For our first ever Christmas holiday, until now every Christmas has been spent in the UK at a family home, we’d be spending the holiday season high up in the Italian Alps, in Torre Di Santa Maria. It’s a small town north of Sondrio, nestled in a valley half way up the mountain. It sits just south of Chiesa and the ski park at Valmalenco.
We travelled with Nana, driving from Brighton to Gatwick, and flying to Milan Malpensa. Meanwhile Amanda and Mitch, Conway’s aunt and uncle, took a more scenic route – driving from Munich through Austria and Switzerland, and through the snow. They brought with them the Christmas essentials – a turkey, minced pies and Christmas pudding, homemade rum truffles, supplies and plenty of presents. Their silver mini-SUV was packed full.
From Milan Malpensa, a mild 15C, we picked up our hire car, a pristine white Audi A4, automatic. This luxury car was cheaper than the standard, so why not? We switched from one to another and paid a bit more for winter tyres, no snow chains thank you. I’d fretted too long about winter driving, snowy roads, blizzards and mountain slopes. Three suitcases, a buggy and all the hand luggage fit neatly into the back and we were off. Making sure to drive on the right side of the road.
It’s a 2 hour drive from Milan to the mountains, and most of it is flat. In the late afternoon sunshine we passed the outskirts of Milan, took a detour through Seregno, zipped by Lecco, and hugged the SS36 alongside Lake Como. I was looking forward to a beautiful and scenic drive alongside the lake, but the SS36 is all tunnel and every glimpse of tranquility is fleeting. We didn’t make this mistake on the way home.
The road turns East and becomes the SS38, following a river between two mountain ranges, its the gateway to the Alps and the only route into Sondrio. Either side of us great mountains rise up, those to the north are snow capped. Smoke from wood burning fires hangs in the valley like a mist over each settlement.
At Sondrio we stopped at Lidl for milk and pizza, then push upwards for the final stretch – a winding but well maintained road into the mountains. Hairpins and steep gradients made easy by our automatic.
It was still mild, 5C, and there was no snow – significantly warmer than we expected, warmer than last week, and not cold enough for the thermals we’d packed or gifted as Xmas presents.
Mitch and Amanda arrived just before us, parked in the garage and had began unpacking. Our Airbnb host, an effusive Italian, Luca, greeted them and then us.
The house had space for two cars – a garage and a drive. The driveway required some magical right-angle turn from a steep and narrow road to squeeze between two tight concrete walls. Our estate didn’t look like such a good idea now. I naively attempted this feat, I asked the car to breathe in to make itself thinner, and Luca and Mitch guided me, with clearance of just a few centimetres, a bit of skidding in mud, and all the car’s proximity sensors beeping we got the car in. But I’d need to do the same again in reverse to get it out. And of course I should have just parked it in the free car park over the road.
“That’s a rich man’s city car, not a car for the mountains”, Luca said, “You have insurance?”. The car was powerful enough to do what we needed with ease, and plenty of people were driving them, but he spooked me and made me worry about driving higher into the mountains, where roads were more treacherous, with my pregnant wife and toddler – which we still did, and which was absolutely fine.
Our Airbnb (which has its own website) had 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms spread over 3 floors. A modern concrete building, rooms and corridors wrapped a central stairwell, it was a long way to the top.
Our Italian home felt like a burrow to hibernate in and shelter from the cold mountains, the outside was hidden. There was underfloor heating throughout, and a wood burning fireplace on the ground floor – keeping us cosy and (a little too) warm. Each window had heavy duty electronic shutters, to shut out the winter and the neighbours.
There were some views, but only if you smushed your face against a window and twisted your neck upwards, where you might glimpse the snowy dust billowing from the mountaintop as the orange evening light disappears from the tip.
We took the top floor – a big double bed with en-suite and an adjoining room for Conway to sleep in, high above everyone else so that night time crying wouldn’t disturb anyone.
The chic polished concrete was decorated with a mixture of art, antique and IKEA. A sparse Christmas tree sat in the corner, abstract oil paintings adorned the walls, a turquoise nude mannequin (“no socks”, Conway exclaimed) stands in the downstairs loo and there’s an ornate metal meat mincer. Rooms are peppered with antique winter paraphernalia and old wooden skis rest beside the dining table.
We settled in, unpacked and ate ravioli, before bed.
On our first full day in Torre Di Santa Maria we sought only to get supplies. Christmas week opening hours were deemed unreliable, though as it turns out, most things were open most of the time.
After cereal, toast and freshly made cake from our attentive hosts, everyone but me and Conway headed out to Sondrio to get everything we’d need for the week – a big shop at Iperal. (Though not before I painstakingly backed the car out of the drive and into a more convenient car park).
Dad and son stayed at home to explore the town, go to the park and take in our surroundings, and when we’d had enough of the warm outside sunshine we went back in and watched Frozen.
Torre Di Santa Maria is a sleepy little commune built upon the side of a valley – high enough above a river to avoid spring water floods, and low enough that the land isn’t too steep to build on. Snow tops the peaks on either side. The main road passes it by at the riverside. About 800 people live here.
The valley looks directly south and the sun shines straight through, illuminating both sides for a few hours while its low winter path props it above the hills. With the sun hiding, the cold comes quickly.
From the children’s park, with its slide, roundabout, swings and rocking rocket, Conway and I explored. The sky was full of seeds and leaves, spinning round and round, they rained from the forests as if in slow motion. Smoke drifted amongst them and there was a subtle odour of burning wood. There’s a distant sound of a stream, and every hour church bells punctuate the quiet.
Houses are built from stone and they hug the roads tightly, like the passage of cars over a century has eroded the roads into place. Old Italian Fiats sit on cobbles in all the nooks. Small shops here and there sell peculiar assortments – like a cheese shop with a selection of children’s toys.
Post-shop, the family brought back with them cheeses, and olives and cured meats, alcohols, biscuits and crisps. Pregnant Samantha had made sure she had a fine selection of hard cheeses and alternatives, like sharp apple juice for mulling.
Our host’s father introduced himself, he’d pop-in occasionally to tend the fire, he had only a little English, so we (or those of us who could) spoke with him in German.
For dinner we had pizza, the fire raging safely behind the glass, and when Conway was sleeping we played UNO.