Italy, as I never stop telling my colleagues, is not only made of islands, tomato sauce and tarantella, like the UK is not just made of tiny cottages, clotted cream and old ladies saying “jolly good” at every possible occasion.
Nestled in a corner of the country lie two regions, Valle d’Aosta and Piedmont. If VdA has ski as its saving grace Piedmont is one of the least visited regions in the country and that, in my humble opinion, is plainly wrong. And that’s not just because I’m from there.
Anyway, this is what you’d see on a normal Alpine crossing on your random plane bound for Milan Malpensa, which isn’t in Piedmont but it’s close enough to be considered in another galaxy by the Milanese.
First, you’d have the mountains. The massif of Mont Blanc, whose summit is on the border between Italy and France (and not fully in the Hexagone as those fellows would like you to believe), the southern part of VdA with Gran Paradiso, Italy’s smallest 4,000 mt massif. Then, in the distance, the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa, continental Europe’s largest glacier. And all around a bewildering array of peaks, snowy valleys, thick snow, tiny winding roads and, down in the dark, villages and hamlets. Even the most hardened travelling consultant will have to reduce PowerPoint to an icon and stare outside.
Then this mighty display of what mother Nature’s skills at crashing tectonic plaques one against the other ends and the ground goes flat, flat like the political acumen of George W Bush. That’s the Po valley. It’s densely populated, dotted of villages, towns, railways, motorways, factories, fields, rice paddies and rivers, all running down to meet the big Po, as long as its name is short. Down eastwards, usually engulfed in that murkiness that’s 50% humidity and 50% pollution, you’ll be able to spot Milan and its shimmering skyscrapers (be ready for your random “Who the hell do they think they are?” comment from other Italians onboard, especially if they aren’t from the city).
Finally the day comes when, willing or not, you have to leave. If it’s from Malpensa and it’s a clear day you’re in for a treat it’ll be hard to forget. The lakes.
Eons of geology, ice ages and meltdowns, have created a battery of long, curvy and streaky lakes in the low valleys that end in the large Po flatland. There are seven of those: Orta, Maggiore, Lugano, Como, Iseo, Idro and Garda, plus many smaller ones. This is Clooney-land, or the place where James Bond use to go around driving like a lunatic, punching people in the face. It’s the most popular tourist destination in North-Western Italy and, in fairness, it’s easy to see why.