Travel

Santa Caterina del Sasso, a 14th century monastery that clings to the rock-face overhanging Lake Maggiore. All photos: Helmi Yusof
There is a fairy tale quality to the old buildings at Orta San Giulio.
The Italian Lakes is a hotspot for the rich and famous.
Restaurant owner Vince Hawkins keeping his customers happy at Ristorante Del Falco.
Garden of the Baroque Palazzo Borromeo never fails to astound.
Palazzo Madama holds tens of thousands of statues, paintings, porcelain and ornaments.
Turin is home to dozens of museums, including its famous Egyptian Museum with more than 30,000 Egyptian artefacts.
Turin is a cultural mecca with churches, art galleries and museums.
Italy, At Your Own Pace
Boutique consultancy Ergo: Travel offers a leisurely but in-depth experience of the country – perfect for the discerning traveller.

IN A cold winter resort in Turin, 12 Singaporeans are singing a medley of Beatles songs in a restaurant called Ristorante Del Falco. Starting off with the upbeat numbers such as Love Me Do, they move to slow ballads such as Yesterday.The effervescent restaurant owner Vince Hawkins plays a mean guitar. Everyone sings feverishly like there's no tomorrow – so much so they forget they're supposed to be somewhere else an hour ago, according to the itinerary. No one, for the record, is drunk.

But these things tend to happen when you're on an Ergo: Travel trip with its owner and director Huang Eu Chai. The bespoke travel firm has an itinerary packed with sights off-the-beaten track – like this gem of a restaurant on the snow-capped mountains of Sauze d'Oulx. But once there, you get so carried away, you end up staying longer than intended. And that's perfectly all right.

Mr Huang is a Singaporean Italophile who's spent more than a decade in Italy. He speaks the language fluently and knows these parts like the back of his hand. And he can tailor his clients' needs to make the trip just right.

Oddly, one other advantage he has over other tour directors is his comparative insights into the lives of Italians vis-a-vis Singaporeans. Sure, many people travel to forget their home country completely. But Mr Huang's anecdotes are simply too entertaining to ignore.

Take his casual comments on Italian bureaucracy: "Anyone used to Singaporean efficiency would find it hard dealing with Italy's government agencies. The offices are so slow to get anything done for anyone. Sometimes, you have to shout and scream just to make them get out of their seats to get you a form from a cabinet. It's a wonder anything gets done here."

For his Piedmont tour, one of the dozen tours Ergo: Travel offers, Mr Huang takes you to the gorgeous private islands of Lake Maggiore and the world-famous truffle market in Alba. While technically tourist traps, he counterbalances with lunch in a mountain cabin with a spectacular view of the lake, and at a cosy wine bar hidden away in a small village of Orta.

These unusual location choices are the reasons why Ergo: Travel has a loyal base of well-heeled Singaporeans, happy to keep the agency a secret to themselves and close friends. More than half of Mr Huang's clients are, in fact, repeat ones.

The Piedmont tour begins at the Italian Lakes, a traditional hotspot for the rich and famous. George Clooney purchased a reported US$10 million 22-room villa here, Virgin CEO Richard Branson is rumoured to have a house nearby, and other celebrities such as Madonna, Donatella Versace and Elton John frequent the lakes.

But you don't need very deep pockets to fall under its spell. At Orta San Giulio, one of the principal towns around the lake, you find yourself walking dreamily on its tranquil cobblestoned streets.

There's a fairy tale quality to the old buildings, which the town planners have been wise enough to leave alone. And the people of Orta take so much pride in the place, there is little evidence of litter anywhere, even in the back alleys.

It seems every windowsill displays a pretty pot of flowers. You find yourself compulsively taking pictures of small details, such as an ancient public faucet, the weathered signage of a biscotti factory, or a gargoyle on a roof. And because it's relatively free of visitors, the hilly town appears more mysterious and meditative the higher you climb.

For lunch, Mr Huang takes us to a well-hidden enoteca called Al Bouec, which is housed inside a centuries-old wine cave. It serves three types of bruschetta, as well as the local delicacy Bagna Cauda. The latter is a sauce made of olive oil, garlic and anchovies. Each table gets one communal pot, into which you dip raw vegetables such as carrots, peppers and endives.

Many of the town's main streets offer a direct sightline to Isola San Giulio, a tiny island on the shimmering lake. A short boat ride takes you to the island where you can visit a 12th-century basilica and monastery. It is serene and lovely – but its considerable charms pale when compared to other islands on the lakes.

These include the Borromean Islands, a group of nearby islands on Lake Maggiore: Isola Madre boasts spectacular botanical gardens which French novelist Gustave Flaubert described as an "earthly paradise".

Isola Bella features the lavish Borromean Palace with its 16th to 18th century Italian art. And Isola dei Pescatori is a pretty fishing village with waterside restaurants serving fresh lake fish.

Then there is Santa Caterina del Sasso, a serene 14th century monastery that clings to the rock-face overhanging Lake Maggiore. While the other islands may impress you with their beauty, it is Santa Caterina that stays with you long after the visit. Its hermetic qualities seem to hold secrets from another age.

Equally haunting is the Sacra di San Michele, a large abbey that inspired Umberto Eco's novel-turned-film The Name of the Rose. Perched on a hilltop surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it is mysterious and sacrosanct, a monument to devotion.

The capital city of the Piedmont region is Turin, which is about an hour's drive from the lakes. Turin is Italy's third most important economic centre after Milan and Rome. It is also a cultural mecca with more churches, museums, palaces, parks and opera houses than you can possibly cover in a few days. Unlike the small towns around the lakes, Turin bombards you with an astonishing array of architectural influences from the renaissance to the art nouveau period.

The crown jewel of the attractions is Palazzo Madama, a lavish palace built in the 15th century by art history's most famous patrons, the Medici family. The building holds tens of thousands of paintings, statues, porcelain and ornaments – more than anyone can take in one visit.

Fortunately, Ergo: Travel gives you the time to explore this myriad of attractions, should you decide to be on your own.

But if the sights take precedence in the first half of the tour, food becomes the main focus in the second. Besides a visit to a cheese-making facility in Monale and a winery at Costigliole d'Asti, there's also the International White Truffle Market of Alba, which is the largest international exhibition of truffles coming from the Piedmontese hills of Langhe-Roero and Monferrato.

Here, truffles are worth more than gold. The place is jam-packed with foodies, restaurateurs, locals and tourists. Sellers hold up large clumps of these rare mushrooms and quote prices in euros from between four and six figures. A mere plate of fried eggs topped with truffle shavings sets you back a whopping 37 euros (S$56.40).

At this point, you turn to Mr Huang for some characteristic Singaporean advice. He demurs: "Don't try to bring them back to Singapore – they won't last. And don't buy the truffle oil either because it doesn't really have any truffle in it. It's best to just eat something with truffles here."

What, then, to bring back to the folks back home? "May I suggest these huge chocolate-covered rumballs they sell outside the fair? Every Singaporean I've bought them for loves them." He is, of course, right.

MORE STORIES

EDITORIAL TEAM

Jaime Ee
Vivien Ang
Gareth Chung
Website: Ravi Gandhi, Charmaine Martin, Lee Kim Siang