“Hmm, this doesn’t look as nice as it did on Rick Stein’s Long Weekends,” was my first thought as the taxi trundled from Bologna airport to our hotel in the city centre. A dirty, graffiti-covered urban sprawl whizzed past us – concrete stacks, busy highways, not much sign of human life. Was this Italy’s Croydon? Having taken charge of booking the whole thing, I wondered if I had some explaining to do…
But I shouldn’t have doubted Rick. We got exactly what we came for and his programme got Bologna spot on. It’s a working – slightly gritty in places – Italian city. One with far fewer tourists than Florence or Venice to its south-west and north-east. Locals outnumber tourists 100 to one I would guess. They proudly call it the “stomach of Italy” and you can see why. So much of the Italian food we know and love – and import into the UK – comes from Bologna or the surrounding region: tortellini; tagliatelle with ragu; mortadella ham; parma ham; parmesan cheese. Thinking about it induces Homer Simpson-style drooling.
So although we checked out some of the tourist attractions – the 12th century towers that loom over the city; the ancient complex of the Basilica San Stefano; the medieval university, where students were celebrating their graduation wearing laurel wreaths like mini Neros; the 666 covered arches up the hill towards San Luca – it would be more accurate to say: we ate and ate and ate.
And we ate well. Huge boards of local cold meats; endless tortellini, served in broth in the traditional style; a memorable cuttlefish salad in the Mercato delle Erbe; sausage ragus which put British spag bol firmly in the shade. Most importantly of all, huge chunks of parmesan cheese. You can do more than grate the stuff, it turns out – no one told me. And the best of it, matured for a couple of years, is better than any French or British cheese. There’s a reason Samuel Pepys, in the Great Fire of London, buried his parmesan cheese in a deep hole in his garden as the flames approached – it was a luxury worth saving.
After all this excess – and the oppressive heat in the city – we were looking for a cooler, healthier break. So, with the help of the Editor of Spectator Life, we fled to the hills and to L’Albereta Resort, set amid the vineyards of Franciacorta, just south of Lake Iseo. The temperature noticeably cooled over the two-hour drive, as the roads narrowed in places to the width of Cornish country lanes. And as it cooled, the landscape got greener and greener.
Just when it couldn’t get much greener, we found L’Albereta, set in spacious grounds and surrounded by neatly arranged vineyards. This area was a summer escape for noble Brescian and Bergamasque families. Just as Raj-era sahibs abandoned boiling hot Delhi for the Himalayan foothills in the summer months, so it seems this was the place to come, notably in the mid-19th century, when places like Bologna got too hot. Just the ticket for us, in other words.
I’d stay there again just for the view. On arrival, we sat in deck chairs on the open terrace looking north to Lake Iseo, gawping at it all – the blue sky, the sparkling expanse of water 10 miles in the distance, the rolling foothills. Little birds hopped around on the floor next to us, clearly on good terms with the guests. And the staff began to spoil us. I ordered vitello tonnato – not, if I am honest, really knowing what it was. Out came one of the most delicious dishes of the whole trip. A plate of cold, sliced veal with a creamy, tuna-flavoured sauce in the middle of the plate. A Piedmontese delicacy.
Our room was right up in the eaves of the hotel, which is a huge revamped five-star neo-renaissance villa. There were trees on all sides so close you could almost reach out and touch them. The only difficulty we had, occasionally, was finding our way around. Like Hogwarts, lifts and stairs seemed to lead to different floors and destinations depending on what time of day it was. So we’d find ourselves trying to get to the indoor swimming pool or back, only to be ticked off for being in the service lift. Once, we accidentally ventured down to the high-tech spa where, we learnt, you could get something called mesotherapy with hyaluronic acid. Not my bag but there’s no doubting it: the other guests looked great.
The highlight for me, however, was outside the hotel itself, in the gardens. They were in full bloom, buzzing with bees, with the odd rabbit scurrying between the flower-beds – with endless spots to sit and read, completely undisturbed. My kind of holiday. I’m not even sure we explored all of the gardens. At one point, walking along a path, I’m sure I heard some people playing tennis, but never laid eyes on a court. If you just wanted a view of the gardens, there was also a balcony almost always empty at tree-top level, with comfy chairs out in the fresh air. I don’t know what magic they used to make the other guests disappear.
We’d be alone in the gym and pool; alone in the gardens. Almost as if the whole place was ours. Then the restaurants in the evenings would be nearly full, as all the other guests – mostly Italians – and perhaps a few locals surfaced from nowhere.
On our last morning, we ate eggs Benedict one last time on the terrace, soaked in the view of the lake, walked in the gardens, and then packed our bags to drive back towards Bologna and the flight home. We stopped briefly on the way in Parma, another city neglected by tourists, to see the baptistery, with its breathtakingly stunning frescoes. Worth a trip of its own. Oh, and to pick up as much parmesan cheese as we could carry home.
L’Albereta (www.albereta.it / T. +39 030 7760550). Double Rooms from €260 per night based on two adults sharing, excluding breakfast. Breakfast from €20 per person.