From Italian Promenades to Pistes
In Northern Italy, luxury travel has more than one face. This is a region of conflicting pleasures, a land shaped by Renaissance buildings, lakeside resorts and catwalk trends. It sweeps you into the warmth of a gilt-mirrored café for an espresso then sends you out into the bright chill of the mountains. Napoleon conquered the region, Wordsworth captured it in verse. Today, antipasti meet the Alps, Ferrari meets football and Da Vinci meets Dolce & Gabbana. Not many parts of the world give you the excuse to wear Prada heels and snow boots!
A late winter drive from Parma to the Aosta Valley, via Milan, captures these different moods. In the thick of the cities you’ll find an emphasis on elegance and heritage. On the urban outskirts this shifts to industry and farmland, two wheels of the national economy. Up in the high peaks, meanwhile, snow turns the natural spectacle of the Alps into a seasonal playground. Italian ski resorts tend to be a little more laid-back than those in France and Switzerland – but that’s not to say you can’t flash a new pair of Tod’s on a night out.
Today, antipasti meet the Alps, Fiat meets football and Da Vinci meets Dolce & Gabbana. It’s hard not to be seduced.
Start in: Parma
You could forgive Parma for having an ego. Its gifts to the world include Lamborghinis and the music of Verdi. It brought both parmesan cheese and prosciutto ham to our dining tables. And although it’s often overshadowed by bigger and bolder northern centres (step forward Milan and Bologna), it remains wealthy and style-conscious. Its university, still going strong after nearly 900 years, is one of the oldest in the world.
In a place like Parma, of course, there’s room for more than one venerable institution. The 19th-century Teatro Regio is one of the great homes of Italian opera, while the city’s broad-shouldered Palazzo della Pilotta has been standing since the 1500s. It plays host to a National Gallery with works by Tintoretto, Canaletto and the locally born Correggio. On a more modern note, the city has numerous high-end clothes stores: seek out O’ on Borgo Giacomo Tomassini.
You’ll dine extremely well too, and not just on the local cheese and meat. The European headquarters of the Food Authority are situated right here in Parma, and the surrounding Po Valley countryside is some of the most fertile in Italy. If you can find your way to La Greppia, a restaurant in the city’s historic core, you’ll reap full benefit. Try the taglioni with white truffle. Buon appetito.
Its gifts to the world include Lamborghinis and the music of Verdi.
Drive to: Milan
Is there a collective noun for fashionistas? A Milano might suit nicely. At its peak, the staging of Fashion Week each winter turns the city centre into one giant catwalk, its pavements and palazzos hanging heavy with head-turning outfits. Even without being able to swan into the hottest shows and parties, it’s still an entertaining time to be in town. If you miss the action, meanwhile, the boutiques give year-round opportunity to browse clutch bags and cashmere. Call in at 10 Corso Como, founded by the former editor of Italian Vogue.
Naturally, there’s more to Milan than Valentino, Moschino and company. One vast cathedral and two world-famous football teams, Inter Milan and A.C. Milan, are just the start of it. This is also the city of La Scala, the Last Supper and some of Europe’s most luxurious accommodation. The Armani Hotel apparently had every last detail approved by Giorgio himself.
Milan is also the natural gateway to the lakes region, a magnet for artists, romantics and travellers since the Roman era. A winter day-trip from Milan to Lake Como or Lake Maggiore is a chance to walk the lakesides without the crowds – and there’s always the prospect of a cioccolata calda (hot chocolate) to warm you up.
End up in: Aosta Valley
A recent study placed the unassuming mountain city of Aosta among the top six in Italy for quality of life. If the rankings were based purely on location, it might sit even higher. Ringed by the peaks of the Alps and threaded by cobbled streets, the little city often seems far more than two hours away from Milan. This proximity, of course, is another of Aosta’s assets. Pairing shopping with skiing on the same car trip is straightforward.
The sheer size of Mont Blanc means that it looms over the Aosta Valley from the other side of the French border. Quality winter-sport resorts, however, are far closer to hand. Courmayeur is the best known of these, and sits just half an hour from Aosta. The scenery’s exceptional and the skiing’s good, particularly for intermediates. The village itself first made its name as a 19th-century mountaineering base, but it’s far from being behind the times. The Michelin star adorning Le Petit Royal restaurant is evidence of that.
Further afield, but well worth the hour’s drive from Aosta, the resort of Breuil-Cervinia has the best snow record in Italy. And while Mont Blanc dominates Courmayeur, Breuil-Cervinia sits under another iconic peak, the border-straddling Matterhorn. These grand backdrops are fitting, somehow. It seems apt that even the mountains looking into Northern Italy from the outside should have something a bit special about them.