When we share stories about travelling through Northern Italy often our most prominent memories are of icons like the Duomo in Milan, the beautiful town of Bellagio on Lake Como, the glorious canals of Venice and possibly the snowfields of the Dolomites. Northern Italy has many hidden treasures that remain relatively untouched by the ravages of mass tourism. These were the places I was seeking for our first Northern Italy tour. After three research trips to the regions of Lombardia, South Tyrol and the Veneto, I discovered some magnificent locations and experiences that fulfilled this criteria, particularly if visited during late spring/early summer.
One cannot travel to the north of Italy without a visit to Milan to try to unravel its complex history, wander the elegant fashion streets of Brera, take a peak at the restored Last Supper and of course the magnificent Duomo. The latter is an experience I never tire of particularly at sunset while enjoying a Campari and soda at the Campari Bar overlooking this beautiful edifice and its piazza.
But there is much more to experience, and as I now reflect on our inaugural Food, Wine and Walking tour of Northern Italy I’d like to share some of these.
Franciacorta and Lake Iseo
Bellavista sparkling wine (not Prosecco) was introduced to me by my dear friends at Trembath and Taylor Premium Italian wine importers more than 20 years ago and I’ve been a devotee ever since. Only an hour and a half from Milan, with Bergamo as a great stopover for lunch, it made sense to explore this region and stay a few nights at their stunning property outside the tiny town of Erbusco. What a treat this was and it led to the discovery of the untouched and little visited Lake Iseo and its Monte Isola. We spent a glorious day on a private boat visiting this fisherman’s island, wandering through its sleepy villages and dining on freshly caught local lake fish.
We spent a day on Lake Garda on our way to the Dolomites and had the unique opportunity to visit the beautiful Ferrari Winery along the way with lunch at their Locanda Margon in Trento. The highlight of this day was a private visit to their stunning Villa Margon, a 16th century country house that is one of the oldest and most beautiful in the Alps. Its rooms contain over 500 years of history and its frescoes reflect its status at that time. The villa welcomed cardinals and prelates from all over Europe including Emperor Charles V. It’s no surprise that one cycle of frescoes highlights his time at the Villa.
The village of San Cassiano in the valley of Alta Badia in South Tyrol was our base for 3 nights in the Dolomites. I met Hugo Pizzinini, third generation owner and operator of Rosa Alpina Hotel and Spa, a number of times at a travel trade event in Marrakech. I’d always been captivated by Hugo’s description and images of his family hotel and region, but nothing prepared me for the breathtaking beauty, rich history, diverse culture and unbelievable culinary delights of this valley. I first visited Rosa Alpina in September 2017 and it was love at first sight. Rosa Alpina’s theme is “life is a mountain not a beach”. I couldn’t agree more.
Location, isolation and language are all significant factors in the survival of the distinct culture of the Dolomites. Hugo Pizzinini and chef Norbert Niederkofler, and their neighbors are Ladins. In addition to Italian, German, and English, they speak Ladin, a distant descendant of Latin. As Hugo says, “A century of living under the Austrian Empire, we became Italian after World War I, but whatever our passports, we have always been Ladino people.”
On this trip we arrived on the first day of the summer season and experienced blue skies, perfect walking conditions and lovely chilly evenings. We were also privileged to experience the final day of a local pilgrimage that takes place every three years. It is a 100 kilometre walk over 3 days undertaken by the men of the valley to honour those lost in the plague hundreds of years earlier. The men and boys walk in pairs from church to church, village to village praying as they go. We were so fortunate to witness such a time honoured tradition that continues from generation to generation.
The food and wine of the valley is outstanding and St Hubertus restaurant at Rosa Alpina received its third Michelin star in November 2017. It is the first restaurant in Italy to receive the coveted third Michelin star since 2014 and it is well deserved. Chef Norbert Niederkofler sources all ingredients locally for his Cook the Mountain tasting menu. An extraordinary experience.
We also enjoyed a sensational lunch at Rosa Alpina’s private hut or refugio after our first day of walking in the Dolomites. Risotto made from local mushrooms, a variety of meats and vegetables grilled on the open fire and last but not least a famous dessert called Kaiserschmarrn – a traditional Austrian dessert, essentially torn pieces of pancake with berry compote and a dusting of confectioners’ sugar.
From the mountains we descended to the vineyards of Prosecco and the tiny wine town of Follina. A dramatic contrast to the Dolomites in temperature, landscape, food and wine. This is truly an underrated region of Northern Italy. Its striking beauty with rolling hills of lush vineyards, a plethora of walking trails and delicious rustic food was a perfect finale for our Epicurious travel adventure.
Some guests travelled on to spend a few nights in Venice, others to Rome. For me on to a new adventure in the Maremma Region in Tuscany researching our next tour in Italy.
We are currently in the process of finalising our Food, wine and walking tour in Northern Italy for June 2019. Book now to reserve your place on this exquisite journey. For more information, click here.