Scenes from a Grand Tour: On the Road from Turin to Tyrol

(Originally published in Kennedy Magazine in June, 2019)

In the late 1700s, at the dawn of the Romantic era, legions of well-heeled young Englishmen—and some women—began making long journeys to the Italian peninsula, a land still divided into minor states. Lured by equal parts curiosity and social convention, the young nobles embarked from Dover with sketchpads, journals, scientific instruments, finery fit for reception at the great courts of Italy, letters of credit, and heavy trunks ferried by a small retinue of valets, coachmen, and professional chaperones known as bear-leaders. Laboring overland through France and Switzerland, they traversed southward over the Alps, some being carried over particularly rough terrain by their servants. Finally, having tempted shipwreck, illness, frostbite, and brigand, the weary travelers would set their eyes upon the spired skyline of baroque Turin, their gateway to Italy: the most important stop in an itinerary that came to be known as the “Grand Tour.”

So when I chose Turin as my first destination on a rambling twelve-day road trip across northern Italy, I was treading the well-worn trail of the Grand Tour. Where their trips might last years, I had a mere window of twelve days. Where yesterday’s nobles were accompanied by valets and chaperones, I had five college friends. Where coaches and coachmen carried the Grand Tourists through the Italianate landscape to Venice and Rome, we cruised Mercedez and Jaguars along buttery autostrade from the endless vineyards of Le Langhe to the hallowed shores of Como, from the forested valleys of South Tyrol to the subdued morning streets of Milan. What we did share with those well born Europeans of centuries past was an enduring spirit of adventure, and a certainty that in the act of travel, we become something more whole than when we left.

Le Corbusier called Turin “the city with the most beautiful natural location on earth.” Set on pleasantly rolling plains beneath the snow-capped Italian Alps, mountain breezes caress its boulevards and shaded arcades. Meanwhile, Turin’s position on the River Po provided, throughout history, all of the economic advantages of riparian transportation, while giving the city a clear and buzzing focal point for activity. My first day in Italy, I drove north in parallel with the emerald-green Po en route to Poderi Einaudi, a serene vineyard about an hour northwest of Turin in the UNESCO world heritage region of Le Langhe, an area known for its outstanding Barolo. Along for the ride were the first two companions to join my caravan: my Dutch friend Timo and his Canadian girlfriend Nadine. We were guided by Kora, my former Italian professor, now a close friend, and a native Torinese. Along the way, she pointed out old club canottieri, or rowing clubs, where the urban aristocracy once docked their painted vessels.

The Poderi, meaning small farm, traces its roots back to 1897, when a young Luigi Einaudi, later to become the first president of the unified Italian Republic, planted the first vines around his family’s estate. Still owned by Einaudi’s illustrious family more than a century later, Poderi Einaudi has evolved into a pristine inn, complete with 10 beds, a wine bottle-shaped swimming pool, and cozy tasting rooms. Perched on a knoll overlooking the verdant, undulating hills of Le Langhe, it’s the perfect setting to commune with the region’s rarefied earth and its delicately fermented yield. Pleasantly buzzed from glasses of Donna Ida, a summery, straw-yellow mix of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc named for Einaudi’s wife, I walked through the main house, running my finger along the spines of what might’ve been a small sampling of his library. In one room, a cat slept in blissful repose on the patinaed green velvet of an antique lounge chair.

The following morning, back in Turin, we sat at one of the café tables which spill out into the Piazza Carignano from Farmacia Del Cambio, a stylish pasticceria inhabiting a former apothecary. At a nearby table, an older gentleman in white, spread-collar shirt, green knit tie, khaki blazer, and suede loafers sipped his morning coffee while leafing lazily through the weekend edition of La Stampa. Del Cambio, the affiliated restaurant next-door, was founded in 1757, and and counts an impressive cast of historic greats among its past regulars: Cavour (Italy’s first prime minister), Puccini, Balzac, Nietzsche, Verdi, Marinetti, D’Annunzio, the Agnellis, Maria Callas, and Audrey Hepburn, to name a few.

The Piazza is framed on one side by the Museo Egizio, the world’s oldest collection of Egyptian antiquities. As it happened, we were waiting to meet the young director of that famed Torinese institution, Cristian Greco, a former teacher of Timo’s. Greco arrived, by his own admission, somewhat distracted: just hours before, nearly 200 Egyptian artifacts and tens of thousands of ancient coins had been seized at the port of Naples. The interception pointed, he believed, to a network of smugglers reaching from tombs in the Nile River Valley to galleries in London and Amsterdam. Throughout our conversation, he stopped periodically to type excitedly on his phone: a modern- day Tin Tin coordinating the pursuit of unscrupulous art thieves.

Credited for evolving the once-dusty Museo Egizio into a thoroughly modern attraction, Greco is responsible for the museum’s extensive (and, in conservative Turin, somewhat controversial) 2015 renovation, which doubled the museum’s size, as well as its outstanding rebrand by Milanese design studio Migliore + Servetto. After coffee, he led us through the museum to tour its dizzying assemblage of statues, papyri, sarcophagi, mummies, and my personal favorite: a simple pair of roughly-hewn Egyptian house slippers.

A few hours later, Turin was in my rearview. I gave the gas-pedal of my rented, jet- black Mercedes Benz GLA a liberal nudge, speeding due east down a nearly empty autostrada bound for Lake Como. In my travel suit and sunglasses, behind the wheel of a glamorous German car, Italo Disco issuing crisply from the sound-system, I felt every bit the bachelor abroad, free as a bird in the early days of my latter-day Grand Tour.

Timo and Nadine cruised beside me in the black Jaguar they’d driven down from Amsterdam, eventually peeling off on a detour to visit Lago Maggiore. I pushed on, reaching the edge of Como, crossing the tributary Adda, and pulling down a long, shaded driveway in the quiet town of Valmadrera. At the end of the drive loomed a vast iron gate leading to a grand courtyard cradled by an 18th-century Italianate villa, complete with terra cotta roof, private chapel, stables, an orchard, greenhouses, and extensive gardens, which we’d rented through AirBnB. Beyond, the foothills of the mighty Alps kissed fluffy clouds and cerulean sky. Having recently watched Call Me By Your Name, the property held a particular romance.

At a nearby café waited three more friends, Lucius and Nancy, both Brits, and Ben, a Bostonian. Piling into the Mercedes, we drove up the lake to Il Sereno, a recently- opened modernist hotel designed by Patricia Urquiola, the architect and designer behind (among many other projects) the W Hotel Vieques, Mandarin Oriental Barcelona, Da Stue Hotel Berlin, and the nearby Villa Pliniana, which, through history, hosted Da Vinci, Napoleon, Lord Byron, and Rossini.

Our table on the patio faced Il Sereno’s 60-foot lakeside infinity pool. Absorbing the expansive view of Como and its embracing mountains, we caught up over cocktails. I went for Un Insolito Spritz, a delicious potion of rosé, apple and rosemary sherbet, and prosecco. Taking our first sips, a glimmering Riva, those iconic mahogany motorboats associated with Como, docked at the hotel pier, unloading smartly-dressed guests from their afternoon cruise.

Driving a few miles north past cypress groves and manicured estates, we hit the town of Nesso, where we’d heard of a good place to swim. Diving into the silky water, we paddled out, the late-afternoon sun showering white light on passing crew teams. When the sun dipped behind the mountains, we lounged on the stone dock. Timo and Nadine, back from their romantic day on Lago Maggiore, joined us. All united, we celebrated with a final swim before heading to dinner nearby.

The next evening, sun-kissed from a day of cruising Como in a rented motorboat, we convened in the sprawling garden adjacent to our palazzo. Lucius pulled the cork on a bottle of Donna Ida I’d picked up at Poderi Einaudi. Struck by shafts of late-afternoon light, the yellow wine glowed gold in our glasses. Drinks in hand, we strolled around the property on a path shaded by ancient oak trees, down lanes lined with hydrangea heavy in bloom. We were pursued all the while by the estate’s sinuous resident cat, who rolled over lazily, expecting a scratch.

Loading into our cars, we sped off to Bellagio, needling our way through the town’s fantastically narrow streets and driving onto the ferry that would take us, and our vehicles, across to Tremezzina, where I’d accepted an invitation for dinner courtesy of the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, the grand old dame of Como hospitality. (Such are the perks of travel writing). My friends knew only that we’d have to look the part to make it possible. We did our best with suitcase-rumpled blazers and dresses. Motoring across Como, the breeze was soft, the air gentle, the sky awash in pink and orange. Perfect rococo clouds hovered above, lit from beneath.

To call the Tremezzo an old dame is perhaps misleading: even with its air of classical luxury, the hotel feels as relevant today as it did when it was built in 1910. This is largely thanks to the savvy stewardship of CEO Valentina De Santis. Since 2010, when she took the helm from her family (which has owned the Grand Hotel Tremezzo since 1975), De Santis has added a state-of-the-art spa, three swimming pools (including one floating on the lake), and a series of rooftop suites (the most desired accommodations of the hotel’s 90 rooms), changes which have drawn in a new generation of loyal guests. And yet, with its symmetrical art nouveau facade painted a flaxen yellow, clay tennis courts, terraced gardens, and white-glove service, the Tremezzo retains a certain Wes Anderson charm.

Greeted with a “buona sera!” by a uniformed bell-hop, we were ushered to an elevator that led from street level to the main lobby. Stepping out, we set foot in a world of infinite refinement. The gentle scent of herbs, flowers, and moss drifted from Aqua di Como candles, designed by the hotel. A color palette of deep reds, pinks, and greens swirled to form a sort of psychedelic neoclassicism.

Taking our seat at the Terrazza restaurant, which looks over the lake, well-dressed diners at the surrounding tables look puzzled at the six sunburnt twenty-somethings claiming such a coveted table. Giddy with our good fortune, we embarked on a culinary cycle designed by Gualtiero Marchesi, the late father of modern Italian cuisine, in partnership with Osvaldo Presazzi, the restaurant’s current Executive Chef. The keystone course, we would later agree, was the hotel’s famous saffron risotto, blanketed with a thin layer of 24-carat gold, served with a heavy gold spoon, and plated in a shallow bowl haloed with a thin gold band. The table, spread with six of these gilded ensembles and a host of flickering candles, glowed like a church at night. Paired with an organic white Sergio Mottona Orvieto 2016 Tragugnano from Lazio (which in itself held a natural gold hue), this opulent dish represented a peak culinary experience. It certainly turned heads at the neighboring tables, who must’ve assumed we were either tech entrepreneurs or spoiled dilettantes with our parent’s credit cards. A generous cut of wild sea bass encrusted in rock salt, chamomile, and hay followed, while a dessert of mascarpone mousse with wild berries completed the cycle.

At meal’s end, we sat talking quietly. The restaurant thinned out. Across the terrace, an animated game of scopa erupted periodically with laughter and shouts of frustration. A faint wind rose. Lightning ricocheted across the opposing skyline, momentarily illuminating the black mountains and clouds above. Re-orienting our chairs toward the storm like theater-goers in a most prized opera box, we observed the drama over glasses of vino dolce from Pojer e Sandri, a vineyard in Italy’s far-northern province of Trentino.

A night of gilded saffron dreams came and went. Morning found us saying farewell to Timo and Nadine, who pointed their Jaguar toward Amsterdam, and drove off. We four remaining travelers set our sights on South Tyrol, the Italian territory south of Austria. Known for its high-altitude vineyards and legendary hiking, we were drawn to a specific hotel nested high in the Valle Aurina, which runs parallel the Austrian border, as far north as one can go on Italian soil.

Driving east, then north, we entered the great Adige valley, where, in 1796, during the French Revolutionary Wars, a defeated Austrian army retreated north, having been decimated by the ragged forces of a young, victorious, and increasingly ambitious French general named Napoleon. A rugged alpine topography emerged. The highway drew wide arcs along the base of epic valleys, through tunnels dark and long, past castles and idyllic mountain villages. The architecture became increasingly Germanic, the light itself cooling to a palette of blue, grey, and forest green. Periodic signage warned of leaping bock, with text in Italian and German. By the time we reached the Wanderhotel Bühelwirt it was pitch black, though we could sense the presence of titanic landforms somewhere out in the darkness.

The next morning, eager to see the world which night had obscured, I rose with the sun. Heading out for an early stroll, I entered a storybook Tyrollean landscape of rolling green hills framed by snow-capped mountains shawled in dense conifer forests. Looking back down the valley, the rigid lines of our 20-room hotel, first constructed in 1910 when these territories were still held by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, contrasted brilliantly with the wild, organic landscape. The Bühelwirt received a breathtaking extension by local practice Pedevilla Architects in 2017, and the two resulting structures which comprise the hotel—one vintage Tyrollean, painted white, the other modern minimalist, painted black—conjoin in an unexpected dialogue of form, color, and material.

We spent the morning sweating up a nearby mountainside. Our trail was lined by kaleidoscopic arrays of wildflower. Our destination, the Jausenstation Wollbachalm, a quintessential alpine lodge at 1,600 meters, nestled within a sweeping tributary valley of the Ahrntal, as the Valle Aurina is called in German. We ordered tall glasses of beer, a rare mid-hike indulgence, and watched cows watering at a rushing stream, and grazing on mid-summer grasses.

The following morning, Lucius and Nancy departed for Venice, while Ben set off for Washington, D.C. to start a new job. For the first time in days, I was alone. Having played ring-leader to this traveling circus, I was now responsible solely for myself. Light rains fell from an overcast sky over my sleepy valley, fomenting my sense of beautiful isolation from the world. I settled into the Bühelwirt spa, rotating between the sauna and an adjacent lounge, where I staked out my nest on a day-bed nestled within a vast bay window. A pair of chickens strutted by, pecking for insects in the dewy grass. That evening, after a quintessentially Südtirolese dinner of French onion soup and veal rolls filled with mozzarella and raw ham, I sipped a local pine grappa and set out for a final walk, parting the misty night air with my progress.

The next morning, my trusty Mercedes having been commandeered by the Brits, I boarded a bus to Bolzano, the first leg of my many-legged journey from South Tyrol to Milan. An old man in a suede vest with tweed trimmings and a traditional Tyrollean hat stared out the window with an expression of contentment. Vast sideburns sprouted from a face that spoke of long summer days in the field and long winter nights at the tavern. The buildings we passed each had their own vertiginous stack of neatly- chopped wood, an indication of hard winters to come.

A few hours and connections later, I boarded a premium cabin on the train from Verona to Milan, quite ready for my complimentary prosecco and the hypnotic vineyard views streaming by. Feeling perfectly 26, alone but not lonely in a country I loved, an immense swelling of joy flooded my heart, a sensation I only seem to feel in transit. After a full day of travel, we rolled into Milan’s magnificent fascist station just as light broke through its high windows to illuminate some blessed bas-relief glorifying the Italian worker, the Italian peasant, the Italian woman.

I spent the evening sipping negronis at Frida, a lively garden bar in the youthful neighborhood of Isola, and dining on risotto alla Milanese con ossobuco at Ratanà, a restaurant located in a free-standing structure built in the late 19th century as a railway warehouse. Toward the end of my meal, a small moth landed in my risotto. When I brushed it away, it took a few steps before flying off, leaving tiny “footprints” of saffron sequenced on the edge of my plate.

With only a few final hours to enjoy Milan, I was up early the following morning. After downing an Instagram-ready cappuccino at the Wes Anderson-designed Bar Luce, located at the Fondazione Prada, I found my way to Barberino’s, a classic barbershop on narrow Via Cerva, for a shave and trim. Caffeinated and fresh-faced, I walked to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele to buy gifts for friends and family. For myself, I bought a green knit necktie, inspired by the newspaper-reading Torinese gentleman I saw wearing a similar one. I can only hope to approximate his sprezzatura back in Manhattan.

The young men and women of the Grand Tour were also known for their love for souvenirs. They eagerly hoarded such rarities as snuff boxes and paperweights, statuary and fountains, portraits and books. These they sent back to family estates across northern Europe, where they were proudly displayed in libraries, gardens, drawing rooms, and galleries custom-built for the purpose. Indeed, beyond the act of collection, many Grand Tourists were content to gamble and drink their way across Europe, or sow their wild oats in exotic locales.

Some, however, brought back something deeper: a sense of widened horizons. The Grand Tour served to expose northern Europe to neoclassical ideals of architecture, art, statesmanship, naturalism, and philosophy. Catholics and Protestant Whigs, otherwise locked in doctrinal strife, followed the same routes, sharing rich experiences of hardship, pleasure, and epiphany abroad. It’s hard to quantify the effect this rich cross-cultural exchange had on the trajectory of Western culture, but historians agree it was immense. Among other things, the Grand Tour transformed northern Europe’s historic homes, reshaped educational curriculum toward classical ideals, and established neoclassicism as the preeminent architectural style of important buildings —all echoes still perceptible today.

Beyond silk scarves, knit ties, journal entries, and photographs, what would I bring back from my petite Grand Tour? I mulled this over, taxiing on the tarmac at Milan’s Malpensa Airport. My mind journeyed back to a blissful episode on Lake Como. Beneath a powder blue sky I steered our motorboat along the perimeter of the Bellagio peninsula, the densely-forested promontory slicing northward into Como. My travel companions lazed on the cushioned prow, lulled by an aria from “La Traviata” soaring from a speaker onboard. Scanning the neoclassical facades and cypress-lined estates of Bellagio, the breeze warm and perfumed with the mineral fragrance of the ancient lake, a wave of contentment washed over me, a luminous sensation of freedom, camaraderie, and fun. How rare it is, I noted in that beautiful moment of frisson, to simply inhabit myself, to resist dwelling in the past or projecting into the future. Amidst such extraordinary natural beauty, those familiar ruminations evaporated like dew in the northern Italian sun. In our world of distraction, perhaps presence is the greatest luxury.

Bathers in Nesso, on Lake Como, Italy. Photograph by Zander Abranowicz.

Bathers in Nesso, on Lake Como, Italy. Photograph by Zander Abranowicz.