February 2021: Milan Fashion Week, Food and Art at the Uffizi + a weekend in a remote Alpine valley

Monday, 15 February 2021

Events in Italy in February:

Events in Italy in February:

The Milan International Fashion Week; from 23 February to 1 March; www.cameramoda.it/en/milano-moda-donna/  Beginning February 3rd 2021, the Milan International Fashion Week will host its annual catwalk that brings together top local and international designer names for the most prestigious fashion show of the year.

The Truffle Hunters; a movie directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eg7QTqm_i4o&feature=youtu.be.   Part of the Cannes Film Festival selection, The Truffle Hunters is a film that follows a group of determined elderly truffle-hunting men alongside their beloved truffle-hunting dogs through the forest as they hunt for the rare and expensive white Alba truffle.  Crossing the picturesque countryside, the hunters discuss the simple pleasures of working in the wild, their hunting competition and the gradual effects of climate change.

The Eight Mountains, Paolo Cognetti; www.penguin.com.au/books/the-eight-mountains-9781784707064.  Another way of biding my time before I can return to Italy is to re-read some of my favourite books, including this marvellous Le Otto Montagne or The Eight Mountains first published in 2016.  It is a story of relationships, not just between people, but also with the mountains around the village of Grana, a fictional hamlet in the mountain of Val d’Aosta.  Much like his characters, Paolo Cognetti divides his time between Milan and a cabin in the hills, and The Eight Mountains takes on the quality of a memoir.  Pietro, the narrator, spent his childhood summers in Grana, and then returns as an adult to work out not just what his father and oldest friend meant to him, but also how the landscape has affected his life and friendships.  Cognetti captures the elation and melancholy that comes with reaching a spectacular summit, only to realise the minuscule part we play in the panorama of life.

Hidden Italy weekend: Valle Scalve and the 'Evil Trail'

Hidden Italy weekend: Valle Scalve and the 'Evil Trail'

Carved out by the Dezzo Torrent, the narrow Valle di Scalve (in the Alps between Bergamo and Brescia in northern Lombardy) winds its way between snow-covered fir forests, precipitous cliffs and frozen waterfalls.  It is a fairy-tale world that can be discovered snowshoeing along the ancient trail of the Via Mala.

The Valle di Scalve is a deep valley that branches off the Valle Camonica, sixty kilometres north-east of Bergamo, above Lago di Iseo.  Near the head of the valley is the tiny town of Vilminore (Vicus Minore in Latin), an iron mining town that dates from Roman times (mining continued until the 1970s).  The Via Mala was cut into the gorges and cliffs to get the ore out here and down to Valle Camonica and then on to Brescia.  It gets its creepy name (the Evil Way) because the challenges it presented to the miners and travellers getting in and out of the valley.

Today, there is a modern alternative, still slow and tortuous asphalt road, but some of the more impressive sections of the original Via Mala have been preserved and recently restored, adding a degree of safety but not losing the drama and spectacle of the original medieval pathway.  Although it is possible to walk the Via Mala in the warmer months, the trail is at its most spectacular in the winter, when the forests and cliffs are covered with snow and the waterfalls and streams are frozen forming endless icy stalagmites.  Although quite it is quite short, snowshoeing or walking the Via Mala is the prefect introduction to one of the remotest valleys in the central Alps.

How to get there:

By car:  Valle Scalve is sixty kilometres north-east of Bergamo.  To drive there take the A4 autostrada that connects Milan and Venice, taking the Seriate exit.  Drive up the strada statale 42 to Darfo Boario Terme (thermal springs) and then take the strada provincial 294 on the left, which will take you into the Valle Scalve.  By train: take the train to Bergamo (on the Milan – Brescia line) and then take the the bus S70a to Castione della Presolana (around to 2 hours) and then on to Vilminore and Schilpario, at the very end of the valley (around 2.5 to 3 hours): www.bergamotrasporti.it).  By air:  Bergamo-Orio al Serio is the closest airport, 50 kilometres away.

Where to stay:

Grand Hotel Presolana (Via Santuario 35, Castione della Presolana).  Surrounded by pine forests, this 4-star hotel is situated on the pass the connects the Valle Scalve with the Valle Seriana.  It has 104 rooms and suites in classic style and an excellent restaurant.  Doubles with breakfast from 130 euro.

Alpen Chalet (Via Seta 1d, Schilpario).  Owned and operated by the Pizio family since 1978, this welcoming 3-star hotel cosy rooms with panoramic views in tradition Alpine style.  They also have skiing and snowshoeing guides and a very good restaurant.  Double with breakfast from 120 euro.

Hotel San Marco (Pradella Locality, Schilpario).  Sitting in a strategic position to access walking trails, ski fields and an ice-skating rink, this 3-star hotel has 18 comfortable rooms, an old-school restaurant and a small mineral and crystal museum.  Doubles with breakfast from 80 euro.

Where to eat:

Cascina Calpa (Via Calpa, Castione della Presolana).  This rustic alpine chalet has a spectacular setting surrounded by mountains as well as cute collection of farmyard animals.  It serves traditional cooking centred around local cheeses and salamis, pasta such pizzoccheri (dark buckwheat pasta usually served with melted cheese and potato); a type of local ravioli filled with ground pork and herbs; and, of course, polenta.  Around 30 euro per person.

Hotel Alpine Ristorante (Via Cantoniera 7, Passo della Presolana).  This restaurant at the top of the mountain pass offers both traditional local dishes and classic mainstream ‘Italian’ dishes.  It also has comfortable accommodation.  Half-board per person from 90 euro.  Just dinner, around 30 euro per person.

Rifugio Cima Bianca (Via Carbonera, Colere).  This comfortable mountain lodge is located at an altitude of 2100 mts asl, sitting between Mt Presolana and Mt Ferrante, a short distant from the top of the chairlift.  It is built in classic alpine style (lots of timber and geraniums) and offers traditional fare.  Dinner around 25 euro per person.  Acoomoodation with breakfast from 45 euro.

Saturday in Valle Scalve

Saturday in Valle Scalve

Saturday:  Go snowshoeing

Walking the short but exceptional section of the Via Mala does not require skis or snowshoes.  The safety of the route has recently been enhanced but given the often icy surface, a good pair of hiking boots (and walking poles are recommended).

The start of the Via Mala is on the strada proviciale 294, the road that runs the length of the valley, between Colere and Vilminore.  It is clearly signposted.  From the carpark walk around a boom-gate and head into the gorge.  The road dates from the high Medieval era (1000 to 1250) and was used to carry ores out of the valley to the smelters in Valle Camonica.  It was enlarged in the 18th century.

The road was cut into the side of near vertical cliffs.  Once through the boom-gate, you pass through a section covered against ski and falling rocks and proceed along the straight and narrow with spectacular views one hundred metres down into the gorge.  Being so narrow and closed to the sun, heavy snowfall and frozen ice stay long in the gorge, creating a marvellous fairy tale effect, with snow laden pine trees and frozen waterfalls, the latter attracting ‘ice climbers’, who use crampons, picks and ropes to scale the most challenging forms.

This section is little more than one kilometre long and a visit takes around one hour.  Once your done, get back in your car and drive up to the Presolana Pass, which connects the Valle Scalve with Val Seriana.  Have lunch at the excellent Hotel Alpino restaurant, which specialises in local cuisine, soaking up the atmosphere and views.

This afternoon’s itinerary starts from the carpark at the pass.  It requires cross-country skis or snowshoes.  It became famous due a tragic story of love (we are in Italy, after all).  The path is known as the Sentiero del Salto degli Sposi (the Trail of the Betroths’ Leap) – you may be able to guess the scenario.  Massimiliano Prihoda was a Polish musician married to a young painter named Anna Stareat.  There are various versions of the story but either their marriage was never accepted or to render their love eternal one moon lit night in 1871, the two lovers threw themselves off a cliff.  Their bodies were found several days later at the bottom of the precipice, still in each other’s arms.

If that hasn’t discouraged you, pull on your gear and follow the sign out of the carpark.  The first stop along the trail is the Leap itself, one of the most panoramic views of the valley.  From here, on a clear day, you can see for miles across the peaks of the Bergamo Prealps, which limestone mountains that have forms remarkably similar to the Dolomites.

From here the trial takes you into Val di Scalve Regional Forest, six-hundred and thirty-one hectares of thick fir and conifer forest, which occasionally opens up to give you glimpses of the surrounding mountains and rock formations.  At the end of the forest you come to the locality Castello Orsetto, where there are some cabins were you can take a break.

From here you can retrace your steps back to the pass, the 4 kilometres round trip takes around two hours.  However, if you have a bit of time up your sleeve and if you are feeling energetic, you can extend your exploration either by the following the easy trail up to Monte Pora, with more spectacular views or, more sensibly, taking the chairlift up to the peak.

Sunday in the Valle Scalve

Sunday in the Valle Scalve

Sunday:  Option 1, skiing.

If you love skiing, Colere Ski Area 2200 (www.colereskiarea.it) offers ski runs up to seven kilometres with drops of up to 1200 metres and is one of the few ski areas in Lombardy that have downhill and Super-G accredited for international competition.

The alternative is the nearby Presolana-Monte Pora ski area (www.presolanamontepora.it) on the western slope of Mt Pora (1800 mts) has nine ski lifts and twenty ski runs.

If you prefer cross-country skiing, the best option is the Pista degli Abeti at Schilpario (www.centrofondoschilpario.it) a twelve kilometre loop, which takes you through extensive crossing numerous wooden bridges over the Dezzo.  Also in Schilpario, there is tha Palazzo del Ghiaccio, an ice-skating rink.

Sunday: Option 2, a bit of culture.

Morning:  Valle Scalve

The Valle Scalve has a very long history and its little towns have much to offer and reward a day exploring the valley.  Vilminore is the oldest town in the valley.  It was founded by the Romans who used it as base to extract mineral from the surrounding mountains, an industry which continued until the 1970s.  The mines brought a certain prosperity, which is evident when you visit the historic centre of this little gem of a town.  The church of Santa Maria Assunta and San Pietro which stands in the centre of town.  It was completed in the late 17th century by the celebrated Maestri Comacini, a dynasty of master builders from Como and contains a number of important works, including the carved portal and painting by local artists Giovani Raggi and Enrico Albrici.  The Palazzo Pretorio, the original town hall. was built in 1375 and was the seat of the Podesta, the town ruler.  Inside you can visit the 16th century prisons and the beautiful reception hall with its monumental fireplace and frescos.

The nearby town of Colere has the excellent Ecomuseo delle Miniere Zanalbert, a museum dedicated to the valleys long mining history, telling the tale of the tough life the minors endured over the centuries.  It also has an interesting mineral exhibition.  Schilpario, at the end of the valley has a lovely small parish church dedicated to St Anthony of Padova, which dates from the 13th century and beautiful series of frescos.

Afternoon:  Valle Camonica

Drive back to the start of the Valle Scalve. turn left and drive twenty-five kilometres north up the far larger Valle Camonica to the small town of Capo di Ponte.  Here you will be able to visit one of the finest prehistoric sites in the world: the Parco Nazionale delle Incisione Rupestri di Naquane.  So far some one hundred and eighty thousand rock engravings have been catalogued.  They were created by the Camuni, a remarkable Alpine civilisation and they span nearly eight thousand years, from 8000 BC until the arrival of the Romans.  One large rock alone has over nine hundred carvings from the Iron Age, figures of hunters, agricultural workers, priests, religious ceremonies, tools and weapons.

Evening:  Darfo Boario Terme

After a very active weekend, you deserve a bit of pampering.  Darfo Boario Terme is the largest town in the Valle Camonica and it is the home of an important mineral spa: Boario Terme (www.termediboario.it/en/).

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