I have always adored Italy, a country that has an almost magical way of calling you back time and time again. But while I may have repeatedly answered its call and made regular Italian pilgrimages over the past decade, I am yet to understand the vibrant country fully (but let’s be honest here, in a place so blissfully chaotic, is comprehension even possible?). The importance of family and history, the respect for the land and the unwavering sense of pride – for me there is nowhere else where modern life is so intrinsically tied to traditional values, where regional quirks and identities shine so brightly, where terracotta is so adored.
We created the Lodestars Anthology Italy magazine to capture some of the gems that make the country unique (and immediately recognisable). Our team looked at the serenity of Parma and the calm found upon the Italian lakes. We savoured the flavour and passion of Antonio Carluccio, sipped Aperol on the Amalfi Coast, bathed in the history of Rome, the elegance of Tuscany and felt free in the hills of Piedmont. We met artists and wine makers, philosophers and those with a truly Italian zest for life. Yet amongst all this blissful discovery, there were a few highlights – some decadent and others brilliantly wild.
Le Sirenuse is the creation of Paolo Sersale, long admired for his seaside soirées. Twice the mayor of Positano, he renovated his family home, opening the six-room Le Sirenuse in 1951. Today the hotel has 58 rooms and apartments, yet somehow maintains a genuine sense of intimacy. Names are remembered, morning greetings eagerly exchanged and an air of decadence permeates, making guests feel decidedly glamorous and very much at ease.
Named for the Sirens of Li Galli, the islands off Positano, and admired for its decadent interior – the family heirlooms and objects d’art compliment the vistas perfectly. However, it is Franco’s bar that proved most inviting. Not only do they serve the best Hugo in town (a cocktail of elderflower, Prosecco, soda and mint that goes down a treat with Sicilian olives), but they pair it with a stunning collection of modern art. A favourite being the yellow Baroque-meets-Pop fountain by Roman artist Giuseppe Ducrot.
“Calming the butterflies and inhaling deeply I release my hands from the brakes, cautiously, until something overtakes me. A creeping sense of excitement, the possibility of adventure. As the breeze that greets me grows, carrying the scent of wildflowers, I catch myself smiling, willing the bike to go faster, memories of the steep ascent lost in the adrenalin-charged moment. I could get very used to cycling in Piemonte.”
So read the notes I hurriedly scribbled down after my first day cycling over the Alps of Piemonte, a time-forgotten north-eastern region rich in wineries, truffles and 17th century castles. Framed by France and Switzerland and still relatively undiscovered, this is where the Milanese escape for the weekend and English is rarely heard. There is verve, and plenty of it, but what sets Piemonte apart is its contrasts. Around Alba in the southwest you could easily be in central Italy. Grape vines cling to undulating slopes while farmhouses and villas, both with a predilection for terracotta, dot the hills, each summit marked by a bird-attracting church tower. However, as you approach Cuneo, with Mont Blanc not all that far away, you expect snow at any moment. Dramatic peaks rise into the sky while alpine towns, some of which flaunt a dubious past, sit pretty in the valleys.
Explore the region with Terroir Selection, a local company that sees noting wrong with pairing a fine red with a liberating bike ride, indulge in a meal at Guido Ristorante within Villa Contessa Rosa and, if you’re a cheese lover, pay your respects to Castelmagno.
Fattoria La Vialla
In the heart of Tuscany, not all that far from Arezzo, surrounded by forests, grapevines and cypress trees, is Fattoria La Vialla, a 1,342 hectares large organic-biodynamic farming estate sure to lift the spirits of travelling foodies. This farm was initially purchased in 1978 by the Lo Franco family, who still own and run it today, selling their produce online (much to the delight of avoid UK admirers) and from an Aladdin’s cave-like shop on the estate.
No trip would be complete without a meal in the afternoon sun – our chosen menu comprised of two types of Pecorino, served with Peperonata dolce, a sweet pepper jam, cuts of cured meats and glasses of Lo Chiffon, a pale unfiltered sparkling wine. Those staying with Fattoria La Vialla can also enjoy a twice-weekly farmhouse breakfast served al fresco under ubiquitous fig trees, a sociable meal that is wonderfully Tuscan.
Maggiore is the Grande Dame of the Italian lakes, and waterside Stresa the Bella Donna. Resplendent during the Belle Époque, the town refuses to get with the times. But rather than feel dated, it remains utterly enchanting. This is old world Italy, a place where pianists sit in the piazza filling the night air with their tunes and watching the sunset, in all its pastel glory, is a respectable pastime. Church bells ring out Ode To Joy, mountains tumble over the horizon, glowing blue in the early morning light, and at night stars litter the heavens. Hydrangeas bloom with reckless abandon and vintage shops dominate the streets, their windows a cacophony of Venetian glass, ceramics and the bizarre.
Charming as it may be, Stresa is not Maggiore’s star attraction. That honour falls to the Borromean Islands – Isola Bella, Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Madre. The Borromeo family is Italian royalty, emerging in the 1300s as Milanese bankers. They’ve owned the islands since the 16th century and the family’s historic wealth is on full display within Isola Bella’s Palazzo Borromeo. The island itself was built as a token of love and is now populated primarily by elderly ladies who care for the local cats. A scene almost impossible to imagine from within Palazzo Borromeo, which brims with gilt and marble and boasts a shell-covered grotto and extensive gardens – home to snow white peacocks and built atop soil that had to be transported to this once rocky outcrop.
The family remains active on the island with Vitaliano I Borromeo overseeing the development of Vicolo del Fornello, a series of boutique shops specialising in fashion, food and design. However, there are independent ventures too, like the delectable Ristorante Elvezia. Perched above the lapping water and enveloped by flower boxes, here you can observe the bustle of the lake from an outdoor terrace, sipping Prosecco while being kissed by the sun and feasting upon dishes like brisaola with mushrooms and parmesan.
For me, when wanderlust takes hold, it is Italy I pine for. The northern alpine terrain, the food-centric Puglia, Sicily’s glorious intensity, Trieste’s charm or the solitude found in the most unexpected Florentine corner. If you hanker for passion, contradiction and eccentricity then I implore you, lose yourself in Italy.
All images are courtesy of Lodestars Anthology.