Travel Report: Elegant surroundings, great food and excellent wine - The Euganean Hills have it all
Let me start this by being very honest - I don't know much, if anything, about wine.
While other members of my family have enjoyed fine whites and boxed reds alike, I've never developed much of a taste for it, preferring a glass of beer or whisky instead.
However, when I was offered the chance to fly to northern Italy and spend three days on the Euganean Hills, an area in the Padua region known for its volcanic spas, fine restaurants and abundant vineyards and wineries, I thought it might be a good time to start learning.
The tour I would go on would see me stay at the Grand Hotel Trieste and Victoria in Abano Terme (Terme translating as Spa) and enjoy a series of tours including ancient towns, traditional ceramic factories, 14th century villas and, of course, wineries and restaurants.
Additionally, the 112-year-old hotel would also provide me with a unique spa treatment involving the volcanic mud produced in the area, something the town of Abano was famous for.
Travelling from my pick-up point in Bologna, I was taken by the greenness of that part of Italy, with lush, green fields interspersed with old-fashioned houses and quaint villages on all sides of the motorway helping to distract from my first experience of being in a car in this part of the world. Fast and furious and with enough time to see the lorry coming…
Having survived that without my remaining hair turning greyer, I arrived at the Grand Hotel Trieste and Victoria, which definitely lived up to the name, being the first hotel I’ve ever stayed at where they’ve offered to take my bags up for me.
For £157 per night, you can enjoy the large and comfortable Senior Suite that I spent the next three nights in, with a large bed, two chairs, fruit bowl, full coffee and tea making facilities and a well-furnished bathroom, although I still can’t work out how the bidet works.
The view of the room overlooks the pool area, of which there are four across the complex, and town area around the hotel, while the hotel itself has several bars, a dining area where you can enjoy your croissants with an espresso, a nightclub with dancing and live music and the main attraction, the spa area.
More on that in a minute, but let’s get to why you are reading this and why I am writing this: the food and drink, as Italy is a country synonymous with both.
My tour group consisted of Laurine, a French writer for tour guides, Luciana, a Brazilian sommelier and food and drink blogger married to an Italian in Vicenza, Honza, German and an expert on food and drink, Tania, a fellow Brit writing about wine and food and Marina and Patrizia, Italians enjoying the opportunity to sample the wines of the Euganean region.
We started with a leisurely stroll around Arqua Petrarca, a beautiful 14th century village known as the final resting place of the poet Francesco Petrarca. You could lose a day just strolling up and down the cobbles of the town or sitting at a café sipping a coffee on the slopes of Monte Ventolone and Monte Castello, with the stunning backdrop of the Euganean Hills.
Having sampled the flavour of the architecture, my stomach told me it was time to fill it with quality food from the region, so to Incalmo, the restaurant next to the Hotel Beatrice in Este, and, also, my first encounter with the fermented grape drinks of the region.
When in doubt, drink a little bit and see if the flavour hits you, and it certainly hit me with the sparking white called Vignalta, the first of a series of wines from the area and a very charming and flavourful number to begin with.
Laurine also taught me about the Angel’s Eyes, a technique of turning the wine around the glass and seeing the remaining vapour on the inside of the glass, something I began to see as I tried the Quota 101 Manzoni Bianco, an elegant white wine, along with a start of three simple snack pieces, a taco with beetroot and sour cream, a peanut biscuit filled with goats cheese and a mayonnaise and pepper tart.
It was high class food and made me think I should be wearing a tuxedo, instead of the flowery shirt and worn Vans trainers I was wearing, and asking for a dry martini, but it was a great meal of many courses and introductions from our chef.
A cucumber and horseradish dish with a crunchy side was followed by local bread and a gnocchi with miso and minced wild garlic and a broth poured on top which smelt just like Walkers Cheese and Onion Crisps.
There was also a musso pie which, in translation, is donkey. There was a little flag at the top of a donkey, just to remind you what was there.
A classy meal continued with a green ring of pea water, kiwi and elm samaras and more wine, with dessert wines and a couple of reds going down very smoothly. It’s nothing I thought I would admit, but I was starting to like and appreciate the quality of a good red and what it might go with (as it happens, a bit of donkey pie).
A welcome and wonderful desert of caramel, almonds, tonka beans and violet and some petit four, along with a tangy and tasty Vigna Roda desert wine and an espresso, and it was all I could do to stay awake in the taxi on the way back to the hotel (spoiler alert: I did not stay awake, nor did anyone else in the taxi).
The next morning, I had to see a doctor. Well, you are required to see Doctor Hito to determine which mud treatment you’ll get from the spa, so it was an appointment worth keeping.
The charming doctor prescribed me a dose of the detox mud which, for 80 Euros, you can purchase to be covered in mud all over your arms, legs and back, wrapped in warm cloths and towels and left to bake for 25 minutes, with your own personal masseuse pressing the mud further in every few minutes.