As a European native, I mostly enjoy going back “home” off season. This is how I get to experience the atmosphere of a Europe I used to know when I was younger. That, and selecting off-the-beaten-path regions, which most tourists don’t visit.
When I say off season, I mean really off season! This year, it was the middle of February, and I selected Milan as my base to venture out from this great city to discover its neighboring Northern Italy
Not even a leisurely two-hour drive from Milan, by the romantic Lago Iseo was l’Albereta Hotel. A Relais & Chateau property, l’ Albereta is located in the Franciacorta region, famous for its wines, beautiful rolling hills and its proximity to all the main Northern Italy destinations such as the lakes district, Venice, Verona, Milan and Bergamo. With a fantastic spa, beautiful grounds, amazing restaurants, l’Albereta is quite ideal for so many reasons.
My French roots were itching to find out who were these Italians following the Methode Champenoise to create real Champagne!
A 5-minute drive from l’Albereta allowed me to find them as I proceeded to a visit of the Contadi Castaldi wine cellar followed by a champagne tasting to prove me right. I even bought a few bottles to bring back to France just in case my father would show any resistance to the idea. I may never drink regular Prosecco again!
Next hot spot high on my list was the Piedmont region, so I experienced the Langhe, UNESCO World Heritage region, where the hills are embraced by the Alps and the nearby Ligurian Sea at the same time, traversed by old roads from the Middle Ages, with few hilltop villages and castles popping up on the sinuous horizons. The most precious vineyards of Italy lay there, cradles of the great wines famous throughout the world and kept in historic cellars.
The Relais San Maurizio was my home for the next few days, a 17th century Cistercian monastery made the first Relais & Chateau hotel in Piedmont in 2002. Here again, was a fantastic spa, great restaurant options, especially the Truffles bistro, super charming accommodations and an ideal location from which to find the homes of amazing wines, such as GAIA and Barbaresco. Tasting appointments are a must here; it is very hard to get in, even last-minute, even off-season.
My next and final hotel experience, not even 1/2-hour drive away, was simply fantastic and a perfect way to end my week in Italy: the Castello Di Guarene. Offering only 13 suites, it is extremely important to stay there off-season unless booking a year ahead of time. Off-season in Piedmont means outside of September to November, as that falls during wine harvest.
The Palace was built in the 18th century, an ambitious project conceived by a local nobleman named Carlo Giacinto Roero. Preserved as it is today with all its works of art intact, this unique hotel boasts antique-style bedrooms, haute-cuisine, fine wines and a spa like I had never seen before. Entirely excavated in the rocks, one reaches it via tunnels, stairs and caves! It had such an intense sense of mystery about it, simply walking towards a massage and discovering the secrets of an ancient castle. Castello Di Guarene resides on a hilltop looking at the village of Guarene from above.
The 360-degree views of Alba, Langhe and Roero will leave you breathless. In February, I could see all the way to the Alps and its snow-topped mountains.