Thursday, 31 December 2015

SPAIN: BORN-AGAIN BILBAO IS A BREATH OF FRESH AIR

Forty years ago, Bilbao was the smelliest city in Europe. The stench from the horribly-polluted Nervion river turned stomachs. Even on the hottest days, people who didn’t have air-conditioning kept their windows closed. But that was then. Born-again Bilbao has come up smelling of roses after cleaning up its act, and windows are now thrown wide open – as are the arms that greet the torrents of tourists who until relatively recently were a rarity. The city used to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. Nowadays, it’s a super-safe long weekend destination that’s full of delightful surprises at every turn.

Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum, by the Nervion River, is the foremost must-see sight in the city
DAY 1
The perfect pint
Bald Basque bar owner Manu Iturregi has a magnificent handlebar moustache that makes Becher’s Brook look like a toothbrush. If ever they part company, those whiskers are guaranteed a glittering career beneath the villain’s nostrils in Wild West movies and Victorian-era TV dramas.
I’m sitting in Manu’s Bar Residence at 1 Barrainkua Street where he’s busy pouring and topping off pints of Guinness for an eclectic early-afternoon clientele. If my late pal Kevin Dorothy had been with me, he would’ve been watching him like a hawk. Kevin, who was a professional barman in Belfast, loved his stout and hated to see it being treated with anything but the utmost reverence. Kevin taught me to pull the perfect pint, so I know he would’ve given Manu 10 out of 10.
While I wait for my Guinness to settle, I start counting the many different Irish and Scotch and quite a few Japanese whiskies on the shelves behind the bar. Manu notices, and saves me the bother.
“One huuundred and eiiiiighty!” he says, with the same crowd-pleasing delivery as the guy who scores the darts matches on TV.

Bar Residence owner Manu Iturregi with a pint of Guinness. Below, some of his 180 whiskies


Out of this world
Manu’s personal drams of choice are Bushmills’ 16-year-old single malt, which is aged in bourbon, port and sherry casks; and the Ardbeg Supernova, one of the most heavily-peated Scotch whiskies you can buy, if you can afford it – a mail-order bottle leaves little change from €550. I tell him that’s cheap compared with the bottle of special-edition Jameson I saw in Dublin airport that morning.
“How much was it?” asks Manu.
“Five thousand euro,” I tell him.
“Hmm. Maybe if I win the lottery,” he says.
Supernova was spawned by a 2011 experiment in which Ardbeg was invited by a US space research company to send vials of maturing spirit to the International Space Station. The idea was to see how the molecules would react with charred oak in micro-gravity when matched against a control sample in normal gravity on the isle of Islay. It was an expensive experiment, which probably explains the astronomical price.
I’ll have to take Manu’s word for it that Supernova is out of this world, because the bottle he shows me is empty. However, he pours two generous glasses of 15-year-old Redbreast, raises his and says: “Slainte, agus failte go Bilbao. I think you’re going to like my city.”
If first impressions are anything to go by, I think he’s right.

Different view of the Guggenheim Museum in a photo taken from Mount Artxanda
Build it, and they will come
A few minutes’ walk from Manu’s place, which is listed among the best whisky bars in the world by the authoritative Whisky Magazine, is the Guggenheim Museum (www.guggenheim-bilbao.es), which frequently occupies or isn’t far from the top spot on those annual lists of the world’s most eye-popping modern architectural gems.
The Guggenheim, which opened in 1997and has seen admissions increase every year since, isn’t really a museum at all – it’s a remarkable work of art housing equally remarkable works of art. The brainchild of Canadian-born ‘starchitect’ Frank Gehry, it’s the reason why most visitors choose to spend time in Bilbao. More than a million people a year, 60pc of them foreigners, step through its doors.
Tour guide Xabier ‘Txabi’ Lexartza sums it up nicely when he adapts the oft-quoted line from Kevin Costner’s movie, Field Of Dreams.
“The Guggen, as we call it for short, is the perfect example of ‘Build it, and they will come’,” he says.
I’ve landed lucky in being paired up with the amiable Txabi, who’s as keen to chat about Dublin, where he lived for some months as a younger man, as he is to show me the attractions of his home city. His enthusiasm is infectious. Thanks to Txabi and Manu, my first day in Bilbao has got off to a first-class start and is getting better by the hour.

Genial tour guide Txabi Lexartza outside the Guggenheim Museum, also pictured below


A sight to behold
The Guggenheim is described in the free guide that comes with your entrance ticket as “. . . an extraordinary combination of interconnecting shapes. Orthogonal blocks in limestone contrast with curved and bent forms covered in titanium”. That’s fair enough (though I had to look up “orthogonal”), but it reminds me of a turkey covered in tinfoil, which is why I’ll never get a job on Architectural Digest magazine. Nevertheless, it really is a sight to behold.
Txabi tells me that 60 tonnes of titanium tiles – a low-density, high-strength metal more usually made into aircraft parts, golf clubs, tennis racquets and horseshoes – cover the facades and roofs of the Guggenheim’s galleries. I’m surprised it isn’t a lot heavier, because there’s so much of it.
“There are 33,000 tiles and they’re extremely thin,” says Txabi. “That’s why the titanium only weighs 60 tonnes. Inside in the Fish Gallery there’s a sculpture by Californian artist Richard Serra called The Snake. It’s made of weathering steel and it weighs 180 tonnes. That’s why the floor is reinforced.”
We stand for a while in silence, staring through sunglasses at the glistening curves and swoops and pointy bits. In late afternoon under a cloudless sky, the Guggenheim’s metallic mantle is a blue-tinted silver. Come sunset, it turns pink and orange. On those days when the Nervion is in no great hurry to get to the sea, the whole marvellously mad melange of titanium, limestone and glass is mirrored on the water.
I ask Txabi what the museum’s shiny shell reminds him of.
“To me, it looks like a ship,” he says, and points. “Look there, and there – you can see the shape of ship’s bows. Then again, maybe a flower in bloom. A big silver flower. And because the tiles look like fish scales, I sometimes picture the fresh sardines in the Ribera market.”
I see what he means, but he’s missing the glaringly obvious.
“So, it doesn’t remind you of a turkey?” I ask, and take his snigger as a “no”.

Two of brash US artist Jeff Koons' less-offensive sculptures in the Guggenheim Museum


Art attack
Inside, the Guggenheim (James Bond fans will know it featured in the pre-titles sequence of the 1999 film, The World Is Not Enough), is hosting an exhibition by brash American artist Jeff Koons. This is the guy who sculpts colourful, gigantic balloon animals from stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces, and the place is full of them. In November 2013, his Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at Christie’s in New York for $58.4m, making it the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction. But that’s not all he sculpts, as I discover to my acute embarrassment.
One of his pieces is an oversized but anatomically precise sculpture of himself and his now former wife, Hungarian-born but naturalised Italian porn star Ilona Staller, going at it like rabbits. It takes a lot to shock me, but it nearly gives me an art attack. If the Mona Lisa had been hung in the same gallery, her eyebrows would have shot out of the top of her frame – even though she doesn’t have any.
“Txabi, you might have warned me,” I half-whisper, half-hiss. I’m mortified, and suddenly fascinated by the ceiling, the floor, my shoes, but especially the exit.
“I might have,” he says with a grin, “but I wanted to see your reaction.”
It’s not the first time I’ve been led up the garden path, but that was the last thing I expected to see behind the bushes.
Koons married Staller, who’s better known as Cicciolina and served as a member of the Italian parliament, in 1991. He spoke no Italian and she had very little English (she didn’t really need any as all her movies are subtitled – I’m told), so he courted her in Rome with the help of an interpreter. It gets sillier. The interpreter became infatuated with Koons and Cicciolina showed her the door, so he began conversing with his beloved in English – with a heavy Italian accent.
I don’t know what he whispered in her ear, but if it was the lyrics to Joe Dolce’s 1980 chart-topper, Ah, Shaddap You Face, it’s no bigg-a sapprise that the marriage lasted only two years.

Everyone in Bilbao loves Jeff Koons' cute Puppy, as do visitors to the Guggenheim
Puppy love
I push my offended eyes back into their sockets and we step outside. Towering over the Guggenheim’s main entrance and as cute as can be is Koons’ giant floral Puppy. Standing 13 metres high, it’s an accurate sculpture of a West Highland Terrier that’s covered in scores of thousands of growing flowers – petunias, lobelias and begonias, to name a few – with an integrated irrigation system that keeps it in colourful blossom year-round. It was intended as a temporary installation, but the people of Bilbao fell in love with it, so it’s staying put. It’s the prolific Koons’ most-admired work, and I think it’s blooming lovely.
It’s time to eat, so Txabi and I set off for the old town, walking by the river, where solo kayakers and university rowing teams are paddling and sculling. Joggers and kids on rollerblades and bikes pass us in both directions on the wide promenade; teenage sweethearts wander along hand in hand or eat the faces off each other on benches; and handsome couples with beautiful and stylishly-dressed children (the Basques are especially good-looking and supremely fashion-conscious) take advantage of a balmy early evening to stroll by the Nervion. Not so long ago they’d have been wearing gas masks, not Gucci.

One of the relatively traffic-free streets in the quaint old town
Farther, My God, From Thee
You wouldn’t want to end up in hospital in Bilbao. Not that there’s anything wrong with the health service in the Basque country (Txabi assures me it’s among the best in the world); rather, a pair of far-from-fancy cotton pyjamas will set you back €95, which I’m shocked to learn on peering through the fly-spattered window of a little old shop facing the 14th Century Catedral de Santiago.
The Gothic cathedral, which acquired a Neo-Classical facade and tower in the 19th Century, is the starting point for our tapas trail of the old town – a must-do on every visitors’ itinerary and something I’ve been looking forward to all day. We’re under starter’s orders, but Txabi, like all great guides, can’t pass an important building without pointing out a photo opp or sharing a fascinating fact.
“You see the four steps down to the door of the cathedral?” he says. “They weren’t there in the 14th Century. The door was at street level. But the cathedral was built on a foundation of compacted sand and silt, so over the centuries it’s been very slowly sinking. For a building dedicated to the worship of God on high, it’s going in the wrong direction.”

Tasty treats on display in one of the countless pintxo bars and restaurants in the old town
The prince of pintxos
Tapas in the Basque country are called pintxos, which means “thorns” or “spikes”. The name comes from the toothpicks that skewer your chosen tasty treat to the piece of bread on which it’s served. According to Txabi, they don’t come much tastier than those served in the bars and cafes of Bilbao’s old town.
We’re sitting on high stools at the bar in our first pintxo port of call (of eight), and in my hand is a wide stubby glass containing a drink that wine snobs believe was dreamt up by the Devil. Kalimotxo is equal measures of the cheapest red plonk and Coca-Cola, poured over ice. It sounds hellish, but it’s a mix made in heaven. In Boston they call it a cocktail and charge you $20. In Bilbao, where it was invented, you get more than enough change from €5 to order a pintxo.
Pintxos are haute, but not necessarily hot, cuisine in miniature form. I try umpteen varieties and combinations from simple potato and ham croquette to succulent slices of jamon Serrano, then chillies with olives and anchovy followed by saucy albondiga (meatball). But the prince of pintxos is grilled foie gras on toasted raisin bread with a little dippy dollop of apple sauce on the side for €2.
Barcelona, which gets a helluva lot more visitors than Bilbao, has, without a by-your-leave, hijacked the pintxo and passed it off as a Catalan creation. Don’t believe a word of it – the original and best in all of Iberia are prepared and proffered by those gastronomic geniuses, the genial Basques.

The Mount Artxanda funicular railway is great fun, and the ride takes only three minutes
DAY 2
A funi experience
I’m off to the seaside today, but first I have a viewing appointment on Mount Artxanda, which overlooks downtown Bilbao. More importantly, it overlooks the Nervion and the Guggenheim, and I’m going up to take some photos from a different perspective. But that’s the routine part of my mission. The thrilling part is that to get to the scenic terrace you take the funicular, and I love funiculars.
The journey aboard the Swiss-built ‘funi’, as the locals call it, lasts only three minutes. This has nothing to do with Mount Artxanda being up in the clouds and the little red electric car going like a rocket. Neither is the case. Artxanda tops out at a mere 250 metres, the terrace is at 224 metres and the funi covers its 770 metres of single track at an average of five metres a second. The fare is 95 cent, but strangely, you can buy only one-way tickets.
While I’m taking my pictures, a couple of coaches arrive in the car park and decant about 100 noisy German tourists. There are acres of space from which to enjoy the views, but like a swarm of bees converging on a fella covered from head to toe in jam, they head straight for me.
I decide I have enough photos and buzz off.

The Bizkaia Bridge, the world's first transporter bridge, 14km downriver from central Bilbao



Bridge of size
The 14km metro ride from the city centre to Getxo, where the Nervion empties into
the Ibaizabal estuary which further empties into the Bay of Biscay, takes just over 20 minutes and costs €3.40 return (public transport in Bilbao is surprisingly cheap and super-efficient). As the train approaches the station where I’m itching to get off, a recorded voice announces with what sounds like a dreamily contented sigh that the next stop is Areeta. The word is music to my ears.
As a child of the Meccano age, this is an exciting moment for me, because Getxo is home to one side of a fabulous feat of late 19th Century engineering, the Bizkaia Bridge (the other side is in Portugalete, just across the river). With the greatest respect to Txabi, this is one Bilbao landmark on which I think I can match him for knowledge.
Work on the world’s first transporter bridge, which is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding architectural iron structures of the Industrial Revolution, began in April 1890 and it opened just over three years later. Since July 28, 1893, the first and successive suspended gondolas have carried some 650 million passengers and travelled some 1,248,000 kilometres back and forth across the Nervion   ̶ the equivalent of 31 trips around the world. On August 5, 1893, Princess Isabela of Bourbon made the short trip seven times. On September 7, 2015, I did it eight times. Na-na-na-na-naaah!
An elevator takes visitors 50 metres up to the 160-metre walkway incorporated in the cross-spar, from where the views are fabulous. On March 17, 2012, athletes Jan Salvador and Javi Carole ran a marathon back and forth across the walkway, crossing the finishing line together after three hours, 34 minutes and 13 seconds.

Manu is a dab hand with the accordion, which he plays every year in Matt Molloy's pub
Pipes and drams
After another hugely enjoyable and busy day, there’s only one place to head for a nightcap or three, and that’s busy Bar Residence (www.residencecafe.com), where Manu hosts a trad session every Wednesday night. As it’s Tuesday and I’m off to Dublin in the morning, I’ll miss it, but there’s always the next time – I’m going back in April, flights already booked.
Manu’s an accomplished accordion player and spends two weeks each August holidaying in the west of Ireland, where he’s been the star turn on many a night in Matt Molloy’s pub in Westport, much to the delight of the regulars. He’s also learning the Highland bagpipes, but not in Bar Residence, much to the relief of his own regulars. As for his neighbours in the old town, where he lives and practises his music, they must be either stone deaf or very tolerant.
A big rugby fan, he already has his ticket for the Calcutta Cup clash between Scotland and England at Murrayfield next February 6, when he’ll be wearing his kilt and singing Flower of Scotland.
I’m chuffed to say that in Manu and Txabi, with whom I’ve kept in touch, I have two new buddies in Bilbao. Txabi has a young family, so it won’t be easy for him to revisit Ireland any time soon. However, Manu’s heading over again next summer, and it’ll be my privilege to show him around Dublin and introduce him to my favourite watering hole. That’s on condition that he leaves his new instrument behind in Bilbao – they’re not exactly nuts about the bagpipes in Neary’s.

GETTING THERE
Aer Lingus has regular flights from Dublin to Bilbao from the end of March to the end of October, with greater frequency in the summer months. www.aerlingus.com
A taxi from the airport to the city centre costs €32, while the bus costs €1.45.

STAY
The four-star Hotel Ercilla in the city centre has rooms from €70 a night including breakfast. www.hotelercilla.com

The popular and colourful Cafe Bar Bilbao in the old town

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

ITALY: THE HILLS ARE ALIVE WITH THE SOUND OF WHEEZING

It’s not every day that you get to exchange friendly waves high on a hill with a lonely goatherd in a setting straight out of The Sound of Music. Nor do you often have the opportunity to visit a living, breathing cathedral that was planted 14 years ago and go for a cruise on the EU wine lake. These were a few of my favourite things when I spent three fun-filled days in the mountains of northern Italy’s Val di Fassa and on the shores of Lake Levico in Valsugana. I have so many wonderful memories to share, so, as Julie Andrews famously sang, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start . . .

My love for Italy reaches new heights, and so clearly have I, during my fab visit to Val di Fassa
DAY 1
High anxiety
I’m 2,200 metres up the side of a mountain when two guys dangling from a patriotic green, white and red parachute float past and wish me a cheery “buongiorno”. A mirage in the Dolomites? I thought they only appeared in the desert.
“Tandem paragliding,” says fit-as-a-fiddle guide Tomazo. I’m fit for nothing after a very late night of Italian hospitality in the chalet-style Hotel Astoria (www.hotel-astoria.net) in Canazei, which resembles something Pinocchio’s oul fella might have carved. It’s the first time I’ve stayed in what looks from the outside like a cuckoo clock.
“You strap yourself to the pilot and jump off a cliff,” adds Tomazo, who I suspect might be suffering from altitude sickness. “It’s very popular.”
Yeah – with lunatics.

Where eagles, paragliders and trekkers dare, in the magnificent mountains of Val di Fassa


Breathtaking scenery – in more ways than one
The alpine scenery of Val di Fassa is breathtaking, which is why the hills are alive with the sound of wheezing – and it’s coming from me. The last time I was this high above sea level, I was in an aeroplane. My lungs are working overtime and, despite having breakfasted only a couple of hours before, my stomach thinks my parched throat has been cut. I’ve long since drained the dregs from my litre bottle of water, and the lump of Juicy Fruit gum on which I’m chewing ceased to be either juicy or fruity ages ago.
Tomazo halts to give us a welcome rest and a pep talk, but no oxygen, which I think is a bit mean. I quickly forgive him, though, because my eyes are struggling to take in the bounteous natural beauty all around.
“This is the limit of—” he begins.
“Human endurance?” I suggest.
“No. The tree line,” he says. “No trees grow above this altitude.”
Edelweiss does, and would do so in greater profusion if trekkers didn’t keep picking the delicate blossoms, which is illegal as they’re protected. Poppies grow here too, but instead of red they’re white because of the lack of iron in the soil.

Edelweiss grows in Val di Fassa, but don't go picking the blooms as they're protected by law


Whip crack away
Moses-like, Tomazo leads us out of the wilderness and down a winding, narrow goat track and says he hopes we’re hungry, because lunch awaits in the farmhouse off in the distance. He’s said the magic word. We quicken our pace from a weary are-we-there-yet to hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to eat we go, and arrive half-an-hour later at the Kasseroller family’s isolated but idyllic summer residence cum daytime restaurant, where the temperature on the terrace is 22C.
It’s even hotter in front of the brick-built outdoor oven from which our host, Karl Kasseroller, resplendent in workaday lederhosen, is extracting freshly-baked loaves of bread. The aroma has me salivating, and the lovely teenage daughter of the house, Franzisca, with a daisy chain in her hair, tells me lunch will be served momentarily. After two-and-a-half arduous but nevertheless enjoyable hours of walking, I can’t wait.
“But first,” Franzisca adds proudly, “Papa will give a demonstration of bullwhip cracking.”
He’ll give a . . . WHAT?
With the greatest respect to Herr Kasseroller, I don’t want to see him cracking a whip, I want to see him whipping up a cracking Kasserole or whatever’s on the menu, because I’m in desperate need of a feed. However, decorum prevails, and I retreat to a seat in the sun.
“You’ll enjoy this,” says Alicia, from the Val di Fassa tourist board.
When I see the length of Herr Kasseroller’s whip, I decide I’ll enjoy it even more by retreating to a safer seat in the shade, fearing that a) he might accidentally take my eye out or b) ask for a volunteer for his next trick.
I’m always game for a laugh, but there’s no way I’m going to stand there with a lit cigarette between my trembling lips while Krazy Karl tells the audience he will now extinguish it with one flick of his wrist. I’m fond of my nose – it keeps my glasses in place – and I don’t want to lose it.

The Kasseroller family's farmhouse and restaurant, a so-welcome refuge for hungry trekkers

Lovely and charming daughter of the house Franzisca Kasseroller delivers another tasty treat
Alexandra the Great
The demonstration, which is pretty impressive, concludes without incident or injury, and Franzisca’s little brother, Peter, plonks down a huge jug of iced water that we’re told contains the merest hint of Amaretto. I look longingly for a moment at the condensation trickling slowly down the side, then quickly fill my glass and down it in one. John Mills does something similar with a glass of Carlsberg in the 1958 movie, Ice Cold In Alex.
Baskets of steaming-hot bread, plates of ham, salami and homemade cheese and big bowls of barley, rice and vegetable stew appear. There’s just about enough room on the table for plates of speck, the traditional south Tyrolean herb-cured pork belly.
As I prepare to tuck in, Franzisca, Peter and other brother Lukas return from the kitchen and somehow find parking spaces for a couple of two-inch-deep serving dishes full of polenta. They don’t stay full for long. Even though it’s not confectionery, for me polenta is the icing on the cake. It’s nothing more than the crudest corn-meal porridge, but I love it.
“What’s that yellow stuff?” asks my right-hand neighbour.
“That? Ah, you wouldn’t like it. It’s a sort of gruel,” I say. “That’s what the poor old peasants used to live on, God love them. Try the speck instead.”
As soon as her back is turned, I ladle great big dollops of polenta on to my plate and shovel it down my neck while nonchalantly whistling The Happy Wanderer, which takes some doing.
Everything served at Herr Kasseroller’s tables is made in-house by his wife, Alexandra. Or, as I will forever fondly remember her after my meal in the mountains, Alexandra the Great.

It's all downhill from here as we set off back to the valley floor after a morning in the mountains
Papa’s grappas
Following a dessert of homemade yogurt with juicy strawberries the size of plums that were plucked from the plants only half-an-hour before, Franzisca informs us that Papa would like us to sample a glass or two of his grappa before we continue on our merry (mainly because it’s downhill) way. It would be rude to refuse.
Fuelled by several generous shots of differently-flavoured firewater of 60pc alcoholic volume, the 6km trek back to the Col Rodella cable car station in Campitello di Fassa, from where we’d set off four hours before, is a doddle.
Across cow pat-scented meadows and through forests we tramp, with a spring in our step, thanks to the bouncy carpets of lush grass and fallen pine needles. In a clearing, an elderly goatherd sitting on a rock and biting bits off a chunk of salami while his bearded buddies chew the cud stands up and we exchange cheery waves.
I’m regretting packing insect repellent instead of sunscreen, because while the midges have been conspicuous by their absence, my exposed neck, arms and legs are beginning to burn. I’ll pay for it later, but meanwhile, I’m in a serene little world of my own – until I step out of the trees and into a field where I’m confronted by a bull with big pointy horns that’s staring straight at me.
My panic is short-lived. Fortunately, the bull is a compatriot of mine – of the shaggy, red-headed Scottish Highland variety, so we’re bound to have an understanding. Even more fortunately, and after closer inspection, the bull turns out to be a cow, which lowers its head and goes back to mowing the meadow.

The bull that turned out to be a harmless cow and, below, lovely Lake Levico in Valsugana

DAY 2
Booze cruise on the EU wine lake
Having experienced the alpine heights, it’s time to take in the lakeside sights. I board a minibus for the journey southwest along dizzyingly-high winding roads with sheer, 1,000-metre drops (so I’m told – I refuse to look out of the window) to Valsugana and Lake Levico.
Compared with superstar lakes Como and Garda, Levico is a mere puddle, but in this case small is indeed beautiful. It also happens to be the fabled EU wine lake, though there’s no sign of the EU butter mountain, which is hardly surprising considering it’s 25C in the early evening. It must have melted.
Levico isn’t a wine lake in the sense that you might stick a straw in it and suck up a mouthful of Merlot. Rather, 18 months before, 2,000 bottles of locally-produced spumante had been deposited on the bottom as part of the ageing process known as aquaoir. I’m venturing into dodgy territory here because my specialist subject on Mastermind would be beer, but apparently, the beneficial conditions of aquaoir are cold temperatures, constant pressure, darkness and motion.
This I learn from Raffaella Patoner and Cristina Eberle, of the Trentino and Valsugana tourism boards respectively, as we potter about on Levico aboard an environmentally-friendly battery-powered boat. They’d been by the pier that morning when the bottles were brought ashore, which is why only 1,998 of the original 2,000 were loaded on to the waiting truck. The couple that remain are emptied in record time, and very nice they are too.

Lake Levico from the boat and, below, yours truly with gracious hosts Raffaella and Cristina

A Lidl misunderstanding
Raffaella tells me that Levico Terme – the town beside the lake – is famous for its Lidl, especially on weekends.
“It’s perfect for picnics,” she says, and I have to agree – why buy your potato salad and pork pies from Tesco when you can get them for half the price from the German discount supermarket chain?
“It attracts hundreds of thousands of people from all over Italy,” she adds. “And Austria. From the UK and Ireland too.”
Eh? Hang on there a second.
“You did say . . . Lidl, didn’t you?” I ask, and Cristina, laughing her head off, nearly topples off the boat and into the lake.
“No!” screeches Raffaella, grabbing her colleague’s arm and saving her life while spilling half her spumante over my jeans. “Lido! They come here for the lido!”
I need my ears syringed.

Who needs to travel all the way to the seaside when the lakeside provides just as much fun?
Parliamo Glaswegian
True enough, the lido at Lake Levico – one of Italy’s cleanest bodies of fresh water – is a tourist magnet, and scores of happy family groups are on the beach enjoying the sunshine.
I’m a little tired after my earlier exertions in the mountains (Papa’s grappa’s got a grip on me) and the two-hour drive from Val di Fassa, so I retire for a rest before dinner to my hotel, the gorgeous-looking Grand Imperial (www.imperialhotel.it). A former summer residence of the Austrian imperial family, it’s surrounded by the 150 hectares of Habsburg Park and has a renowned spa in the basement.
The receptionist asks if I’d like to have a half-hour massage on the house, but I have to decline because I’m terribly ticklish. You know when you scratch certain dogs behind the ear and one of their back legs goes into convulsions? That’s me on a massage table. Apart from that, the last thing my sunburnt calves need is someone prodding their fingers into them, so I saunter over to the outdoor pool and settle in to a sun lounger. Next thing I know, I’m being addressed in Glaswegian.
“Hullawrrer! Awrright, pal?” comes the voice from over my shoulder.
Thinking a fellow Scot has sussed me, what with my red-raw legs, I turn and find a distinguished-looking grey-haired gentleman, early 60s, in a suit and tie, smiling and offering his hand.
“Zanoni,” he says, so he’s either selling washing machines or that’s his name. It’s the latter. “Ruggero Zanoni. Ah’m the generral manager. Welcome tae the Grrand Imperrial.”


The Grand Imperial Hotel, my posh home away from home
A handy pizza advice
Despite the accent, Ruggero is as Italian as ravioli, but his late wife was a Clydesider – “a McManus, from Govanhill”, he says, with a fondness and a faraway look that tells me, no further words necessary, that she must have been a wonderful woman. She certainly married a warm, wonderful and funny guy.
Ruggero is a real live wire who’s lived a fascinating life. He tells me that as a young man with a yearning for adventure he hit the road and travelled widely, learning the bar and hotel trades along the way and becoming fluent in English, Dutch, French, German and Russian. I can’t get enough of his tales when he joins me later in the lobby as I wait for the taxi to take me to dinner in nearby Castel Pergine.
Driver Matteo arrives, and Ruggero walks with me to the car.
“Enjoy yer meal, laddie,” he says, “an’ dinnae be drrinkin’ too much beer or ye’ll be peein’ yer trroosers.”
I nearly do pee my troosers laughing.

Castel Pergine, from where no prisoner of war in his right mind would ever want to escape
Escape to Colditz
Perched on a pine-skirted, stand-alone mini mountain, Castel Pergine looks a bit like Colditz, but has much better catering. If you were a POW here, you’d be sending Red Cross parcels home to your loved ones to show them what they were missing.
The 13th Century castle and its raved-about restaurant have been managed for the past 23 years by Swiss couple Verena Neff and her architect husband Theo Schneider, and I think I’m right in saying that the chef doesn’t do his shopping in Lidl. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Lidl, but Castel Pergine offers one of the finest dining experiences in northern Italy.
Madame Neff hands me the menu, which is in Italian, but that’s not a problem – as well as being a restaurateur and hotelier (the castle has 20 rooms), she’s a professional translator in several languages.
“So. Let me tell you about your four courses,” she says, sounding exactly like Joanna Lumley (the actress, not her Ab Fab character). “You’re going to start with freshly-caught trout with hot apple sauce, horseradish and gin and tonic mousse.”
Ah, go on, then.
“The second course is ravioli with caramelised red onion and Trentingrana – that’s a local cheese, one of the best. Then you’ll have crispy pancetta with celery puree, spinach and chestnut honey – the best honey in all of Italy. Finally, we’ll serve an assortment of local artisan cheeses with a selection of breads, all baked in our kitchen. And you’ll drink a different, specially-selected wine with each dish. How does that sound?”
Like I’ve died and gone to heaven, if you must know.
Vegetarians, vegans and those who have to abide by gluten-free diets needn’t fret, because Madame Neff caters for and spoils everyone who steps through the imposing entrance to her medieval castle – as long as they leave their swords at the door. It’s €60 a head with wine and €40 without, and it’s fabulous. (www.castelpergine.it).

Colle delle Benne fort, overlooking Lake Levico, is an interpretive centre and exhibition space
DAY 3
Benny Hill
The grand old Duke of York, who had 10,000 men, had an awfully annoying habit of marching them up to the top of the hill and marching them down again. I know how they must have felt when, early next morning, Cristina comes a-calling and announces that we’re going for a stroll to the Colle delle Benne fort, which overlooks Lake Levico.
The fort, completed in 1882 and now an interpretive centre and exhibition space, is only two kilometres from the Grand Imperial, but it’s 660 metres above Lake Levico level, and in no time at all I’m huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf. Blow your house down? I couldn’t blow out a match.
I soldier on up the narrow road, with forest on the left and vines on the right, then stop to remove an annoying little stone from my shoe. While re-tying my lace, I notice an arrowed sign that reads “Colle delle Benne 1km”.
My spoken Italian isn’t great, but I can read and understand quite a bit, and “colle”, I know, comes from the Latin “collis”, which means hill. And that’s when I realise, with a snigger, that I’m walking up Benne Hill. I picture the late English comedian chasing all those scantily-clad young women around a park. Energised by a TV blast from the past, I stand and resume my hike, zig-zagging at a speeded-up pace while deedly-deeing his theme tune, Yakety Sax.
He must have been popular in Italy, because Cristina says: “Ha! Benny Heel!” And all of a sudden, the hill is alive with the sound of laughter.

The Arte Sella open-air gallery in Valsugana has some weird and wonderful exhibits on show

Let us spray
The fort is worth a visit if you’re a military history buff. Much more to my liking, though, is Arte Sella (www.artesella.it), an open-air international exhibition of contemporary artworks in the fields and woods of Val di Sella, a 15-minute taxi ride from the Grand Imperial.
Artists from all over the world vie for the opportunity to live and work here, but you’ll see nothing as delicate as a palette knife or a fine-line paintbrush in their hands. Rather, they’re more likely to be wielding a hammer, an axe or a chainsaw. The materials they use are rocks collected from the fields, timber from fallen trees and dead saplings and twigs, all fashioned into fascinating forms.
The most remarkable installation, in concept and size, is the late Italian artist Giuliano Mauri’s Tree Cathedral – or, if you like, Catreedral. In 2001, working off a far-sighted floor plan, Mauri and his team planted 80 young hornbeams on a hillside plot 90 feet long and 80 feet wide. Those rows of saplings, forming five aisles, are now semi-mature trees of up to 30 feet in height. In a few more years, their thickening trunks will be the pillars and their ever-expanding canopies will mingle to create the vaulted ceilings of an organic Gothic church.
I’d love to be at the inaugural Mass to celebrate the Catreedral’s consecration, which they’d be wise to schedule for the winter months when airborne pests are dormant. Otherwise, the bishop might have to open the proceedings by saying: “Let us spray.”

The late Italian artist Giuliano Mauri's living, breathing, ever-growing cathedral, or Catreedral
So long, farewell . . .
I’m no skier (I tried it once, and cruel people pointed and laughed), so a winter visit to the highly-rated slopes of Val di Fassa would be wasted on me. Whizzing down a snow-covered hillside with my bum on a bar tray I can do, and often did when I was a pre-pubescent daredevil, until the day I failed to stop at the bottom and was catapulted into the icy River Levern. When my mother had spent her fury, the seat of my trousers was bone dry while the rest of my school uniform was still dripping wet.
So, for me, the lofty Dolomites and Lake Levico will remain summer destinations, to be visited again when the edelweiss is in bloom and the leafy Catreedral is a couple of feet taller than it was the summer before.
I’ll happily climb ev’ry mountain, as long as the descent leads to a date with a plate of polenta. And when it comes time to head home, it will be with a heavy heart that I’ll say so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.

GETTING THERE
Mine was a whistle-stop visit to Val di Fassa and Valsugana-Lake Levico, but Crystal Summer has a range of tailor-made packages taking in either or both destinations. For example, seven nights at the Rododendro in Val di Fassa costs from €749 per person sharing while seven nights at the Lake Levico Elite Hotel costs from €709pps, including return flights from Dublin and transfers. See www.crystalsummer.ie

FURTHER INFORMATION
For more information on Val di Fassa and Valsugana-Lake Levico, see www.fassa.com, www.visitvalsugana.it and www.visittrentino.it

Any excuse to stop and point (and catch your breath) in the lofty mountains of Val di Fassa