July 22 2014 Latest news:
Erica Doutty discovers the considerable charms of Franciacorta
Emerging from the foothills of the Italian Alps is Franciacortia, an expanse of picture-perfect rolling countryside dotted with medieval villages, ancient abbeys and beautiful castles. Blessed with stunning vistas and a temperate climate all year round, its the perfect weekend escape from the grey London drear.
Where: Winding north from the shores of the river Po to the cool blue expanse of Lake Iseo, Franciacortas history can be coursed back to Paleolithic times, with archaeological records left by Gauls, the Cenomani of Brixia (modern Brescia), Romans and Lombards the name, in fact, thought to derive from curtes francae, the fortified courts of the Frankish empire established in the 8th century.
The cultivation of grapes and winemaking is the regions primary industry and, at this time of year, vines of golden hues unfurl as far as the eye can see. Franciacortia may be only 80km from the bustling metropolitan hub of Milan, and about the same again from the cultural centre of Verona, but everything here is unhurried.
The only disruption to the tranquil silence? The church bells that peal out across the countryside, rhythmically marking every hour. Who needs a watch?
See: The monastery of San Pietro in Lamosa is one of the most interesting Romanesque examples in the area and well worth a visit. Founded by Cluniac monks in 1803 who came to cultivate the land, it was an important cultural centre and provided a refuge for travellers and the needy. The Church of San Pietro, its chapels marking the march of time with Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance periods, still draws a large crowd for Sunday mass.
The areas typically famed for being a destination du jour with the Hollywood set. Top of the A-list trail is Lake Como where the Clooney camp is rumoured to be gearing up for the Oceans Eleven stars impending nuptials to Italian showgirl Elisabetta Canalis. But romantic Lake Iseo, little sister of this Hollywood heavyweight, should not be overlooked. Travel by boat from the dock of Sulzano to Monte Isola, the largest lake island in Europe. With no cars allowed, and few tourists, the island retains its old fishing-village charm, just make sure you wear comfy shoes to wind your way up the cobblestone alleyways. The island has great trattorias that specialise in serving freshwater fish from the lake. Be sure to try the local salami too.
Back on the mainland, Iseos market past is in evidence. Every second Sunday sees the square come alive with a farmers market, where you can pick up local produce at bargain prices. Mid-morning churchgoers pour out of the towns medieval lanes to the central square to promenade and partake in an aperitif post-Mass.
Stay: LAlbereta (albereta.it) is a decadent Italian manor house nestled atop the vineyard Bella Vista, and surrounded by carefully manicured gardens and modern sculptures. Theres thought in every detail of this five-star boutique beauty, from the wrought-iron chandeliers in the foyer, to the warm pink marble underfoot in the bathrooms, to the mountain of gleaming glac fruit in the library room from which to help yourself whilst you while away an afternoon with a good book.
The softly spoken staff appear at your side as if by magic to refill glasses, fluff pillows and encourage another coffee and handcrafted chocolate at the end of a meal. The only thing youll need to think about during your stay here is what kind of wine you would like with your next course.
Do: LAlbereta is home to one of only two Henri Chenot detox spas in Italy. Its therapists practice Chenots Biontology approach to health and wellbeing combining Chinese healing traditions with the Western worlds diagnostic abilities.
The program works on the equilibrium between the mind, spirit and physical body, correcting the problems and signs of ageing, tiredness and toxic stress with a series of invigorating treatments including a cupping massage, hydrotherapy and mud wraps.
Days in the spa are accompanied by a detox menu, prepared with meticulous attention to detail. A starter of fruit bathed in coulis is soon followed by salad so fresh it nearly leaps off the plate, and then by the piece de resistance: detox pasta. Only in Italy.
If the pampering gets too much, the international shopping mecca of Milan is only 45 minutes train journey away. Alternatively, you can head to fair Verona to visit the balcony where Romeo professed his love to Juliet.
Eat: If degustation is more your speed, the hotels signature restaurant, with its seasonal menu designed to showcase local produce and wine, will not disappoint. The hotel kitchen at LAlbereta is presided over by Gualtiero Marchesi, the first non-French chef to obtain three Michelin stars. Three essential principles underpin Marchesis dishes: simplicity, quality and beauty, and a risotto infused with local white truffles on the autumn menu is testament to this. Be sure to also try the Bella Vista chardonnay that this vineyard is famous for or, if youre feeling celebratory, a glass of the local sparkling that rivals any of its fancy French brethren.
Outside the hotel, La Mongolfiera dei Sodi is a short stroll away and a favourite local haunt. It serves up consistent, rustic northern Italian fare in an elegant Old World setting and the waiters will good-humouredly coach you through the extensive tome that is the wine list.
Get there: Give Classic Collection (classic-collection.co.uk) a call on 08002 949 315 they can organise flights with British Airways, Gatwick to Verona (plus transfers) from 1286 for seven nights this month. Rooms are priced from 686 per person for three nights in November, based on two adults sharing with breakfast.