Hotel standouts in northern Italy

By Beth Habian
This item appears on page 31 of the December 2019 issue.

Castel Fragsburg is nestled in the Italian Dolomites. Photos by Beth Habian

Since I was going to be in Italy for a tour of Tuscany in early May 2019 (Aug. ’19, pg. 6), I decided to stay on to spend time with my friend Maria Rizziello.

I met Maria in 1999 when I traveled with her company, Treasures of Italy (Asti, Italy; email treasuresofitaly@outlook.com or visit www.facebook.com/TreasuresofItaly), to celebrate my 30th birthday. I was then invited to travel with the company as a representative of ITN twice in the years that followed (Jan. ’09, pg. 6 & Feb ’13, pg. 6) .

This time, just a month before I’d turn 50, we headed out on a road trip to explore a few standout spots in the north, staying at several of Maria’s guests’ favorite accommodations.

• We began with two nights in the Dolomite region near the town of Merano at Castel Fragsburg (phone +39 0473 244071, fragsburg.com).

While the entire area is just beautiful — the jagged granite-gray peaks of the Dolomites, capped with snow, jutting above storybook towns, rolling vineyards and colorful gardens — we had come for the “experience” of what is known as the smallest 5-star hotel in the Italian Alps.

This family-run, former 17th-century hunting lodge provides its guests with a place to find rejuvenation for the body and the soul, offering gourmet-quality cuisine, an attentive-but-not-intrusive staff and a menu of spa treatments using oils crafted by on-site herbalist and natural healer, Renate de Mario Gamper,

From the moment I stepped foot on the property, I felt a sense of serenity. There were so many tucked-away spaces to discover that I never really encountered any other guests, though it was evident at meals that they were there.

In addition to the traditional treatments you’ll find at many of the hotels in this spa-resort area, Fragsburg has added a selection of offerings designed to bring inner balance to their guests.

Coming from the West Coast, I didn’t find the idea of participating in morning yoga or an evening sound relaxation “bath” (both free of charge to guests) to be unusual — I personally participated in a chakra-balancing session (65, or $72, for 60 minutes) and found it very relaxing — but I can’t say that I’ve ever seen these options offered anywhere else in Europe.

I can say this didn’t feel like an effort to tap into a trend. Instructor Bellé Flora seemed wholly dedicated to the happiness of her guests. I found her quite inspiring, and at the end of my two nights there, it was difficult to say goodbye to this very special place.

There are just 20 suites at Fragsburg. Junior suites start at 183 per person per night, including half board (an unbelievable breakfast buffet and a 5-course dinner), and deluxe suites start at 215 per person.

Note: Because of its hilltop location, getting there does require a car or a taxi ride from Merano’s train station.

• Next on our itinerary was a visit to Lago di Garda, an area I’d visited on my very first trip to Italy when I was 17.

We stayed in the town of Torri del Benaco, on the eastern side of the lake, at the waterfront Hotel Gardesana (phone +39 0457225411, gardesana.eu), a historically important 15th-century building that retains its Venetian-inspired elegance while providing all the modern amenities (including an elevator).

Its location, at the center of the long lake’s eastern shore, was perfect for day trips, as the east side is less touristy and it’s easier to travel to nearby towns on the public bus. (Timetables can be found by searching the “suburban routes” at www.atv.verona.it.) You can take the ferry (www.navigazionelaghi.it) to cross to the other side, if you wish.

Rooms cost about $100 per person per night, including breakfast. Private transportation from or to Verona’s airport can be arranged with the hotel for 19-31 per person, depending on the number of travelers.

We enjoyed dinner at the hotel’s restaurant (dishes average 20 per plate), including perfectly cooked scallops on a bed of mint-pea puree that was outstanding.

The waterfront Hotel Gardesana in Torri del Benaco, northeastern Italy.

• Speaking of outstanding food, our next stop was made specifically for a meal at Ristorante Alla Borsa (Via Goito 2; www.ristoranteborsa.it/en) in nearby Valeggio sul Mincio. (I had eaten there with Maria in 2012, and that meal remains one of my most memorable of all time.)

What makes Alla Borsa so special, you might ask? It’s the tortellini, handmade every day to create a perfect balance between pasta and filling. And at around 12 per dish, it’s an absolute steal for the quality of the food and the warm atmosphere created by the family who owns the restaurant.

• We knew we’d need overnight accommodations nearby and were lucky to find a couple of rooms available at B&B Valledium (Via Ponte Visconteo 350, Valeggio sul Mincio; phone +39 333 223 9066). As there are only three rooms in total (85-90 per room), we were, indeed, lucky!

Hidden from the main road by lush greenery, this small B&B felt very homey. The shabby-chic décor of my room was light and bright, but what made this place extra special was its very personable proprietor, Mauro, who went out of his way to make his guests comfortable, including personally preparing special dishes for the included breakfast for us and the other two guests there.

The nearby village of Borghetto, just down the road, is definitely worth a visit, and the 148-acre Parco Giardino Sigurtà, featuring rose, water and herb gardens and a sculpted hedge maze, is within walking distance of the B&B.

• For my final night in Italy, we stayed at the beautiful, 5-star Grand Hotel Sitea (Via Carlo Alberto 35; grandhotelsitea.it/en) in Torino (Turin), where deluxe double rooms run 124-200, including breakfast, depending on date. As at all of the hotels in which we stayed, English was spoken and the staff was incredibly welcoming.

This hotel is superbly located, within walking distance of most of the city’s main sites (including the Egyptian Museum with its massive collection) and, thankfully, right next door to Carlo e Camillo, the more-casual bistrot of Hotel Sitea’s Carignano Restaurant, which is run by Michelin-starred chef Fabrizio Tesse.

The bistrot is a nice place to enjoy quality food for a reasonable price. Dishes average 10-15.

• The next morning, I walked to the newly renovated Porta Nuova train station for my 2-hour high-speed train trip to Bologna (my business-class ticket, booked online at trenitalia.com, cost 63), where I would catch a direct flight to London before continuing home.

Having paid 6 online for a one-way ticket, I planned to take the Aerobus (aerobus.bo.it/en) shuttle, which runs every 11 minutes from Bologna’s central train station to the airport, taking about 20 minutes. However, when I arrived in Bologna, I saw no signage pointing the way from the train to the bus stop. I had to ask three people before I finally found my way.

The bus stop is located in the parking lot just outside the main entrance to the station. I had to go down from the train platform, then back up to the street level (elevators available). Once I was outside, however, the stop was clearly visible.

Full transparency — my stay was compliments of each of the hotels mentioned. But those of you who are familiar with my reporting over the years know (I hope) that I would not recommend something if I were not truly impressed. I had a wonderful week!

BETH HABIAN
Features Editor