Italy off the Beaten Path between Venice and Milan Lies Franciacorta, a Region of Quiet Towns, Vineyards, Sparkling Lakes and Centuries of History

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Byline: Judy Babcock Wylie Daily Herald Correspondent

Destination: Italy

Go:

Golfers, wine lovers, walkers and adventurers who love to drive back roads.

No:

If you want big-city night life drive to Milan, about an hour away.

Need to Know:

Italian Tourist Office:

401 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 3030, Chicago, IL 60611. Telephone: (312) 644-0990; fax: (312) 644-3019

If you go:

Getting there: It's best to fly into Milan and rent a car, as public transportation is not available to much of this area.

Alitalia (call (800) 223-5730) flies direct daily from Chicago to Milan. From now until April 1, and from April 13 to May 30, a round-trip fare from Chicago to Milan, via Rome, is only $418 during the week and $458 on weekends.

Best time to go: The period from now until May 31 is the best value, as it is considered the shoulder season.

What to wear: Pack a wardrobe full of layers, as it can get quite warm during the day and cool at night. Italians in this area dress beautifully and more formally than we do. Take a nice suit or dress for dinner. Jackets for men are the norm in good restaurants.

Lake District packages: Alitalia offers Lake District packages that include hotel air fare and some transfers, which vary with the number of days stayed and type of air fare. For information call Italiatour at (800) 237-0517.

Where to stay: L'Albereta near Erbusco has regular rates of about $225 per room, double occupancy, and up. It also offers special packages built around golf, cooking classes and wine tasting. Call your travel agent to book.

In the medieval town of Bergamo try the Agnello D'Oroin, a "narrow, old country inn" in Bergamo Citta Alta, the upper city. Double rooms cost roughly $65; single rooms $40. Call (035) 24 98 83; fax (035) 23 56 12.

- Judy Babcock Wylie

I love Italy but shudder at the thought of Rome. Venice is magical all right, but too big for my taste. I want a quiet town, far removed from the chic police, with rolling vineyards to explore, some visible history to muse over and a small lake to float upon. Oh, and the food has to be fantastic, varied and not necessarily expensive.

I found it all in the Franciacorta region of northern Italy.

Half an hour's drive east from Milan, between the deep green dome of Mount Orfano and the beautiful and uncrowded Lake Iseo, one finds a microclimate perfect for growing grapes. The Franciacorta wine region was settled by Benedictine monks in the Middle Ages who tended grapes here. The wineries continue but the area now offers current travelers more than the fruit of the vine. You'll find golf nearby, Lake Iseo to sail upon and small medieval villages to explore.

We stayed at a villa hotel, L'Albereta, just outside the tiny town of Erbusco. As we drove along country lanes to the hotel, blue and white ribbons tied onto fences and gates waved in the breeze, traditional markers of an upcoming saint's day. The hotel sits on a knoll among cedars, oaks and chestnuts with commanding views of the Bellavista Winery vineyards that surround it.

Although this hotel is not inexpensive, it provides artistic touches that keep you a little surprised all the time: murals featuring oxen and naked-chested men toting baskets full of grapes, and nearly life-sized turbaned Moor sculptures in the lobby, each figure holding a torch aloft.

It's small and intimate, feeling like the villa of a good friend. Actually it was a villa for almost 100 years until the Moretti family, who owns the winery, turned it into a luxury hotel a few years ago.

Its architectural style is eclectic with a brick and stucco exterior and large bedrooms and suites, many with canopied beds from which guests can look out tall windows at endless rows of grapevines. I stayed in room three, where the dark oversized furniture was designed by a Moretti grandfather during the Liberty period of 1910-20. …