An oasis of old-world charm

Posted by on Nov 1, 2011 | 0 comments

Marcos and I decided to take a weekend trip to the beautiful lake district of Lago di Garda to purify our skin in the at the nearby Colà Lazise hot springs, buy some famous Lago di Garda olive oil, and relax by the beautiful lake. For accommodations, a friend of ours from the region suggested Agriturismo Sangallo in Bedizzole, within a fifteen-minute drive from the bustling little cities of Salò and Desenzano.

As we turned onto the street leading to the agriturismo, we thought we must have copied the wrong address. The street was sandwiched between two industrial buildings, quite different from the idyllic country road we were expecting. Hesitantly, we continued.

When we turned into the agriturismo, we were relieved. Despite the industrial surroundings, the farm itself was lovely, with a large stone courtyard opening up to a burnt-orange country house. As we got out of the car we spotted a little coop. As we checked it out, around fifteen bright white, fluffy, red-eyed bunnies excitedly hopped over toward us, looking at us expectantly for some food. They were so cute we could have spent all day watching them interact, though it didn’t escape us that these were farm animals destined for the table, not pets.

Checking in, we were not expecting too much in the way of accommodations because of the low cost. Instead, we were surprised to find a spacious apartment with a fully equipped kitchen, an adjoining living room, a big bathroom, and a bedroom with a king-sized bed as well as a bunk bed. This apartment could have comfortably housed five people.

We were starving and chose to eat in the cozy, dimly-lit dining room under an arched stone ceiling, rather than dining outdoors overlooking the courtyard. We understood by the boisterous Brescian dialect rebounding off the walls that their restaurant is no secret to locals; when we asked for a table for two, the owner said, “Good thing you came sooner rather than later. In another half an hour, we couldn’t have seated you.”

Paper menus offered various seasonal specialties. Our half-liter of house red came from owner’s brother’s vineyard. The antipasto plate was truly special: oil-cured baby artichokes, farm-fresh hardboiled eggs with electric orange yolks, and assorted cured meats. The house-made coppa was cut thick, harmonizing well with our rustic surroundings. The vegetable ragù, made with the farm’s homegrown vegetables, burst with bright summer flavors and bound perfectly to the homemade tagliatelle. The vitello tonnato (thinly sliced veal with tuna sauce) was light and satisfying, ideal for the warm mid-September weekend. It was a fantastic, casual, authentic, and very affordable meal in a jolly ambience; I could understand why the locals loved this place.

The perfect-looking farmhouse in a pristine environment has the power to make me forget about the industrial world entirely. The real Italy, however, is much more complicated than postcards might lead you to believe. Italy is no longer–and hasn’t been for a long time–a strictly agrarian society dotted with darling towns inhabited by people who spend more time eating pasta and pizza and drinking wine than toiling in the fields. Italy is a major European industrial power, with the fourth largest GDP in Europe (after England, Germany and France) and the eighth largest in the world. Because of this industrialism, Italy has enjoyed relative wealth and has been able to support a large middle class. When Italy was a strictly agrarian society, however, and the landscape consisted solely of charming crumbling cities and lush countryside–the Italy many of us still idolize today–Italy was so poor that large numbers of Italians were forced to flee to the New World in hopes of better and brighter futures.

Italy’s industrialism and the infrastructure built to support it has also made it possible for tourists to enjoy Italy’s old-world beauty. Airports, train stations, and highways facilitate travel and a tourism industry with estimated annual revenue of $47.7 billion. Italy’s industrialism has also made it possible for enthusiasts of Italian food and fashion to enjoy its quality products abroad.

Maybe it was at Sangallo, cocooned in its rustic farmhouse–a sanctuary of Old-World ways in the midst of encroaching industry–that I developed a deeper understanding of Italy. For the time being, Italy seems to have been able to balance its love for good food, natural beauty, and time-honored traditions with the demands of the globalized capitalist economy (though not without a few hiccups). Italy is industrialized, but Italians’ love for their land runs deep. I can only hope, despite the fickle world economy and constant financial pressure to take environmental shortcuts, that Italy’s respect for its land and its traditions remains steadfast. For now, the strength of the tourist industry makes it profitable for Italians to preserve their farmlands and ancient cities and continue to craft high-quality foods, and this strength might very well save the Italian landscape.

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