Indeed, the lakes of the northern Italian region of Lombardy – the most famous being Como, Garda and Maggiore – are staggeringly beautiful: vast jagged swathes of deep blue, framed by peaks, villages and picturesque dwellings, and full of ugly but quite delicious fish. But competing with the crowds and high prices surrounding the lakes in high season can be more stress than relaxation.
L’ALBERETA AND HENRI CHENOT
Which is why a retreat away from the throng can be just the thing to get the most out of this serene, industrious region of northern Italy. (Lombardy is the wealthiest and most industrially developed of all Italian regions.) Enter L’Albereta, a sprawling luxury villa an hour away from Milan, minutes from the lesser known but still beautiful Lake Iseo (70km away from Como) and in the heart of the brilliant Franciacorta wine region.
Our main reason for visiting L’Albereta was the world-famous Henri Chenot spa there, as well as the chance to dabble in the delights of the region. Combining the two is the ultimate recipe for rejuvenation.
Henri Chenot’s most famous outpost is at the Palace Merano in the Dolomites. Chenot centres are considered among the world’s top medi-spas – quasi-medical spas said to achieve brilliant psycho-physical transformations. Turn up bloated, chubby, stressed and with troubled skin and you’ll leave svelte, devoted to a healthier life path, clear-skinned and clear headed. Or that’s the theory.
The principles that govern Chenot spas come from the field of “biontology”, meaning “the study of the essence of life and its evolution”. This means a team of doctors, dieticians and therapists oversee your treatment – it’s all very stern in a northern European way and also a little bit old-school, thanks to the brusque manners of the largely non-English speaking therapists and the no-frills treatment rooms.
True devotees of Chenot go to Merano or L’Albereta to take “the cure” (it doesn’t get more European than that). This involves several treatments a day as well as a strict diet formulated to aid digestion, shed weight and boost energy.
Luckily, our Cure menu was limited to lunch. On my first night, we went off for dinner at La Dispensa (dispensafranciacorta.com), a slow-food restaurant and deli with local cheese, meat and wine. We had lake fish in butter, sturgeon mousse, magnificent local saffron risotto and a heap of desserts – including licorice ice cream. Best of all, it was my first taste of Franciacorta, the region’s Champagne-quality sparkling wine. Locals become outraged at anyone who confuses it with the lowlier Prosecco. Franciacorta isn’t just the Champagne of Italy – it is the Krug of Italy, and bursts with taut, fruity fizz held in check with sophisticated dryness. We coiffed rose and cuvee and found it a perfect accompaniment to dinner.
Next day, our lighter version of the Cure began. My programme (Chenot specialises in personalised treatments) began with a double header of facial and scalp massage. The scalp treatment was unusual in its duration – an hour of vigorous massage – and remarkable in its finale: a garish aluminum foil hat covering a hair mask, which, when worn with glasses and paraded through the halls of the hotel, caused severe embarrassment.
Lunch was a taste of pure dreariness – and the very essence of health. Chenot meals begin with fruit (thought to be easier to digest at the beginning of the meal than the end): so a swirl of unsweetened red puree was followed by a bowl of leaves and white radish, served with an unsalted herb dressing that tasted of socks. Health incarnate. Spelt pizza was surprisingly large and cheesy – and there the meal ended, aside from the watery barley coffee.
Treatments rumbled on over the weekend – massage and, my favourite, hydrotherapy followed by a stinging mud body wrap that left me swaddled in stringent mud and cling film, lying on your back for half an hour in a dim scarlett-hued room. The effect was magnified by a soak in the frothing bath beforehand: the ferocious current and cleansing, enriching bubbles open up your pores and force you to contemplate life as you lie there alone for half an hour.
The spa offers a bevy of services from doctors and dieticians of varying usefulness. The dietician did explain some helpful background to the Cure diet, revealing some interesting facts about digestion and the best times to eat fibre, protein and carbohydrate. And the importance of chewing your food properly (do it, it makes life far easier for your intestines).
Anyone who is interested in wine should prioritise Franciacorta, a 2,200 hectare patch of rolling hills that produces roughly 7 million bottles a year (Champagne, by comparison, is 33,500 hectares and makes 30 million bottles per year).
On L’Albereta’s doorstep is Bellavista (bellavistasrl.it), a superlative vineyard and one of the region’s most famous. Our tour took us deep into tunnels full of impeccably packed wines, whose grapes were cultivated by hand, and who live in bottles lovingly hand-turned. The winery says its whole wine-making ethos can be boiled down to the word “respect”. If it sounds like a flimsy word, the technique certainly pays off. The Bellavista tradition requires the winemakers to be in tune with the plants they harvest; to be gentle and understanding, almost as though dealing with a child. The system works – wine lovers clamour to buy Bellavista’s vintages and can pay over €100 per bottle.
The hotel is also a short drive from Lake Iseo – a hauntingly beautiful lake (particularly in the shimmery gray of the overcast March weekend), if a small one by Lombardy standards. We scuttled across on a motor boat – past a private one-villa island that looked like a lush dot in the water (presumably also property gold) – and hopped out at the village of Iseo. It’s off the beaten track – but it’s a great place for local fish and agricultural delights, with vineyard and olive and ancient chestnut groves. Oddly, the villages around the lake are renowned worldwide for net-making – everything from fishing nets to football nets are made here.
With Milan, Verona and Padua all within a short drive away, Lombardy is the discerning traveller’s Italian region of choice. Just ask George Clooney.
Classic Collection Holidays (www.classic-collection.co.uk) offers three nights’ bed and breakfast this Aug-Sep from £808 per person based on two sharing and includes British Airways flights from Gatwick to Verona and a hire car for the duration of the trip. Spa treatments can be booked on request through the operator. Chenot Wellbeing Spa Programme at L’Albereta: Minimum 3 days from £1000 excluding accommodation. Includes Biolight diet, Impedenziometric test, diet assessment, three energising massages, three hydroaromatherapy sessions, three phyto-mud therapy applications, three hydrojet sessions, group physical fitness activities and conference on health philosophy. w.ww.albereta.com.
THE GEMS OF LOMBARDY
On the left bank of the Po River in the middle of the Po Valley, Cremona remains the world centre of violin making. Famous luthiers from the town include Guarnieri and Stradivari, whose violins fetch millions today. The 12th century cathedral is thought to have been the centre of organized musical activity in the region in the late Middle Ages and by the 16th century the town had become a famous musical centre. It is still a fabulous spot for culture vultures: there are major festivals as well as world-famous ensembles playing Renaissance and Baroque music. Whether you are a music lover or not, Cremona is one of northern Italy’s most beautiful cities, with stunning early Renaissance architecture in the old city. Don’t miss the Torrazzo (1267), an octagonal tower with great views, in which there is a violin workshop on the first floor. Finally, a meal at the first-rate Osteria La Sosta is a must; so good it gets Milan’s elite foodies driving down for its superb local meats and cheese, pasta and seasonal produce. (www.osterialasosta.it)
Just 45 kilometres north of Milan is one of Europe’s most famous and elite holiday resorts. Lake Como, 146km across and 400m deep, is a breathtaking expanse of blue, framed by mountains and villas of the rich and famous. Inhabitants of Como have included Pliny the Elder and the Younger and Pope Innocent XI. Like other Lombardy towns, it has superlative Romanesque and Renaissance architecture and some breathtaking churches. But let’s be honest: Como is all about seeing and being seen, while staying and eating somewhere fabulous. Villa D’Este (www.villadeste.it) is a sumptuous 16th century palace with famously good lake views, its own park, luxuriously appointed rooms and several fine dining restaurants. Grand Hotel Tremezzo is another iconic grand hotel with a swimming pool submerged in the lake (www.grandhoteltremezzo.com). For fresh lake fish head to Ristorante Barchetta in Bellagio for dinner served on a bamboo-enclosed heated terrace. (www.acena.it/labarchettadibellagio).
Considered the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, by the mid-16th century, Mantova had become Europe’s nexus for philosophers, mathematicians and artists. Signs of this intellectual richness are to be found in the 18th century Scientific Theatre (or Academy), the brilliantly grand Sordello Square, which represented the centre of political and artistic life of the city, and the Gonzaga family palace with its exquisite furniture and paintings by Rubens and Tintoretto. The beautiful Medieval old town is full of treasures such as the Rotonda di S. Lorenzo, the 11th century Roman temple, the Clock Tower (1473) with its beautiful polychromed clock-face and the 13th century Regional Palace. For dinner don’t miss Dal Pescatore (www. dalpescatore.com), where Antonio and Nadia Santini have turned family tradition and recipes garnered by years of afternoon gossips into a formidable, delicious fine dining hotspot. Think chargrilled eel and perfect pumpkin gnocchi. And the cosy Osteria dell'Oca is said to have the best polenta (a regional bragging point) in town. (www.osteriadelloca.it)
It almost goes without saying that Milan, the capital of Lombardy, is one of the world’s great capitals of style. It’s the global headquarters of the fashion industry and its inhabitants are scarily chic. It follows, then, that for people who like great design – from clothes to bars to hotels – Milan is a must-see. Ultra stylish hotels include the brand new Maison Moschino (www.maisonmoschino.com), from the fashion house of the same name. Built in a former 18th-century railway station, each of the 65 rooms have been decorated in 16 fairytale themes. For all out classical glamour, stay at the Dorchester Collection’s Hotel Principe Di Savoia (www.hotelprincipedisavoia.com), or the decadent Grand Hotel Et De Milan (www.grandhoteletdemilan.it). And Milanese culture is superb: La Scala is the most famous opera house in the world. Brunch at idyllic hotspot El Brellin (www.brellin.com)– set in an ancient laundry house – should be attempted the morning after. Or try Merluzzo Felice (tel: 00 39 02 545 4711), where you have to ring to get in the door. One of the most delicious, exclusive eateries in town.