December 2019: an underwater gallery and a weekend in Italy's wildest national parkFriday, 15 November 2019
Exhibitions in December:
Casa dei Pesci (Home of the Fish), Talamone (Tuscany), www.casadeipesci.it. This fabulous creation was the idea of Paolo Fanciulli, a Tuscan fisherman, who dreamed of creating a fish sanctuary. He raised funds to place bollards underwater to provide a safe environment for the fish to breed. His genius was to make the bollards out of raw blocks of Carrara marble and have Italian and international sculptors convert these into works of art (including a ten-tonne head carved by Emily Young) before submerging them. There 24 works in place and funding is being raised to bring this to 100 creating a vast underwater gallery… get your goggles on! This is why I LOVE Italy!
The Life and Times of Giacometti, from Chagall to Kandinsky, Palazzo della Gran Guardia, Verona, until 5 April, https://www.cittadiverona.it/eventi/il-tempo-di-giacometti-da-chagall-a-kandinsky-in-mostra-al-palazzo-della-gran-guardia/ Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti is one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century. This wonderful exhibition presents seventy pieces by the master as well as works by his friends and contemporaries including Miro, Chagall, Braque and Leger.
Peggy Guggenhiem, the Last Dogaressa, Guggenheim Collection, Palazzo Venier (Venice), until 27 January, www.guggenheim-venice.it. With this exhibition, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection celebrates the Venetian life of its founder, highlighting the events and the exhibitions that marked the thirty years she spent in Venice, from 1948 to 1979. The exhibition focuses on Guggenheim’s collecting after 1948, once she moved to Venice. More than sixty paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by Rene Magritte, Francis Bacon and Marcel Duchamp among others.
Events in December:
Christmas Markets in the South Tyrol, until 6 January, www.christmas-markets.it. Once part of Austria, the South Tyrol (known as the Alto Adige in Italian) which incorporates the Dolomites mountains, celebrates its German tradition with its wonderful Christmas markets. Bolzano, Bresanone, Brunico, Merano and Vipiteno are the largest centres but the markets are sread throughout the regions. My pick would be the charming little town of Sarentino, the ‘capital’ of a quiet, impossibly picturesque valley only a 20 winding kilometres above Bolzano.
The Medici Game: Murder at the Pitti Palace, www.themedicigame.com. The first video set in the world of the Medici in Florence. The protagonist, a young art historian, gets involved investigating a murder case. The solution is found in the rooms and art works of one of Florence’s finest museums – the perfect Xmas present! Another reason to love Italy.
Festival of Santa Lucia, Ortigia (Syracuse), from 13 to 20 December, www.italyscapes.com/events/sicily/syracuse/religious-events/festa-di-santa-lucia-2019/ Ortigia, the ancient centre of Syracuse, is a small island that it linked to the mainland by a thin isthmus. It has been inhabited since Greek times and comes alive, in a truly Sicilian way, on Friday 13 December when the statue of Santa Lucia starts her peregrination across the isthmus to Santa Lucia al Sepolcro accompanied by most of the town’s population, fairy-lights, sixty men in costume, fireworks, boat sirens, thus beginning a week of celebration of the city’s patron saint.
Hidden Italy weekend: Val Grande - Italy’s wildest national park
Although only twenty kilometres up a twisting road from the fleshpots of Stresa and Lake Maggiore, the Val Grande National Park is the ‘wildest’ national park in Italy, and is also the largest wilderness in the European Alps: fifteen thousand hectares of pristine nature, rows of jagged ranges cloaked in beech and chestnut forests with deep ravines cut by roaring streams fed by Alpine snow and glaciers, with views of the lake to the south and the mountains to the north.
Cicogna on the eastern border of the national park is the only village inside the park’s borders. Although there is evidence of people l traversing the area in prehistoric times, the valleys weren’t settled until the 13th century, when shepherds, stone-quarriers and timber cutters started to eke out a living here. The Val Grande has been virtually uninhabited since 1944, when, between June and October, when over five thousand German troops swept through the valleys killing hunting down over five hundred partisans who had been holed up here, destroying villages and farmhouses along the way. The absence of humans in the park did have a positive side: wildlife has proliferated. Most numerous is the chamois, and peregrine falcons and golden eagles can be spotted. Wolves are also believed to be present, although seeing one is unlikely.
Covered with snow now, in the warmer months between April and November, the Val Grande National Park is a hikers’ paradise: the deep valleys covered in oak and beech forests are crossed by marked trails that have been used since prehistoric times and offer majestic locations and views. The walk we suggest below is a medium difficulty loop walk starting and finishing in Cicogna. It is 8.5 kilometres long and has an accumulated climb of 650 metres. It passes through forests and clearings and is marked with red and white way-markers. Maps and information are available on the Park website, as is a list of authorised park guides (details below).
How to get to Cicogna:
By car: Take the A26 autostrada from Genoa to Gravellona, taking the Baveno exit. From here head for Verbania and then take the turn-off in the direction of Cossogno. Once you have passed through Bieno, take the turn-off for Santino, Rovegno and Cicogna. By train: The closest train station is Verbano-Pallanza on the Milan – Domodossola line. From here you’ll have to take a taxi (there is a rank at the exit to the station).
Where to stay:
You could use one of the charming agriturismo’s or B&B’s around Cicogna as a base to explore the park or easily fit a hike in the park as a day trip from one of towns on the shores of Lake Maggiore - quiet Pallanza would make a good base on the lake.
B&B Ca’ del Pitur (Via Pozzolo 1, Cicogna). Situated in the house where a celebrated local painter, Giovanni Benzi (1861 to 1943) was born, this charming B&B has two rooms, both with private bathrooms. Double with breakfast from 60 euro.
B&B Ca’ del Preu (Via Fontana del Bosco 3, Localita Colloro). In a lovely village on the western edge of the national park, this B&B is based in an ancient rectory. The owners are registered guides and are able to provide information and advice on how to explore the park. Doubles with breakfast from 50 euro.
Azienda Agrituristica Il Monterosso (Localita Cima Monterosso, Verbania-Pallanza). You arrive at this classy agriturismo along a winding forest road, that finishes on the top of a hill with breathtaking views over Lake Maggiore. It has a very good restaurant that specialises in both lake and mountain dishes. Double rooms with breakfasts include 60 euro.
Hotel Pallanza (Viale Magnolie 8). An excellent 4-star hotel opened in the early 1900s, the Pallanza is on the waterfront Lake Maggiore a short walk from the ferry wharf. The rooms are light and airy and the staff cheerful and efficient. Doubles from 150 euro breakfast included.
Where to eat:
Corte Merina (Localita Merina, Cicogna). An agriturismo in a splendid historic farmhouse, which specialises in goats’ cheese production. It has an excellent restaurant using their own produce: home-grown vegetables, forwst mushrooms, salami, cheeses and meats. It also has very comfortable rooms. Dinner around 20 euro person. Double rooms from 50 euro.
La Batua (Via Pastore 7, Localita Alpe Segletta, Aurano). A modern structure in a beautiful setting high on a hill, this restaurant specialises in mountain food, including grilled meats and polenta (only open on the weekends in autumn and winter). Dinner from 20 euro per person.
Circolo Arci Felice Cavallotti (Piazza Mugnana, Cicogna). Founded in 1900, this welcoming, community club offers traditional classics: polenta with beef or game stews, ricotta gnocchi or served with wild herbs. Dinner from 15 euro per person.
What to do:
On your way to Cicogna, stop and have a poke around Cossogno. This small mountain town is the administrative centre for the area. It’s single church which has an attractive 17th century oratory. There is also a Roman bridge crossing the San Bernadino Torrent, as well as an historic watermill. Drive on to Cicogna for dinner and an early night.
Explore the Val Grande National Park. The national park website (it Italian and English) has detailed information on the park, including maps and itineraries. The numerous walks are categorised in levels of difficulty: nature walks, itineraries and traverses. There are details of official registered guides who can accompany you on the more challenging routes, including my friend and colleague Diletta Zanella (email@example.com).
The loop walk we are proposing takes you north up the Pogallo Valley and back via a higher route. You should allow around six hours, including breaks, to complete the walk. Make sure you have appropriate clothes and equipment, as well as water, food and snacks (with notice, your accommodation will be able to prepare this for you). Before leaving, let your host know you are heading out on the walk and what time you expect to be back.
Set out from Cicogna (732 metres asl) and head north on the marked trail that takes you into the Pogallo Valley. The trail dips and climbs along the valley running parallel to the Pogallo stream. It crosses several tributary valleys and streams using suspended bridges until it arrives at the open pastures of Pogallo, half-way along your walk (777 metres asl). Here there are the ruins of small hydroelectricity generator in the late 1800s (the power was fed down by cables to Lake Maggiore).
From here you head south, around behind the Pogallo Valley, passing through beech forests climbing up to more high pastures at Alpe Caslu (913 metres asl) where you come to a small chapel. It is another short climb up to the Alpe Leciari, the highest point of the walk (1311 metres asl). After enjoying the view, you descend to the Alpe Pra (1223 metres asl) where you’ll find a small unmanned ‘rifugio’ (mountain hut) which belongs to the National Alpine Association. If you are really keen, it is possible to book this and stay overnight here (details on the National Park website). Otherwise, it’s a great spot for lunch.
It is an hour walk downhill from here to Cicogna. On the way you pass one of the most interesting points in the area – a series of standing stones that have prehistoric carvings on them (archaeologists speculate that this could have had religious significance). There are information panels to help you find and understand them). From here you follow the trail through chestnut forests to Cicogna.
For a change of pace drive down the mountain to visit Pallazana, a lovely resort on the shores of Lake Maggiore, which looks south across the bay to the far busier town of Stresa. The main through road bypasses Pallzana, leaving it a very quiet and pleasant town to pass some time. Well connected by ferries, Pallzana is also a good base from which to explore the better parts of Lake Como including Stresa and the Borromeo Islands)
Pallanza’s pleasant pedestrian waterfront centres around the elegant Piazza Garibaldi, which is flanked by terrace cafes and restaurants. Pallanza’s real treasure is the gardens of Villa Taranto. Built in 1875, it was bought by a Scottish industrialist in 1931. Over the decades, Captain McEachern landscaped and cultivated the grounds of the villa, planting seeds gathered from around the world and establishing an extraordinarily rich and varied botanical garden.
There are seven kilometres of paths winding through these beautiful grounds, taking you past the delightful Fontana dei Putti (cherub fountain) to the dahlia gardens and the greenhouses. Further around is the Valletta, a little valley created in 1935, with an arched bridge and set of terraced gardens with a field of lotus.
There is a pleasant terrace café/restaurant at the entrance to the Villa Taranto. Otherwise, for a memorable lunch, you could lash out and dine at the Ristorante Milano (Corso Zanitella 2), wihhc has a quiet and very romantic setting overlooking the old harbour. Lunch will come in at around 70 euro per person. You can enjoy a simpler, traditional meal at the Locanda degli Antichi Sapori (Via Sassell1) which has daily specials on a chalk board.
In the afternoon you could jump on a ferry and enjoy a cruise around one of the Alps most beguiling lakes before the short drive back up into the mountains to the peace and quiet of Cicogna.