Piedmont: the slow route to Lake Maggiore

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The Independent Travel

Transalpino: that used to be the name of a student travel agency, which sadly went bust around 20 years ago. Happily, today you can apply the label to the best way to arrive in Piedmont: transitting an Alpine tunnel. Whichever route or mode of transport you choose - road or rail, from France or Switzerland - this is a sensual treat.

In a single flourish, you leave the subterranean confines of Europe's greatest mountain range and emerge into a vision of magnificence. Invariably in my experience you always find warmer, sunnier weather than you left behind; all the better for appreciating the valley that unfolds beneath you. Starting in the days of Transalpino (the agency) with a rail trip through the Alps, I have been gradually collecting images of Transalpino (the experience). Last week, I managed to complete the set with the link through the Fréjus Tunnel from Modane in France - and found it the best of the bunch.

Here's the plan. I wanted to carve an arc across Piedmont, from the austerity of the Alps via the indulgences of Turin to the serenity of Piedmont's superior lake, Lago Maggiore. You could, if you wished, make the journey in a single day by train or car, relishing the transitions in fast-paced wide-screen. But better to spend three days on it, relishing the transitions and enjoying a few good meals along the way.

Lunchtime already? Nicola Williams, author of Lonely Planet's excellent guidebook to the region, always insists on a stop at the village of Bardonecchia, first stop after the tunnel and at the head of the Susa Valley. This used to be a slightly forlorn customs post, but has blossomed with the influx of Torinese and knowing foreigners - who between them keep the Ristorante Biovey busy supplying mountain fare and beefy reds.

From reds to greens, and in particular the incredibly broad emerald spectrum from the woodland that drapes itself so appealingly on the upper slopes of the valley. Occasionally the forest wears a scar. Some are natural, such as a spectacular waterfall that cascades down the mountainside; others are man-made, pipelines that transmit water to hydro-electric installations. A different kind of green, in this case power.

When the Fréjus Tunnel opened in 1980, it awoke what had, until then, been a sleepy region in economic decline compared with the rest of northern Italy. The injection of funds and inspiration brought by the Winter Olympics has helped to transform the valley. Many of the events took place at the ski stations to the north and south of the A34. That is the number of the fast track from and to Turin - which has just become faster, thanks to a brand new autostrade. Besides cutting down the journey time, it provides a superb axis from which to enjoy the valley unravelling.

The military significance of the Susa Valley as one of the key approach routes from France is immediately apparent: atop a jagged spire of rock stands a fortress, the first of a series of sentinels watching those who follow in Hannibal's jumbo-sized footprints across the Alps. This part of Piedmont bears plenty of evidence of man's craving for exploration and territorial expansion. Yet it also shows how tenacious humanity can be, in the shape of tranquil villages huddling around an old church, or the formidable abbey of Sacra di San Michele.

Soon the land subsides, and Turin approaches. After my trip through Piedmont, I am convinced that this is probably the most civilised city in all of Italy. Three everyday items, which I encountered in and around Porta Nuova station, persuaded me of this: a bus, a tap and a sandwich. The bus was parked adjacent to this monumental railway station. As I walked past, I spotted the driver helping himself to a coffee - from the espresso machine he had installed next to the driving seat. The tap was one of 10 that stands beside each pair of platforms. The weary traveller, so Torinese theory goes, deserves to be replenished with fresh, cool water. And the sandwich? Bought for the journey from the supermarket in the middle of the concourse, it comprised a loaf implausibly overstuffed with the tastiest of cheese and the most succulent ham. Price: an absurdly low €2.80 (£2), for a delicious companion that enhanced the journey across the plains to Vercelli. That place name may look like a little-known variant of pasta, but in fact it is one of those joyfully unknown Italian towns which just happen to be full of interest.

Vercelli is twinned with Arles, the Provençal town frequented by Van Gogh and Gauguin. The artists would have loved the Piemontese partner, not least for the staggering magnitude of the basilica of Sant' Andrea. Nearly eight centuries ago, its builders created something that today combines antiquity, austerity and audacity. The plain interior of Vercelli's basilica contrasts strongly with the cathedral that drips with works of art. And on the picture-postcard-perfect main square, you find Taverna e Tarnuzzer, the epitome of a graciously ageing café.

East from here, you travel across Italy's rice basket, an extremely productive stretch of waterlogged terrain that makes you all the more aware of the features above ground/water level. Halfway along the 15-minute rail trip between Vercelli and Novara, you encounter to the north of the line a crumbling old abbey apparently marooned amid the paddy fields. Novara is the Clapham Junction of Piedmont, where all the main lines seem to converge. You can choose from two attractive routes to Domodossola, at the far north of the region. I chose the line that runs alongside Lake Maggiore, to see the crinkled shoreline, the banks sprinkled with small communities: of boats, of terracotta-roofed villas, and even of the dead - south of Stresa there is an extremely ornate cemetery.

I have been lucky enough to see Maggiore in different seasons and under a variety of skies; on a misty day in November, for example, the lake looks otherworldly. But last week it was good to see it sparkling, and you could understand why the resorts along the shore prove so appealing even in an age when air travel offers so many other possibilities. Early in the morning you get the view to yourself: a fleet of ferries waits to whisk people off to the gorgeous Borromea islands, or south along this sinuous lake, or north into Switzerland. And always, to the north, the beautiful and thankfully penetrable barrier of the Alps. As the church bells begin to peal, there seems no good reason to make the return Transalpino journey just yet.

THE FERRIES OF LAKE MAGGIORE

A trip on the lake is an essential part of the Piedmont experience - but the complexity of the ferry network means it can be confusing. Scheduled services up, down and across the lake are run by Navigazione Lago Maggiore or NLM (freephone 800 501 801 within Italy; www.naviagazionelaghi.it).

If you intend to make the most of the system, you can buy a Holiday Card costing €39 (£27) for three days of unlimited travel, or €51 (£37) for a week. You can also make an excursion into Italian Switzerland with the Lago Maggiore Express ticket (€28/£2), which gives you a ferry ride from Stresa to the Swiss port of Locarno, a ride on the scenic railway across the border to Domodossola, and a regular train ride south back to Stresa. Don't forget your passport.

In summer, there are services every half-hour from Stresa to the islands of Bella, Pescatori and Madre; you can visit all three for a flat €10 (£7).

Fares for children aged four to 11 are roughly half price; under-fours travel free, while everyone aged 12 or over is classed as an adult.

GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND

GETTING THERE

The main access by air is to Turin airport, which has flights from Gatwick on British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com), from Luton on easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) or from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com). The airport is 16km north of the city centre. connected by buses operated by Sadem (00 39 011 300 0611; www.sadem.it) every 40 minutes, taking 45 minutes and drop passengers at the main Porta Nuova railway station. Single fares cost EUR5 (£3.50) one-way and must be bought before boarding. A taxi costs around EUR45 (£32).

For northern Piedmont and the Italian lakes, a valuable alternative access point is Milan Malpensa, which is served by easyJet from Gatwick and Luton, and by BA and Alitalia (08705 448 259; www.alitalia.co.uk) from both Heathrow and Manchester; BA also flies from London City. To link in to the rail network from Malpensa airport, take a local bus (approximately every hour, run by Saco to Gallarate. The fare is EUR1.55 (£1.10) from Terminal 1, EUR1.30 (£0.90) from Terminal 2. From Gallarate, there are frequent trains north to the Lake Maggiore stations of Arona and Stresa, continuing to Domodossola.

You can make the whole trip by rail from the UK; the usual connection is from London Waterloo via Paris (where you must change trains, and stations) and Chambery, travelling through the Frejus rail tunnel and down the Susa valley to Turin. If you are aiming for the lakes, an alternative is through Switzerland to Brig and the tunnel south to Domodossola. Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk) can advise on fares and make bookings.

GETTING AROUND

Rail is the main form of public transport, with frequent services on a dense network of routes. Fares are low by British standards, with £1 buying - very roughly - 25km or 15 miles of travel; the 161km (100-mile) journey between Turin and Stresa via Novara costs just EUR8.50 (£6). See the Italian Railways website, www.fs.it, for schedules. Remember to stamp your ticket in one of the orange machines before boarding the train; you then have six hours in which to complete your journey.

Trains are supplemented by a wide network of urban and rural buses, which normally serve a bus station (or at least a bus stop) adjacent to the railway station. Note that services on many routes are sketchy on Sundays.

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