Italy


Scenes from a small village in the Dolomites
When we decided to spend a week or so in Italy before crossing into France, we were nervous about battling the onslaught of tourists that converge on Italy during August. Many Europeans take off the ENTIRE month of August and hit the road. We knew the big towns and regions would be swamped, so we dug deep into our guidebook trying to locate places that might be less overwhelmed. Once again, our Lonely Planet guidebook saved the day with all sorts of recommendations.
Sights on the streets of Bolzano
Our first stop was Bolzano, a relatively large city in the Northeast corner of Italy filled with perfectly preserved medieval buildings, cafe- filled squares and, happily, very few tourists. Bolzano is situated at the foot of a mountain range whose greyish peaks have earned it the nickname “the Dolomites” (meaning “pale mountains”). We used Bolzano as a base to drive around the picturesque area and quickly regretted that we hadn’t allocated more time to the Dolomites. The mountains and the surrounding valleys are as pretty as anything we’ve seen, and exploration of the small, Italian villages and the numerous hiking trails could have occupied several weeks.
Visit to the Abbey at Piona
All too soon, it was time to leave Bolzano. We drove through the Swiss Alps, where we quickly visited the posh, but surprisingly commercial, ski town of St. Moritz, Switzerland (as well as countless less posh but incredibly more quaint and charming little hamlets that gave new meaning to the term “Alpine village”) before crossing back into Italy to Lake Como. I know what some of you are thinking, and yes, that’s where George Clooney has a villa. We were intrigued: if it’s good enough for George, surely it would be good enough for us, right? Right.
Visit to Lake Como
We found an amazing hotel on the side of a mountain in the northern part of the lake, with vistas that stretched for miles and an owner-chef that cooked up some of the best meals we’d had in a long time. We spent our days visiting small villages along the lake via car and ferry, including a short visit to Bellagio, the small lakeside town that is the inspiration of the Las Vegas casino that bears its name. And, of course, we searched for George. Passing through the small village where Clooney’s villa is located, we kept our eyes open for any signs of George, but our search was in vain. Being a member of the paparazzi is a tough job.
Views of the beautiful Piedmont countryside
After leaving the lake region, we came upon one of our greatest finds of our trip – the Piedmont region of Italy. In the far western end of Northern Italy (just south of the Italian Alps where the 2006 Winter Olympics where held and north of the Italian Riviera), the region just started attracting a smattering of tourists a few years ago. In fact, when we met locals in the region, their first question was, “How did you find out about Piedmont?” These kind of questions are the true sign that you’ve found travel utopia.
Hazelnut harvest in Sinio
On our last day in the area, our hotel owner organized a free, private cooking clas
Piedmont’s cities and roads were blissfully empty, so we were able to explore the area without hassle, driving over hills covered with vineyards and hazelnut trees, discovering ancient, unspoilt towns and witnessing the hazelnut harvest. Known worldwide as the mecca of Barolo wine and the absurdly expensive truffle, the region is also home to the Slow Food Movement, an international organization that promotes an attitude toward life that emphasizes spending more time enjoying the company of friends and families, starting in the dining room. From our dining experiences in Piedmont, we think the region’s people have that figured out.
Cooking class with Angelino, makiing gnocchi and several desserts
On our last day in the area, our hotel owner organized a free, private cooking class with a chef who evidently owned an acclaimed restaurant in the area but retired a few years ago. Now, he has another small restaurant but only cooks when he feels like it. Luckily, he felt like cooking for us. After we spent a few hours with him learning the secrets of making gnocchi, tomato sauce and panna cotta, we returned later that evening for a dinner that lasted well over 3 hours and cost a pittance of what it would have cost back home. After multiple courses – 4 different types of antipasta (the course you eat “before” pasta), 3 different types of pasta, a fish course, a cheese course, lamb chops and 2 different desserts – we slowly ambled out of the restaurant promising that we would soon return to this undiscovered Italian region.

Hike in the Soca Valley in the Julian Alps
For the past few days, we’ve been driving through Northern Italy, where the scenery looks something like Under the Tuscan Sun meets The Sound of Music.  Which is to say, it’s incredible.  We’ve crossed over a number of high mountain passes that have landed us in valleys full of fields of hay, where the smell of warm sunshine on freshly cut grass is almost intoxicating.  Apparently, farmers in the area have a tradition of taking cat-naps in the piles of fragrant hay, which often contain the wild herbs and lavender that grow alongside the tall grasses. 

The naps sounded like a pretty good idea to us, so when we read about an opportunity to follow in the farmers’ footsteps without actually trespassing in their fields, we signed right up.  The experience is called a hay bath, and it’s more or less exactly what it sounds like.  We showed up at a local spa, where a technician directed us into separate rooms, each of which contained what looked like a bathtub with a mattress suspended over it.  When it was my turn, the technician covered the mattress with warm, wet hay and instructed me to lie down on it.  Err, ok.  After I did as I was told, she covered everything but my face with more of the same,  then wrapped me in blankets, then plastic and then pushed a button that lowered the mattress directly into the bathtub, which, as it turned out, was filled with hot water.  (A couple of strategically placed pillows ensured that my head never went under, a fact for which I was quite grateful.)  Then she left to attend to Derek.
hay_man_2
The whole thing was pretty cozy, and the heat from the water released the smell of the hay, which was delightful.  Just as I was starting to think that I’d rather be out of the tub than in (it was hot in there!), the technician reappeared, pushed a button that lifted the mattress up and out of the water, freed me from the hay, and again wrapped me in blankets, where I remained, coccooned, for a happy and very warm 45 minutes.  When it was all over, I felt ridiculously relaxed, although I didn’t notice any of the medicinal effects that a hay bath is supposed to deliver.  Still, though, I think those farmers are on to something.  Perhaps hay baths are headed to a spa near you…