My job as a copywriter – which is mostly for travel brands – usually means I’m writing about exciting, exotic locations on the other side of the world while sitting at my desk in the draughty bay window of my bedroom (more about that in my post about how not to go freelance).
Occasionally, though, it does mean I get to nip off to exciting new places, and one of those was just a few weeks back – and it included the rest of the family. We were invited to visit an event called il Magico Paese di Natale, or ‘the magical Christmas village’ in Govone, northern Italy. There’s some practical info about how we got there in my previous post (our flights were £40 each, each way – bargain!) some general info in my article for the London Evening Standard, and we caught some of the highlights in the video below.
Il Magico Paese di Natale – a festive feast in Govone
In all honesty, this is just a little glimpse of what we got up to – there was absolutely loads to do, and we crammed as much as possible into our weekend. My favourite part was the Christmas market, which is basically an excuse to eat your way around the Piedmont region (and as you can probably tell from the video, we dutifully obliged).
We nibbled on chestnuts, doughnuts, a chickpea pancake called farinata, syrupy hot chocolate, mulled wine, cured meats… you name it. And at mealtimes our lovely guide, Paola, took us to some of Govone’s best restaurants – stylish Le Scuderie was a definite highlight, as we had the whole (rather posh) place to ourselves.
I’ve written more about Piedmont’s incredible food and drink in this post for Italian travel specialists, Citalia. But the short version is: if you’re a food or wine-lover, you’re going to want to put Turin on your wish-list. I’m not sure I’m ever going to fit back in my trousers again.
Children’s activities and workshops at il Magico Paese di Natale
Il Magico Paese di Natale is very much designed for families, and the kids had a go at lots of workshops while we were there. Gingerbread-making with Daniela Febino was a highlight, and I’ve written about it – and navigating the language barrier – in this post for One Third Stories.
Making chocolates with the chocolatiers from Baratti & Milano (they’re based in Turin) was another memorable moment, not least because the kids were covered in chocolate for the rest of the day.
Amongst other things (namely Alba truffles, Asti Spumante and Barolo and Barbaresco wines), Piedmont is famous for its hazelnuts, and is the birthplace of both Nutella and Ferrero Rocher. That’s right – I’d basically died and gone to heaven.
Food aside, the kids loved the wooden toy workshop organised by Renato Priolo, who designs and builds clever interactive toys for children in schools and outdoor settings, and has an agriturismo, or farm-stay, in the area. And after visiting Santa in the Castello di Monticello d’Alba – an incredible, ornate Medieval castle that towered over us as we approached it in the snowy darkness – I’m not sure a bog-standard Santa’s grotto is ever going to quite cut it for the kids again.
La Collina degli Elfi, ‘the hills of the elves’ in Govone
Our accommodation in Govone was an unexpected highlight, too, and not remotely what I was expecting. La Collina degli Elfi, which means ‘hills of the elves’, was once a monastery and now operates as a holiday retreat for families of children who’ve recovered from cancer. It’s run completely by volunteers – and on charitable donations – to offer them a free, week-long holiday.
More than 100 volunteers including hosts, cleaners, cooks and therapists give their time for free during the summer months to run La Collina degli Elfi, and the charity would love to be able to open through winter, too. Unfortunately they don’t have the budget as yet, so we were really honoured and very humbled that they opened especially for us.
We were greeted every morning by an amazing breakfast – including freshly-baked cakes that filled the corridors with a sugary scent – and the children loved playing in the playroom full of toys. To encourage family bonding there are no TVs and no WiFi at la Collina, and it certainly felt like an escape from the world.
Thank you to La Collina degli Elfi, our host – Paola – and the organisers of il Magico Paese di Natale for what was truly an unforgettable trip – and one that we’d highly recommend.
6 Tips if you’re visiting il Magico Paese di Natale in 2018
1. We flew with Blue Air from Luton to Turin Caselle (Torino Airport), and British Airways from Turin Caselle to Gatwick, with hand-luggage only. Although we had to pay extra to check in the car seats and buggy with Blue Air (these are included for free with BA) the prices still ended up being very similar – about £40 per person, each way.
2. The journey from Turin Caselle to Govone was about 1.5 hours and your best bet is to hire a car. You can head into Turin and take a train out from there, but the journey will take far longer and public transport is more limited once you’re out in the villages.
3. You can’t drive around Govone while the event is on, so it’s worth staying somewhere that’s walkable from the castle, or close to one of the bus pick-up points.
4. Bear in mind the weather, which can be very cold. The Italians were all in snow boots and ski jackets, and my suede heeled boots got pretty soggy.
5. Try the vitello tonnato – veal with tuna mayonnaise – which looks and sounds odd but tastes delicious – honestly. While you’re at it, try the raw veal, too.
6. If you have young children, bear in mind the terrain is pretty rough – the streets are very hilly and often cobbled, so we were glad not to have the buggy (we only used it in the airport). Bring a baby carrier for children up to about 2, as there’s a fair bit of walking involved.