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In Piedmont on the road less travelled

© By Ann Wallace

  Langhe and Roero in the province of Cuneo, located in northwest Italy in the region generally known as Piedmont (or 'foot of the mountains') is where, throughout history, the roads have indeed been well travelled, comprising the ancient route of Popes between Avignon and Rome, kings and emperors as well as merchants and missionaries, artists and pilgrims and many others.
     It is 'less travelled' because it is an area virtually unknown to foreign tourists, whose ideas of Italy focus on the great cities, Tuscany and, perhaps, the Amalfi Coast. Although it's a region popular with Italians and the French from the border regions, and although it offers an abundance of wonderful accommodation options, there's barely a North American tourist to be seen. Yet, it's a land as exquisite as any in Europe, a land of vine-covered valleys and hills, adorned with ancient, unspoiled villages standing so close to each other that it's possible to walk through the vineyards and country lanes between them.
     Langhe and Roero lie adjacent to each other, separated by the Tanaro River - Langhe to the south, Roero to the north - with the towns of Alba and Bra their respective major centres. I'm sure you've heard of Barolo and Barbaresca wines and the precious white truffle, prized by gourmets the world over. Langhe and Roero is from where they derive!
     When asked to list Italian cities of your dreams, I'm sure you wouldn't include Turin, just an hour's drive to the north, a pity because it is a fine city and as worthy of a visit as Milan which is more often on the tourist routes.
     Let's venture on the southbound autostrada from Turin Airport, a toll road, as all Italian autostradas are. Leaving the autostrada, our first major destination is the ancient city of Alba, capital of the Langhe, distinguishable from a distance by its many ancient towers. This being October, the National White Truffle Fair and Truffle Market was taking place as it does every week-end during that month. Entering the historic streets is like stepping into a movie. The many pedestrian-only streets and the town squares are lined with stalls that could have graced an ancient jousting event, where locals dressed in medieval costumes sell, with much shouting and gusto, the foods for which this region is so famous: truffle oils and pâtés, salamis and cheeses, the delicious local relish called cugna, hazelnut products and, of course, wine, wine, wine!
     Circles made from hay bales contain upright bottles of wine and several velvet-costumed fellows who, in exchange for a Euro or two, will give you a rod and line with a ring at the end so that you can try your hand at 'catching' a bottle. If you do, it's yours to keep! There's live music all over town, historical re-enactments involving much waving and tossing of ancient flags and banners, all amidst the offerings of food samples galore.
     The city's bars and restaurants are crowded and it adds up to a wonderful atmosphere. The more serious centre of gaiety is the White Truffle Market itself (in the Maddalena Courtyard) where the white truffles are displayed to be prodded, squeezed and smelled by gourmets with deep pockets. An adjoining café offers fresh pasta dressed with truffle oil and wines by the glass or bottle. (While in the region you may see advertisements for truffle-searching expeditions. While these are, I am sure, quite an experience - and something to tell your friends about back home - beware! Truffles fetch such extraordinary high prices that it is unlikely a hunter will reveal his secret, favourite places. Usually, below-grade truffles are hidden beforehand so participants can see the dogs in action and get a 'taste' of the whole experience.)
     October is an exciting time in Alba, but it is well worth a visit at any time for there are many historically interesting places to see: ancient churches which hold valuable and beautiful paintings and frescoes, streets lined with medieval houses and the elegant shops for which Italy is famous.
     No visit to this region would be complete without a visit to Alba and its sister city Bra, home of the admirable Slow Food movement for travelers, but it is the countryside here that beckons, a land of gentle, vineyard-clad hills where unspoiled ancient villages nestle in the valleys or stand proudly atop ridges. Morning mists turn all into a dreamscape, dispersed by the rising sun, warming the land and swelling the famous grapes. It's a land of palaces, castles and legends, enjoyed with delicious food and famous wines. There are over 400 'approved' restaurants in this area, many Michelin starred, in a total of 94 villages.
     I could not visit 94 villages, although I did cover many of the area's roads. Every village holds interest, whether it be an ancient castle, museum or a winery.
     Some highlights:
     On a hillside on the outskirts of Alba (5 km. away) stands Castle Grinzane Cavour, containing a museum exhibiting the life of a medieval soldier in the castle, the rooms and furniture of the Count of Cavour who lived here in the mid 19th century, some fine frescoes, superb views of the surrounding countryside and a vast Piedmontese wine cellar for tasting and purchasing.
     Barolo and its surrounding vineyards is home to the fine wine that bear its name, produced from the region's nebbiolo grape. Locals call it 'the king of wine and the wine of kings' as the land hereabouts was once owned by the Kings of Savoy with another historic castle, Falletti, erected in the 10th century as a bastion against Saracen invasions. Visitors can enjoy a visit to the Castle Museum, which contains amongst its fine rooms a beautiful library and modern art exhibitions. Here also can be found the Regional Wine Museum with its adjoining store and tasting rooms.
     The drive (or walk) along the high ridge in the hills of Alto Monferrato in south Langhe is magnificent. It may be misty in the valleys, but if you are lucky you will rise into the sun on the ridge and the mist will appear like a white lake beneath you. Far to the north, on a clear day, you will see the Alps glistening white against the blue sky, while over the hills to the south lies Liguria and, eventually, the Mediterranean.
     Napoleon travelled through this region, and the area was once home to the famous Salt Way, a route for merchants peddling this valuable commodity throughout Europe. Although miles from the sea, the nearly village of Montechiaro d'Acqui holds an anchovy festival every summer to remember a devious merchant who avoided paying the high tax on salt by topping up his salt barrels with a layer of anchovies. To this day anchovies play an important part in the local cuisine. Along the ridge you can't miss Castello dei Marchesi Scarampi where you'll want to pause in the grounds for views and photographs. It is only open on summer week-ends but it doesn't really matter if you miss the interior for the surrounding area is so magical. I was told that 48 species of wild orchids have been recorded around here in the springtime.
     The town of Neive, just east northeast of Alba, is perfect as a film set. I highly recommend La Contea Restaurant and guesthouse. The service was so smooth and professional that I engaged our most senior waiter in conversation before leaving and learned that wait-staff hereabouts undergo three years of training which covers not only different aspects of food and wine but also courses in major European languages.
     The town of Cortemilia may not be as attractive as Neive, but it is worth a visit to experience the hospitality and cuisine at Villa San Carlo. If you wander round the public spaces here you will find lots of memorabilia from the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Prior to that event, Villa San Carlo's owner - Carlo Zarri - was appointed Chief of Food Services for the Olympic Games in Turin in 2006 and so was an official guest at the games in the U.S. Carlo loves to engage in conversations with his guests about food, wine and travelling.
     Some details to help you explore Alba Bra Langhe e Roero:
     For independent travellers, it's good to know that the area offers a wide range of accommodation, from the five-star Hotel Relais San Maurizio (a converted 16th century monastery) in Santo Stefano Belbo for those who are deep of pocket and lovers of luxury, to quaint farms where a warm welcome is guaranteed. Often the latter are not working farms, but country homes that have been renovated and refurbished to make them suitable for visitors. Everywhere you go you'll find that Italian attention to detail, whether it's in the presentation of the food or wine, or in a room with finely embroidered sheets and vases of pretty wild flowers. One thing you won't find thing here is a modern high-rise property.
     Almost every village has a small tourist information office which can point you in the direction of accommodation, local attractions, etc. Accommodation is easily available during the week, but it would be wise to have reservations for the summer and fall week-ends because this is a popular destination for Italians, due to its beauty, its wines and its cuisine.

Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine www.thetravelsociety.com.

Photo Credits
Ann Wallace

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Hotel dei Quattro Vini: www.hoteldeiquattrovini.com
Villa San Carlo: www.hotelsancarlo.it
This property offers that renowned dining experience as well as cooking and wine packages ... details on their website.
Villa Beccaris: www.villabeccaris.it
Cà San Ponzio: www.casanponzio.com
Real Castello: www.castellodiverduno.com
Villa La Favorita: www.villalafavorita.it
Albergo Castiglione: www.albergocastiglione.com
Alba Bra Langhe and Roero Tourist Bureau (Alba): www.langheroero.it
Tourist Consortium of the Langhe and Roero Region: www.turismodoc.it
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piedmont,_Italy
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Piedmont

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