb.ch) so the round trip can be comfortably done in a day with plenty of time to explore St Moritz.

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March 2017: Slow Food, Easter, Manet and a weekend in 'Campania Felix'

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