Five Chinese and I in the Mediterranean

A two-week trip from Lake Como to the Cannes Croisette.

I never miss an opportunity to go to the French or Italian Riviera and I never say no to traveling in style. It was in my capacity of a TasteMaker Ambassador that I accompanied a group of five Chinese friends on a two-week trip from the snow- capped mountains near Lake Como to the brilliant Cannes Croisette at Easter 2013. The savoir vivre in that part of the world is simply incomparable and the magic that emanates from each region is a detox for mind, body and soul.

‘As you set out… hope the voyage is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery.’
— Constantine P. Cava

First Stop – Villa d’Este

Villa d’Este is in a league all of its own and one of the few places in the world where the star system hands out an unjust rating – it is simply beyond stars.

Overlooking Lake Como and surrounded by crisp, foamy mountains, the villa benefits not only from spectacular views but also, from that intangible je ne sais quoi that separates mere iconic hotels from the legends among them.

Villa d’Este visitors can enjoy the surroundings, a boat trip on the lake or even a shopping trip to Milan (just an hour away), but in reality most never feel the need to leave its grounds.

Built in the 16th century, the villa is an empyrean destination. The calm that emanates from the cool marble interiors, the grand Grecian ionic columns, the classical sculptures and works of art dotted around all contribute to a feeling of perfect timelessness. Neither intimidating nor bespoilt by latter day informality, Villa d’Este stands as an epitome of ultimate elegance and beauty.

The warm fire, the beautiful view of the lake, the two pools (indoor and outdoor) and the mysterious passage leading to the spa all contribute to feeling totally at peace with the world.

My companions, who know a thing or two about good food, claimed at the end of the trip that the dinner at Villa d’Este was the best. A giant, freshly caught sea bream from the 40 foot deep lake, lobster salad galore and a sumptuously juicy rare steak were all on the menu that night, with every detail and every morsel hitting the mark of perfection. An easy red wine from the Piedmont region accompanied this gastronomic journey and the mellow sunset ensured the night was a success.

I’m so glad you’ve spotted my omission – dessert! One of the qualities I admired about my group throughout the trip was their unwavering capacity to always leave room for dessert. Frutti di bosco, tiramisu and fresh fruit platters are some of the delights that we shared at Villa d’Este.

Lastly, this writer can say categorically that the cappuccinos there were the best I have ever tasted.

After a walk to help digest our gargantuan meal, we naturally ended up in the bar. The jazz pianist was so versatile, with an added repertoire of Italian songs, that we couldn’t resist a quick dance to finish off the evening.

While there, we hired a private speed boat and did the prerequisite voyeur trip, admiring from afar the homes of George Clooney, Richard Branson and other fortunate residents. We went to Bellagio where cobbled streets, boutique shops and narrow alleyways lent a subtle charm to this place, illuminated by the golden sun in an enchanting contrast to the grandeur of Villa d’Este.

The second evening we paid a visit to Ristorante La Colombetta, a large family run restaurant in the heart of Como, which proudly displays a picture of Robert de Niro with the proprietors’ two daughters. The Sardinia influenced dinner included mountains of fresh fish of our choice. Every dish is home cooked right down to the desserts. Evidently a local favourite, it is justly proud of its patronage.

Second Stop – La Vialla Fattoria

La Vialla is an exceptional Tuscan estate – almost a country within a country – that defies easy description.
The founder, who acquired a number of smallholdings, adding substantially to them over the years, consolidated them into one massive, state of the art organic estate, boasting renovated but still very authentic, stone built country houses (the original farm houses).

The Fattoria (Italian for farm) is much more than a farm. In addition to partaking of its traditional activities of grape and olive harvesting, wine making and olive oil pressing, regular aficionados whose religion is organics, can also go horse riding, swimming (most houses have their own pool) and socialising around the great communal tables heaving with food that townies like us have forgotten existed.

We stayed in a charming farmhouse, Poggiolo Vecchio, bordering a small river. The houses are opulent, self-catering and embody the spirit of sustainability to absolute perfection. The feeling of being immersed in nature at its purest and most unadulterated is enhanced by the absence of TV sets, computers and the like.

The Viallini, the three brothers who own and run the estate, have the kind of generosity of spirit that one doesn’t encounter often today – if one ever did. They delight in sharing their philosophy of living and the delights of the estate with guests and visitors alike.

And so it was that we arrived late, after a several hour drive from Milan, to a home cooked dinner. Even the simplest of products acquires a special significance at La Vialla because of its quality and also because of the fabulous preserves the Lo Franco family has become justly famous for.
On that night we had the leanest, tastiest chicken you can probably never imagine unless you happen to have visited La Vialla.

The following day was devoted to visiting the farm itself and although it is impossible to get acquainted with the massive and varied operation in one day, one gets a sense of how religiously the principles of organics are applied throughout.

We never progressed farther than the cellar, dear reader, where my Chinese co-travellers got seduced by the grappa.
The Viallini’s passion for and commitment to sustainability are only matched by their hospitality and generosity, both hugely appreciated by my Chinese friends. We left with a whole cheese to keep reminding us of La Vialla for the rest of our trip and my friends vowed to return for grape and olive harvesting season.

The following day we awoke to the beautiful sun peeking through the curtains and moved on to the next leg of our travels, the famed city of Florence.

Third Stop – Florence

Florence is considered by many as the jewel in the crown of Italy. Driving through some of the charmed narrow streets, we eventually find our way to the hidden Palazzo Magnani Feroni.

Grand frescoes line the walls and vast hallways welcome you to this nest of serenity, tucked away from the hustle and bustle that surrounds the palazzo.

The hotel consists of cool suites only and is a veritable hideaway from the heat that can descend upon the city. Step onto the terrace and you are in for a magnificent view. The period furnishings and attentive staff re-create the ambience of the kind of 16th century private home that once graced the streets of Florence. Many still remain, in fact – such as Palazzo Pitti and Palazzo Uffizi, now tourist attractions and vivid reminders of Florence’s early economic and artistic significance.

Florence itself is a wonderful city to visit for a few days –the trendy modernity juxtaposed with and rooted in magnificent tradition. There is something to do for every visitor. From visiting the various cultural monuments to the quirky leather shoe makers that can be found in obscure streets, it’s a real treat to explore. Florence is also a relatively small city, which means it is very difficult to get lost there.

Just on the outskirts of it is a huge attraction that caters largely to the Asian market: The Outlet. Stocking most of the major clothes brands (from Ferragamo to Dior) there are numerous vastly discounted shops – perfect for retail therapy.

The restaurant Il Cibreo provided an interesting gastronomic experience in Florence. It is somewhat eccentric in that there are no menus there. A waitress will provide a verbatim report of the chef’s specialities. The inspiration is taken from traditional Tuscan recipes and the first thing you’ll notice is the absence of pasta. From the Tuscan vegetable-bread soup that you eat with a fork, to the sea bass sashimi, pigeon and even raw pork sausage, freshly made for us to try, it really is an experience second to none. To accompany this extravaganza, we had a 1984 de Gresy, a most fantastically smooth and sweet wine of which we ordered two bottles. Every quirky detail was a source of entertainment: from the dessert menu to the dog bone-shaped bread that is a grand idea for a doggy bag!

Florence has a number of great local food trattorias that ooze atmosphere. After a relaxing meal there, you can make your way to the Duomo where all the night life takes place.

Fourth Stop – Portofino

Leaving the beautiful old city of Florence, we took a long drive to this side of paradise: Portofino. Arriving on a rather soggy day, our attitude instantly transformed into enchantment, for if there is one word to describe Portofino and its most significant hotel, Splendido, it would be, well, splendid.

With its flowered façade and breezy, comfortable interior, overlooking Portofino and the harbour, the Splendido has always been the hub for international yachtsmen, old money and those in the know.

Each room is simple and peaceful, in keeping with the light blue surroundings that mirror the beauty of the Mediterranean. For those who want to make a splash yet value discretion, the presidential suites are large self-catering apartments equipped with everything one could want to be happy. The outdoor pool and terrace for those sunny spells, breakfast in the mornings or dinner in the evenings are a magical experience. Watching the sun emerge or disappear casts a magical light on this isolated yet breathtakingly beautiful spot.

Later, my companions were to vote Portofino the best and most enchanting part of the entire trip.

We also visited the little neighbouring village, Santa Margherita de Ligure, which has several boutiques, as does Portofino itself, with local shops offering crafts and clothes of every quality but usually the best. The atmosphere along this coastline is one of contentment: everyone is relaxed and filled with joie de vivre. The main attraction, however, remains the Splendido. That evening we were treated to a lively performance by the resident musician and an impromptu duet with a waiter.

Eventually, the enticing and magical atmosphere inspired this writer to dance to the Copacabana tune barefoot. Watching couples snuggling on the sofas, groups merrily laughing to the whims of the musician, I thought of Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart and myriad other stars staying at the Splendido. They must have loved the seclusion and the inherent elegance of the place just as everyone else does today.

As we visited slightly off-peak, we were able to escape the jetsetting, yachting crowds that descend upon Portofino in the summer. On our last day the sun emerged over the spectacular bay and as we departed, we vowed to return to this perfect haven of happiness.

Fifth Stop – Monaco

From the lazy shores of Portofino where we ate ice cream on the boulders lining the coast, we headed towards the glamorous ports of Monaco. Driving down the Haute Corniche which overlooks the spectacular sun-drenched bay and its equally spectacular rocky descent, one always feels implausibly and inexplicably happy – at least, I do.

I have always thought the Hotel de Paris the beginning and end of all hotels; this time I was disappointed. From the magnificent entrance, there is an equally magnificent wait to check-in and go to the rooms. The rooms have been refurbished in a contemporary style and a deep red. They are also smaller than pre-renovation. Our request for twin beds had to be re-emphasised time and again before anything was done. The breakfast, not included and charged at 48 Euros, was poor value. I always maintain that the quality of a hotel can be judged partially on the merit of its breakfast; this was quite substandard at Hotel de Paris.

The hotel does obviously have a number of saving graces, else it wouldn’t be frequented by the good and the great, especially the Russian moneyed crowds.

Its beautiful entrance hall, with magnificent fresh flower arrangements every day, the American bar with live music – a relaxing hub for Monegasque residents, yachtsmen and a bevy of long-legged beauties – and the world renowned Alain Ducasse restaurant, Louis XV are a continual magnet for everyone who makes a stop at the glamorous principality.
Obviously, travelling with a Chinese group of refined culinary expectations, the Ducasse restaurant was always going to be the highlight of the trip.

The grand interior and attentive staff are of course part of the special experience that the restaurant is.

We all had taster menus accompanied by Pommard 1er Cru ‘Rugiens’, Domaine Ballot Millot (2008) which was still a little young. A velvety rich olive dip balanced the crudités preceding the main menu. The next course was Quick-sautéed shellfish, crustacean, squids and octopus, chickpeas from Rougiers and crushed borage, followed by Oven-baked blue lobster, green peas, fava beans, carrots and turnips cooked all together. This was followed by Hotpot of Haute-Provence with morels mushrooms and baby vegetables, Mediterranean sea bass, green asparagus and citrus fruit from Menton, tangy juice, milk-fed lamb cooked in the fireplace, sautéed peas, spring onions and broad beans, roasted farm veal from Correze, carrots, spinach leaves and pistou sauce.

A selection of perfectly matured cheeses rounded off the above sumptuous dishes prepared to absolute perfection. We staggered on to the desserts, a gastronomic but also visual feast, of which we had a selection to share (salt caramel ice cream was my favourite).

Having admired the casino from outside as a child for years, I was a little underwhelmed by the quality of the gamblers that night. There was just a handful of people sitting at the gambling machines, mechanically diminishing their pockets’ contents in some false hope. However, whilst the casino in the main square may no longer be the trendiest place to gamble, Monaco still remains a magical place whose fairy tale past and quality draw the glamour crowds with a promise of the kind of encounters that make the stuff of legends.

Even if the promise does not get fulfilled, one is always happier for entertaining it.

Sixth Stop – Cannes

The Carlton hotel dominating the famous Croisette is an institution. This is where everybody who is anybody stays during the Film Festival and at all other times. The ever-present paparazzo standing outside, snapping new arrivals, just in case, is proof enough of this.

Entering an oasis of calm, we were escorted to our rooms which are spacious and comfortable, overlooking the beach and offering a rare treat: being able to watch the world go by up and down the Croisette.

More to the point, from my Chinese companions’ point of view, just round the corner from the hotel are all the famous brands’ boutiques, as well as some expensive jewellery ones.

For my part, I preferred kicking off my heels and enjoying a cappuccino on the terrace of the Carlton, looking at the brilliant blue sea, sitting in the light Mediterranean breeze and observing the well-dressed, polite and affable Cannois.

In the evening we visited an inconspicuous looking seaside eaterie, Gaston & Gastounette, which had been recommended to us for its seafood. A group of six, we ordered only for four and this proved a wise choice. From a platter of mixed grilled sea food consisting of sumptuous scallops, tasty morsels of monk fish, sea bass, mouth-watering mussels and much more, we progressed on to the piece de resistence and our reason for coming to Cannes: the bouillabaisse. My companions had never tried the dish and were looking forward to it.

As it happened, the whole thing was quite an experience. We got to see the fish that was going in the soup which tasted truly exquisite. A dessert carousel followed but bar trying the ice cream, we were unable to do it justice, having feasted on the exceptional bouillabaisse.

Our short yet sweet adventure ended the next day when we proceeded to take a flight back to Blighty, leaving the fresh, lively and inviting air of the Riviera with a vow to return this very summer.

Dear Reader, stay tuned!