CORONAVIRUS: DAY-DREAMING

As of yesterday the number of cases of COVID-19 in Italy reached 105,792 with 12,428 deaths. Here in Lombardy there are 43,208 cases, and 7,199 deaths. As bleak as those numbers are there has been one encouraging sign in the last few days. Yesterday we saw the lowest amount of new cases in the last 13 days. Although the number of deaths continues to hover between 700 to almost 1,000 a day, the rate of infection has slowed down. On March 21 there was a daily increase of 6,557 new cases. Yesterday, March 31, there were 4,053 new cases. The experts tell us the reduction in new cases is a sign of two things: first, the lockdown measures are working and second, it signals we are close to a decline in the number of deaths. In other words, we are finally at the much anticipated peak. Sadly, here everyone knows someone who is sick, or worse, someone who has died. It is a relief that we are finally seeing a little light at the end of the tunnel.

As we enter into week five of the lockdown, I find myself day-dreaming of places I’d like to visit once we are able to travel again. One of the places I’d like to return to is the town of Stresa on Lake Maggiore. Stresa is a beautiful resort town which is bustling with vacationers from all over Europe in the spring and summer months. Just a week before the virus outbreak, my family and I visited Stresa for the first time. The town mostly shuts down in winter and given that tourism had, by February, slowed significantly,it was virtually empty when we visited. Aside from being a quaint town with glorious lake views and grand hotels, there are three little islands a short boat ride from town worth exploring. These islands, bought by the powerful Borromeo family in the 1600s, were originally just clumps of rocks which were transformed into livable places. The most famous island, Isola Bella, named after Isabella Borromeo, is where the Borromeos have their summer palace along with a magnificent garden. Unfortunately, the day we visited, Isola Bella was closed but we were still able to take a short boat ride to Isola dei Pescatori (Island of the Fishermen).

isola dei pescatori and Stresa, lake maggiore

We were blessed with sunshine and clear skies.
Isola dei Pescatori is a small collection of houses, restaurants and fishing boats.
The highlight of my son’s day was skipping rocks on the water.
The island’s little empty alleyways are a photographer’s dream.
The pedestrian streets of Stresa are generally empty in winter.

While this lockdown continues, I’m looking forward to returning to Stresa and I’ll continue to day-dream and plan future trips to explore “Il bel paese.”

DISCOVERING AOSTA

Prior to moving to Italy, I had never heard of Aosta. When reading about “must-see” places in the Bel Paese, this quaint city didn’t make the list. Last summer, as I searched for a place to escape from the brutal heat of Milan, I came across an article about Aosta, which is located in the smallest and least populated region of Italy, Valle d’Aosta. After deciding to check it out the town for myself, I made a trip. I must tell you, it is one of the most beautiful and interesting places I have visted in the country.

Aosta is nestled in the northwest corner of Italy, near the French and Swiss borders. It’s a breathtaking valley surrounded by the stunning landscape of the Alps, not far from the famed Mont Blanc. In the past, I have always associated the Alps with Switzerland and ledderhosen-clad men whose St. Bernards run through fresh snow looking for avalanche survivors. What I realized during my visit last summer was that, athough it is only a short two hours by car from Milan, Aosta is a completely different world, rich with Roman history, French/Italian alpine cuisine, and world class skiing and hiking. This winter, I returned to this hidden gem and spent a few days exploring.

Arch of Caesar Augustus, circa 25 BC.
In tact Roman gate, Porta Praetoria circa 25 BC.

The Romans set up camp in the Aosta Valley in 25 B.C. to take advantage of the strategic mountain passes, which functioned as a gateway to the north. The city of Aosta, the regional capital, was founded by Ceasar Augustus in 24 B.C. Surprisingly, there are many Roman ruins still visible today in the city center. For a history nerd like me, it was a joy to roam through the Roman theater and walk under the arches of Porta Praetoria as so many have done for over 2,000 years.

The culture and food of the region is a mix of Italian and French influence. Although Italian is the official language, French is heard frequently and Italian is spoken with a unique accent that, at least to me, sounds French.

The food is hearty mountain cuisine – polenta, soups, stews and fondue. The area’s most famous cheese, Fontina, is used in many local dishes including Fonduta Valdostana and Polenta Concia (polenta with Fontina and butter). I’ve never been a fan of polenta, but now I realize it’s because I never had good polenta! There’s plenty of delicious polenta dishes to sample in Aosta. We happened to visit during the Christmas season and were fortunate to sample the local sausages, fresh Fontina cheese, polenta and mulled wine (Vin Brule’) for very reasonable prices at the Christmas market.

Osteria dell’Oca

A great place to sample delicious local dishes is Osteria dell’Oca. Located just off the main pedestrian street, Via de Tillier Jean Baptiste, it is everything an Osteria should be; quaint, quirky, authentic and reasonably priced. The food is outstanding and portions are large. The menu is a balance of traditional Valle d’Aosta dishes and classic Italian fare. If you’re vsiting over a weekend, you should call ahead and make a reservation as this is a popular place!

Pila ski resort is walking distance from downtown Aosta.

Aosta offers much year round. If you’re visting in winter, Pila ski resort is located just up the mountain and can be reached by the funicular station, which is walking distance from the historic center of town. In summer you can ride the funicular to reach hiking trails that lead to jaw-dropping vistas.

There’s much to do and see in the Aosta. I’m looking forward to going back to discover more about this wonderful town.