THERE’S A SMALL HOTEL — RODGERS AND HART WOULD HAVE LOVED THIS MOUNTAIN-KISSED REFUGE IN THE ITALIAN ALPS, PLUS THE FOOD
COGNE, Italy – It’s a hideaway that makes you recall the longingly romantic lyric:
“There’s a small hotel, with a wishing well. I wish…we were there together.”
We have the bygone American songsmiths, Richard Rodgers and Lorenze Hart, to thank for that gem. And we have the Jeantet-Roullet family to thank for 81 years stewardship of their inimitable small hotel in the Cogne Valley, a pocket of the Italian Alps.
Sorry, no wishing well on the property. But the joyously pink-walled Hotel Bellevue, resting in its meadow, is the stucco-and-timber embodiment of Rodgers and Hart’s wishful revery.
What more to wish for? When I add up the score, the answer is zero. Among the numerous pluses: Peace and privacy. A friendly, helpful staff. The mountainous setting — yummy eye candy. Alpine air seducing the lungs. Tasteful rooms (41 of them, 11 suites), all furnished with antiques. Food fit for the gods.
An accidental find, I must admit. Not the result of careful planning because I am not a careful planner. For the most part, I use the Biblical system – seek and ye shall find — for travel (also typing). Generally it works out fine.
All right, I could have done without a few places. Such as the motel in Gallup, New Mexico, where a frightening guy broke in through the screened bathroom window at 2 AM, and stole my toothbrush before departing. Or the unheated hotel in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The month, December, and the scarcity of blankets, dictated sleeping fully clothed and overcoated. Not to mention the lodge at Cat Ba, Vietnam. There the journey to the lavatory was along a ladder from the second floor to convenient bushes.
But as night filled the valley and the village of Cogne was tucked in, my friend Aurelio and I wondered about the prospects for a bed. In taking a few springtime days to drive north from Rome to Paris, we had eventually eeled along twisting Alpine roads as the rocky palisades got more personal, up closer. Our aim was to get a glimpse, from the Italian side, of the famously crooked Swiss peak, the Matterhorn. Stirring as the nearly 15,000-foot pinnacle was, we lingered too long, tempting dusk.
Then Cogne. “Must be lodging here. It’s skiing country,” said Aurelio at the wheel. The Bellevue, four-storied, loomed. This was the beginning of a beautiful findship.
Not much English spoken. Nevertheless, the charming manager, Laura Roullet Imbimbo, fluent through hotel experience in the U.S., welcomes us, saying we’ve barely made it in time for dinner.
Pleasing to know, but we couldn’t know how very pleasing until the cuisine of Sergio Sesone (an award-winning chef, as we later learned) was spread before us. A Michelin star fell on him and the Bellevue a few years ago, and he more than earned it with his succulent – yet light – masterworks.
“Oh, I never want to leave,” understated Aurelio as we reached dessert. “Can we stay a couple of months?”
No, sadly. Duty called elsewhere. But I promised to bring her back. Which I have done for three years.
We knew there was another substantial mountain lurking in the neighborhood, but it was hidden by darkness as we settled into 401, one of the rooms on the south side. Morning came – and, wow! — the gargantuan uprising called Gran Paradiso seemed to settle in with us.
It was a grand in-your-face performance by GP, at 13,402 feet the tallest mountain in Italy. What a wake-up vision – truly an eye-opening white-out, gleaming in the sun, nuzzling the cerulean blue sky. Hanging over the horizon, it was too dazzling for anyone hung-over.
“Only orange juice before viewing,” Aurelio said.
Ghostly, a snow-blanketed mass of icy ridges, cliffs, precipices, glaciers and towers, it filled the window at the foot of the bed, and the cleavage between two shorter, pine-forested peaks.
GP was several miles distant, of course, way up the valley beyond the vast San Orso meadow and pastures, and the wooded acreage reaching its base. Even so, it’s a knockout, making a paradisical impact as the namesake and celebrity of Gran Paradiso National Park.
Signora Laura Imbimbo is an extremely able manager, all the while while juggling the care of her two young sons, Pietro and Leonardo (definitely prospects as future innkeepers). She represents the Bellevue’s familial fourth generation. An efficient executive team is completed by husband, Mimo, her mother, Paola Roullet, and uncle and aunt, Carlo and Pia Jeantet.
Laura says, “We want to keep up-to-date [with such as the spa and wellness center, even TV in the rooms and the nightly showing of a feature film]. But we also want to maintain the warmth, the feeling of a country homestead in an earlier century where you are guests of a prosperous family.”
This they have done in an unhurried, gracious style that must be good for transients’ blood pressure. Surrounded by furniture (original or restored), the handiwork of craftsmen between the 15th and 18th centuries, you may feel like a museum resident. But it’s a living museum.
The “raised cabin beds” date to a time of communal sleeping, when herdsmen combated mountain winters by letting their animals slumber below them. The more warm breaths the merrier? Is bringing your own sheep permitted? I didn’t ask, although Laura assures the visitor that the place is heated. No need to count sheep either. Mountain air is soporific.
So are the uphill hikes and long walks on innumerable trails throughout the valley. I like the strolls into the wilderness along either side of the Gran Eyvia, the gushing river that parts this village of 1500 souls. Tramping south, among pines and wildflowers, toward Gran Paradiso, you are enveloped in stillness, broken only by bird calls (now and then a cuckoo) and the constant background gargle of rushing water. Ever in a hurry, the olive-toned river froths madly over rocks.
Walking evokes a line from another Rodgers and Hart tune: “…in our mountain greenery, where God paints the scenery…”
Waterfalls, dripping or splashing hundreds of feet, line the slopes to left and right while GP is big brother watching you. Boulders the size of cottages form a stony hamlet at one stretch. Farther along a barren slope strewn with small rocks seems a crowded grandstand. In the shadows of a forest a shy herd of ibexes climb and cavort. A nifty scrabble word, the ibex is a sure-footed wild goat, long of horns, short of body.
Braver than I, Aurelio isn’t content with sauntering beside the river. She favors challenging treks, of which there are plenty, like the Rifugio Vittorio Sella Trail. Including many switch-backs, it rises steeply out of the valley. She related that it took her 40 minutes to get to the bridge across a stunning waterfall and into patches of snow, persisting into May. After 70 minutes, she reached Pascieux, a cluster of ruins, and a stone cross.
“What a spot at at 7500 feet,” she recalled “Exhilarating, a spectacular view. I wondered who might have lived there or spent time there. More snow. The only people, a couple of guys ahead of me on cross-country skis. Smartly equipped.
“There were rocky outcroppings free of snow so I scrambled up those as long as I could. My goal was a spot with a cross on a hill ahead of me, but the bare spots ended and I found myself in snow up to my waist. I kept falling in as far as my legs could go. In trying to pull a leg out, my arms would sink to the shoulders in snow. The going was really tough, and I kept sinking in. Because I was alone, with no other people in sight, I felt I had to turn back. Very disappointed. But wiser.
“I’d sunk in so many times. But I had to be able to get back down the mountain, hard going until I got to the rocks again. Then smooth sailing. I sat and had some water, salami, cheese and yoghurt. Pausing to photograph the pink buds on laurel trees, I heard what sounded like thunder and realized it was an avalanche across the valley. Just happy not to be over there.”
Good for her. Hearing about it was good enough for me.
It took her a very long time to walk back to the hotel. Although somewhat concerned until her tardy, evening reappearance, I did know that Aurelio had decent ibexian credits — ascents of Kilimanjaro and the base camp of Everest — and that nothing would keep her from one of Chef Sesone’s dinners.
She sank for her supper, and was deserving of the veal and pasta reward.
Into the elevator she hastened, needing to change for dinner. One of the maids told us that the tiny elevator was formerly a confessional, salvaged when its church was razed.
“You confess your sins going down,” she smiled, “and hope you go up again.”
“Ever upward,” says Aurelio, who confesses coveting a return to the Gran Paradiso and the small hotel.
May 15 2003 04:41 am | Italy