I brought with me a little sachet of salt, a time-honored remedy to ward off evil spirits, when visiting two Medieval borghi on La Riviera dei Fiori...
Only a 15-minute drive from Bergamo, the small picturesque town of San Pellegrino Terme still boasts the hot springs and stunning architecture that made it a star-studded spa capital in Europe during La Belle Epoque.
But for decades it was a shadow of its once-illustrious past. After years of isolation and a transient population, today it is ready to revive itself and rediscover its authenticity as an Art Nouveau phoenix rising from the ashes.
A pleasant walking tour reveals a series of stunning buildings in the flowing style of Art Nouveau: crisp curvilinear patterns on still-elegant facades facing the Viale Vittoria, the beautiful boulevard along the river. Residents now fully embrace the importance of Lo Stile Liberty–the Italian term for Art Nouveau – with many successful renovations in the proximity of Ponte Vecchio, which itself dates back to 1430.
But the star attraction is the Gran Casinò designed by the architect Romolo Squadrelli in the first decade of the last century and commissioned by la Società Grandi Alberghi, then headed by attorney Cesare Manzoni, the first president of S. Pellegrino water. The society also commissioned the Grand Hotel in the same years.
“In the great casino’s halls, which are decorated with exquisite taste and sparkling light, you can play, read, dance and chat, but to enter the hall’s playground, you must first belong to the Company of the Casino made of senators, deputies, governors, ambassadors and upper echelons of the army,” recorded a journalist writing in a local magazine in 1911. Gaming was shut down in 1917.
After an accurate restoration of the magnificent building, today is possible to visit the casino, with its interiors available for weddings and meetings. It feels like both a lost world and something familiar, a locale that is part and parcel of Lombardy.
San Pellegrino straddles the sparkling Brembo River, and is the headquarters for the iconic mineral water that carries its name, one of the best-selling bottled waters in the world.
This alpine haven produces 44,000 bottles of mineral water an hour, a vast output shipped to 153 countries across the globe. Every year, large numbers of visitors tour the San Pellegrino factory, where the famed water is bottled on a production line that never stops.
The town and production site attract international tourists that believe in the mystique of the water. A bottle of S. Pellegrino – with its distinctive light blue label with a red star in the middle – has a compelling cachet.
But the reopening of the spa, QC Terme San Pellegrino (www.qctermesanpellegrino.it) is also helping the town draw thousands of people a year.
“Last year more than 105,000 people visited,” says proud Mayor Vittorio Milesi. The modern spa is built around the concept of water as wellness. San Pellegrino waters have been renowned since the Renaissance, with even Leonardo da Vinci holding them in esteem.
“San Pellegrino has a rich heritage, proximity to nature and local flavor. It is a peaceful haven,” says Milesi. It is also the starting point for a great hike that will take you through the mountains of Valle Brembana.
Sojourning at the Hotel Papa (www.albergopapa.it) is a good option if you want to stay overnight in at atmospheric hotel and taste the best local cuisine of Valle Brembana, whose epic landscapes produce an extraordinary variety of cheeses (Branzi, Taleggio, Strachitunt, Formai de Mut). Owner Giorgio Zilli has for decades been welcoming travelers with open arms and delicious recipes. There’s always room on his menu for traditional flavors, so get in touch with the past by trying the polenta taragna, the casoncelli and the capriolo in salmì. The menu can also mix these local specialties with creative main courses from the Emilia Romagna region where Zilli was born. The family-run hotel is the best of its kind: welcoming, well-run, extremely comfortable, offering food that is simply excellent.
The Grand Hotel, one of the Lombardy’s architectural marvels, will also return to life after standing spooky and inaccessible for decades. “Its opening is planned for 2019,” says the mayor.
The Grand Hotel was once the choice of royalty. Queen Margherita of Savoy was guest in July 1905. Queen Elena with her children stayed in August 1929. Among the its many other famous guests were the composer Pietro Mascagni, film director Federico Fellini, the Tsar of Russia’s family, King Farouk of Egypt. The hotel offered luxurious services to celebrities until the 1960s.
The revitalization of the town is a combined effort by local authorities, the central government and entrepreneur Antonio Percassi, which together are finding solutions and taking actions to meet the needs of modern tourism.
“We need to focus on international tourism and take advantage of proximity of the Orio al Serio Airport in Bergamo, and work on increasing the hotel’s offerings as well,” adds the mayor.
The town takes its name from Peregrinus of Auxerre, a catholic priest preaching in rural France who was tortured during the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the Third Century AD.