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Sunday, 01 November, 2015, 11 : 00 AM [IST]

Italy at its Peak!

The undiscovered wonders of the Alps
A host of heritage hotels and tourist spots in Northern Italy is a testimony of how much the nation has to offer beyond Rome, Venice and Florence to the high-end as well as FIT traveller. Disha Shah Ghosh traverses through Lake Como, Aosta Valley and Courmayeur, discovering the local life at this end of the Alps

The destinations in North of Italy, which are relatively unexplored, can be an opportunity for the Indian travel trade to include in their European itineraries. Normally considered the bastion of France and Switzerland, Italy also has some hidden jewels in the Alps. Indian itineraries have never highlighted these destinations. However, the the high-end luxury and FIT traveller will be pleasantly surprised with the unique experiences in Europe that these destinations can offer as I was soon to find out…

While embarking on a journey with a group of unknown people, one is never sure of what to expect. However, it is not only the fellow companions, but also the destination, is what creates lasting memories of a trip. It was no different for me when I was on my first sojourn to Europe, on the invitation of Italian National Tourist Board (ENIT).

ENIT, which is looking at aggressively working with the Indian travel trade, purposefully included these destinations in the itinerary, to showcase the potential Northern Italy holds for the Indian market.

The high-end luxury that I was to witness on the trip was made clear with the itinerary; however the grandness of the trip started unfolding at the Mumbai Airport with Turkish Airlines upgrading us to Business Class! The ample leg room and flat bed of the aircraft was relaxing after a night of playing hide and seek with sleep, thanks to the 6 am flight.

We landed in Milan by noon after a 2-hour-long connecting flight from Istanbul. Despite the city being the fashion capital of the world, the Milan–Malpensa Airport needs to get logistics in place. Besides a decent number of luggage trolleys, the airport needs to display proper signages for the ease of passengers.

The ‘Diva’ of Como
Situated on Via Caronti 69-Blevio on Lake Como, CastaDiva Resort & Spa, which was my abode for the first 2 days, transported me to the 19th Century. Opened in 2010, CastaDiva showcases the life story opera soprano singer Giuditta Pasta in its paintings, and still maintains the contemporary, classic and historic status of that era. What separates CastaDiva from the other properties on Lake Como, is the 73 self-sufficient rooms and 2 magnificent villas across 3 historic buildings with opera design and musical themes. But, the cherry on is the cake is its floating swimming pool.

The view from my pent house at Villa Dorabella offered a clear view of Lake Como through 2 large balconies. The sheer size of the fully-furnished room was enough to make me stay indoors. While relaxing on the side sofa, I spent the first hour of my stay staring at the beautiful lake and capturing it. I saw Lake Como, which was enjoying a blessing from the rain gods, slowly transforming into a docile water body.

While inspecting the property, I discovered each room defining grandeur in its own way. My focus shifted from the lake to the luxury that these rooms could offer for a romantic and relaxing holiday. I was spoilt for choice, as I couldn’t make up my mind on which room suited best for single occupants like me. While the colourful beds, spacious terraces, wooden flooring or the black-coloured bathrooms were a design marvel, the showstopper was the private villa with an area of over 1,500 sq ft, offering a private elevator and an underground room, the door of which opens to the lake, with a private boat waiting to sail! We were told that Arabs and Russians prefer such accommodations, which offer services of a private butler, chef,  jacuzzi, wet bar, pool table, and private garden.

After the property, it was time to explore Como, the 3rd largest lake in Italy, known for its Mediterranean climate and sub-tropical plants. While each villa on Como has a distinct architecture and charm of its own, the boatman guided us to its surrounds and history. Besides the attractions of the lake—villas belonging to the likes of Versace, George Clooney and Richard Branson, we were told that St. Moritz, Switzerland is just across the mountain and therefore, it is common for guests to stay at CastaDiva and take a day trip across the Alps.

The boat ride on Como ended with a grand welcome from a waterfall, located between 2 villas; it was nature at its best!

After a sojourn on the lake, we were at the Orangerie restaurant, which welcomed us with a 4-course Italian meal and a choice of wines. It was now time to unwind at the Spa, where the back and neck massage relaxed my senses, and I availed services like hammam and aroma bath. The Spa has a range of facilities to soothe the mind and body. The entire experience had a calming effect on me as stress left my side, and I resigned to my bed.

The next morning, it was difficult to bid adieu to the mesmerizing beauty of Como. But, little did I know, the next few days were not going to disappoint me.

Northern Explorer
It was time to move up North, where the winds were stronger and temperature dropped every few kilometers. I was really on the roads less travelled. The 2-hour road journey was a real treat, with the changing scenery and the beauty of the Alps just unfolding itself. The picturesque mountains and the well-maintained roads seemed like a scene out of a romantic movie! We reached Aosta Valley by noon; the landscape was different from what Como offered. It was like a small, charming town, dotted with little bylanes. One can mistake Aosta Valley for Switzerland, considering the similarity in houses and landscape due to close proximity. At almost every nook of corner of Aosta, I found the majestic mountain peaks enticing me. Aosta Valley is home to hotels which suit different budgets, and has quite a few tourist spots.  

It was time for a lesson on European wine; we were at Cave du Vin Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle to learn about the staple drink of the continent. The owner of the vineyard explained us the difficulties involved in bottling process. After going through the intricate details of making wines from white grapes, it was now time to taste some of the delicate flavours. The first 3 wines, were each stronger than the other, but maintained consistency as far as smoothness was concerned. It was now time to invest in one of these flavours, and so I did.

On the 2nd day of Aosta discovery, along the road leading to the monument of Porta Praetoria, we encountered the Arch of Augustus. It used to be an eloquent sign of presence and power of Rome. When the Romans claimed dominance over Aosta, the Roman Theatre came into being. Foundation walls are still intact, and transported me back in history, when voicing strong opinions at an open theatre was a popular culture. After a dose of the turbulent past of Aosta, we were taken to the Himalayan restaurant to feast on masala chai, pakoras and samosas in Italy which was pure bliss!

We moved to the jewel of Aosta, Fort de Bard, where the Hollywood movie Avengers was shot. It is at the entrance to the Aosta Valley, and is located in a narrow gorge above the River Dora Baltea. With its towering structure, Bard looks like a king. Reopened to tourists in 2006, Bard has a hotel, restaurant and hosts moving exhibitions. The pathway to Bard offers a 360 degree view of Aosta.

The rain refused to budge as we headed to the Pré-Saint-Didier early morning. It is a healing centre offering a range of relaxation facilities. However, it is imperative that they arrange a visitor guide, since it is easy to feel lost. I opted for a thermal spa, which begins with a dip into a hot water pool amidst the mountains, when the weather was 12 degree Celsius, and there were on and off showers. It was an experience extraordinaire; a combination of techniques giving me a sense of the soul.

‘Icing’ on the Cake
The Hotel Villa Novecento in Courmayeur, the second property to host us during for the trip, is a typical mountain hotel with small rooms and basic amenities. Like most other hotels in Courmayeur, it offers a view of the mist-covered mountains. The hotel with its friendly and hospitable staff surprised us by serving Indian cuisine in dinner.

It won’t be incorrect to term Courmayeur as home of strangers, because of its welcoming vibe. Besides heritage hotels, the market in Courmayeur offers an opportunity to indulge in luxury, and has quite a few bars open till 2 am. I was impressed with Courmayeur, for it is very safe for single women travellers to enjoy drinks, and walk past mid-night, without being disturbed. The place eludes a sense of belongingness with its quaint charm.

Courmayeur gave me a glimpse of its warmth, and how! During our stay, the skiing destination was hosting a running race. It was almost like celebrating a festival. The runners were in action, it was a 4-day-long ordeal, and locals took turns to welcome the winners. On the fourth day, at 1.30 am, when the 6th winner made his way to the closing line, I saw the locals celebrating his victory. At the felicitation ceremony, Courmayeur was in action with drums, beats, and a huge procession followed to garland the winners.

Unfolding the Wonder
It was the last day of the trip, but I woke up before the alarm rang. I was counting hours for the sheer excitement of witnessing the Mont Blanc range and describing its existence back home was going to the highlight of my trip. After a 10-minute drive from the hotel, we are at the entrance of the newly-opened Skyway cable car. It is a rotating cable car, and we were inching closer to what can be termed as King of Alps.

We reached the cable car station, where I witnessed snowfall for the first time. There were cold winds blowing, and the beautiful snow was very inviting. It immediately brought out the kid in me and  I played in the snow like a carefree, blissful one. The Mont Blanc, however, was still in a mood to play hide and seek.

Soon my hands were numb, thanks to the freezing temperature. I went to the restaurant and sipped a cappuccino, while we waited for the weather to clear, to witness the giant. But, as luck would have it, we could only spot the snow. I was crestfallen; my wish to see the Mont Blanc was left unfulfilled.

Post lunch, I wondered if I would ever be able to witness the Mont Blanc in all its glory from the Italian end. This is when, Charmen, our guide for the day threw a surprise. ‘Do you wish to take a helicopter ride’?  she asked. All of us screamed with joy; I couldn’t control the excitement. An aerial view of the scenic locale was more than welcome, considering the Mont Blanc was depriving us of a visual treat of its beauty. The pilot took us closer to the mountains in his 6-seater vehicle. It was a memory that would be forever etched in my mind. I wanted to freeze this moment, forever. The clear view of the sky, mountains and the terrain is something I will never be tired of talking about. I thought this would be the biggest highlight of my trip. But, something was still waiting to wave me the final good bye!

We were taken to Au Coeurs des Neiges for dinner. It is a high-end hotel and while showing us around the property, the owner asked us to turn around, and there it was… an unobstructed view of the Mont Blanc. It was unexpected, while we were tired after a long trip, the Mont Blanc stood as it was described, calm and unaffected, maybe happy to keep us waiting.

* All Pics Courtesy: Disha Shah Ghosh

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