A Rough Guide to the Brembana Valley in Italy : Things to do in San Simone.
A Rough Guide to the Brembana Valley in Italy : Things to do in San Simone.
The first point of confusion to clear up is that there isn't a camp site in San Simone.
There is a camp site called San Simone but it isn't in San Simone.
It's a few kilometres down the Brembana Valley near the town of Branzi.
There isn't much in San Simone, the ski-resort, not the camp site I mean, which isn't in San Simone.
However the former, not so much the latter, is a popular location in the long winter months when the snow is ever present high in the mountains of Northern Italy.
We actually went there in the summer and places like San Simone are almost unrecognisable in the off-season period. But nonetheless it is perhaps even more attractive when it is laid bare.
Almost devoid of people, shops and cafes are closed and the place is surrounded by greenery with only a few specks of white visible near the peaks. Not many facilities in the off-season but there is still plenty to do.
Arriving at San Simone
But even despite the disappearance of the snow you can immediately tell that you are entering a ski-resort. The ground underneath in the car park is as rough as a quarry floor and hard on the wheels.
Covered in loose earth and small pebbles with not a hint of tarmac to smooth its bump and grind as you crunch your way to a parking space.
Obviously if the whole place is knee-deep in snow for most of the year there doesn't seem much point in concreting the ground below. But visitors can suffer for this nonchalance in the dry months of summer.
THINGS TO DO IN SAN SIMONE
1. Visit the mountain Baitas for good local food and drink.
2. In summer take a walk along the easy mountain trails.
3. Go mountaineering among the rock faces and peaks.
4. Book a hotel room or an apartment for short breaks and holidays.
5. In winter take a sporting break to ski and snowboard on the slopes.
There is a large hotel at the resort but it lacks the architectural finesse of other similar places in Northern Italy. Seemingly utilitarian rather than agrarian with a dated modernism of repetition with little finesse.
Underneath this stolid building is a tiny micro-mall of shops that sell various sporting clothes and equipment. As I said before they were all temporarily closed but next to them was a large hut where a couple of guys were working away with wood.
Shops, restaurants and cafes
For a modest price you can buy all shapes and sizes of wooden objects carved and engraved. Nothing exquisite or sophisticated you understand as the wood is rough hewn and crudely cut.
But you can ask for it to be personalised with some simple writing scorched by a small burner.
Certainly the heart shapes, the cooking spoons and cutting boards have a rustic honesty and charm.
Plus the guys only asked 5 euros for each which is a modest sum for a nice memory.
Further up a small incline at the end of the hotel there was a cafe open. We bought some chocolate. But beware if you prefer your chocolate light, milky and frothy. This was a dark, thick and very sweet variety and probably more appropriate as a winter concoction.
I'm sure its best appreciated in the freezing cold as a quick energy boost for that return to the slopes after a break off-piste. But in warmer temperatures it lacks that comfort of contrasts and sadly remained unfinished by yours truly.
Outside some folk were gathered together around the tables enjoying a coffee and shooting the breeze. By their accents they sounded like they came from the south of Italy.
In a hot August many Italians escape to the cool, high altitudes for a welcome respite from the coal-face of urban living. San Simone is the perfect place to retreat for a calm and quiet break in summer.
Eating and drinking at a mountain baita.
Aside from the winter sports the next best thing about San Simone is undoubtedly the restaurant called 'La Scoiattolo' which lies next to the car park and just in front of some new and attractive apartments built in 2014.
It was most remarkable as one of those Italian words that I couldn't pronounce properly. I say it 'was' as I eventually managed to master it after a few weeks of mangling the syllables and phonemes in desperation. I'm not even sure I've spelled it correctly.
The restaurant is called a 'baita' which is the name the Italians give to those small cabins in the mountains that offer food and drink. Thankfully this generic title is much easier to pronounce.
The name of the restaurant actually means 'The Squirrel' and as you would expect the dominant building material is wood. It's designed like a large log cabin and inside are wooden walls, ceiling, wooden chairs and tables.
Even wooden cutlery as when we ordered some meat it arrived wrapped around what looked like a pair of drumsticks. I didn't know whether to eat or to strike up a quick solo on the table. We even had to ask how to eat the meat properly. No instructions had been added for the city slickers.
We were told that you eat it by gnawing away like a beaver munching on a sweetcorn.
That is if the little creatures actually eat the stuff. I'm not very wildlife aware these days.
I don't know the Italian word for beaver but after my struggles with 'scoiattolo' I'm averse to looking it up.
It could mean several more weeks of verbal gymnastics.
Our meal was excellent, the meat was delicious and it was accompanied by the classic polenta dish.
This is mainly comprised of ground corn mixed with butter and cheese.
Actually the starter we chose was a board of various local cheeses.
The board was made of wood of course but the different cheeses were a tremendous entre.
The staff were friendly and approachable and recommended a little grappa at the end to finish things off and help the digestion. I chose a lime-flavoured one.
One downside of the restaurant was the toilets around the side. They were housed in a Portakabin-style box with fairly primitive facilities by modern standards.
I can't speak for the ladies but the male visitor should not expect a comfortable stay in the 'Gentlemen's Library' as it's standing room only.
Further up the hill
There is another little eatery at San Sirmone but it is further up the hill and lies less than a kilometre away. As you would have guessed the road is a little difficult with not only gravel and loose earth but many dry rivulets across it caused by running water.
It also winds sharply left and right up the slope. There is even a sign that tells drivers they travel at their own risk. Beware of blind curves too if the vegetation is overgrown.
So drive slowly, keep your eyes open for jeeps or 4x4's coming the other way and keep looking down for those little ditches. We took one a little too fast and I think we might have lost something from down underneath
At the top is another 'baita' where you can stop off for a meal or some snacks and refreshments. We had picked up an information brochure about it in one of the towns.
However the pleasant building in the photograph on the leaflet turned out to be an old abandoned derelict and the actual baita was hiding behind this.
It was an unremarkable place built like a colourful box with a chimney. But again friendly and relaxing with excellent food and drink. This was all served by an older man from Napoli. These southerners certainly populate the north.
Enjoying the view from the top
The view was marvelous too as, being at the highest location in the Brembana near the peaks, we could see right down to the valleys below.
Looking down the other major ski-resort of Foppolo was visible below. Surrounding us the higher reaches of the mountains were impressive and with varied terrain and colour.
Unlike the lower parts up there the ground is not covered in a blanket of pine trees so the scenery is more varied. Lush grass and woodland gives way to forbidden rocky summits which are occasionally swathed in cloud and sprinkled with rain.
This summer was not the best in Northern Italy so there was a lot of unsettled weather. Plus the temperatures often changed from day to day. But normally the weather is fine and warm in summertime.
Certainly today was beautiful and clear.
We were even treated to the incongrous sight of sunbathers in bikinies soaking up the rays.
A scene more evocative of the Riviera beaches than the Alpine peaks.
Alongside them were three white terrier dogs who were very keen to join us at our table when the beefsteaks arrived.
Another incongrous sight is the ski-lifts that snake up the mountainside. There are 7 in total and they all looked strangely lost as they dangled motionless above the grass on slopes devoid of snow.
Across from the baita one gentle ski-run looked like an undulating carpet of green unfurling towards the bottom.
Taking a relaxing walk along the mountainside
After our meal we went for a walk along the hillside as were several other visitors. In the quiet of the still air we could hear the cowbells ringing gently from a herd way over on the other side.
Apparently in the summer the cows, sheeps and goats roam freely high up in the mountains. This wild grazing allows the farmers and shepherds to take advantage of the vegetation.
If you feel like picking some flowers then be sure you know what you're looking for.
Some of the plants in the area are quite rare and so are protected species.
I wouldn't expect a Flying Squad of camouflaged Carabinieri to suddenly burst out of the undergrowth ecstatic at an arrest.
Therefore your own judgement and environmental duty is appreciated.
Anywhere you go in the Brembana a walking stick is a must.
Not only to support your walk and save energy but also to fend off snakes should the need arise.
Usually they slither away at your approach but its always best to take precautions.
If you are near stagnant water then you might also become a delicacy for a hungry mosquito. But these are less of a problem than elsewhere in Italy. Also less of a danger are wolves and bears which exist in the north but are not so common in the Brembana.
Staying on the animal theme a jeep passed us by with an alsation dog running alongside. An easy way to exercise your canine companion albeit without the cardiovascular benefits to the owner sitting behind the wheel.
Later we saw a vehicle trailing a large piece of metal installation that had been damaged and removed from the ski-lifts. In the back of the flat-top sat another dog enjoying a luxury his harder working neighbour had been denied.
So, all things considered, San Simone offers a quiet and relaxing sojourn on a pleasant summer day. Unless you are an alsatian dog of course. Some locals have to work hard on the mountains.
Skiing on the snow at San Simone.
But of course the whole installation is geared up for the winter and the economy depends on the sporting-set ready to try the slopes.
The Upper Brembana is a mecca for those who love the glisten of the snow in the sunlight and the sound of skis ploughing their way through the flakes.
Information on San Simone ski resort
1. Contains 20 acres of skiing terrain with 30 km of piste.
2. There are 13 slopes of which 6 are red, 3 black and 4 blue.
3. Vertical drop 2,067 feet, base elevation 5,479 ft, summit 7,546 ft.
The resort opens for serious business in late November and continues through the winter months until early April. The slopes are guaranteed snow as San Simone never suffers from a shortage of the white stuff until it disappears in the spring thaw.
It's one of the most expensive ski resorts in Italy so you'll need plenty of cash. That is unless you are willing or crazy enough to take a tent, hunt for your own food and walk all the way up to the top carrying your heavy skis. Probably the least recommended budget holiday in sub-zero temperatures.
A more practical money-saving and indeed labour-saving idea is to buy a season ticket which works out cheaper in the long run. If you're sure you'll be making repeat visits then you can buy one and after around 8 visits it will have paid for itself.
What you get for your hard-earned cash is 20 acres of excellent skiing terrain with 30 km of piste. Not a lot else is available as San Simone has been described as quite a 'Spartan' resort in terns of extra facilities.
But you are there for the skiing and the statistics if you are numerically inclined. There are 6 red slopes, 3 black and 4 blue so a variety of levels of proficiency available for everyone from beginner to expert.
The longest ski-run is 3/4 mile and the total vertical drop is 2,067 feet. This stretches from a base elevation of 5,479 feet up to a summit elevation of 7,546 feet.
San Simone is part of the consortium Bremboski along with nearby Carona and Foppolo which are further down the valley and are connected by a ski bus service.
As well as being suitable for both novices and experienced skiers the resort even has cross-country skiing if you don't feel the need for speed. These are led by an experienced instructor.
The resort also caters for groups and welcomes both social parties and corporate events for the business community. Also for school groups of young learners who can receive professional instruction. Plus there is plenty of apres-ski entertainment available for young and old.
The hotel on-site has its positives and negatives according to customer experiences and reviews. A great advantage is that its location is very convenient as the building is right on the piste
So there's no need to use the car once you've parked it on the snow-covered gravel. But perhaps best to book early or you may have to stay further down the valley and travel up to San Simone.
But overall it has received average reviews with complaints about it being overpriced and sometimes understaffed especially in the off-season.
Not only did the exterior evoke a throwback to the recent past but also the interior is quite dated with décor, fixtures and fittings needing some investment for a face-lift to freshen things up.
Be careful when you arrive and check that the offload area is clear underfoot. It has been known to be frozen and so could be a little hazardous as it has sometimes been neglected by the staff.
However the workers in the Hotel San Simone are noted as being very friendly and helpful. There is also a well-stocked games room where children can play. Great customer service makes a great hotel.
Although located high up in the wilds of the Upper Brembana the resort of San Simone is not that far away from the urban areas of northern Italy. It's also near the Swiss border too.
There are four airports under two hours drive away. Therefore it is within relatively easy reach of major cities although travel is dependent on weather conditions. Maybe secure chains wrapped around your tyres will keep you on the straight and narrow.
So there are seasons of contrast in San Simone throughout the year. A quiet day trip to enjoy lunch and a stroll among the flora and fauna in warm summers. The excitement and glamour of the winter sports and festive fun of the winter.