One of my new discoveries is off-season travel. Not only are prices lower but places are quieter, giving you that satisfying sensation of having sneaky special access. Plus – added bonus – spring and autumn sunshine means that summer is beautifully elongated.
Villa San Pietro, a B&B in a quiet Italian town called Montichiari in Brescia, near Lake Garda, and also just an hour from Milan and Verona, has been in the same family for 500 years.
A cheap, quick (under two hours) Ryanair flight delivered us to Milan Bergamo and our hosts met us at the airport. Clear your mind of all conjured-up visions of a B&B. This is a HUGE house, oozing with original features (beams and frescoes among them) and filled with exquisite antique furniture, paintings, china, glassware and ornaments. There are stairways and passageways and nooks and crannies. The garden has a pond and loggias and seating areas and fruit trees and ducks and rabbits. It’s divine. And the hosts, Anna and her French husband Jacques, are equally so. Warm, generous and such good company! You arrive as guests and you leave as friends.
Anna is a talented and generous cook, taught by her great-grandmother and her father. Her grandmother was an artist whose handiwork can be seen in paintings and in tablecloths all over the house – meanwhile, many of the tablecloths have been embroidered by her mother. It’s like a family edition of Italy’s Got Talent.
One night’s dinner is included in your stay and guests dine with Anna and Jacques at their beautiful dining room table in front of the huge inglenook fireplace. In her youth Anna spent a year living with a Jewish family in the States and it shows. Before our visit she quizzed me on what we would and wouldn’t eat and made sure that the fridge was stocked with suitable options. For dinner she served us summer/autumn mini omelettes and bresaola (swapped out from proscuitto) followed by slow-cooked beef and potatoes from her great grandma’s recipe book, finished with tiramisu. So simple, so rustic, so Italian. The wine flowed and so did the conversation. Anna and Jacques both have huge interest in and knowledge of our Jewish traditions and we chatted about everything from intermarriage to Chrismakkah!
After a sound night’s sleep to the sound of nothing but silence in our vast antique bed, we woke to warm sunshine and after a light breakfast under the original frescoes in the magnificent breakfast room, Jacques took my husband on a long bike ride and Anna took me into the kitchen for a pasta-making class.
Why make it when you can buy it? I would be the first to say this. But the undeniable enjoyment of the whole process, and the reward of eating your own homemade tagliatelle simply tossed in butter and sage overrides any thoughts of ‘convenience’.
Anna also taught me how to make a superb mushroom risotto, a mozzarella & tomato puff pastry ring and a traditional Italian Sbrisolona, which is a crumbly almond tart.
The verb ‘sbrisolare’ comes from ‘briciole’, which means ‘crumbles’. It’s typical of the region of Mantova and is eaten in Brescia because of the proximity to the border (and at Villa San Pietro because Anna’s mum is from Mantova!). We devoured the whole lot that evening.
We drove 30 -minutes to the town of Desenzano on Lake Garda and took a 15-minute boat trip to stunning Sirmione, filled with gorgeous shops and cafes.
Gelato in hand we wandered the narrow, cobbled streets, each one ending with a spectacular view of the glistening lake.
The next morning, we explored Montichiari, home to Castello Di Bonoris, Duomo Di Santa Maria (whose dome can be seen far and wide) and where on Sunday mornings there’s a flea market filling the square and surrounding streets with good-natured bartering and some choice finds.
After lunch in a surprisingly modern trattoria, we drove to Borghetto, a medieval village with a watermill which was so peaceful. All sounds fab but Italy is SO expensive, you’re thinking. Not this part of Italy. Rooms at Villa San Pietro are around £80 a night;Borghetto main courses a tenner;ice creams €1.5. Cappuccinos €1.4 and off season flights are cheap. You can grazie mille me when you get back.