In Northeastern Italy, in the region of Lombardia, in the Province of Brescia, rests the village of Artogne with 3,500 people.
Three quarters of a mile (1,200 m) above it, in the Alps, is Montecampione, a ski resort by winter and a quiet getaway by summer.
Lake Iseo shines on the valley floor.
How much further would we drive before turning around and chalking this one up as the duped-by-bogus-timeshares flop? There were four of us friends in the rental car, and all of us shuttered when we noticed the curves sharpening as the road climbed higher and grew narrower with every turn. The day had worn on. We had taken the train from Milan to Bergamo and dealt with the car rental place there. We were now headed for the village of Artogne, above which was to be our hotel. The website had warned that we'd absolutely need a car, because no public transportation would reach the resort on top.
We had long since passed the town below. Now dusk was settling rapidly, as it does when the sun descends behind the mountains. The trees lining the tiny road seemed to side with the dusk. The dark tunnel we were approaching was like a cruel joke in our weary minds and we agreed to turn back, if the other side didn't promise hope of the resort. There was an audible sigh of relief when emerging from the tunnel brought to view a cluster of cozy chateaux.
Once we got out of the car on the hotel grounds, we were met by a vision from Heidi. Though slight of frame, the old man looked muscular, the way you get from raw physical labor. He had a thick beard, sun-toughened skin, and eyes with an odd mix of fire and gentleness. This had to be the Grandfather in the flesh! He spoke thick Swiss from the Alps, mixed with broken English. He said he had been expecting us. (Weird, we thought). He told us he hadn't been off the mountain in some twenty years! He just didn't see the need. We tried to picture a life so simple and void of material needs or social connections. His gruff but startlingly friendly voice brought us out of our thoughts as he hollered, " Leave the car and I'll show you to your quarters." As strange as he appeared, we were so exhausted from the tense drive that we eagerly followed him.
He took us through the back way, up a bare concrete staircase and into a plain hall. The smell of cold dampness and mildew was overwhelming. A bit of a panic started to set in. Thankfully, just then, our eccentric guide opened a door and we saw we had arrived in our room. (In retrospect, the place was charming -once we'd had a night's rest and saw it in daylight).
Our new friend wanted to show us the hotel's best restaurant, and though all we wanted to do was sleep, we politely followed him through the hallways. Regardless of the late hour, he was confident we would receive top of the line service. It was past closing time and the chefs and servers were sitting at a corner table of the quaint pizzeria, laughing and talking with their hands in expressive waves . It occurred to me it was hard to imagine they had just finished a busy shift at work. I found myself wishing that my take on life allowed me that same pleasure.
As soon as they spotted us, a couple of guys in aprons jumped up to lead us to our table and take our order. We suddenly realized we were famished and gratefully picked up the menus. We were told, with a flash of a dashing smile and eyes that locked on ours, to forget the menus and order anything our hearts desired. (Italians had exactly this reputation in our minds!). The meal didn't disappoint: we each had a pizza pie brimming with every imaginable topping. Si mangia bene!
As the next day dawned, we awoke in our beds to take in the view. The cows grazing on the mountainside lent a surreal feeling to the already bizarre experience of the night before. It was as if we had been yanked from life as we knew it and planted into a faraway time. We liked it and we took it in with deep breaths to try and preserve it all.