Italy

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Italy.

teatro-massimo-palermo

La Monachella’s Curse Put On Teatro Massimo – Palermo

After the creation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the City Council of Palermo decided to construct a magnificent theatre, to rival the famous opera houses of Europe. After all, their city was the second largest in southern Italy, after Naples; and Naples had basked in the glory of the Teatro San Carlo since 1737. It was time, they felt, that Palermo should take her rightful place as one of the great European cities. So they held a competition for the design of the project, and settled on a plan proposed by the architect Giovan Battista Filippo Basile.

Construction did not begin until 1874. Preparing the chosen site required that four churches, two convents, and the Porta Maqueda, a historic city gate, be demolished. Perhaps public outcry over the destruction of the sacred buildings contributed to the delay; but it was said that when the Convent of the Stigmata was razed, the grave of a former Mother Superior was desecrated, and her spirit was so outraged that it placed a solemn curse on the theatre. From the laying of the cornerstone to the completion of the theatre, it took almost 23 years, by which time many of the original proponents were dead, including the architect. Was it the powerful curse of La Monachella, (The Nun), or simply cost over-runs, corruption, and governmental squabbling that caused the delay?

The Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, the pride of Palermo, at last opened on 16 May 1897, with a production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Teatro Massimo was then, and is now, the largest opera house in Italy, and the third largest in Europe (after the Paris Opera and the Staatsoper in Vienna). Falstaff was a great success, and the entire opera season quickly sold out. For many years, the magnificent Neo-Classical building, crowned by its splendid dome, hosted renowned operas and performers.

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Teatro Mssimo seen from Piazza Verdi

All the while, though, tradition has it that the shade of La Monachella stalked the corridors, dressing rooms, and stairs of the theatre, breathing curses on performers and audiences alike. Many people claimed to have encountered her. There is even a special step on one of the theatre’s stairs, called the Gradino della Suora (the Nun’s Step), where (if you don’t believe she exists), you are sure to stumble.

teatro-massimo

Inside of Teatro Massimo

In 1974, the theatre was closed for renovations, to comply with new safety regulations. No one thought the closure would be long-term. But the building did not reopen for — strangely enough — 23 years. Was it the powerful curse of La Monachella, or simply cost over-runs, corruption, and governmental squabbling that caused the delay? The theatre finally reopened in 1997, a century after Verdi’s Falstaff christened the building. At first only concerts were performed in the renovated structure, but in 1998, Verdi’s Aida took the stage.

la-lirica-mario-rutelli

The spirit of music, riding a lion

Perhaps the nun’s wrath has subsided. The elegant ranks of gilded boxes glisten, the King’s Box, swathed in carved draperies, can be occupied by anyone willing to pay the price, and music fills the air.

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Giuseppe Verdi surveys his namesake piazza

The facade, with its monumental flight of steps, fluted columns, and Sicilian Corinthian capitals, looms like a temple from Agrigento or Selinunte over Piazza Verdi, where most evenings crowds of people congregate, enjoying the warm Sicilian nights, before adjourning for dinner to the restaurants of nearby Politeama Square (or, more thriftily, enjoying street food while leaning against the fence surrounding the theatre). The scene is surveyed by a statue of Verdi (who seems relatively pleased), and by two engaging bronze ladies reclining on great bronze lions. The women represent Tragedy and Music. I’m not sure what the lions represent.

teatro-massimo-crowd

I toured Teatro Massimo and attended two performances there during my last visit, and didn’t stumble once. I guess I’m just a believer. During the tour, someone pointed out the Nun’s Step to me. I’d like to tell you where it is, but, oddly, I seem to have forgotten. If you visit Palermo, you really should take in a performance — the acoustics are perfect — but for goodness’ sake, watch your step!

asolo

One Weekend in Asolo: The City of 100 Horizons – Treviso

Deriving from the name of this village in the Veneto, asolare is an Italian word coined by the late-15th-century poet Pietro Bembo while he was spending time in Asolo at the court of Caterina Cornaro. The verb means ‘to pass time in a meaningless but delightful way’.

Bembo associated it with the deposed Queen of Cyprus’s enforced idleness — and it has remained associated ever since. The 19th-century poet Giosue Carducci described Asolo as ‘a city of 100 horizons’ for its hilltop position which provides views over the surrounding mountains, hills and plains.

If you are an art lover you might recognise some of the views captured by Titian, Giorgione or Canaletto. Asolo’s artistic and historical heritage has now earned it a place among the borghi piu belli d‘Italia club — the official list of ‘the most beautiful villages in Italy’. It has also been called ‘The Pearl of the Province of Treviso’.

Asolo stands to the northwest of Venice, at the foothills of the Dolomites. The best way to get there is by car, though you can reach it by a 30-minute train journey from Venice followed by a 30-minute bus ride. That makes it a short journey for us and, while it might not have been right for Caterina, to sit in the sun and do nothing sounded like a plan to us. We wanted to spend some time relaxing in this laid-back environment without a precise aim and without having to rush from one museum to another seeing everything.

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Teatro Massimo seen from Piazza Verdi

It really could not get any better than Asolo. Less than 50 miles north of Venice you are free from the hustle and bustle of tourists and you can just sit down undisturbed, eating cicchetti and sipping local prosecco at one of its many osterie.

Asolo is one of the best-preserved medieval villages in Italy. Surrounded by walls, it has pretty cobbled streets, porticos, Venetian Gothic windows, a famous castle — and, of course, the breathtaking views over the surrounding vineyards of the Veneto.

The magic of its landscape, its beauty and its artistic and cultural heritage has bewitched many illustrious personalities through the centuries and, of course, still does. Small and unassuming, Asolo has a great atmosphere and is also the perfect gateway to some interesting nearby towns such as Maser and Possagno, or to go out on one of the many wine and prosecco tours around the region.

We began exploring from the main square, Piazza Garibaldi, where the 15th-century Palazzo della Ragione, now the civic museum, stands and where you can see the Fontana Maggiore, the symbol of the square and the main meeting point for the locals. Still powered by the ancient Roman aqueduct until recently, the fountain has in its central part the coat of arms of Asolo and the winged lion of St Mark protecting it — an obvious reference to the fact that for centuries the village was dominated by Venice.

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Robert Browning Street

A few steps from Piazza Garibaldi stands the cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta. From here, along Robert Browning Street, with its ancient palazzi and portici, we come to the house of the Victorian English poet who fell in love with the place, moved here and wrote his last volume of poetry here, Asolando.

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The Zen Fountain

Next to his house stands the small Zen Fountain dating from 1572, while nearby is the house of Freya Stark, the great explorer and ‘grandmother of modern travel literature’. Finally, just further on, stands the house of the Venetian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero. So much history crammed into a 10-minute walk!

After a short climb, we reach the Castle of Caterina Cornaro.

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Castello Caterina Cornaro, once a hub of Renaissance culture

Inside, in the area that was once the throne and reception room, is now hosted the Duse Theatre. Dating to the 10th century and the seat of the podesta of Venice from 1339, in 1489 the castle became the residence of a Venetian woman who left a prominent mark on the history of La Serenissima.

After being used as a tool by Venice to control the Mediterranean, Caterina was forced to give up her title of Queen of Jerusalem, Cyprus and Armenia and was given in return the tiny kingdom of Asolo. Here she persisted in establishing a magnificent Renaissance court, gathering famous artists such as Giorgione and Gentile Bellini, and writers such as the Humanist poet Pietro Bembo, he who coined the term asolare.

After leaving the castle, we walked back to Via Browning and stopped for a quick lunch at the osteria Al Bacaro, a family-run restaurant with a tradition of over 100 years offering authentic local produce such as nervetti, baccala alla vicentina, trippa and snails.

Passing the Casa Duse, the house of the famous actress Eleonora Duse, who came here to escape her tormented love story with the writer, poet and Fascist soldier Gabriele D’Annunzio, we walked to La Rocca, the fortress built at the summit of Mount Ricco, which overlooks Asolo. From here we enjoyed a magnificent view of the Po Plain and the surrounding mountains. We could not see it then but they say that sometimes, on very clear days, you can even see the Venetian lagoon.

On the way back we stopped at Caffe Centrale, the historical cafe in the heart of the city, for some meringues and ice cream.

EVENING TIME

As evening sets in, this picturesque little town really does become enchanting. As you relax at one the peaceful outdoor bars or restaurants, the wonderful fragrances from Italian cooking mixed with loud family conversations and laughter are so uplifting.

For dinner, we went to a restaurant recommended by friends which is located a few minutes away from the centre by car but definitely worth the short trip. The Locanda Baggio is the best example of a family-run restaurant, with all the family joining in. The chef is Nino and he is helped by his wife, Antonietta, and all their children. The place has an intimate atmosphere and you can enjoy your food while admiring the passion of chefs working in the kitchen. The scallops with beetroot cream and crispy chorizo are magnificent.

Unfortunately, after dinner we had to head back home. Luckily, home — or I should say second home nowadays — is Venice, so not much to complain about. However, if we had been able to stay overnight we would have definitely treated ourselves to the Locanda Cipriani.

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The locals are proud of their town

Previously owned by Robert Browning and later by the Guinness family, it was transformed into a refined hotel when the Guinness family entrusted its management to Giuseppe Cipriani, the founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice. It has less than one hundred rooms and retains an intimate atmosphere. The villa is surrounded by lush gardens and has a panoramic pool.

Asolare was the plan, and on my second day I could have just stretched my legs on the lounge chair and admired the scenery, an activity which I might have wanted to interrupt at some point just to enjoy some dishes at its renowned restaurant.

Obviously, if you wanted to, you could also spend a couple of hours shopping. There are many elegant boutiques in Asolo and shops selling handcrafted objects and local produce.

And if you can try to plan your trip to Asolo on the second weekend of the month you could browse at the antiques market which has been taken place here for over 40 years (every second Sunday of the month, except in July and August). Here they sell furniture, jewellery, silverware, prints, books, art and all sorts of things.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO

VILLA FREYAVia Forestuzzo

villa-freya

This villa and its remarkable garden once belonged to Freya Stark, the great British-Italian explorer of the Middle East and one of the earliest modern travel writers. If you plan your visit to Asolo to cover one of the first three Saturdays of the month (except August, December and in bad weather conditions), you can visit the archaeological park and the remains of the foundations of the Roman theatre.

CATTEDRALE DI SANTA MARIA ASSUNTA Piazza Garibaldi

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The Cathedral

Asolo Cathedral dates to the 10th century but has been changed many times since. It is notable for a stunning baptismal font which was a gift from Caterina Cornaro and two major altar pieces by Lorenzo Lotto and Jacopo Da Ponte.

THE MONTELLO AND COLLI ASOLANI WINE ROUTE

La Strada del Vino del Montello e Colli Asolani starts at Nervesa della Battaglia and passes through the villages south of Montello before reaching Montebelluna, Caerano San Marco, Cornuda, Maser and finally Asolo. The hills of Asolo are dotted with vineyards and the Colli Asolani Prosecco wine zone has earned the highest quality designation in Italy: DOCG.

VILLA BARBARO (VILLA DI MASER) Via Cornuda, 7

VILLA-BARBARO

Located on the Montello and Colli Asolani wine route, 10km from Asolo, this villa is one of the greatest masterpieces of Andrea Palladio and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built around the 1560s for his friends Daniele Barbaro, Patriarch of Aquileia, and his brother Marcantonio, an ambassador of the Venetian Republic, the villa results from an unusual collaboration between the architect and his clients. In its interior there are stunning frescos by Paolo Veronese and stuccos by Alessandro Vittoria. Near the villa is Palladio’s last work: a small temple which was a private church and also the village church.

MUSEO GIPSOTECA ANTONIO CANOVA Via Antonio Canova, 74

MUSEO-GIPSOTECA-ANTONIO-CANOVA

Only 7km from Asolo you will find the birthplace of the great neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova and the Gipsoteca that comprises almost all of his plaster cast models, terracotta scale models, drawings and paintings.

WHERE TO STAY

ALBERGO AL SOLE Via Collegio, 33

ALBERGO-AL-SOLE

A small 5-star luxury boutique hotel in the centre of Asolo with a magnificent restaurant, La Terrazza, where you can enjoy great food and beautiful views.

HOTEL VILLA CIPRIANI – Via Canova, 298

HOTEL-VILLA-CIPRIANI

A Renaissance villa in a magnificent, tranquil setting surrounded by beautiful gardens and breathtaking views with a pool and a renowned restaurant.

WHERE TO EAT

OSTERIA AL BACARO Via Browning, 165

OSTERIA-AL-BACARO

A characteristic osteria right in the heart of Asolo offering a warm setting and traditional dishes such as tippa con potenta, pasta with duck ragu, cheese, homemade desserts and great wines. Justly famous with locals and visitors.

CAFFE CENTRALE Via Roma, 72

CAFFE-CENTRALE

This café has a tradition of over 200 years, born in the 18th century as a cultural meeting point. Among the famous personalities who stopped here are the writers Ernest Hemingway, Robert Browning and Henry James. It is the perfect place for breakfast, a good lunch or just a drink.

RISTORANTE LOCANDA BAGGIO Via Bassane, 1

RISTORANTE-LOCANDA-BAGGIO

This is the best family-run osteria in town, in our opinion, offering great local food and an intimate atmosphere. Nino, Antonietta and their children will be the perfect hosts.

RISTORANTE TRATTORIA PONTE PERON Villa Vallograna, 14

RISTORANTE-TRATTORIA-PONTE-PERON

The Ponte Peron is located just outside the centre of Asolo but is definitely worth the short trip for the delicious, authentic local food and the friendly atmosphere. The trattoria was founded in 1950 and has been run with passion and great simplicity by husband and wife Michele and Maria Teresa since 1999. Don’t miss their homemade ravioli filled with spring herbs and tossed with bruscandoli (a type of wild hops typical of the region).

PORCHETTA A MANETTA BAR DA FRANCO Via Dante Alighieri, 24

Located in the centre of Asolo this bar has a few outdoor tables in the pretty square. Run by a friendly family, it offers great porchetta, panini and primi piatti. Next door to the bar is the small family-run shop selling local produce and pretty handbags made by Franco’s daughter.

GETTING THERE

BY PLANE: Venice Treviso is the nearest international airport, to which there are links with East Midlands, Leeds Bradford and London Stansted. Asolo is about 50km from the airport and a transfer would take around 40 minutes door to door.

BY CAR: Asolo would be accessible for a day trip from Venice and even Verona. There are buses but no trains, so a car might be desirable.

rome

Rome: Do’s and Don’ts

Narrow streets, luxurious ancient temples, unhurried and relaxed Italians and delicious gelato – these are only a small part of what a colorful Rome can offer you. Once in this city, you are like traveling through time, moving from era to age, from century to century, and completely immersed in the atmosphere of the fusion of ancient and modern worlds. As in any city, Rome has its own unspoken rules, which fully betray and allow you to feel the atmosphere and spirit of the Eternal City. We`ve got them from sexy russian brides on ru-brides.com.

You should definitely try to:

  • Drink coffee at the bar in the nearest café. For example, in the street on which you live. You will be able to try all the variations of this drink in a week. You will understand that here is the most delicious macchiato in Italy, get acquainted with the barista and all the locals.
  • Try an ice cream in Gelateria. In Italy, you will find every taste: chocolate, stracciatella, with ginger or pepper, etc. The main thing is to buy ice cream in specialized Gelateria, and not in tents on the streets.
  • Get up on the dome of St. Peter’s. You can take an elevator or you can go 551 steps on foot. The entrance is free, so be prepared for the fact that the queue will be big. However, there you can enjoy Rome from a bird’s eye view. Do not miss this opportunity!
  • Visit the Colosseum, Pantheon, Forum, Capitol, Piazza Venezia and Piazza Navona. It was there that Julia Roberts sat on the bench in the movie “Eat, Pray, Love.”
  • Rent Vespa. If you close your eyes and dream in winter, then immediately there is a picture where a white motorbike rushes through the streets of Rome to the Trastevere area at sunset. Make your dreams come true!
  • Eat Prosciutto con mozzarella and Quattro Formaggi, these dishes will surely please everyone.
  • Drink water from fountains. You can find them on almost every street, and there artesian water.
  • Go to the Trastevere area at night. The festival atmosphere preveils all year round in this part of Rome.
  • Send a postcard by the Vatican post, which is one of the best in the world. Italians, not trusting the usual Roman post, often send postcards around the world from the Vatican.
  • Plan the trip so that excursions fall on the last Sunday of the month. That is when the entrance to all museums is free!
  • Take a picture of Guardsmen in the Vatican with museum halberds. Michelangelo created their bright blue-orange costumes.
  • Feel the true Italian atmosphere, which is impossible without cheerful music, sounding from all restaurants, house wine and a picturesque view of the Tiber River.

You should better not do:

  • Do not settle near the train station Termini. In general, you should better not settle in any city near the railway station. Rome is not the exception.
  • Do not forget to buy e-tickets to the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel in advance. Otherwise, you will stay in the queue longer than you will walk the museum itself.
  • Do not worry about communication because Italians understand English, and their openness and temperament will not allow you to leave without help.
  • Do not miss a chance to go on a trip to the sea. A hundred kilometers from Rome there is a wonderful town Fondi, and Sperlonga, located a little further and known for its extraordinary picturesqueness. You can get there by train from Termini station for 6 euros one way and you can get by bus or taxi from the city to the beach.
  • Do not forget about the siesta and breaks in the restaurants. In Rome, the local trattoria is traditionally closed for lunch. Tourist places remain open, but everything will be closed from 13 to 18 in such small towns as Fondi.
  • Do not come to Rome for 2 days.
pentedattilo

Pentedattilo: The Ghost Of A Luckless Town

In the days of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Calabrian city of Pentedattilo was an important commercial centre. Today it is a ghost town. And it is not the only one…

Founded in 640BC, when this part of Italy was firmly under Greek rule, Pentedattilo (its name means “five fingers”, a reference to the topography of the mountain upon which it was built) was once a thriving city. It did go into serious decline in the Byzantine era (after the Romans), and was then sacked by the Saracens, conquered by the Normans, and generally invaded by pretty much anyone who happened to be passing… But it was always still there.

Then, in 1783, it was hit by an earthquake and abandoned. In this respect Pentedattilo is, of course, far from unique. Craco in neighbouring Basilicata, was more or less given up on around the turn of the 10th century after a series of earthquakes, and abandoned completely in 1963.

Balestrino and Bussana Vecchia, in Liguria, at the other end of the country, were both abandoned in the 19th century, again after a series of earthquakes.

And this is not something that only used to happen in the long-forgotten past: Apice, 1962; Romagnano al Monte, 1980… Abandoned after inhabitants, was hit in 2009. And just this year, hundreds were killed by an earthquake in Umbria. Those that survived there, we remember, are still slowly rebuilding their villages and their lives.

slow-food-turin

Turin With Gusto!

The Slow Food organisation celebrated its 30th birthday with a special edition of its main annual event, the Salone del Gusto.

My previous trips to Piedmont had been to visit the Langhe and Alta Langhe, the regions acclaimed for their wines and hazelnuts (this is the home of Nutella and Ferrero, after all). My flights on those occasions had landed and taken off from Turin-Caselle Airport, but otherwise the city of Turin was a mystery to me, beyond its reputation as the home of Fiat and the former seat of Italy’s royal family, the House of Savoy.

It’s also the cradle of Slow Food, the movement that sparked into life in the ’80s with a demonstration against a new McDonald’s in Rome, and which has since snowballed into an international support network for traditional producers whose processes are endangered by modern commercial forces. In the UK, for example, there’s a Slow Food “Presidium” that protects our traditional cheddar producers in Somerset. (The Presidium enshrines the time-honoured techniques employed in the production of this cheese, such as the use of cheesecloth rather than a plastic when binding the cheese for maturation.)

turin-slow-food

Welcome to Slow Food

With the announcement of this year’s Terre Madre Salone del Gusto, the organisation’s annual exhibition, I saw the perfect opportunity to visit Turin. Celebrating 30 years of operation, Slow Food had announced a new format: the Salone del Gusto would not take place inside the exhibition hall, as in previous years, but instead it would be spread around the city’s main parks, theatres, and historical buildings, as a way to reach a wider public and as a test run for future iterations.

What better time to tour any city than when it is inundated with food stalls offering the highest quality sustenance?

HISTORY OF IMMIGRATION

A murderously early budget flight carried me over the snowy Alps and into Piedmont. As my transfer took me into the city, I noticed that the outskirts of Turin are more functional than attractive — a reminder that this city has been a hub for Italians immigrating from the countryside (Turin is ranked third behind Milan and Rome for economic heft) — but there’s a stateliness to the plane tree-lined avenue that eventually bears us to the Turin Exhibition Hall. It’s located in Valentino Park, which was Italy’s first public garden, opened in 1856, and includes at its heart the UNESCO-listed Valentino Castle, a former Savoy residence. The park hugs the west bank of the broad Po River, which gives its name to the immense Po Valley that stretches from Piedmont to Veneto, and provides Italy with its largest stretch of flat and fertile terrain.

Getting off the bus, I’m greeted by giant plastic snails — the Slow Food symbol — and posters showing a woman holding a loaf of brown bread as if it’s her new-born: yes, I’m in the right place. Pointed white tents line the paths that curve through the park’s lawns and groves. It’s busy, and warmer than I expected, with many in T-shirts as we approach the end of September.

Located beside the baroque castle is a botanical garden — the Orto Botanica. Usually only open on the weekends (€3 pp), it’s open all week for the event. The plants inside looked engaging, but I spotted a sign across the path that said “Slow Meat”, so I popped over there instead, thinking slow meat must be the easiest to catch. Of course, it turned out to be an interactive exhibition, employing colourful graphics and props, positing how it’d be better for us to eat less meat, and of a better quality. Flinching at the memory of university doner kebabs consumed, I’m convinced at the first placard, an image of pinkish pigs looking intelligently into the photographer’s lens.

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Slow Food stalls line the road side

For the rest of the afternoon, I browsed the line of tents, joining this midday passeggiata. It’s unlikely there’s anywhere else in the world that can match the quality on offer here over this particular week, with every province in Italy represented by its best artisanal produce. Visitors dip in and out of the stalls, tasting bread doused in glistening olive oil, nibbling crumbs of raw milk cheese, sipping glasses of bio-dynamic wine.

Piedmont has, naturally, the largest representation. As I passed a mountain of pungent mushrooms, my eye wandered over the €5 price for a glass of Barolo, produced an hour away in the lyrically beautiful Langhe (Piedmont is, to my mind, superior to Tuscany for its variety and quality of red wines). But it was still a little early for me, if not for the Italians, whose chattering stream offered a lively counterpart to the wide, serene Po running nearby.

OUTDOOR COOKING STALLS

Come evening, I followed the Po upstream to the Murazzi for some dinner. Night had now fallen, and the smells and steam given off by the outdoor cooking stalls wafted up from the riverside to the street above. The Murazzi del Po is a beating hub for student life in this university town, a series of arched spaces and landings previously employed in the transport of river freight that have been converted into cool bars and clubs. Encamped here tonight were, of course, the white tents of Slow Food.

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Free samples!

There was an extensive queue for a Slow Food organic sour beer from Brazil, so I decided instead — to my eternal shame — to grab a plastic glassful of no-line San Miguel from a nearby club. Keen to make amends, I joined the line at one of the food stands advertising something called a bombetta. The line is swift, and not before long I’m sat on the quay beside the peaceful Po savaging the salty deliciousness of the cheese-filled meatballs enclosed within a wallet of bread. Across from us, on the more peaceful side of the river this evening, a couple smoked cigarettes on a bench.

Afterwards, it was a good half an hour’s walk back to my hotel located just the other side of the Royal Palace (the tourist heart of the city). Turin’s most famous landmark, the stunning Mole Antoniello building (catch the elevator to the top for €7), loomed behind the brightly-lit streets, its slate-blue tower ominous and sepulchral at night, looking like an aerial picking up transmissions from The Other Side.

I decided against hopping on one of the dusty orange trams rattling past (the trams reinforce a sense of Turin as a smaller, more relaxed version of Milan) and pushed on through the fatigue, for journalism’s sake. A wise decision: I happened on Via Gelato — a run of gelato stalls staked out on the lively Via Po with gelato-to-die-for made from sustainable, Slow Food-approved ingredients.

Checking that my single-cup purchase can have two flavours inside, I’m met with the teasing response: “Only two?” The unutterably delicious chocolate and pistachio gelato then walked me safely and happily home through Turin’s colonnaded pavements.

TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER

In the cool of morning, I made my way into the old part of town known as the Quadrilatero Romano. Brown brick cobbles ripple out from beneath my feet as the broad avenues narrowed into lanes. In one of Turin’s more serene squares, I found Caffe Al Bicerin. Dating back to 1763, this is an evocative wood-panelled temple to Turin’s status as Italy’s chocolate capital (I’ve heard it said that the Piedmontese eat more dark chocolate than the rest of Italy combined).

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The famous Bicerin Drink

The interior has original parquet flooring, white marble tables and jars of multi-coloured sweets line the shelves behind the bar. I came here to seek out (with a few other tourists this morning) the café’s namesake drink, the Bicerin: a wine glass of cool cream layered (alarmingly thickly, I have to say) over a bottom layer of hot obsidian choc. It’s served with a spoon, and becomes like liquid chocolate mousse towards the bottom of the glass. Not the most nutritious breakfast I’ve ever had, but certainly one of the tastiest.

There’s a photographic exhibition (about foods that characterise the Egyptian diet both past and present) happening at the famous Egyptian Museum — the largest outside of Egypt — but I decided to make a beeline for Piazza Castello.

piazza-castello

View of the Piazza Castello

This is where the city puts its regal, silver-buckled shoe forward, and, through its pomp and circumstance, a reminder that this was, albeit briefly, Italy’s first capital following the Risorgimento (unification). On this warm autumnal day, the square is filled with exhibitions, food trucks, and, inside the inner courtyard of the castle, an enoteca offering tastings.

Finding the sun a little high at 3pm for luxuriant, heavy reds, I made my way to a peaceful garden within the castle complex dominated by a graceful iron modern art sculpture. The beautifully cut grass was a tempting stop as I pondered my next move.

slow-food

Unfortunately, my repose was shattered by a shrill peep! I looked up, and found a man in a red shirt and Panama hat staring right at me, the whistle still in his mouth. Everyone else in the square had frozen, equally terrified. I stood up off of the grass, and he stalked away. Later I plucked up the courage to speak to the whistling terror, and met the charming Enrico Bergonzi — a volunteer from the Italian touring club, who is sworn to protect the new grass recently laid in this garden. “Sorry,” he said, generously, “and there are free deck chairs over there.” He then moved off to whistle ruthlessly at a foolhardy, grass-loving mother and toddler, while I left to take in more of the festival.

APERITIVO AT CAFFE PLATTI

That evening there was a parade of Slow Food delegates through the city (7,000 no less), but I was too worn out from the walking to join them (Boris bikes are available for the wise, known as ‘To bike’) and in dire need of the aperitivo at stunning Caffe Platti. It’s baroque, genial, and there are small rounds of bread topped with gorgonzola and almonds. Ordering a Rob Roy with Punt e Mes vermouth — a Turinese variety — I chat with the boozed up Maura, an ebullient local professor who can’t tell me enough about the city and the surrounding area. I carefully list her recommendations, knowing that I’ve only scraped the surface of this stately, vibrant city.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

HOTEL DIPLOMATIC – Via Cernaia, 42

hotel-diplomatic

Hotel Diplomatic is an efficient, well-priced, well-located four-star hotel with comfortable, clean rooms. Only 15 minutes walk to the palace complex, and just around the corner from a Metro stop. Superb water pressure, and friendly service in the breakfast room. If you’re a fan of Twin Peaks you’ll love the elevators.

CAFFE PLATTI – Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 72

caffe-platti

Open since 1870, Caffe Platti is a belle époque landmark. Open all day, the friendly and welcoming aperitivo, featuring delicious nibbles arranged elegantly on the bar top, runs from 6pm to 9pm.

Expect cocktail prices hovering nearer to €10 (but remember that the nibbles come free), and, in the birthplace of Vermouth, a bittersweet Punt e Mes aperitif might only be polite.

CAFFE AL BICERIN – Piazza della Consolata, 5

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The seriously historic Caffe Al Bicerin has been open since 1763. Located in the peaceful Piazza della Consolata, the café retains “the elegance of the 1800s when aristocratic women, having been to Mass and respected the Eucharistic fast, came to revive themselves”. One of the best routes to revival remains the namesake Bicerin: a hot chocolate with a layer of coffee and another of cream. A must.

GETTING THERE

BY PLANE: Ryanair flies to Turin from Stansted (prices from £36 return). The best prices, are, of course, found at horribly early times. To offset the pain, overnight at the Radisson Blu (rooms from £200 including free high-speed wifi and 24-hour room service), a 30minute walk from the central terminal. The rooms have wonderfully deep baths in which you can almost forget you’re at Stansed.

Exploring Le Langhe – Piedmond, Italy

The experience of driving for the very first time through Le Langhe, a hilly, Unesco-protected region between Cuneo and Asti, is one I won’t ever forget. I felt overwhelmed — miles of rolling hills elegantly combed by grapevines as far as the eye can see; a noble landscape punctuated by postcard-pretty medieval villages that have given their names to some of Italy’s finest red wines.

The art of winemaking here goes back to pre-Roman times. The first traces of vine pollen, that we know of, date to the 5th century BC, when the area was a place of contact and trade between the Etruscans and the Celts. Yet it’s not all about tradition. On the contrary, I cannot avoid feeling a deep sense of innovation.

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The wine cellar at the Monsordo Bernardina estate

I am in the Monsordo Bernardina estate of the Ceretto family — one of Italy’s best-known wine producers — just a stone’s throw from the city of Alba. I am staring at the Acino — literally ‘the grape’ — a large, transparent bubble on an oak platform dramatically suspended over the vineyards below.

 

Inside, visitors are sipping Barolo, looking at the landscape below them. It is an almost futuristic image. I cannot help thinking this is how people in centuries to come will drink wine.

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The unique terroirs of Le Langhe are home to some of Italy’s most prestigious wines

The most striking sign of innovation is not the Acino, though. Rather, it is the way the land is being managed, which reflects a perfect balance between man and nature. Federico Ceretto sounds like a visionary: “Wines once represented the winemaker they came from; nowadays they should rather reflect the vineyard itself.

We want to achieve a result that is as close as possible to nature. Making wine the way you want it to be means forcing nature. We want the opposite, that is: letting nature express itself, more than anything else.”

ALL ABOUT AUTHENTICITY

This sense of harmony is not just about the relationship between man and nature. Art is a natural consequence. My next stop is a breathtaking construction called the Barolo Chapel (aka Cappella delle Brunate, Cappella del Barolo), whose bright colours stand out against the green of the surrounding vineyards. Despite being called a ‘chapel’, it’s never been consecrated. Built in 1914 as a shelter for people working in the nearby fields, in 1999 it underwent a radical transformation which involved artists Sol LeWitt and David Tremlett. (Plus several barrels of paint, of course.)

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The Barolo Chapel is a temple to wine

Federico, whose family was behind the renovation project, enthusiastically recalls those days: “It wasn’t your usual restoration. It was rather an experiment to celebrate contemporary art within the landscape. The Langhe is a favourite with artists and architects. Many of them have left their trademark here several times. Sol LeWitt did not ask for money for his work. He decided to be paid in Barolo wine — a bottle was delivered to his place every Sunday for the rest of his life. This has nothing to do with gallerists, brokers or businessman. This is all about the magic of our land. It’s all about authenticity.”

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Alba Cathedral

Walking and climbing is the best way to work up an appetite, and Alba is my destination for lunch. Saying I am in ‘foodie heaven’ is an understatement. Food is a very serious affair here, from the production on an industrial scale (Nutella, the world’s most delicious hazelnut spread, was born here, and so were Kinder eggs) to the refined products of those posh food stores all along the central Via Maestra.

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The ingenious combination of hazelnuts and chocolate – an Albese invention

I am quite used to this — food has been the constant topic of conversation during most of my meals with my Albese friends. They can sit around a table for hours and talk about nothing but food, going into the smallest details. My choice for the day is La Piola restaurant, in the same square of the 12th-century Duomo. Raw veal tartare takes the lion’s share, followed by a customary portion of vitello tonnato — slices of roasted veal with tuna fish mayo. Meat is one of the main ingredients of any menu — particularly the very tender Fassona variety, which comes from anaemic cows and has a lighter colour. It’s so good it can even be eaten raw — just add salt, oil, pepper and lemon.

THE LAND OF EXCELLENCE

“When it comes to food, tradition is something you perceive from the moment you set food in the region,” explains Dennis Panzeri, chef at La Piola.

“We want to make sure that visitors bring back an indelible memory of their meals here, be it the taste of their slice of cake or the way they were greeted and served.”

After all, the Langhe region is where the Slow Food movement was born, back in 1986, thanks to food and wine journalist Carlo Petrini, in reaction to the fast food way of life eroding Italy’s culinary tradition. This is also where local entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti founded the upmarket food hall chain Eataly, which now counts 27 stores in the world.

If that wasn’t enough, nine restaurants in the area have been awarded Michelin stars, including Alba’s Piazza Duomo, just upstairs from La Piola, where chef Enrico Crippa serves unforgettable three-starred meals.

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Wild White Truffles

Last but not least, this is the land of the tartufo bianco – the famous white truffle is quite a local obsession. The precious tuber adds its distinctive taste to anything from a fresh egg pasta like tajarin to Fassona beef tartare.

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Wild White Truffles

It is celebrated every autumn during the world’s oldest truffle fair, where truffles are solemnly auctioned in the finely decorate Hall of Masks of the Grinzane Cavour castle.

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Nebbiola grapes awaits their magical transformation into Barbaresco wine

Beyond Alba is a string of breathtakingly beautiful little towns, from the medieval Monforte, with its open air auditorium and its maze of narrow alleys, to Serralunga and its 14th-century fortress; from Barbaresco and its medieval tower boasting a superb view all the way to the Alps – to Neive, considered one of the most beautiful boroughs of Italy, and the birthplace of Romano Levi, of grappa fame.

I still have some time to hit the village of Barolo. Its imposing castle houses the WiMu – acronym for the Wine Museum – another perfect example of how innovative this slice of Italy is. Designed by Francois Confino, the same man behind the National Cinema Museum in Turin and the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, it is a quirky and colourful succession of installations, from the Gods that welcome you into a red-lit wine Olympus to an ever-rolling moon and a pedal-actioned bench symbolising the carousel of the seasons. The castle also houses the Enoteca Regionale, perfect for tasting a broad selection of the region’s wines – and to buy a few to bring back home.

WHERE TO EAT AND STAY

PIAZZA DUOMO – Piazza Risorgirnento, 4

piazza-duomo

Treat yourself to dinner in Alba’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant, run by chef Enrico Crippa. Book well in advance. If there are no tables, stop downstairs at La Piola, where Dennis Panzeri will not disappoint.

OSTERIA DEI SOGNATORI – Via Macrino, 8

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Always in Alba, try the vitello tommato antipasto at Osteria dei Sognatori.

OSTERIA DA GEMMA – Via Marconi, 6

ostreria-da-gemma

If you are passing by the village of Roddino, head straight to Gemma to sample the best fresh, homemade pasta of the area.

PALAS CEREQUIO – Borgata Cerequio, La Morra

PALAS-CEREQUIO

There is no shortage of charming accommodation in the Langhe. For luxurious, unsurpassed quality, hit the Palas Cerequio, which stands right in the heart of a Barolo vineyard.

BAROLO ROOMS – Piazza Castello, 3

barolo-rooms

For a more budget-conscious stay, check out the recently restored Barolo Rooms. Situated in front of the imposing Barolo castle, they offer two rooms and a suite furnished in modern style.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO

ARRANGE TO VISIT A WINEMAKER – Piazza Risorgirnento, 2

piedmonte-wine

When in the Langhe, visiting a winemaker is a must. The easiest way is to get some help from Piemonte On Wine in Alba, who offer a free service to book your visit.

THE MUSEUMS OF BAROLO – Piazza Falletti, Barolo

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WiMu – acronym for the Wine Museum

TAKE A RIDE IN A BALLOON – Via Trinita, 50, Bene Vagienna

langhe-balloon

An excellent way to get a sense of the region and its topography is to see it all from on high.

GETTING THERE

The Langhe region is less than two hours’ drive from Milan Malpensa airport. There is no direct line connecting Milan to Alba, so if you want to travel by train you’ll have to board a Malpensa express to Milan Centrale first. From there, take a high-speed Frecciarossa train to Turin Porta Susa, then transfer on train to Bra and finally a local one to Alba. All this will take little over three hours.

befana-festival

La Befana – The Italian Myth of A Good Witch

Not long ago, while I was in the process of negotiating a flat rental in Rome, my potential landlady emailed me that she was having trouble using her online booking agency’s confusing website. “Sometimes,” she wrote, “I feel like I’m just an old Befana — all this technology has got me completely befuddled!” Well, I knew that La Befana is a legendary figure in Italian folklore, an old woman who delivers gifts to children on the eve of Epiphany (5 January), and I vaguely recalled that she dresses like a witch and flies through the sky on a broom — sort of a female version of Father Christmas or Santa Claus. But I didn’t know what she had to do with befuddlement.

Eventually we did take the flat for a couple of months, and I forgot all about La Befana, until we wandered into Piazza Navona on 5 January, and found ourselves surrounded by a Befana festival, complete with balloons, a carousel, ring-toss booths and other games of skill. “Si vince sempre!” they proclaimed — “Everyone’s a winner!”, as we might say. There were buskers, too, as well as face-painters, and crowds enjoying the scene — in short, everything you need for a happy celebration.

La Befana was there, too, of course. In fact, several iterations of her. The most popular face-painter was a kindly-looking Befana; another Befana in a huge black witch’s hat was twisting balloons into animal shapes; a third, very scary-looking Befana had a beggar’s cup (I’m guessing she was not distributing gifts to the kiddies). Elsewhere, another Befana (wearing stylish sunglasses) shared a sleigh with Santa Claus. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. I realised I needed to find out more about this traditional old lady who could commandeer Rome’s busiest square for a party in her honour.

befana-fest

La Befana Festival – Rome, Italy

It seems the genesis of almost every traditional folkloric character in the Western world, if you consult the academics, is found in Pagan cult figures. This is true of La Befana, as well; but, frankly, the relationship they cite to the Roman goddess Strenua is tenuous, and their reasoning much too strenuous, for me. I like the plain, simple, humble Befana, who lived alone in a little house that she always kept neat as a pin. So neat it was, in fact, that when the Three Kings, on their way to deliver presents to the Christ child, stopped in her village and inquired for a place to stay, the villagers pointed out her cottage. After the Magi had enjoyed a night’s rest, they invited Befana to accompany them on their quest. Befana, after some hesitation, declined — because, of course, after you’ve entertained three aristocrats overnight, there’s considerable cleaning to do. So the Three Wise Men continued on their way. But when her housework was done, Befana realized she really did want to go and give something to the newborn King, so off she went, carrying some tasty home-made treats, (not forgetting her broom, just in case), in search of Jesus.

Everywhere she went, she asked where she could find the baby Jesus, but without success. She met a lot of children, of course; and being the kindly sort, she couldn’t resist giving them gifts, if she sensed they were well-behaved; otherwise, she gave them lumps of coal. I’m not sure where she got the candy and toys and coal from, or when she discovered that she could cover more territory by flying on her broom. But ever since, on the twelfth night of the Christmas season, she flies around the world (or at least Italy), diving down chimneys or squeezing through apartment door keyholes, to deliver presents.

It’s traditional to leave her a midnight snack of wine and salami – much more sustaining than milk and cookies.

Like Santa Claus, Befana has not escaped modern commercialisation: you can see racks of Befana dolls filled with candy in the local supermercato. But even these seem to have retained a little of Befana’s innocence. So now I understand why my landlady, lost in the rental agency’s badly programmed interface, trying to make me an offer, felt like La Befana.

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Some La Befana dolls

Her goal wasn’t nearly as pious, of course; but just like Befana trying to find Bethlehem, she was a bit befuddled.

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The Place Where Time Travelling Is Real – San Gimignano, Tuscany

The Tuscan town of San Gimignano has medieval architecture and art, and modern sculpture too.

I had always wanted to visit San Gimignano in Tuscany. Known as “Medieval Manhattan” and “The City of the Beautiful Towers”, it had been on my list of places to visit for a long time.

Now finally I was heading through the Tuscan countryside waiting with bated breath to see the towers appear on the horizon. I had been warned that driving in the narrow streets of San Gimignano was not an experience for the fainthearted so I parked outside the walls and walked into the centre to find my hotel. Apart from looking forward to exploring its narrow, medieval streets I had another good reason to be visiting San Gimignano: I was meeting up with my friend Christine. Her husband, Maurizio, is a sculptor and she had promised to show me his work, which is dotted all around the town.

Originally an Etruscan village, San Gimignano was named after the Bishop of Modena, who, it is said, saved it from Attila the Hun. It became a comune in 1199 and prospered because of its location on the Via Francigena, the pilgrimage path that leads from Canterbury to Rome. It became popular for prominent families to try to outdo their neighbours by building a higher tower in order to prove that they were more wealthy and powerful.

In 1348 plague wiped out a lot of the population and weakened the local economy, leading to the town’s submission to Florence in 1353.

Walking through the narrow streets it was like going back in time. As I turned the corner into Piazza della Cisterna to find my hotel, the sight took my breath away. Here was the location of scenes I had watched many times in my favourite film, Tea with Mussolini.

Once settled I was eager to explore. Piazza della Cisterna, where my hotel was situated, is named after the 13th-century cistern in its centre. The cistern seemed to be a popular focal point of the square with visitors sitting on the steps admiring their surroundings.

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Aerial view of the Piazza della Cisterna

In the corner of the piazza I saw a place that I definitely wanted to investigate. The Gelateria Dondoli is owned and run by the former gelato world champion, Sergio Dondoli, a member of the Italian Ice Cream World Championship team. A couple of his specialities are Crema di Santa Fina (saffron ice cream) and Vernaccia sorbet.

gelateria-donadoli

The sign says it all…

Round the corner from Piazza della Cisterna is the Piazza del Duomo, where you can find the Collegiata (the Duomo, which is so-called because of the college of priests that ran it). From the outside it looks very plain, but once you go in you are greeted by a wonderful array of frescoes. Especially beautiful are the ones by Bartolo di Fredi which depict stories from the Old Testament and are like a huge medieval comic strip. The frescoes in the nave by Taddeo di Bartolo are gruesome depictions of the Final Judgement. The Chapel of Santa Fina has some touching frescoes of scenes of the life of a revered saint of San Gimignano who had a serious illness as a girl and chose to spend the rest of her days lying on a wooden board. According to legend, yellow violas blossomed from the board at the moment of her death.

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Palazzo Comunale – San Gimignano

Next to the Collegiata are the Palazzo Comunale and the Torre Grossa. The 12th-century Palazzo Comunale is the home of the Camera del Podesta, which has some slightly risque frescoes of a pair of newlyweds bathing together then climbing into bed. If you are feeling energetic, climb to the top of the Torre Grossa up the 218 steps. I did and it was well worth the effort to get a bird’s eye view of San Gimignano and the countryside surrounding it.

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Inside the Palazzo Comunale

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The Ski Paradise – Alta Badia, Dolomites

In the bubble car lift, from the bottom station in San Cassiano, a fellow skier introduces himself as Giovanni from Trieste. “Your first time here?” he asks. “In the winter months, yes,” we say. He nods and smiles: “It’s paradise…”

Our short ski-break to the Alta Badia region of Italy, tucked away in the northeast corner of the country, didn’t have the most promising of starts. We drove up from Venice in a hire car the night before; the Googlemap directions from the airport to our hotel were effectively “turn right, turn left, turn right” — but with 150km between the first two instructions. The last section is a 30km ascent of corners and cunning after the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, and, in the desperately snowless January of 2015, we saw little white coverage through the darkness to inspire us as we pulled into the Ciasa Salares hotel in Armentarola. (That’s the second “turn right”, by the way).

GLORIOUS BLUE SKIES

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Clouds descend as we drop into Corvara

In the glorious blue skies of the following morning, all fears are swept away: the pisses are immaculate. Despite the absence of a decent dusting in weeks, the resort is more than 90 per cent open. Alta Badia takes in the communities of San Cassiano, La Villa, Corvara and Colfosco. Buy a ski pass for the areas around these towns and you’ll be happy for a couple of days. But the principal draw here is the mighty Gruppo del Sella — an indomitable central massif — and the tour that circumnavigates it, known as the Sellaronda. Like many other resorts (particularly in France), a more expensive pass grants you passage to the expansive “Dolomiti Superski” — four regions around the Sella, which you need to complete the Sellaronda. And seeing as a trip to this part of the world would be deficient without that tour, you should budget for the pass. (A three-day pass for the 2016-2017 season starts from €130 during pre-season rising to €163 in the peak season).

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Ciasa Salares

Orientation (and eating) is the order of the first day of our long weekend. Five minutes’ walk from the Salares and we’re on a Poma lift. Now, these pistes won’t challenge black-run addicts. This is very much a kingdom of long blues and reds, ideal for beginners and intermediates — but against a landscape that knocks your standard Alp into a cocked hat. So lean back and enjoy the scenery.

GOURMET SKIING

Indulge in the food too. During the winter, 14 mountain restaurants participate in the Sciare con Gusto (Gourmet Skiing) programme, each serving a signature dish designed by a leading chef. At lunchtime we find ourselves in the Utia (hut) de Bioch, sampling, first, a trio of appetisers presented like mini ice-cream cones and delivered on a piece of Dolomite stone: potato and sprinkles; speck with horseradish and ham; cream cheese with sauerkraut. Very tasty! This is followed by a seafood and lemon linguine with a matching glass of pinot bianco. You can quite easily drift from kitchen to kitchen if you so wish, though we drag ourselves back to the slopes to complete our orientation for the day.

Next day, the big day, is the Sellaronda — skiing around the great geological buongiorno! that is the Gruppo del Sella. The challenge is to complete the round trip in a day. Let me say from the outset: you can do it. Even if you mess up your route, or repeat some of the runs, or end up in a dead-end, or dawdle about in a cafe, it can be completed in a day. Minimum expectation, for the dedicated or hurried, is four and a half hours.

Our party of three is on the first drag at 8.45am. Three lifts and a chair to traverse the valley (the Braia Fraida) and we are installed on the first genuine chair for our anticlockwise circuit of this ‘must-do’ route.

From there, there’s one tricky-ish descent, but otherwise decent wide reds and a generous blue, to get us to the base of Arabba (an adjacent ski field). We plough into the gondolas adjacent to the cable car. (Don’t do this! Go straight to the 80-capacity car: it’s a much more efficient way of getting to the top. There’s a reason I know this…)

By 10.30 we’re at the highest skiable point, Portavescovo (2,495m) and the first serious view of the Gruppo del Sella, a point when you can grab a coffee and behold the Dolomitic centrepiece in all its magnificence.

I’ll keep our humiliations brief. There’s a forgiving red from the summit, and as it flattens out, we misread a sign and head down the black (partly because this is not a resort that offers a surplus of technical challenges). Next thing we know, we’re back at Arabba. So… we take the cable car back to the top and do it again.

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Iceflow-climbing off Lagazuoi

At another point, we choose a beckoning intermediate piste at a crucial T-junction, and, without checking the map, pursue the immaculately groomed white corridor until… nothing. It just stops, unceremoniously, with a sign saying “end of run” and a gravel car park. Having walked through the pretty village of Canazei, we are still back on the ‘Ronda’ before midday.

You can take in the extraordinary view, eat, dine, try alternative routes, take a chance or two and correct your errors afterwards (ahem) and still not worry about missing the last lift from Colfosco to Corvara (otherwise you’re walking the last flat section). At a certain point in the afternoon, you might even see the clouds crawling over the Sella: a giant, vaporous crab negotiating a rock pool. Stupendous. Back to Corvara, then, in time for a large stein and loud, inevitably earwormish Europop in an apres-ski bar.

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Typical apres ski bar in Corvara

UNMISSABLE ADVENTURE

The essential ‘secret’ skiing day out — as if the Sellaronda round robin wasn’t enough — is a trip up the ‘Hidden Valley’, the incomparable descent from the Lagazuoi at 2,778m. Competent guests staying in or around San Cassiano are superbly placed for this unmissable adventure.

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Discovering the Hidden Valley

Take a taxi for a few euros to the Falzarego Pass, and then a cable car to the top of Lagazuoi. Skiing down the red, a decisive left turn takes you through a ‘valley of the rocks’ — massive granite structures seem to observe your passage — then a number of sweeping corners carry you past frozen waterfalls and propel you to the Scotoni but at 2,040m. A coffee and a photo, as you see watch the mid-morning sun crawl over the cradling cliffs, and we’re back on the trail. Another lazy curve reveals a team of ice-climbers (they’re fellow tourists: the ropes fixed to the rock above the glassy columns gives it away) followed by a schuss through the trees to the unexpected finale: the horse-lift.

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Your carriage awaits…

Yes, join your fellow skiers holding on tight to the knotted rope behind the pony-and-trap as you are dragged back to the main road (think equine button lift). The Lagazuoi detour is one of the prettiest and impressive runs I’ve ever skied — and the ‘equine button lift’ is the cherry on the icing.

Let me repeat this note for skiers: both around the Sella, and all across the resort, in fact, we found nothing comparable to the challenging blacks of some French resorts. (Descending off the top of the Costabella-Dantercepies lift on the Sellaronda day, one of our party quips, “A Frenchman would laugh in your face if you told him that was a black!”) But that’s not why you come to the Alta Badia region to ski, dine and relax.

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Clear signposting on the Sellaronda

You come because it’s fairly priced, it’s pretty, and there are buses and taxis to take you up and down the valley. Whatever cash you spend here, you feel like your getting value for your euro. But you also find something special. As Giovanni from Trieste put it: “It’s paradise.” I’m not arguing. It just possibly is.

GETTING THERE

BY PLANE

Access to Alta Badia is via Venice Marco Polo to the south (2.5hr drive) or Innsbruck to the north (2hr drive). When we travelled in early February, booking the flights a month before, easyJet fares to Venice were, on average, £150 cheaper than those to Innsbruck. Plus, if you book a late flight home and leave Alta Badia early, you’ll have a few hours in Venice.

BY CAR

As noted, Venice to Alta Badia is not a complicated drive, but it is quite a long one. Basically, you need to head north on the A27. You then have the option of the fast route (continue on the A27) or the more scenic route (turn left onto the Strada Regionale 203 at Treviso).

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Merry Christmas From Venice!

Visiting Venice at this time of year will offer you an experience quite unlike the one you would have if you were to join the throngs of tourists in mid-summer…

I am awakened by a loud and annoying noise. I am confused, it seems like a nightmare, perhaps I am still sleeping. I get up and try to stretch my neck and I feel the pain. I walk towards the window to look outside but I cannot see anything apart from the thick white fog which is shrouding everything — the caigo (this is what we call the local fog in the Venetian dialect). The level of humidity is so high that it seems to penetrate my body, it is time to put aside the lightweight jacket I was wearing in London and swap into my Venetian clothing — my down-filled coat and a big scarf with a woolly hat. I will now blend in with my fellow Venetians.

Perhaps it is going to be a white Christmas, but of a different kind — the caigo makes Venice look more mysterious and ethereal than ever. Today the fog is combined with the acqua alta (high water) and the noise of the siren warning everyone is loud and clear. Venetians are used to it —  from October to February it is quite common and they cope with it in their daily routine.

The image of Venice enveloped by fog is only one of the many you might encounter if you visit in December. Don’t expect the traditional white Christmas as it very rarely snows — only a couple of times since I was born! Often, it is crispy cold and sunny and you can see Venice in detail — the palaces and the churches in definition, the smooth and lustrous marble, the colourful reflections on the canals which look like paintings on water. You can see the city with a theatrical background — the perfectly sculpted Dolomites covered by snow against the bluest sky. The winter months in the Lagoon show Venice in a different light, quite literally.

On the contrary however, when, like today, the caigo falls on Venice, everything loses definition; you become enshrouded in an enchanting and almost mythical environment where you, along with the grandeur of the palaces, are cloaked in mystery.

Whatever the weather, it is during winter that you get to know this “beautiful woman” best. I once read that it is only in this period of the year that you can see “her” with no make up on. I completely agree, as within this season you witness the real Venice, the city Venetians reclaim from the thousands of visitors during a special few months. The queue to get on a gondola disappears and even the endless rows of people lining up to get a glimpse of the Basilica’s mosaics gets much shorter. Walking along the meandering calli and crossing the bridges becomes far easier and stress free. You can even take a seat on the vaporetto and — assuming that you are wearing the same warm gear as the locals — enjoy your boat ride!

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A clear night on the Grand Canal, though often in winter the city is surrounded in a thick white fog

Obviously, there is more to all these advantages. Venice’s atmosphere is magical during the festive period with Christmas lights shimmering across canals, decorations in the pretty shop windows and of course, the true incense of Christmas spilling out onto the calli — Italian cooking! If you have never been to Venice for Christmas, be prepared, as it is very different from its British or American version. I am not saying that the Christmas spirit is not present and people are not excited, quite the opposite. Celebrations, however, are not ostentatious and you will not find the flashy decorations and Christmas music playing loud in every shop and at every corner. All the locals are busy preparing for the events, which means shopping — and lots of it — but, mainly, spending time together with their family. Being with the family is so important that there is even a way of saying “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi” (“Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you wish”). The lights are not everywhere but the ones over Rialto bridge and under the arcades of the Procuratie in Saint Mark’s Square definitely make up for the shortage and create an enchanting setting. A big tree in the Piazzetta dei Leoncini is the most popular destination for children together with the ice rink in San Polo. Traditionally, parents take their children to see the nativity scenes displayed in the many churches around the city. One of the best examples is the one in the stunning church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.

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Looking over the water through the ‘caigo’ to the 16th-century Benedictine lights

Every year, on the afternoon of the 26th of December, a free concert takes place in this church. It is only one of the many concerts that the city offers in different venues throughout this month.

During the festive season there are also some interesting regattas, such as the regatta of the Santas and the one of the Befane (the Befana is the good old witch who, on the night of the 5th of January, flies on her broomstick and fills in children’s stockings with sweets or coal depending on whether they have been good or naughty).

Befane Regatta on The Grand Canal - Venice

Befane Regatta on The Grand Canal – Venice

The festive atmosphere is definitely strongest at the Rialto market the mornings before Christmas — all the locals are trying to get the freshest fish for the Cenone della Vigilia (Christmas Eve dinner) — eel traditionally but, nowadays, lobster and baccala are much more popular. The meal is usually based on fish and vegetables, in keeping with most dinners being served the day before any religious celebration, when you are meant to “eat lean” in order to purify your body. However, as you might guess, being an Italian meal it is not as lean as it should be!

After Christmas Eve dinner, one experience that you really must not miss out on is Midnight Mass in Saint Mark’s Basilica. Here, in a solemn atmosphere, surrounded by stunning gold mosaics and by their reflections which are enhanced even more by candlelight, you will find the real Christmas spirit. After Mass, in the early hours of the morning, it is tradition to have another slice of panettone or pandoro (if you don’t like dried fruit) with a glass of Prosecco straight from the heart of the Veneto region, just before heading to bed.

st-mark-basilica-venice

Saint Mark’s Basilica

After having recovered from your not-so-light dinner, on Christmas morning you should get ready for the brodo con tortellini (meat-filled pasta with broth) followed by meat and many other delicacies. To follow more panettone, of course, and (as if it was not enough) some chunks of mandorlato (nougat)!

So, if you want to really get to know Venice intimately then do visit the city at Christmas when you can immerse yourself in the freedom and mystery of this beautiful city, free from the hordes of summer visitors. Do remember to wrap yourself in impenetrable winter clothes, wander among the calli, indulge in food and wine and treat yourself to a thick hot chocolate in between meals to warm you up!