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.
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.
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!
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…
Erica, our wonderful tour guide (photo by Kelsey Wilson)
The barriques from France (photo by Kelsey Wilson)
The sparkling in process.
…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.
Aldo Rainoldi steps in to help set up a wine tasting
Erica explains where the grapes are grown for each of the wines
The. wines we tasted on this trip
Erica explains where the logo for Aldo Rainoldi originated (a very old carving on a rock found in the valley)
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.
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!
Interior dining room
The view from the interior dining room
The local favorite, lake fish and rice
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 villa comes into view
The lions guarding the villa entrance
Water lily basin and fountain. Photo: Austin Mann
Villa Melzi from the door of the museum
Photo: Austin Mann
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 former Orangerie is now a museum.
Photo: Austin Mann
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
Walking to the pond
View north toward the Alps
A glimpse of the roof of the Moorish Pavilion from an upper level path.
The lake-level path to Bellagio
The bridge over the pond is one of many great spots for photos.
The neogothic “sham ruin” near the north entrance.
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.
The Moorish Pavilion. Photo: Austin Mann
Maria Anna of Savoy or Josephine Barbo?
Dante and Beatrice…
…and Jack and Ann
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.
We’ve been taking our Poggio Verde Country Villa groups to Bergamo, a beautiful (very) old hilltop city about an hour from the villa for several years. We have been hearing from our wonderful Bergamo guide, Elena Marchesi, and again recently from another friend, that we should visit Castello San Vigilio, which is a walk or funicular ride on up the hill from the Cittá Alta of Bergamo.
So the last couple times we’ve been there we’ve been trying to figure out a way to squeeze it in, with no luck. This time, though, we were quite determined to go so we adjusted a few things and found a new lunch spot in Bergamo, which turned out to be an outstanding restaurant right next to the funicular going up to San Vigilio. (More about that restaurant in another post…) Most of the group was up for an adventure after lunch so we hopped on the funicular and went up.
The funicular up to San Vigilio
The view from the top of the funicular San Vigilio
Funicular from the Bergamo Citta Alta to San Vigilio
Map of the Castello S Vigilio
Turn right for the castle
As we departed the funicular and headed toward the exit, we checked out the views to the left, which were wonderful, and then looked around for signs for the Castello, which we easily found. We turned right, following the sign, walked a few minutes up the cobblestone path and rounded the corner to see the walls of the medieval castle. (The first mention of the castle is actually in the 6th century but it’s undergone changes through the centuries, of course.) Our favorite memory of that trip up, though, was when Frank left the main path and disappeared into a doorway in the rock… and didn’t come out. We all followed, maybe to make sure he was okay, maybe not to miss what he was getting to see/do. We found ourselves in a narrow tower with winding stone steps and started up, hoping to find Frank and hoping there was an exit somewhere… and wondering how many more steps there were.
Arriving at the castle (see the door on the left?)
The door where Frank disappeared
Up we went…
The view part way up the winding stairs
Eventually we found ourselves on a gorgeous plateau with views ALL around the countryside (and we found Frank!). Stupendous!
We found Frank!
Exploring and discovering is just the best! We’ve added San Vigilio to our Bergamo itinerary going forward, that’s for sure. 🙂
The driver came to collect the group and they drove the hour or so to the Foxtown outlet shops, just over the border in Switzerland. After a couple of hours checking out the lovely merchandise at shops like Armani, Ferragamo, Loro Piano, etc., it was time for a bite of lunch.
After lunch the group made a stop at the beautiful Villa d’Este hotel in Cernobbio.
On arriving back at the villa, the ladies disembarked with their purchases in a fine mood. The day had been lovely but was not yet over… next up was the wine tasting.
Departing the bus with a few shopping bags at the front of the villa
Representatives of the Penati Wine Shop in Oggiono, a few minutes north of Barzanò came and provided a tasting of four Italian wines from different regions along with appropriate “affinati” (charcuterie or meat/cheese plate). At the end, the group voted on their favorites and a few bottles were kept to enjoy the rest of the week.
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.
In 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.
DAY 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.
DAY 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.
DAY 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.
DAY 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.)
DAY 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, 9 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.
What a wonderful day full of new discoveries, stunning scenery and good food!
After much investigation on google maps, it was decided to drive toward the Como Greenway, visit Villa Balbianello and maybe Villa Carlotta, then cross to Lugano and return home, perhaps with a stop in the lovely Cernobbio near the famous Villa d’Este hotel if time allows. (This post is about the first half of that trip, which would under normal circumstances make an excellent day trip if Villa Balbianello had been open. For the second half of this day, see the next post).
Soon after breakfast, the group drove northeast in the direction of Como, then north from Como to Tremezzina (the address that was found on a Villa Balbianello site). Some of the GPS devices couldn’t pick up Tremezzina but we later found that Lenno is a better choice. After a couple of wrong turns (and highly amusing attempts to turn two cars around on a very-narrow road) parking was located on the right side of the main road near the little hotel La Provincia. The lake was easily found down a sidewalk between buildings and stunning vista opened up.
The path on the left leads to the lake and our restaurant was on the right
It was getting to be lunch time and the consensus was to find a pizzeria for a casual lunch. The restaurant near the parking spot (L’Osteria #1) advertised pizza but it turns out the ovens are not fired up at lunch. The proprietor insisted he had a far superior kitchen to what could be found on the water, though. There was some discussion among the group whether to dine by the water (with the incredible view) or at the little trattoria with the young and enthusiastic proprietor. He offered to set up a table under a pergola and a return time of 1:00 was set.
The group walked toward the water and found that they were right on the Como Greenway. To the right was the peninsula on which the Villa Balbianello was perched, so the group ambled that way, taking in the extraordinary views of the lake and mountains. The entrance gates to the villa were located and found to be locked. Closed on Mondays. There was a bit of disappointment, of course, but everyone now had a good excuse to return to Lake Como another time.
A map of the Como Greenway
On the Lake Como Greenway in Lenno
Walking toward Villa Balbianello from Lenno
Little ones enjoying Lake Como
Lake Como (Lenno)
On the Como Greenway toward Villa Balbianello from Lenno
View back toward Lenno (on the Como Greenway toward Balbianello)
Closed on Mondays. A perfect excuse to return.
Upon return to the lunch spot the group found a table set under the pergola/arbor. The proprietor popped right out and struck up a conversation in heavily-accented English, contributing to the experience. Pasta, fish and other dishes were ordered, along with a decent table wine, and lunch proved to be just delightful, and the food very good.
Wonderful lunch under the pergola – near Villa Blabianello and Lake Como Greenway
The excellent La Fabbrica del Gelato is toward the lake and to the right from L’Osteria #1.
Back to the cars for more adventures
After lunch, the group continued north to Menaggio and turned west on SS340 toward Lake Lugano, visited Monte Bré, then Cernobbio (where they had a lovely dinner) and then drove back to Poggio Verde Country Villa. It made for a long day but a wonderful tour for an ambitious group. That part of the day will be posted soon.
It was a particularly clear morning and the views toward Milan to the south and Monte Rosa to the northwest were quite something. A quick run was made to Rex Market for picnic provisions (the prosciutto cotto, prosciutto crudo and bresaola from the cured meats section are particularly excellent). Cheese, fruit and wine selections at Rex are also perfect for picnics.
A stunningly clear morning (view to the south)
Cured meats at Rex Market
Monte Rosa in the distance
The 20-minute drive straight north on SS36 goes by Lake Oggiono and Lecco, then it’s helpful to carefully watch for the sign to Piani d’Erna upon exiting the second tunnel after Lecco as it’s easy to miss the exit. The funicular (cable car) takes visitors up several thousand feet in short order and the views over Lake Lecco toward the Grigna mountains are quite beautiful.
It’s a beautiful little walk from the Funicular to the overlook. Brave visitors can also take the walk out to the scary promontory; it drops precipitously for thousands of feet on either side. Back toward the funicular there’s a “Sentiero Natura”, or nature trail, that leads to another beautiful walk. See more photos of Piani d’Erna in a previous post.
Trail to Piani d’Erna
Explanation of the depth of area lakes
Climbers coming up another way
Wonderful hiking and picnic at Piani d’Erna above Lake Lecco
View from the Funicular exit at the top
After an hour or two at Piani d’Erna, it’s a good idea to stop in at the excellent Pasticceria Fumagalli in the little town of Barzanò for a gelato, and perhaps to pick up a dessert for dinner. Or if the timing is right for an aperitivo, that’s an excellent choice, as well. The bar snacks are particularly tasty here.
The south terrace outside the kitchen of Poggio Verde Country Villa is such a wonderful spot for gathering and chatting.
Afternoon siesta on the south terrace
Setting the table
Ready for dinner
Working up an appetite with a few more rounds of pre-dinner bocce:
Bocce and Badminton at the villa
Another wonderful dinner was prepared and enjoyed under the lovely “Portico Coperto”.
Gather your family or a group of like-minded friends and consider adding “Trip to Northern Italy” to your Christmas list! Focus on a certain theme – like golf, hiking or walking, cooking, dining, wine-tasting, painting, photography, art & culture, cycling, shopping – or arrange for a custom trip that includes a bit of several different activities. Day trips to famous wine-growing regions (fabulous lunch included) or maybe a 2-hour train ride into the Swiss Alps for a stunning panoramic view and a lovely lunch? Or maybe to the elegant villas of Lake Como?