I was starting to write my book Above Head Height – A Five-A-Side Life and needed some solitude to get it going. Someone recommended a hotel in Lombardy and I knew from past experience you can visit Italy alone but never really feel lonely. I once spent a week in Positano on my own and the only time I spoke was to waiters to request the seafood salad. So much goes on around you, it’s hard not to feel a part of it, regardless.
It wasn’t too far from Milan – even better – I could actually go and watch some live football too because one of Internazionale or A C Milan would definitely be playing at home at the San Siro, the stadium they share. This made the trip even more worthwhile. But I was so busy working out how long it would take me to get into Milan’s football stadium from the hotel L’Albereta in Lombardy, that I didn’t really pay attention to the health spa bit.
Erbusco, Lake Iseo, Italy
8Telegraph expert rating
This attractive hotel, overlooking the vineyards of Franciacorta and Lake Iseo beyond, is housed in a 19th-century residence. The property’s main draw is the state-of-the-art health and medical spa, and there are lovely views of the surrounding countryside to be enjoyed from VistaLago Bistro. Read expert review From £202per night Check availability Rates provided by Booking.com
I’ve been in health spas all over the place and know the score; there’s the sauna, the massage, the fluffy white robes that wrap up bodies you’d often rather not see (yours and others) like polar bears. Then there are the lovely smells and inviting tranquillity the moment you push open the heavy door which almost always seems to brush across the floor. Waiting for you will be the welcoming smiles of the two ladies in their white uniforms with the spa name impressively sewn into the breast in the same colour as the piping on the seams and cuffs. Hidden candles, water tinkling over stone, soft occasional tones emerging from hidden speakers.
But I really should have taken the time to read what I was in for. The spa deserved a degree of consideration, because it is a specialist one. (You’d need to be a specialist in something to pay the rates.) Surrounded by woodlands and vineyards, there’s no hustle and bustle, no emergency lights or screaming passers-by like I see on a daily basis in London. Just being there was enough, and the bar, restaurant and terrace looking down on to Lake Iseo seemed a popular local retreat for the well-dressed and well-to-do. It’s so stylishly relaxed, you wonder why you need to get treatments at all. My health analysis was conducted by a proper medic with a doctorly air (rather than a young man whose duties might also involve removing inflatables from the pool). When I realised she was keen to write as much down as possible, I gave her the full squad list of ailments I could muster: the football injuries, the asthma, the things that came because of my old excessive lifestyle, the food-related things, the bumps and twists and sugar problem.
By the end her pad looked like the long scrawl of a romantic poet and her air of curiosity seemed to ask how I could be so out of shape despite not drinking any more. “Ice cream and bread,” I explained. She nodded with understanding, and designated me a special diet that was to be delivered to the room. The only problem was, she didn’t tell me – and left me to discover the amazing restaurant before the special diet meal showed up on room service.
The food was so impressive, and they were so keen to show off their culinary genius, I felt I couldn’t forfeit the bread or the starters or the pasta or the main courses or the desserts or the finale of chocolates. I did wonder whether there was some element of competition between the kitchen and the treatment rooms, or did they clandestinely work hand-in-hand: “you fatten him up and we’ll purge him a bit afterwards”.
Over the next few days I was sprayed down from a distance with a hosepipe, painted in clay with a paintbrush, wrapped and bathed and experienced all sorts of other “interesting” treatments during which I spent a lot of time thinking: “I wish my football mates could see me now.” I started to feel like one of those walls the council cleans with a pressure washer.
I spent a lot of time on the little table outside my room typing stories about five-a-side, bad kit and dreams of footballing glory. Having spent so long writing about my friends and I (who are a long way from professional standard), I felt it was time to see people paid a lot of money to do it.
The L’Albereta bar deck looked out across the valley to lakes and mountains, and a hotel people carrier took me to Lake Iseo. There’s not a lot you can say about Italian lakes and mountains that hasn’t already been poured from a thesaurus. God didn’t just stick to ice cream, food and women when handing out the top prizes to Italians. He took his time over the nature too. I bought a lovely silver puffa jacket for my little boy Billy, who I was really missing, and rewarded myself with a chocolate ice cream.
As I sat reading on a bench, two young women asked me to take their photo together in front of the lake. I silently rued the day iPhones replaced old-fashioned cameras – now they couldn’t find out I’d deliberately cropped their heads off for a laugh only when they got home. (I’m not completely heartless – I’d always take a second one with their faces!)
Back at the hotel, the good news was that the train to Milan would only take about an hour and a quarter. The hotel would drop me off at the local station and pick me up again later in a very nice car. No trouble. Italian trains are huge, clanky and strangely romantic. You step up on to one and slip into a daydream that you’re in a film. They are also reassuringly on time.
At the towering San Siro stadium it took a while to get a ticket. The scene was tense and disorganised, a low circular building the size of a ring road roundabout was besieged by queues of angry people. I arrived 20 minutes before kick-off but didn’t get in until halfway through the first half – thankfully no one had scored yet.
Inside the stadium Milan’s fans were gripped with an attitude I’m familiar with, the default setting of a team not quite where they once were, a small cloud of hope smothered by a blanket of weary cynicism. The family I sat next to had brought a picnic, and Papa had an endless supply of cigarettes on the go. All of them looked a little like they were dressed for work in a Formula One pit lane. How many brand logos can a family sport?
I’d been here in 2000 to watch my team Leeds United pull off a miraculous result against A C Milan during a famous Champions League run. We still sing about it and wherever away fixtures now take us. After that game had finished the Leeds players came out on to the pitch and individually serenaded us fans with the chants they heard directed at them during every game. It was a remarkable sight on a memorable night – one reason I wanted to revisit the scene.
This afternoon’s game, though, was a more sedate affair, and the competitive Serie A match had the pace of a British friendly. If anything, the San Siro looked a little tatty without the passion of the big game. The Ultras in the stand to my left waved their banners, thumped their drums and orchestrated the singing, but it felt more parade ground than authentic anger, love or excitement.
The match finished and despite it being less enthralling than watching my own team Leeds, I had Milan to look forward to. I ate seafood and spaghetti in a typical pedestrianised backstreet. The Italian waiters and Maître D’s treat you with such respect and appreciation for choosing their establishment.
After dinner, a walk past the Duomo (cathedrals look so much better by night), there was an interesting 10 minutes working out from which platform and when I would be carried back to Lombardy. Milan station isn’t for those of a nervous disposition. Busy yes, impressive yes, calming no.
Despite the shock of the spa, the short trip made me feel like I’d had the best of five worlds: genuinely great food, interesting treatments, stunning scenery, a day of football tourism and, most importantly, three or four really good long writing sessions that allowed me to find the right voice for Above Head Height. It became a number one Amazon football bestseller, so it must have worked.
If it’s the mad fast digital world you want to escape, then L’Albereta is an excellent executive-level retreat. Just avoid the bread if you genuinely want to sharpen up.
L’Albereta (0039 030 776 0550; read a full review and book, from £202).
And if you actually want to lose weight while you’re there, the L’Albereta Espace Chenot Spa’s Cryolipolysis treatment is a new method of permanently reducing body fat in a non-invasive and healthy way. Each session lasts 45 minutes and costs €1,000, with an average reduction of 22-25 per cent of body fat. By controlling the freezing of the adipose tissue it allows for the self-elimination of fat cells, making the development natural and effective.