24-hour room service: L'Albereta & Restaurant Gualtiero Marchesi, Lombardy, Italy
Saturday 09 April 2011
As I lay there being pummelled by a silent Italian masseuse using micro-algae, white and green clay, essential oils and mother tinctures (mud, to you and me), I thought: "How very different this is to my own dear beauty therapist."
The last time I had seen Tracey in her basement lair for an eyelash tint, she had gone off in search of a towel. All I could hear coming from the next room for the next few minutes was some very un-nymph-like f-ing and blinding. It wasn't terribly relaxing.
Espace Vitalité Henri Chenot is the epitome of spa culture. It's exclusive, too: this branch at L'Albereta is one of only two in Italy. There are 30 doctors and therapists at work, taking a holistic approach to well-being by combining the principles of Chinese medicine with Western technology. Does it all work? Well, I felt lovely after a six-day break, and for once came back from a holiday without feeling like a liverish experiment in human foie gras.
L'Albereta is in Lombardy, about an hour's drive from Milan. When you first arrive at the hotel you're presented with an itinerary of treatments. The minute I looked at the list I started cherry-picking things off the à la carte section, and my days inevitably became packed with appointments and procedures.
Some options were baffling. What was "Intraceuticals Oxygen", for example? The brochure posed the question, and provided the answer: "Have you ever wondered how Madonna, in her fabulous fifties, has such perfect skin? We did! And after finding the answer we brought it to the Espace Vitalité."
There is cosmetic surgery on the menu, too, and a doctor and a nutritionist are at hand. A consultation with them is compulsory for all programmes and the medical component is probably what distinguishes this spa. The staff here are serious about making you feel good on both the outside and the inside.
There are various different health tests on offer, including an Impedance Test, which evaluates body composition by measuring total water, extra-cellular water, cell mass, fat mass and lean mass. I turned out to be mainly composed of water, with a body cell mass of 20 per cent less than the minimum required to be viable, which meant that I was technically suffering from malnutrition.
Fortunately, help was at hand. L'Albereta has in chef Gualtiero Marchesi a man who is described by the hotel as the father of modern Italian cuisine. His culinary arts starts with a great trick in the main restaurant; at the touch of a button, what appeared to be a large painting is transformed into a mirror through which you can see the kitchen.
Luckily, I didn't see the lobster that was sacrificed for my supper or hear the pop of the popcorn that accompanied it. It was an unusual combination, described by chef as "a funny and tasty game of consistencies". Still, I did better than my husband, who looked at his cuttlefish starter with complete incomprehension. As a tape of birdsong twittered in the background we both wondered whether Signor Marchesi was less the father of modern Italian cuisine and more the long lost off-spring of Heston Blumenthal and Salvador Dalí.
L'Albereta consists of a gracious manor house built in the 19th century. The surrounding region is called Franciacorta and produces some of Italy's finest wines. Conveniently, the Moretti family who own the hotel also own the surrounding hills and vineyards as far as the eye can see, and have their own wine label called Bellavista. The vines are a comforting sight and a reminder of that other ancient homeopathic principle: it's nice to get sloshed.
Access is simple: Verona airport is around 80km away; Milan 120km distant. The hotel can also arrange private transfers.
For those in search of simpler pleasures, it's worth heading to Lake Iseo, about 20 minutes' drive from L'Albereta. A little ferry boat runs to Monte Isola which is, at 9km in circumference, apparently the largest lake island in Europe. There are no cars on the island but you can rent bicycles to explore the 12 villages and surprising number of vineyards and olive groves packed into such a small space. The salami produced here is reputed to be the best in Italy, a title not easily gained.
The 38 rooms and 19 suites of L'Albereta are lavish and decorated in traditional northern Italian style, with acres of marble, heavy drapes in silk and damask and neutral colours. My room had an imposing set of Art Nouveau furniture with a matching bed, dresser and wardrobe, and had a view over a nearby forest. One of the suites has a fully retractable ceiling so that you can lie in the four-poster bed and look up at the stars. Others have a lighter aesthetic with parquet floors and lemon-hued walls.
With so much to do on top of getting healthy and relaxing, I barely managed a trip to the hotel's vineyard, five minutes away. They make a sparkling wine here, and a remarkably dense white wine called Convento.
We toured the massive underground cellars where the various Bellavista Cuvées are still rotated by hand in the old-fashioned way and learnt something we should probably already know: although champagne is made with red grapes (pinot noir), the colour doesn't come through because the grapes are not pressed down to the skin. And isn't that what a holiday is all about? You come home relaxed, fit, and knowing at least one thing that you never knew before.
L'Albereta & Restaurant Gualtiero Marchesi, 23 Via Vittorio Emanuele, Erbusco, Lombardy, Italy (00 39 030 776 0550; www.albereta.it/en)
Doubles from €220 room only; Henri Chenot spa packages from €2,700 per person per week, full board but excluding accommodation
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