All our concentration was required not miss the turning to La Villa, off a winding country lane in the heart of Piedmont. One impressive right-angled swerve into the foliage-framed driveway and there it was: a handsome butter-coloured boutique hotel with sage-green shutters came into view. We’d barely made a crunch on the gravel when one half of the English couple behind this converted palazzo spotted us across the garden and cheerily indicated that a glass of prosecco awaited us inside. What, no queuing at reception? No bellboy to tip? This is what we call arriving.
The hotel – originally 17th-century – has undergone some impressive anti-ageing procedures. You can’t tell it is such an oldie, and I intend this as a salute to its English owners, who have given the three-storey building a fantastic new lease of life as a country hideaway. That said, it is far from bereft of classic charm: the vaulted ceilings have been preserved, the flooring is original, and the render is perfectly sympathetic, but neutral colours and unfussy, comfortable furnishings give it a modern-day freshness. We’d missed out on doing the serious Mr & Mrs Smith thing, since the two honeymoon-worthy suites were booked, but our ground-floor boudoir was charming, with its soothing simplicity, handful of antiques and slick travertine wet room.
As I was sniffing the White Company bathroom products, I was alerted to the fact that sunset was upon us by Mr Smith wielding his camera. His manly non-verbal communication skills lured me away from the handmade olive-oil soap and out onto the terrace, to make the most of this gorgeous dusky time of day. A tip for the vain: don’t turn down a snapshot at twilight. Forget Vaseline on the lens, or having to fool around in Photoshop when you get home – this flattering half-light is like cracking open a tin of insto-airbrush, so there’s no better hour to agree to pose for some holiday snaps.
As darkness fell outside, we picked up our welcome drinks from the bar in the living-room area, and wandered up to the pool. Our feet dipped in the water, a chilled glass of the local fizz in our hands, we savoured every second. It’s moments like these you yearn for again – anything for just a quick trip in a Tardis – when you’re back in front of your computer at work. ‘I’ve always been a fan of wine with holes in it,’ remarks Mr Smith, swirling his aperitif like the cat that got the cream. I was too busy snaffling another crumbly amaretto biscuit to dignify his quip with a smile.
The pool is of the intimate kind, rather than some monumental infinity affair. Having the spot all to ourselves, looking out across that countryside, was heavenly. And it wasn’t simply a case of the bubbles in the local fizz enhancing our view of undulating hills and terracotta-roofed farmhouses. As we headed back to the house for supper, we were already looking forward to soaking up the Piedmont tableau in the morning sun.
The following morning, the bright Italian sunshine roused us wonderfully early – we had big plans for the day and were grateful for the wake-up call. The husband and wife who run La Villa were on hand at breakfast on the terrace to offer suggestions of where to go sightseeing, where they could book us a table for supper, and to give us a hand with directions. After greedily sampling enough conserves, cheeses and cold meats to rival a tasting tour of Borough Market, washed down with impeccable cappuccino, we set off for a fix of culture and consumerism.
If typing in ‘Asti’ into your brain’s Google brings up images of hen-night shenanigans, then it’s time to update your mental search engine. As well as being the producer of the famous spumante, it’s a charming town, and refreshingly untouristy. We strolled its cobbled streets through the bustling food market, our grazing broken up by a whirl around some pretty churches. Duly impressed by the craftsmanship of Italian designers of centuries past, we were also quite keen to check out some more contemporary creations at the Serravalle Designer Outlet, an hour’s drive back in the direction of Milan. With Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace up to 70 per cent cheaper than in the shops, by the time we were ready for our dinner, this Mrs Smith was struggling under the weight of enough bags to rival even the most dedicated WAG.
From one indulgence to another: our next pilgrimage was in honour of the grape. La Gallina restaurant in the stylish Monterotondo di Gavi resort made a rewarding destination. The cossetting cluster of L’Ostelliere hotel, its eatery and Villa Sparina farm were created by the original champion of this vintage, so we resigned ourselves to the duty of having to sample as many variations of the fine white wine as possible. Mr Smith pointed out that our first glugs out in the open-air bar, overlooking endless vines, amid a fragrant herb garden, must have represented one of the finest tipple/terrain combos going.
Out on the terrace of La Gallina, a parade of culinary treats occupied the rest of our evening, along with a little eavesdropping – irresistible among such interesting-looking glamorous guests. But it was hard to make use of our ears when our mouths were getting so much attention – we ate mouthwatering salads, risotto, lamb cutlets and fresh fruit. Piedmont is a destination to please refined sensualists, with its epicurean delights, shopping fit for a footballer’s wife, sightseeing to sate the keenest amateur art historian... We experienced more in one day, by exploring in each direction from La Villa, than some holidaymakers do in a fortnight. So much so that we were quite prepared to spend the next day – and, quite possibly, the one after that – snoozing by the pool.