Brunate – The balcony on the Alps

Shelter-in-place measures have been lifted! We can travel around and enjoy day trips in Italy’s mild summer weather, in one of my favorite places on Earth: Lake Como. After so much time indoors I wanted to spend a day in the open, still respecting the safety measures. So facemask on and hand sanitiser in my bag, I left for Como with the intention of a short day trip.

Sitting right on the shore of Lake Como

Sitting right on the shore of Lake Como

Not even an hour from Poggio Verde, perched on the mountains above lake Como, there’s a little town called Brunate. It is a favorite place around here. The reason why, is that people can reach it by car or by the picturesque Bru-co funicular. “Bruco” in Italian means Caterpillar, but is also a combination of the two words Brunate and Como, the two towns the funicular connects. Funnily enough, in September (when I could not have known what life was about to become) I had gone to Como and bought a ticket to visit Brunate, but due to unforeseen circumstances I couldn’t do it. The end of the lockdown seemed like a perfect occasion to take advantage of my unused ticket!

The Bruco funicular is part of the joy of this experience. The cities of Como and Brunate built it in 1894 to ease movement between the two. The cars, renovated in 2011, still bear the typical colors: lilac going up and red to come down. From the windows one can admire the beautiful landscape opening on the lake as the cars go up. 

The view from the funicular

The view from the funicular

Once we arrived we immediately stopped to take pictures from one of the many viewpoints, which make the town famous. They are so many they grant Bruante the well-deserved name of “balcony of the Alps”. The sun was bright and the Lake shined at the bottom of the valley. What a marvellous view, even though the haze made it difficult to take perfect pictures.

We stopped for a coffee at one of the cafes near the viewpoint and got ready for a short walk. We wanted to enjoy the many art nouveau villas scattered throughout the town. Brunate has more than 20 architectural beauties, varying from art nouveau to Italian eclectic style, packed in just 2 square kilometers of surface (less than 1 square mile). 

Another main attraction in Brunate, less easy to reach, is the famous Lighthouse dedicated to Alessandro Volta. He invented the electric battery, and also the reason why Volts are the unit of measure for electic power. The lighthouse sits at the very top of the town and you can reach it on foot (a 30 minutes city hike) or by bus. The view from there is simply beautiful and, when open, it is also possible to climb on top of it, to see the world 100 feet on top of the mountain. The lighthouse is lit every evening and is colored red, green and white to light the Lake nights with the colors of the Italian flag. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic it was not possible to go inside it. I will surely come back one day to climb on top and see the world from above.

After taking loads of pictures and sitting for a little while under the shade with an ice lolly, we returned to the station. There we waited for the Brucoand returned to Como.

It was almost dinner time, and what better way to end a day trip than with a good restaurant dinner? If you are in Como, we recommend Gretchen’s favourite restaurant there, L’angolo del Silenzio (the corner of silence). Here’s her comment:

The restaurant is a very low-key place, a typical “Trattoria” run by a family that has been managing this locale for more than three generations. It feels a little bit like going into someone’s home. Not terribly fancy but with food and service that makes you feel like a guest. I always enjoy going to restaurants in Italy where the other diners are not only other foreign visitors, but also “regulars“, members of the local community who return again and again. It is also a pleasure to support a restaurant like this that you know is run by several generations of people dedicated to fine Italian cuisine. In this case they are masters in specialities such as stuffed pasta, local lake fish and almond cake. I highly recommend it!”  

Pictures by: Judith Wencel and S. Bechi

Visit to Val Curone: La Costa to Galbusera Nera

Val Curone, a regional park about 20 minutes from the villa, is a delightful place to spend a few hours walking, painting, dining or wine tasting.

One of our favorite things to do there is to walk from La Costa Agristurismo to Galbusera Nera, both of which are picturesque and offer wondering painting or photography opportunities.

We typically park near the old farmhouse and walk (or paint) from there. The hill just above the farmhouse has lovely views of the grapevine-covered hills and view back to the farmhouse itself.

 

The interior of the old farmhouse is quite charming.

 

From the farmhouse, views of La Costa Agriturismo, with five apartments and four double rooms, is quite picturesque.

 

 

The Agriturismo La Costa is a lovely and quiet spot from which to explore the Val Curone.

 

The walk down to Galbusera Nera, where one can have a lovely lunch or a casual wine-tasting,  is not long and passes through a heavy forest before opening up near the donkey farm and on to the restaurant and winery.

 

At Galbusera Nera, one can enjoy a lovely al fresco lunch or wine tasting when it’s nice outside, or dine indoors. Either way, the food and wine are tasty and the service is friendly and professional. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Day in Valtellina: Castel Grumello

The steep slopes on the north side of the beautiful Valtellina valley are covered with vineyards growing mostly nebbiolo grapes, which are made into some lovely wine. In fact, the wine was our reason for going to Valtellina in the first place. We had made the drive up and down the valley many times to have a wine tasting at Aldo Rainoldi and lunch at Fracia Ristorante, then stop in for the local meats and cheeses at Fratelli Ciapponi or La Fiorida before returning to the villa. We did notice the castle up there on the outcropping, though, and finally drove up to check it out and have been back many times since. The castle itself, Castel Grumello, was really interesting but the nice surprise was the amazing views up and down the valley, too.

 

Because of its strategic location between Italy and Central Europe, Valtellina was once home to numerous castles. The Castel Grumello, a “twin castle” with a military and a residential area, was begun in the 13th century and destroyed in 1526 by the Gray League (which also destroyed many of the other castles in the area).

 

 

 

 

We’ve visited the castle on sunny and rainy days, before lunch and after lunch and it’s always a treat.

 

It’s a great spot to take group pics!

 

One of the paths down from the castle passes through a little “restoro” with grapes hanging above the patio, and then by a private home with a balcony and a stunning view to the east.

 

Day in Valtellina: Ristorante Fracia

Ristorante Fracia, which we visited on our first day trip to Valtellina from Poggio Verde, remains our favorite. Its location is superb, nestled as it is among the Nino Negri vineyards, and its outdoor dining area is unforgettable. In the spring the purple wisteria hangs down from the pergola and in the fall the seed pods provide the interest. The indoor dining room is also very pleasant. Chef Luca Cantoni prepares reliable and tasty local food and our server, Fabrizio, is professional and friendly and we are always so glad to see them both.

 

The chef, Luca Cantoni, and his assistant in the kitchen turn out wonderful local food, beautifully and simply presented.

 

As Fracia is owned by Nino Negri, the excellent wines served there come from the vines surrounding the restaurant. We typically treat it as a sort of second wine tasting (in the morning we often visit Aldo Rainoldi, which we love).

 

When there’s time, and the group is so inclined, we take a post-prandial walk a few minutes up the hill to an overlook to take in the views. On a recent trip, we noticed that one of our group had walked on past the overlook and when he didn’t reappear immediately we went to find him and see what he was up to. He had come across a grape harvesting crew, quite a wonderful surprise! The crew foreman told us in broken English about the grapes and gave us some to taste and to take back to the villa.

 

We have also thoroughly enjoyed the Michelin-starred La Presef at the Fiorida complex west of Morbegno, and can certainly recommend it, but we do love Fracia for its location, the warm welcome we always receive, and the well-prepared, simple local food.

 

 

Day in Valtellina: Winemaker Aldo Rainoldi

Eric Asimov, the wine writer for the New York Times, wrote an article a few years ago about a lesser-known wine area in Northern Italy called Valtellina. We decided to check it out with one of our food and wine groups (“Taste of Northern Italy“) and have had the pleasure of returning many times since. It’s a bit longer drive from the villa than most of our day trips, almost 1.5 hours, but well worth it, not only for the wine but also for the beauty of the valley, the medieval castle ruins overlooking the valley, the 19th century grocery store and the restaurants we’ve come to know and love there, especially Ristorante Fracia.

 

Valtellina

The beautiful Valtellina looking west from the overlook above Ristorante Fracia in May. Photo by Austin Mann.

Valtellina shares its northern border with Switzerland, and it looks it. How grapes came to be grown, and wine made, in such rugged territory is quite a mystery. The work involved in terracing the steep hillsides to grow grapes is mind-boggling, but wine has been made here since before the Romans arrived (for over 2000 years). Leonardo da Vinci mentioned Valtellina in his Codex Atlanticus, describing the mountains as “fearsome” and the wines made there as “powerful.” Both are still true!

Valtellina

Walking up from Ristorante Fracia in Teglio toward the overlook

The very steep terraces grow excellent grapes, primarily the same grape used for the famous Piemonte wines (Barolo, Barbaresco, etc.). In Valtellina the grape is called “chiavannasca” and in Piemonte it’s known as “nebbiolo.” We’ve visited several producers, including Nino Negri, Sandro Fay, Ar.Pe.Pe and Aldo Rainoldi, but the one we tend to visit for tours (and for purchasing cases to take home or back to the villa for future enjoying) is Aldo Rainoldi. We have come to know the young current owners, who enthusiastically welcome our groups and many other guests we’ve encouraged to visit. We begin with a tour of the cellars…

 

…and continue with a tasting of four or five of the wines. Most of the Rainoldi wines are made with the chiavennasca grape but they do also make a couple of very nice whites and a lovely sparkling wine and then a visit to the boutique to make our selections to ship home or take back with us to the villa.

 

When we return to the villa, we unload the cases to enjoy during the week or to take to the cantina for aging and sharing with future villa guests.

Rainoldi Poggio Verde

 

Giardini Melzi – Lake Como

The Giardini Melzi, a few minutes’ walk south of the justifiably famous little town of Bellagio, is a perennial favorite of our guests at Poggio Verde Country Villa.

Our “Bellagio Day,” which includes Giardini Melzi, usually begins mid-morning and includes about a 45-minute drive up the western side of Lake Lecco (the other leg of Lake Como) and over the bump into Bellagio, arriving in time for an early lunch.

We’ve enjoyed lunch at several places in Bellagio but one of our current favorites is Albergo Silvio, which is perched above the Melzi garden. The menu offers a very nice selection of local fish, including the traditional lake fish and rice, and has a very decent wine list. An outdoor patio overlooks the lake and the dining room is perfect – all glass! 

 

After lunch we often take an interesting little path on the north side of the restaurant that leads right down to the south entrance of the garden. Don’t forget to look down as well as up as there are always little surprises (see the snail?).

 

We go out under the arch to the little street and turn right toward the entrance of the Giardini (and pass some other nice arches along the way).

 

We pick up our tickets at the entrance and walk south toward the villa. When we have time we take a peak into the tiny little chapel.

 

The villa comes into view. Villa Melzi d’Eril is one of the most important historical landmarks on the shore of Lake Como. It was built between 1808 and 1810 by Francesco Melzi d’Eril, duke of Lodi and vice president of the Italian Republic under Napoleon, who was also a personal friend. The most important architects and artists of the day were involved in the project. The villa’s architect (Canonica) and botanist (Villoresi) also designed the Villa Reale in Monza.

 

The former Orangerie (greenhouse) of the villa is now a museum. (The villa itself is not open to the public). It contains a few historical artifacts from the Napoleonic period and Renaissance frescoes.

 

The terraced gardens allow stunning views of Lake Como from three levels. The gardens are thoroughly enjoyable in all four seasons and in all weather and at all times of day but if you happen to be there on a somewhat cloudy day in the late afternoon you’re in for a special treat.

Photo: Austin Mann

 

The Moorish Pavilion in the garden has lovely views across the lake and four beautiful sculptures, including one of Lodovico Melzi d’Eril. Outside the pavilion is a memorial to the Italian writer Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and his beloved Beatrice.

 

From the gardens it’s a beautiful ten-minute walk along the lake into Bellagio for some wandering and surprisingly good shopping for such a small place. From there it’s about a 15-20 minute taxi boat ride to Villa Balbianello.

 

Be Charmed: Lago Maggiore

What a glorious day!! The beautiful blue sky and balmy October weather couldn’t have been better for the day trip to Lago Maggiore and two of its beautiful little islands, Isola Bella and Isola Pescatori.


Upon arrival in Stresa, a private boat was engaged for the day, beginning with the 5-10 minute ride to Isola Bella (aptly named: “beautiful island”), home of the magnificent Palazzo Borromeo.


The tour through the palace was very interesting…


…and afforded stunning views of Lago Maggiore and/or the park and gardens around the palazzo.


The lower level of the palazzo (the grotto) was fascinating and beautiful. Cobblestone and shells made for a cool place for the family to retreat to in hot weather.


The grounds on the east side of the palazzo were very…  interesting. Quite decorative. Edith Wharton devoted an entire chapter in her 1904 book on Italian villas to the palace and its unique gardens.


From there the group walked back to the waiting boat for the five-minute ride to little Isola Pescatori (fisherman’s island).


A lovely lunch was enjoyed on the terrace of the Ristorante Unione Superiore.


From there the boatman made a circle the long way around Isola Bella for a good look at the island and the Palazzo, then it was back to Stresa, where the coach was waiting for the drive back to the villa.


The group arrived home in time to enjoy some lovely late afternoon sun before another wonderful dinner at the villa.

 

 

 

Be Charmed: Mantero, Como, Brunate

Our delightful driver arrived after breakfast to take the group on yet another wonderful adventure.


First stop was Mantero, a silk outlet outside of Como. On first glance the shop looked small but the longer the group was there, the more they realized there was to choose from. In addition to the wide variety of scarves, there were some lovely ties. The ladies made many circles, picking things up and trying them on and eventually settling on a few things. On the way out the group noticed there were workers inside touching up some of the beautiful fabrics by hand.


From there it was a short drive to the restaurant for a nice lunch. After lunch the driver delivered the group to a spot where they could walk through a beautiful old square and along the lake to the funicular. The ride up the side of the mountain provides a beautiful view over Como and the Lake and ends at Brunate, a surprisingly pretty little village above Lake Como.


Brunate turned out to be a lovely little village and on a nice day or with a bit more time it would be worth spending more time exploring the area. It appears there are a number of excellent hikes from there (with stunning views, no doubt). After walking around a bit and visiting the lovely little church, the group decided to stop for a cup of hot cocoa or tea and was happy to find an outdoor cafe with blankets for the customers.


After a funicular ride back down (before which a certain 82-year-old female was observed jumping back over the turnstyle when she realized she’d gone through too early, and which happened so fast and so unexpectedly it was not be captured on camera), the group walked back along the lake and reconnected with the bus. A quick decision was made to visit Villa Olmo for a few minutes since it was so close. Despite the cloudy day it was beautiful.


Luigi, whose family has owned the Poggio Verde villa for several generations, had arrived from Milan and he graciously fielded many questions over cocktails and then a lovely dinner of typical Northern Italian specialties.

 

Be Charmed: Arrival Day, Montevecchia

As the group of women exited the arrivals hall at Milan’s Malpensa Airport, the driver was there to greet them and take them to the bus for the ride to Poggio Verde Country Villa. When later asked what they thought as they drove through the villa gate and up the drive, the immediate response was “we gasped.”

After unpacking and having their suitcases removed for storage for the week (the better to feel “at home”), the ladies took a short walk around the villa park. Despite the gray, overcast day, the villa and grounds made for some very nice photos.

The first outing was to Dac a Trá for lunch, a wonderful restaurant with a Michelin star about ten minutes from the villa. A menu had been selected ahead of time and the group enjoyed a pre-lunch glass of rose and an amuse-bouche before their pumpkin risotto and crescenza (creamy local cheese) arrived. The dish was received very enthusiastically. The main course was a very tasty fish and the dessert, raspberry sorbet with a crispy cookie. The ladies commented on how beautifully presented everything was, mentioning that it was served on Wedgwood china.


After lunch the bus took the group on the 20-minute ride up to the beautiful little hilltop town of Montevecchia. It just so happened that the villa in the center of town was open, which is not often the case. An impromptu tour of the first floor of the villa was enjoyed by all (the second floor is occupied by the family and is not open for visitors). Most of the ladies then climbed the stairs to the church at the very top, which has a lovely view of the protected park surrounding the town (Parco Curone) and the hills of Brianza (the name of the area around Poggio Verde).

 

Upon leaving Montevecchia, the driver continued on up the ridge in the direction of the tiny cheese shop at the farmhouse up the road. A few cheeses were purchased to enjoy during the week.

 

Dinner at the villa was homemade tagliatelle pasta with fresh veggies and herbs, accompanied by some nice Italian wines. It was followed by a salad and a dessert from Fumagalli, the excellent local pastry shop. Then it was time to go to bed and rest up for the next day’s adventure to Bergamo and Franciacorta.

Chattanooga in Poggio Verde

IMG_1478In a country villa up a hillside from little Barzanò, Italy, less than an hour north of Milan, final preparations are underway to receive visitors for a week of exploring the beauty of northern Italy. Rooms are being given a final cleaning, the refrigerator is being stocked, the grounds are being tended to and windows are being shined so nothing obstructs the gorgeous views.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, eight women are finishing up their packing, taking care of last minute details and saying their good-byes before heading to the airport to catch their flight for Milan, arriving Saturday morning.

Things may change due to weather, but their itinerary is as follows:

DAY 1: Saturday, 3 October 2015. Arrival, Organic Luncheon and Montevecchia. Exiting Malpensa airport’s baggage area, look for our driver who will be holding a large POGGIO VERDE sign. He will accompany you to the Villa where you will have time to unpack, make yourself comfortable and take a relaxed walk in the park. We will have lunch at the organic farm,”Galbusera Bianca” followed by a short walk in scenic Montevecchia Alto with its quaint church and stations of the cross. The day ends with a delicious meal at the Villa with home-made tagliolini pasta and fresh vegetables and herbs, followed by Italian cheeses and a dolce.

turismo-enogastronomico-strada-vino-franciacorta-wineDAY 2: Sunday, 4 October. Bergamo Alto and Franciacorta. After breakfast, our driver will take us the lovely hill town of Bergamo. We’ll take the funicular to Bergamo “Alta”, one of the most beautiful hill towns in Italy. After wandering around the medieval town we will take the funicular back to the lower city and our driver will take us to lunch at a nearby vineyard to taste the delicious sparkling wine of the region and then back to Poggio Verde. We’ll have dinner at the Villa prepared by Cicchi (pronounced Cheeky), a great chef and friend.

mendrisioDAY 3: Monday, 5 October. Switzerland, Outlet shopping, Wine Tasting. After breakfast, put your passport in your purse because we’re heading up to Switzerland! Our driver will take us for a short visit to the house museum Vincenzo Vela in Ligornetto and we will have lunch at the nearby family restaurant “Grotto Balduna” featuring Ticinese local cuisine. After lunch we will visit Foxtown for outlet shopping. Return to Poggio Verde and relax until our wine tasting session with the sommelier Penati of Oggiono and delicious home-cooked meal of Northern Italian specialties.

IMG_3452DAY 4: Tuesday, 6 October. Como, Silk outlet, painting exhibit, Tea at Villa d’Este. After breakfast, our driver will take us to Como, where we will enjoy a bit of the Old Town and visit Mantero, a luscious Italian silk outlet. We will have lunch at a sweet Osteria featuring local specialties, then visit a painting exhibit at Villa Olmo in Como followed by tea at the Villa d’Este, one of the most beautiful romantic and neoclassical villas in Italy. Our driver will return us to Poggio Verde in time for dinner prepared for us at the Villa.

isola bellaDAY 5: Wednesday, 7 October. Lago Maggiore, Stresa, Isola Bella, Linens outlet. After breakfast our driver will take us to the charming town of Stresa on Lake Maggiore. We will take a walk along the lakefront and then take a boat from Stresa to the magnificent Isola Bella, the most lavish of the three Borromean Islands. Here we’ll have lunch in a charming restaurant and we will visit the princely Borromeo Palace and its grandiose baroque Italian Gardens built on ten terraces. We return to Stresa by boat where our driver awaits us to accompany us to the linens outlet Bellora and then back to the Villa for a delicious meal at Poggio Verde. (Rain alternative: Go to Milan and visit EXPO! The world exhibition has been receiving excellent reviews and exhibits from 70 countries are said to be amazing.)

Duomo PicDAY 6: Thursday, 8 October. Milano: The Last Supper, Duomo, La Scala, Via Montenapoleone. After breakfast, our driver will take us to Milan where we will begin with a guided tour that includes Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Lunch will be in a restaurant overlooking the roof of the Duomo. From the restaurant we will walk through the Galleria to the La Scala opera house for a behind-the-scenes visit, followed by shopping and strolling down Via Montenapoleone and Via Spiga. Our driver returns us to the Villa for a short rest and then we will dine at the nearby “Giovanna Passeri” Agriturismo with its refined and fresh Brianzola specialties.

DAY 7: Friday, 912174253054_ca094e3b17_n October. Royal Monza After breakfast our driver will accompany us to the royal city of Monza we will visit one of the most beautiful Romanesque cathedrals in Northern Italy, the Duomo of Monza, for a look at the famed “Iron crown” – said to have been made with the melted-down nails of the Cross and the crown which Napoleon crowned himself in 1805. After a stroll around the old center of this pretty town, we’ll have lunch at a delightful Osteria featuring local specialties. Then we’ll visit the newly renovated Royal   Villa of Monza, a truly spectacular visit. That evening we will celebrate a scrumptious good-bye dinner prepared by Cicchi at what has become by now your new Italian “home.”

DAY 8: Saturday 10 October Departure. After breakfast at the Villa our driver will take you (and your packages and your great memories!) to the airport.