Seven Days in Italy
Arrive in Turin, an industrial city that prides itself (or so it says at the airport) on being the ‘design capital of the world’. See rather more of Turin’s roads than intended because we get lost and go round and round the city for an hour before finally getting on the highway to Piedmont.
My hotel is the Relais San Maurizio, a small luxury property on top of a hill. Many centuries ago, it was a monastery till a wealthy noble family bought it and turned it into an aristocratic residence. Then early this century, a successful banker who had grown up in Piedmont and who had memories of the house on the hill, bought it for himself. Eventually, he linked up with the local wine producers to create what must be one of the nicest hotels in the region.
Rooms can be small but their antiquity makes them wonderfully atmospheric and no expense has been spared in the refurbishment.
Rom Breakfast on the lawns of the Relais San Maurizio overlooking the vineyards. Frederico Ceretto who arrives to pick me up points out that the vineyards are his family’s. The grapes go into the Ceretto Moscato, a light sparkling wine typical of the region.
Off to see the Ceretto winery with Frederico and then, his sister Roberta. The Cerettos are among the leading wine families of the region and their Nebiolo-based wines are justly famous. Like most top class vineyards, theirs are planted on slopes and much care is taken about the angle of the sun. Roberta shows me the Bricco Rocche winery, a surprisingly peaceful place best known for a Plexiglas structure that features in design magazines as a state-of-the-art tasting room.
Lunch with the Ceretto family at their own restaurant, which has a Michelin star. The chef has worked in Asia so such, ingredients such as sesame oil and soya sauce turn up in his cooking. The standout dish is a risotto he has invented to complement Bricco Rocche, the top Ceretto wine. It is made with a local cheese and cocoa beans. The richness of the cheese and the spiciness of the chocolate provide a perfect counterpoint to the red wine. Spend the evening truffle hunting before going for dinner to Guido’s restaurant at the Relais San Maurizio. The original Guido was a Piedmont legend. His wife Lidia rewrote many of the local recipes and their restaurant got two Michelin stars. This outpost has only got one star in the short time that it has been open but Lidia and her sons are confident that a second is on its way
Certainly, the food deserves it. There’s Lidia’s version of vitello tonnato in which the veal is baked, not just boiled, and there’s the lightest, most ethereal agnoletti I have ever eaten. Afterwards the sommelier takes me down to the centuries old cellar where he shows me his wine collection. The restaurant has 35,000 bottles valued at over $2 million euro.
A long and tedious drive from Piedmont to Florence. We start late, after a leisurely breakfast, and it takes even longer (over five hours) than I had thought. And this despite taking the highway rather than the scenic route. The high spot is lunch at a motorway café in Bologna. In much of America and England, these restaurants can be dismal places embodying the worst of institutional catering. But the Bologna café is a surprise. It resembles nothing as much as a hotel buffet.There are four kinds of bread, a salad station, pasta and risotto being freshly made, lamb carved off the bone and much else. Clearly Italians know how to eat.
We drive through Florence to arrive at the Villa San Michelle, one of Europe’s most famous hotels. Located — like many other Italian luxury properties — on top of a hill, with spectacular views of Florence, it has villas hidden in the landscaped foliage of the hill.While this level of beauty and luxury is surprising enough, I’m most impressed by the graciousness of the service. Most European hotels will be unwilling to iron anything after eight pm. At the Villa San Michelle, at nine pm, it takes fifteen minutes to get a shirt pressed. After dinner, I ask a waiter if it is all right to use the garden to drink a bottle of my own (Ceretto) wine rather than one from the hotel’s list. “Of course, sir”, he says. “It is your garden. Can I open the bottle for you?”The Villa San Michelle is one corner of Florence that is forever Palm Beach; the hotel is packed out with rich, elderly Americans, many of whom have been coming here for years. But now it wants to attract rich Indians.
I tell them that it could work: Indians abroad seem to have a lot of money these days.
To be told that I am meeting Salvatore Ferragamo is a slightly jolting feeling. Surely the old boy died years ago?
Well yes, he did. But this is a young, glamorous, jet-set, polo-playing, half-English member of the famous family with the same name as the founder. Young Salvatore says that as a Tuscan, he had “wine in my blood” and so, he makes his own at Ill Borro, around 40 minutes from Florence. The Ferragamos have turned the medieval village of Borro into something of their own. There’s the vineyard, of course, but there’s also a spectacular 11-bedroom villa with two swimming pools, which they hire out to rich people. And in Borro, they provide accommodation to anyone looking for something slightly off the beaten track.Salvatore’s wines are not typical of the region in that he uses French grapes. His white wine for instance has a Chablis character and his top wine (very drinkable) contains Merlot. His view is that the terroir rather than tradition should dictate the choice of grapes. If French grapes fare best in the soil then that’s what he’ll grow.Dinner at Cantinetta Antinori owned by the wine family. It confirms what I’ve always been told. In Italy, a pasta dish is about the pasta, not about the sauce. Nor do Italians use much of the cream with which chefs elsewhere drown their pasta.
As pretty as the Villa San Michelle is, there is an argument for staying within Florence rather on a hill overlooking the city. So I shift to the Continentale by the Ponte Vecchio, the covered bridge across the river that is a Florentine landmark. The Continentale is owned by another branch of the Ferragamo family (they own a lot of Florence, which is their headquarters) and is the very opposite of the Villa San Michelle. It is a trendy, boutique hotel. But unlike most design hotels, this one has vast rooms and a decor that is brighter and more cheerful than the sort of thing that has made Philippe Starck’s reputation.
But before leaving the Villa San Michelle, I order one of its Bellinis. Made with fresh peach juice and Prosecco, it is the best Bellini I have had — a reflection, I would imagine ,on the quality of the local peaches. At the Continentale, its only restaurant serves excellent, trendy Japanese food which is great but I’m not sure I can be bothered to eat sushi in the heart of Italy.Florence is one of the world’s loveliest cities but you have to get used to the flood of tourists. This makes eating and drinking difficult (everything in the centre of town is a tourist trap) and even the local places can be disappointing. Dinner is at Cibreo, which I am assured has one Michelin star. I can’t think why. The food is decidedly mediocre. Even the motorway café was better.
Florence was the centre of the Renaissance so I’m looking forward to some culture. The main museum has queues that seem to go on for miles but you can also prebook quite easily and cut through the crowds.
Once inside, I am enthralled. Apart from all the art that gets the tourists going — Titian, Leonardo, Rubens etc. — there’s a vast range in the museum’s exhibits. There are Greek sculptures dating back to centuries before Christ and authentic Roman artifacts. My only regret is that I have just one day to do the museum. It needs a week to do it properly.
The famous statue of David by Michelangelo used to be in the square outside the museum but has now been moved. Instead, a contemporary copy by a professor of sculpture has been put in its place. This strikes me as being a bit of a con but the tourists don’t seem to notice.
Nevertheless, I journey to another museum where the real David is on display and marvel at the majesty of the work. Michelangelo chose to portray David (of David and Goliath fame) not as a boy but as a symbol of manhood. The statue is said to conform to Leonardo’s idea of the perfectly proportioned male. This is probably true but I can’t help wondering about how huge the hands are. No doubt there is a perfectly reasonable explanation but I shall have to look it up. Train to Venice in the evening.
The first time I went to Venice I fell in love with all of it; the gondolas, the canals, the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square and even the tourists. Then I went back in the winter when the tourists had gone and I loved it even more.
This time I’m there in the middle of the tourist season, and I’m more ambivalent. While I’d stayed near Saint Mark’s Square before, I’m a little further out this time at Venice’s newest deluxe hotel, the Ca’ Sagredo, the former palazzo of the Sagredo family, located not far from the Rialto.
The advantage is that I get to see a different side of Venice but the disadvantage is that I find the journey to Saint Mark’s Square on foot much too tiresome especially since this involves fighting past hordes of tourists taking pictures of themselves. (It’s a funny thing. When they are in Florence, tourists take pictures of the buildings. But in Venice, tourists only want to take photos of themselves).Instead, I take a boat and visit the nearly islands. I go first to Murano and watch a craftsman blowing a perfect glass bottle. Then, as I watch astonished, he blows a perfect statue of a house. From Murano, I go to Burano, another island, which is famous for its lace. The real attraction for me though are the buildings. It is the law in Burano that you cannot paint your house the same colour as your neighbour’s. Legend has it that the law was passed after a fisherman got drunk and seeing a row of identical houses, went home to the wrong one. Now, because each is different colour, nobody is likely to make that mistake. Dinner at the hotel is elegant and unhurried, sitting out on the verandah, looking at the boats as they pass by the canal and eating a seafood risotto. It’s been a hectic week. But all it has done is make me realise how much there is to see in Italy — and how little I’ve seen.