While other members of my family have enjoyed fine whites and boxed reds alike, I’ve never developed much of a taste for it, preferring a glass of beer or whisky instead.
However, when I was offered the chance to fly to northern Italy and spend three days on the Euganean Hills, an area in the Padua region known for its volcanic spas, fine restaurants and abundant vineyards and wineries, I thought it might be a good time to start learning.
The tour I would go on would see me stay at the Grand Hotel Trieste and Victoria in Abano Terme (Terme translating as Spa) and enjoy a series of tours including ancient towns, traditional ceramic factories, 14th century villas and, of course, wineries and restaurants.
Additionally, the 112-year-old hotel would also provide me with a unique spa treatment involving the volcanic mud produced in the area, something the town of Abano was famous for.
Travelling from my pick-up point in Bologna, I was taken by the greenness of that part of Italy, with lush, green fields interspersed with old-fashioned houses and quaint villages on all sides of the motorway helping to distract from my first experience of being in a car in this part of the world. Fast and furious and with enough time to see the lorry coming…
Having survived that without my remaining hair turning greyer, I arrived at the Grand Hotel Trieste and Victoria, which definitely lived up to the name, being the first hotel I’ve ever stayed at where they’ve offered to take my bags up for me.
For £157 per night, you can enjoy the large and comfortable Senior Suite that I spent the next three nights in, with a large bed, two chairs, fruit bowl, full coffee and tea making facilities and a well-furnished bathroom, although I still can’t work out how the bidet works.
The view of the room overlooks the pool area, of which there are four across the complex, and town area around the hotel, while the hotel itself has several bars, a dining area where you can enjoy your croissants with an espresso, a nightclub with dancing and live music and the main attraction, the spa area.
More on that in a minute, but let’s get to why you are reading this and why I am writing this: the food and drink, as Italy is a country synonymous with both.
My tour group consisted of Laurine, a French writer for tour guides, Luciana, a Brazilian sommelier and food and drink blogger married to an Italian in Vicenza, Honza, German and an expert on food and drink, Tania, a fellow Brit writing about wine and food and Marina and Patrizia, Italians enjoying the opportunity to sample the wines of the Euganean region.
We started with a leisurely stroll around Arqua Petrarca, a beautiful 14th century village known as the final resting place of the poet Francesco Petrarca. You could lose a day just strolling up and down the cobbles of the town or sitting at a café sipping a coffee on the slopes of Monte Ventolone and Monte Castello, with the stunning backdrop of the Euganean Hills.
Having sampled the flavour of the architecture, my stomach told me it was time to fill it with quality food from the region, so to Incalmo, the restaurant next to the Hotel Beatrice in Este, and, also, my first encounter with the fermented grape drinks of the region.
When in doubt, drink a little bit and see if the flavour hits you, and it certainly hit me with the sparking white called Vignalta, the first of a series of wines from the area and a very charming and flavourful number to begin with.
Laurine also taught me about the Angel’s Eyes, a technique of turning the wine around the glass and seeing the remaining vapour on the inside of the glass, something I began to see as I tried the Quota 101 Manzoni Bianco, an elegant white wine, along with a start of three simple snack pieces, a taco with beetroot and sour cream, a peanut biscuit filled with goats cheese and a mayonnaise and pepper tart.
It was high class food and made me think I should be wearing a tuxedo, instead of the flowery shirt and worn Vans trainers I was wearing, and asking for a dry martini, but it was a great meal of many courses and introductions from our chef.
A cucumber and horseradish dish with a crunchy side was followed by local bread and a gnocchi with miso and minced wild garlic and a broth poured on top which smelt just like Walkers Cheese and Onion Crisps.
There was also a musso pie which, in translation, is donkey. There was a little flag at the top of a donkey, just to remind you what was there.
A classy meal continued with a green ring of pea water, kiwi and elm samaras and more wine, with dessert wines and a couple of reds going down very smoothly. It’s nothing I thought I would admit, but I was starting to like and appreciate the quality of a good red and what it might go with (as it happens, a bit of donkey pie).
A welcome and wonderful desert of caramel, almonds, tonka beans and violet and some petit four, along with a tangy and tasty Vigna Roda desert wine and an espresso, and it was all I could do to stay awake in the taxi on the way back to the hotel (spoiler alert: I did not stay awake, nor did anyone else in the taxi).
The next morning, I had to see a doctor. Well, you are required to see Doctor Hito to determine which mud treatment you’ll get from the spa, so it was an appointment worth keeping.
The charming doctor prescribed me a dose of the detox mud which, for 80 Euros, you can purchase to be covered in mud all over your arms, legs and back, wrapped in warm cloths and towels and left to bake for 25 minutes, with your own personal masseuse pressing the mud further in every few minutes.
After being wrapped in mud, showered and bathed in thermal water, I felt like a nice cooked calzone and thoroughly relaxed, possibly not the best time then to go for a lunch involving more wine.
After a tour of the spa to see the different rooms, which come with a couples room for dual therapy, wine and different scents, it was time for a trip up the mountains to the Azienda vinicola Ca Lustra Zanovello for the first proper wine cellar tour of the trip.
Working their grapes according to organic principles, with spontaneous fermentation and minimal use of sulphites, Ca Lustra has been producing organic wine since 2012 by Marco and Linda Zanovello, with Linda taking time to take us into the cellar.
There’s something about a wine cellar that attacks the senses the second you walk in and you get the smell of different grapes and how they’ve been fermented, while your view is filled with multiple barrels of red, white and rose, all ready to travel across Italy and the wider continent to discerning wine drinkers, or to be bottled and served in the restaurant, which is where we headed next.
Lunch brought another fine selection of tastes, starting with bread in olive oil and the Olivetani white to start the meal.
One thing I noticed on the table was little buckets, which confused me initially, then I realised it was all about pouring away the wine you didn’t drink, meaning you get the taste without getting tiddly.
The wine was complemented by more fine food, Cow and goat cheese, two types of salami and ham, plus two types of jam to go with it, followed by a Rosato rose and a lasagne made with peas indigenous to the area.
There was more wine, all flowing nicely, with a Girapoggio and Sgussa Cabernet to sample the fine reds of the winery, with the Sgussa going down better with a fruity and tangy taste, although I did find the one wine of the trip that didn’t quite fit my taste, with the Fior D’Aranco Docg Passito dessert wine being far too sweet for me.
Being at relative altitude and full of food and wine, I did wonder whether I’d have the energy to walk about the Este Ceramiche E Porcellane ceramics factory, but the drive down from Ca Lustra certainly wakes you up, with lengthy views of the valley clearly visible along the winding road and green fields and mountains as far as the eye can see.
Fully revived by the drive down, the tour of the 18th century ceramics factory was a lovely way to spend a few hours, observing the intricate designs on the plates and some of the wonderful designs visible throughout the factory, from a full tree to a garden setting.
It doesn’t seem like much from the outside, a sandstone building within the city walls, but the inside brings several levels of beautiful ceramics, plus a full warehouse of unpainted and in-progress works, including penguins wearing national outfits.
You also take a look at the artists in action, with members of staff taking their time and creating masterpieces of art from watercolours. It seems like a very calming, serene way to work and the team looked happy in their work, with the working day, they said, ending with a glass of the good stuff.
It was like taking a trip into the Tardis, with the factory going on and on, full of people proofing the plates, making new ones and keeping the spirit of the traditional way of plate making alive, entering as raw materials and leaving as valuable pieces of art for high prices across the world.
After a coffee in the main square of Este, itself a very pretty town which merits a longer trip, it was back to the hotel to take in the thermal waters and the jacuzzi section. One small proviso of using the spa area is that you wear a swim cap to protect your hair, although male pattern baldness has taken that issue away for me.
The evening came and saw a grand reception with the manager of the hotel (note – I may have forgotten his name over time, but he was a charming and very warm and friendly man).
We enjoyed a tour of the room of one of the original managers, then small snacks and a glass of Sirio Vignalta, a very pleasant white wine, while overlooking the promenade of Abano, an area of shops, restaurants and bars. Being up on a balcony above the people walking below, I thought to myself “I could get used to this”.
Our last evening dining experience of the tour saw a shorter journey than before to Antica Trattoria Ballotta in Torreglia, a 17th century restaurant famed for traditional Euganean food and wine and a popular spot for tourists and food lovers alike.
On arrival, before you even enter the building, you find your mouth already watering at the site of a number of Model T Ford cars in the stable outside. You don’t know how they got there, but you almost want to forgo the wine to drive one of these beauties home.
However, the food is waiting for us, as is the wine, so we enter the restaurant and take in the elegant surroundings, a mixture of white marble, oak beams and some seriously classy lighting arrangements.
The elegance of the room is matched by the opening wine, a sparkling white called Reassi, which goes with the opening meal of deep friend zucchini, kale and prosciutto, followed by tagliatelle topped with green peas (so good, I enjoyed two helpings with an ample amount of parmesan cheese).
The Pinot Bianco Archino was next on the drink list, a very fruity and rich white wine, which was matched by one of the richest meals I’ve ever had, a mixture of swede, potatoes, spinach and game fowl.
With the tour heading into day three, there was another Quota 101 Ortone red to enjoy a glass of, before a final dessert of soux pastry, strawberries and custard and a Hor d’Arancio Colli Eugaenei to finish an excellent meal.
It wasn’t the end of the alcohol tests, however, as on day three, we headed to the Luxardo Museum and shop. For those of you who frequent certain nightspots on a Saturday evening, this is the company responsible for the aniseed taste of Sambucca.
The tour itself is a new feature for the museum, having only opened up two months ago, and available solely on a booking basis.
It helps to tell you the story of the distillery and museum located in Torreglia and founded in 1821 in Zadar (now part of Slovenia) by Girolamo Luxardo and controlled by the same family since.
The producer is known for its range of high-quality spirits and liqueurs, with one of their most renowned products being Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur.
The tour, which was led by Matteo Luxardo, one of the descendants of Girolamo, started with a video detailing the life of the company through fruit, rubble, flying over rocks and discovering the serenity of the Euganean Hills.
You will learn about the distilling process, the advertising the company has done and the products It has produced, while also viewing some of the excellent bottles those products have been sold in, including a fish head and a vase.
It was a visual treat, with the bottles and posters bringing the product to light in vivid detail, while the different ingredients used were available to smell and you could view a room full of every product created by Luxardo, a visual treat to all those who see it.
It’s not all smiles, however, as the history of the company has a chapter written in blood when, following the end of World War II, the distillery in Zadar was almost completely destroyed by Allied forces, then the city was integrated into Yugoslavia and saw thousands of Italians stuck the wrong side of the border massacred by Tito’s forces.
This included Pietro and Nicolo Luxardo and Nicolo’s wife, believed to have been executed by firing squad, and, but for the intervention of Giorgio Luxardo, who fled with a sapling of a marasca cherry tree, the Luxardo name might have died there and then. It was very sobering, as someone with Yugoslavian heritage, to learn about this period in history.
The mood changed, however, as you enter the visitor centre and take the opportunity to experience the range of flavours created by Luxardo, of which I sampled the espresso, the bitter, the cherry brandy, the amaretto and a special flavour paying tribute to absinth, recommended to me by Sebastiano, who was serving behind the counter.
As the morning turned into afternoon, our final stop for the day was Villa dei Vescovi, a villa surrounded by green land and vineyards and with the breath-taking backdrop of the hills around it.
The 16th century villa was created by nobleman Alvise Carnaro at the behest of the Bishop of Padua, who wanted a venue for his intellectual circle that would tap into the potential of the countryside.
Upon entry, you see an enormous courtyard with four grassy areas, then a climb up to the villa with a stony walk all the way round and all the appearances of being in ancient Rome, such is the design and appearance of the villa.
The villa is still a working building today, providing a setting for festivals alongside the vineyards, with not just grapes, but other fruits such as lemons growing there, as well as rooms at the top, available for four people for 250 euros per night.
The tour we took showed every room, including the private chambers, the rooms, meeting areas and dining rooms, in its full glory, an excellent way to take in an historical building very fitting for the region.
With the tour coming to an end, it was time to break bread one last time and sample more of the fine vines and good food of the region, with bread covered in goat’s cheese and onion and veal with a tangy horseradish sauce and vegetable medley, along with more wine and a hearty farewell to everyone involved with the tour.
The Euganean Hills are an area full of life, green fields, hot mud and thermal spas, good food and drink and wonderful people. I don’t know if I was living la dolce vita, but I wasn’t too far away on this trip.
Now for the next bottle of red.