Skiing Holidays in Italy: Things to Do in Branzi in the Brembana Valley
You can't see much of the mountains that loom heavily over the town of Branzi. They are almost completely covered in thousands upon thousands of trees.
Acres of a blanket of green fur draped over hidden crags and crevices. At first sight I was reminded of the old CinemaScope movies of Hollywood.
The masses of elongated pine trees seemed like the opening images of western cowboy movie. Those few minutes when the screen is squeezed to fit the credits into your old TV screen before the sudden expanding into the cinematic style.
A spectacular setting nonetheless for a small town nestling at the base of the high and narrow valley of Brembana in Northern Italy.
A quick snapshot of the local history
It's been there since the time of the Barbarian invasions which began in the 4th century. People in Northern Italy fled to the mountains for protection from the invading hordes. However there were temporary settlements before this period when the Romans came to exploit the local copper mines.
In the 19th century they were exploited again but this time financially by their Austrian overlords with the burdens of taxes and duties. The northern part of Italy has had many masters throughout history after the depredations of invasion and conquest.
TOP 5 THINGS TO DO IN BRANZI
1. Book a relaxing break and enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery.
2. Take some exercise in the many summer sports and pursuits.
3. Sample the local cheeses and the tasty polenta tartagna.
4. Join in the fun, music and dance of the August festivals.
5. Use the town as a hub for local winter sports in the upper valley.
The sights and scenery of the area
Branzi is a place offering many delights and activities for the outdoor types. It was particularly appreciated by our household cats. Plus it boasts the quality cheese for which it is famous.
Although only one out of three cats would prefer it.
The town is an attraction all year round with both summer festivals and winter pursuits.
The latter taking place in the backdrop of the all-enveloping snow that dramatically alters the scenery.
Whatever the scene one permanent sight is a natural water feature which pours out above the town.
The 'Borleggia' is a long, thin waterfall, a symbol of apparently perpetual motion which never seems to dry up.
But it does during the big freeze-up of the short dark days of winter and also perhaps in a severe summer drought.
But normally it gushes relentlessly from out of the vegetation halfway down the eastern mountainside.
It instantly spreads into dozens of tiny rivulets of water. They flow like liquid lightning bright white against the green. At night it disappears when the blackness of night enshrouds the area.
But its soft roar can always be heard wherever you are in town.
Except of course in a particular cold, winter freeze.
Then the water stops and solid ice clings to the slope.
During festivals like Christmas as a special treat the 'cascata' is completely illuminated from top to bottom.
When we were there in August they had a spotlight at the opening of the water high up on the hill.
This was the week of the 'Festa della Madonna', an annual religious celebration.
They were probably testing out the lights but for a while during the night it was like looking out at the malevolent Eye of Mordor staring out from the nothingness.
Over on the west side a river courses its way down into the town and south along the valley. A vigorous flow on a normal day it quickly becomes a furious torrent in wet weather and thunders dramatically past the houses and the small park in the centre of the town.
The park is tidy and clean and on a clear day bathed in sunlight. Perfect for relaxing or to take the children to play. From the main road a flower-decked pedestrian bridge provides a pleasant entry to its well-tended lawns.
There's usually a lot of water in the Brembana Valley. It's everywhere and further afield from Branzi are some small lakes such as the nearby 'Laghi Gemelli' or 'Twin Lakes' in English.
There is no immediate road access but you can enjoy a pleasant walk to the water and enjoy a change of scenery.
Summer sports and leisure activities in Branzi
In both summer and winter you can easily get off the main roads and streets and lose yourself in the woods. The former obviously offers more variety and less hardship while the later attracts the daring and adventurous.
There are bicycle tracks mapped out for the energetic who wish to strengthen those thigh and calf muscles
For a more relaxing and less breathless wander all you need are a pair of stouts boots and a packed lunch.
But also take a large stick with you and not only for easing your exertions or conserving your energy. There are poisonous snakes in the valley so a stick is handy for warding off any that are uncomfortably close.
However 99% of the time you will never see them as they will be long gone before you pass. Most of them quickly slither away into the undergrowth at the first sound of human approach.
A friend of ours did see one while she was out walking her dog. The snake was lying on a rock basking in the warm afternoon sunshine. So, take a stick and keep you legs covered and protected just in case.
The wilds of Northern Italy are also home to wolves and bears but these are much more rare in the Brembana. But not completely unknown. Maybe take a bigger stick.
If you're feeling lazy and you're not afraid of heights then you can hire out some sturdy legs to do the walking for you. Four of them to be precise as there are horse stables near Branzi if you want to enjoy some horse-riding or pony-trekking.
Even very young children can try a short and gentle ride at the local Agriturismo. Led by a member of staff one of their donkeys will take children around the grounds on a short stroll.
There you will see farmyard animals in a little domestic zoo.
Walking through you'll see small flocks of geese, some goats and pigs.
It's also free and you can wander around at will.
We saw a litter of 12 young porkers happily running around and playing in a small field.
A perfect advertisement for vegetarianism if ever there was one.
You can also eat fresh food from the local area in the Agriturismo.
The cost of the menus are usually more modest than restaurants prices.
They also provide information sessions and activities especially for children.
Sampling the local cuisine of the Brembana
Certainly when you are in Italy you have to sample as much of the fantastic food as possible.
The typical Agriturismo in Italy offers local fare at economical prices. Normally however their menus can be limited to what they produce in a particular area.
You may eat delicious meat, wonderful potatoes and savoury cheese with fresh bread. But then you might be crying out for just one fresh tomato or a crispy slice of lettuce to lighten the load.
The Italian diet is full of quality and fresh ingedients but on some occasions it can be a rich feast of exotic stodge lacking in essential roughage.
Cheese and cheese-making in Branzi
But think of Branzi, think of food and you think of cheese. You can buy it in a specialised shop on the outskirts of town on the main road.
Alternatively there is a local market every Tuesday with a varied selection among many stalls selling food, clothes, household goods etc.
The Branzi variety of cheese I found similar to Dutch products like Ementhal. Medium soft, light in taste but a little bland. However the seasoned flavours were more to my liking offering more stimulus to the palate.
We were fortunate to able to see the cheese-making process in action. A free demonstration took place at a local farm near the centre of town.
An old farmer was present to lend his knowledge and experience to the parents and children watching. He brought to life the history and traditions of agricultural life and work in the Brembana.
You can also buy tasty goat's cheese straight from local farms. We went to one but had to leave the car on the main road as the track up the hill was in bad condition. More fit for tractors or 4 by 4's than a family sedan.
But two friendly border collie dogs bade me welcome at the top when they appeared from out of the goatshed. The farmer and his family were just as friendly and happy to sell me some fantastic cheese.
The soft white version was particularly delicious, ideal for a nice hors d'ouevres with crackers or bread.
To be honest though you can buy the same products from the markets at cheaper prices. Just as good I thought with more choice and kinder to the wallet.
However the local shops are a little expensive so if you book a stay in town then take plenty of food in your car.
Alternatively you can drive the 11 km to the town of Piazza Brembana where you will find a medium-sized supermarket with reasonable prices.
But certainly check out the specialist cheese shop in Branzi itself. It's on the main road just as you enter the town and before the road starts to climb.
The Brembana region is also noted for its Polenta which is a particular cheese pudding.
To the uninitiated it's basically like porridge except it's made with mashed corn, butter and cheese.
If it's made well it's delicious and also perfect as a warm, filling dish in the cold winter.
Polenta Taragna is the local speciality which is common to the North of Italy.
It might not do your arteries any good unless perhaps washed down with a shot of grappa to flush out the pipes.
A stay or a visit to Branzi is not necessarily all about escaping civilisation and returning to the primal base. The electricity pylons stretched along the valley tell you that.
As does the little installation of bulbous pods and aerials perched on the mountainside to provide telecommunications.
There is a free wi-fi Hot Spot in town but I found the connection very erratic. Not exactly standing on the balcony on one leg dangling the lap-top over the railing. But in that particular ball-park.
Music, dance and all the fun of the festivals
In the summer evenings the small square in the town centre is plugged-in for regular musical events. Everything from traditional to modern rock in the open-air if the weather permits.
During the summer there is a rich and varied calendar of festivals, processions, concerts, parties, dances and jamborees. The Branzi folk like to celebrate life especially in the busy period of August when many Italians are on holiday.
They celebrate 'Ferragosta' or Assumption Day which is on the 15th August and is a national public holiday. There is also the aforementioned 'Festa della Madonna' in tribute to the Virgin Mary which includes a colourful procession through the streets.
That's in late August and if you see the town festooned by blue and white ribbons you know that the festival is looming.
On that subject, worthy of note are the Parish Church of St Bartholomew and the 'Shrine of our Lady of the Snows'. Lovers of religious history and art will always find plenty of interest in these small sites dotted around the country.
They also have an Alpino Festival in Branzi which is a coming together of the locals and visitors to enjoy wining, dining and dancing. Everyone mucks in to help organise and cater for the show by cooking, pouring drinks and waiting on tables.
A pleasant evening guaranteed even if the food is a little overpriced and the service is slow. The food is delicious though. You can eat soft pork or seasoned beef burgers accompanied by thick and creamy polenta. Draught beers or bottles of wine wash down like a treat.
All this is topped off by music and dance. On our visit the music was almost live as we saw two performers with a keyboard and a tambourine singing along to recorded tracks.
Not exactly in keeping with tradition. But the sight of elderly couples gently waltzing across the floor to the sound of an electronic version of 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' shows the people move with the times.
This 'joie de vivre' of festival season is exemplified by the brilliance of the fireworks.
They explode colourfully above the town and echo loudly off the mountains.
Listen carefully and you'll hear the tinkling of the goat bells from the fields.
Perhaps not their favourite idea of an evening out. Nor for our cats who fled from the window.
If the summer activities sound too laid back and genteel then just wait for the snows of winter.
Then you can tackle the steep challenges of the more cold and hazardous environment.
Obviously you can go mountaineering to risk life, limb and sanity on the icy rock faces.
Perfect for those who have an armchair allergy and an aversion to the simple pleasures of multi-channel TV and carpet slippers.
WINTER PURSUITS AVAILABLE IN AND AROUND BRANZI
1. Nordic ski-pole walking in groups led by expert guides.
2. Mountaineering in the peaks and rock faces.
3. Downhill skiing in the nearby resorts in the Upper Brembana Valley.
There is no downhill skiing in Branzi but you can sign up for a Nordic pole walk on the cross-country trails in groups led by an expert guide.
But for the adrenalin rush of the glistening pistes you won't have far to go. There are three very good ski resorts just a short drive away.
The resorts are within a few kilometres radius of Branzi. Foppollo is 5 km away and San Simone is over 10km. But the little of town of Carona is only 2km along the main road.
From Carona you can access the slopes by cable car and even connect to Foppollo via the Valley Carisole. The venues have been developed and organised by the Bremboski group.
Upper Brembana ski resorts near Branzi
1. Carona : A small resort perfect for beginners and intermediate skiers.
2. Foppolo: The biggest, highly developed and most popular resort.
3. San Simone: The highest venue in the valley with guarantees of snow.
San Simone is suitable for novices and learners as it has 6 red slopes as well as 4 blue and 3 black for more expert skiers. There aren't many facilities however, so some visitors like to find hotels and apartments in nearby places.
Therefore the development of Branzi and other villages and towns in the Upper Brembana like Valleve and Piazza Brembana. The ski-set can commute daily to the slopes.
Nevertheless a great advantage of San Simone is that all the facilities are directly on the piste.
So once you park the car you won't need to use it again until it's time to go home. Perhaps just as well if you don't fancy negotiating the twisting roads on the mountains.
They are not for the faint-hearted, especially in severe winter conditions. Tyre chains are a must by law to keep your car on the straight and narrow.
Carona is suitable for intermediate skiers but also has some slopes for complete learners. Being lower down in the valley it can also provide 12 km of Cross Country trails.
There are 12 skiing pistes of which 8 are red level and 2 are blue. But there are also 2 black pistes for experiences skiers.
Foppolo is by far the most developed resort and resembles a mountain town rather than a mere ski resort.
You will see big hotels and high-rise apartments plus there are lots of social amenities including the renowned K2 restaurant. It has 18 pistes in total with the advantage of the physical connection to Carona.
Holiday accommodation in Branzi
Back in Branzi there is plenty of accommodation including holiday flats that you can rent out for a week or a month. Some regular visitors even pay by the year and if they use it often enough they can save a great deal of money.
But if you want to rent an apartment make sure you check the conditions before you go. That means financial and physical. Is the apartment all-inclusive? We discovered after the fact that we had to pay extra for electricity.
Also try to find out what the interior of the apartment is likely to be. Ours was facing south which meant that the rear of the house received no sun whatsoever. The green moss and damp stone in the back garden testified to that.
Unfortunately this extended to the inside and the bedrooms and toilet were at the back. So there were some black patches of damp on the ceiling and the occasional slug sliding in from under the skirting board.
The facilities were also quite dated with a gas cooker fed by a canister outside and hot water supplied by an old boiler. No power shower here.
So if you forget to switch on the boiler you'll have to tough it out under a cold, wet blast in the morning. Although in the snowbound winter months that might prepare you for the cold outside.
The Brembana Valley is relatively east to reach with four airports all less than two hours drive away.
It's therefore possible to enjoy ski weekends, snowboard breaks or just take a short holiday to get away from it all.
Less than 50km away is the nearest airport at Orio which is served by several budget airlines. It lies next to the historic city of Bergamo which is also worth a visit as it boasts a beautiful hilltop medieval town.
But if you don't want to linger in town then you can get to Branzi in an hour by car. Of course in winter this all depends on the weather in the region as road conditions can be difficult.
A wide selection of interests, pursuits and activities are on offer in Branzi. Whether you stay in town or use it as a local hub you'll find plenty to do
You can travel to the Upper Brembana Valley for the ski resorts or go down to the lower valley as far as the famous San Pellegrino Spa.
The town is ideal for relaxation or exertion and however you decide to spend your time make sure you try the local varieties of cheese.
And don't forget to taste the home-grown polenta. Ideal for comforting warmth in the winter or an energy boost in the summer.