Marie-Claire Chappet

The little-known Italian lake that rivals Como

The little-known Italian lake that rivals Como
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The mist starts circling in, just dusting the hills with a soft, downy quilt. You can see for miles from my balcony, the tracks of the vineyards, the clusters of trees, the rooftops in the distance. This is Piedmont, laid out below me, all its undulating splendour, rich with wine, truffles and winding roads leading to endless villages and towns spilling over with hospitality and, yes, undoubtedly more truffles.

Autumn is the perfect time to visit this criminally overlooked region in Northern Italy. This is largely because of the area’s local celebrity, the aforementioned truffle. Truffle season takes place from late September through October and gastronomy tourism is this region’s major lifeblood, enlivening sleepy hamlets right when the natural surroundings take on a lush Autumnal palette and the mist hugs the hills with atmospheric aplomb.

We started our trip in Lake Orta, several miles away from my balcony above the Piedmont hills. The smallest of its showier neighbours, Maggiore and Como, it is an underrated gem just under an hour’s drive from Milan. Locals tells us it is the cleanest lake in Italy and rejoice in its subtler charms which set it apart from the ostentations of speedboats and Clooneys. They have a point. It is quiet here, peaceful. The water is hugged with trees, not the enclaves of millionaires, and the atmosphere is relaxed. That is not to say there is no glamour to be found. The lake’s main town, Orta San Giulio, must be seen to be believed. It twists its way up the hillside in a tangle of cobbled alleyways and ivy-clad piazzas, each building a faded pink or ochre, with peeling shutters and faded frescos. Every corner is picturesque, its chicness accentuated by its nonchalance. There is no ‘scene’ in this town, merely the casual calm of a place that knows its charm.

As an introduction to Piedmont, it did not disappoint on the gastronomic front. We dined on local speciality, ravioli del plin; pillowy parcels of veal and pork in a roast vegetable sauce, and drank Gavi, the Piemontese dry white wine produced in the nearby province of Alessandria, on the rooftop restaurant of Locanda di Orta. From there we saw the sun set over the tiny Isola San Giulio, the lake’s only island – accessible by many small boats throughout the day - which plays home to a beautiful basilica and monastery and another divine restaurant, Ristorante San Giulio, which is the most ideal lunch spot.

Orta San Guilo island (iStock)

We were staying at Villa Crespi, a Relais & Chateaux hotel a short walk away from Orta San Giulio in acres of private gardens. It is unquestionably the most unique accomodation in the region, famed for its two-Michelin starred chef and co-owner, Antonino Cannavacciuolo, whose impossibly delicious restaurant draws crowds from across Italy, and the world. Yet Crespi’s allure really lies in its breath-taking design. Built in 1879, as the private home of a Milanese businessman, its Moorish architecture will transport you to a souk in Istanbul or an ostentatious riad in Marrakech.

It was almost impossible to tear ourselves away from our eccentric lakeside castle, but the diversions of Piedmont called. Our next stop was the town of Alba, known to many as the epicurean capital of the region. Its red-brick buildings and wide piazzas, old churches and bustling streets strewn with local flags have their appeal, but food is the major attraction here. The shops are groaning with wines, olive oils, mushrooms, pasta, truffles and choosing a lunch spot was almost impossible. We settled on La Piola, filled with Alba’s businessmen and women on their lunchbreaks, discussing plans over bottles of Asti Soumante- the area’s famed sparkling wine- and bowls of ragu. We ate tajarin al burro – another Piedmont delicacy of thread-thin pasta drenched in butter, sage and white Alba truffles (what else?)

Alba sits amidst an embarrassment of riches in the Piedmont region. For a base for our explorations, we opted for one of its newest treasures; Nordelaia. This ancient farmhouse has been converted into a stunning boutique independent hotel (11 rooms, a spa, three dining spaces- with a Michelin starred chef who served us a mind-bogglingly delicious menu on our last night) in the valleys of the Montferrat region, nestled in the foothills of the alps. The hotel opened this summer and sits on a verdant, practically vertigo-inducing, peak above a luscious basin of vineyards (some of which are its own). The drive up may be daunting, but the view is otherworldly. Swim to the edge of the infinity pool and you feel as though all of Piedmont is below you, as water drips placidly onto the hillside and the sun dips behind the vines.

The pool at Nordeleia

From Nordelaia we travelled to picturesque villages like Monforte de Alba, gastronomic and historical centres like Asti and Barolo, the spa town of Acqui Terme, with its hot springs, elegant piazzas and beautiful churches. We visited vineyards, like the historical Gancia and Ca’ del Baio on bucolic panoramas, and simply enjoyed the drive through sylvan paths back to our hilltop idyll.

That is the quiet joy of unspoilt Piedmont. Peaceful views, delicious food and slow winding roads that take you back to a place that feels like home.