Monday, April 22, 2013

The Piemonte of Italy – Land of Wine and Kindness

Overlooking the Piemonte countryside from
the hilltop town of La Morra
We spent the next part of our trip driving around with our own wheels.  We rented a Fiat (certo! -- of course!), a model called a Punto – one of the most common, run-of-the-mill, every day, cheap-to-operate, small vehicles in Italia.  We love this little black gem with lots of get up and go, and it “only” cost us $75 for half a tank’s worth of gas!?!?!?  Yea really, remember that folks, it costs about $9 per gallon of gas when you do all the calculations and conversions.  Makes us long for those $3.50 prices we were paying in America before we left.

Priceless old
Barbaresco and Barolo wines
We came to the Piemonte region of Italy to learn more about the famous wines produced there: Barolo, the king of wines; and Barbaresco, the queen.  But we got so much more than just fabulous wine.  The real treasure of the Piemonte is not the wine, but the wonderful people who live here.
Wandering the ancient streets around the castle
 in the town of Barolo

We have adopted a new style of travel now that we are out in the country; we have slowed down and are taking our time soaking up the special atmosphere, picking up some of the language, and enjoying the local people.  On a typical day, we begin with breakfast at our B&B, and then we jump into our Punto for some village-hopping: meeting people, drinking wine, and enjoying the gorgeous scenery.  We brought CDs from home, so we roam the hills and dales with Italian opera playing away at full volume (Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti), providing the perfect backdrop for this lovely land.  We usually eat a special lunch in one of the many medieval hilltop villages and end the day with a light homebrew dinner of cheese, sausage, bread, and of course, vino back at the B&B.

Our B&Bs in Alba and Asti

Rolling vine-covered hillsides of "Barolo Land."
We began at a lovely B&B just outside the city walls of the old town of Alba, which is perfectly situated near a slew of sweet little wine villages.  Our hosts Raffaelle and Lorenzo could not do more for us.  Every day, we were the recipients of some new kindness.  For example, one day when we returned to the room, we found a bottle of red wine waiting for us along with two large sparkling wine glasses (so much better than the plastic wine glasses we carry with us)!
Frank eating breakfast (and getting high on Nutella fumes)
in our Alba B & B
Our room, the “purple room,” is perfectly charming with so many decorative touches (all in purple, of course).  And the room is as well-equipped as any we have ever stayed in, from the waterfall shower with black exfoliating soap from Morocco (Anne looks younger already LOL) to the magnificent terrace with potted plants and a protective awning.  As an added bonus, from our terrace, we can see the Nutella factory across the street, and every so often, we get a blast of Nutella sweetness in the air. By the way, for any of you who do not know Nutella, it is a sugary chocolate spread made with hazelnuts, and it tastes damn good, even tho it is probably no good for you at all!!

Raffaelle and Lorenzo are so much fun to be around and more than helpful.  Our Italian is pathetic, but luckily Lorenzo speaks English, and Raffaelle speaks French, so we end up communicating in something we call “Franglishiano” – the amazing thing is that we actually understand each other completely!

Renate, Julia, and Anne at our B & B near Asti
For the second part of our countryside sojourn, we stayed at a rural B&B just north of Asti.  This was a small, family-run operation on a farm-like setting, and we thoroughly enjoyed Renate, Bruno, and their 34-year-old daughter Julia.  We felt as if we had been adopted by this friendly family.  Italian language lessons from our new friends came twice daily, but class became especially wild at night when Bruno brought out the Grappa to aid the learning experience.

Bruno and Frank toasting the goodness of Grappa!
We helped Renate and Julia with their English (and they helped us with our pathetic Italian).  Frank also taught Julia some Russian since she wants to learn the basics of that language.  She was a very eager student. And since Bruno speaks French, we switched to that when we spoke with him.  It must have sounded like a European Union convention when we all got together.  Plus Renate and Julia spoke at typical Italian warp speed, talking over each other and correcting each other like some comedy routine.  It was hilarious!  

 Villages of the Piemonte

Having a ball in the Piemonte wine villages
We spent our days roaming the friendly villages of this very rural area where everyone went out of their way to make us feel welcome.  The Piemonte is still a fairly undiscovered wine destination, so the locals are not jaded by swarming tourists.  English is not spoken by many.  

In the beautifully preserved village of Neive, we asked a young woman in a shop about wine tasting, and she got on the phone, called her friend Michela, and then left her store unattended to walk us up the hill and over to Michela’s great wine shop.  Michela, by the way, gave us generous, free wine tastings and invaluable wine advice.  Of course, we always end up buying from these people, but we never feel pressured.  In fact, it doesn’t seem like a business transaction at all, more like an exchange among friends.

Impromtu wine tasting at Sylvia's place. What a spread!
One day, we wandered into a wine shop and unintentionally interrupted a family dinner.  No problem; the owner and her daughter-in-law Sylvia, took us down into their 15th c. wine cellars for a quick peek and then offered us wine tastings that came with breadsticks and slices of tasty salami.  Pretty soon, we felt like we were part of their family too. The wine we bought was fabulous, but the story and the memories that go with it are priceless!

Katarina serves up some
"best of the best" Grappa!
Every day brings a new memorable interaction like funny Katarina who loved laughing with Frank while she poured us free tastings of many Barolos.  As we were buying a few bottles, she insisted that Frank try her “best of the best” Grappa which turned out to be the smoothest Grappa he has ever tasted. Man, was that good!

At the Boffa Cantina, we paid to taste two of winemaker Carlo Boffa’s vinos:  top notch Barbaresco wines served with breadsticks and some incredible aged parmesan cheese (people here never let you taste without some accompanying food).  Then, Carlo took us out back to see the gorgeous view of his vineyard from his terrace.  All at once, he got super-generous, and started pouring us freebies: Barbera, Dolchetto, and a delicious shot of Grappa.  Once these people start giving, it’s as if they can’t stop!  They love to give presents to newcomers. How could we not buy from them?  But then, I’m sure they count on that as part of their generous homespun PR.

The charming hilltop village of Montiglio
Here is one of our best stories of all.  One beautiful sunny day, we arrived in the hilltop village of Montiglio and barely made it out of the car before a man named Giorgio Macchia came over to chat, telling us all about the castle above us and the pride of the village, the Church of San Giovanni.  Giorgio, who spoke some English, is a town historian, and he was anxious to share his knowledge.  He STRONGLY suggested that we see the church and explained that we would need a key to get in.

We ate a great lunch at what may have been the only restaurant in town, and soon Giorgio strolled into the restaurant carrying (you guessed it!) the rather-large skeleton key to the ancient town church.  Reluctantly, we walked about 3/4 of a mile to the church (what choice did we have?), and when we arrived, there was Giorgio with the Mayor of the village, Francesco Ciravegna!

Opening the door of the
ancient church of  San Giovanni
Anne got to do an official opening of the ancient door lock on the church door (using the aforementioned key) with cameras flashing.  Not only Frank’s camera, but also the camera of an old guy on a bicycle who had appeared out of nowhere (Frank thought this dude might be the mayor’s personal cameraman and that this whole thing was a publicity stunt to beef up the mayor’s image.)  Anne felt like the star of Montiglio LOL!

Anne and the Mayor of Montiglio,
Francesco Ciravegna

The Mayor and Giorgio proceeded to give us a personal tour of this church that dates back to the  12th c. and has some marvelous Romanesque
sculptures.  After the tour, we said our farewells, and the mayor asked Frank, “May I kiss your wife?”  Frank replied, “Okay, as long as it isn’t an American kiss!”  This has happened before, and all Anne wants to know why these Italian men think they have to ask Frank’s permission to kiss her???

We wandered back into the village square, but our story was not over yet.  The mayor was already there, shaking hands and talking with townspeople.  He called us over to the village Gelateria that was just opening up for the first time this season.  And in honor of the occasion, the gelato was free. Hey, count us in! 

Free gelato (and maybe a little free PR) at
Montiglio's Gelateria
We got our free, scrumptious double-dip gelato cones, and then the mayor insisted on taking a picture of us standing behind the ice cream counter with the owners of the shop.  By this point, even Anne was thinking that we were going to end up in the local newspaper -- guess we’ll never know for sure.  What a crazy, fun, and funny day!  Hope Montiglio re-elects this guy when the time comes around!!  Anybody who goes out of his way to entertain visitors like this is worthy of holding office.

Other Sights of the Piemonte

Frank shares a good Barolo wine
with Jesus and friends at "The Divine Bar"
in the Barolo Wine Museum
Of course. we didn’t spend all our time wine tasting.  We also visited two wine museums (do you sense a theme here?).  The Barolo Wine Museum, known as WiMu, was one of the weirder museums we have ever seen.  It was designed by the same guy who did the Automobile and Cinema museums in Turin, and he really outdid himself here!

The museum is not so much about the nature of winemaking as it is about trying to capture the essence of wine.  Just to give you a flavor of the place: the first room was about the beginning of time with fake birds flapping their wings and ticking sounds like a room full of clocks in the background.  A later room had something called “The Divine Bar” with religious figures from history gathered around a wine bar.  All we can say is that despite being pretty much “out there,” the museum did make us thirsty!

One shocking bit of trivia: in ancient Rome, women were not allowed to drink wine.  The Romans were deadly serious about this crime; the punishment for a drunken woman was death! 

Truffles for sale at the
Piemonte's annual Truffle Auction
A second wine museum in the town of Grinzane Cavour was a more traditional type of wine museum.  We especially enjoyed the display on truffles, a pungent type of fungus that grows in these parts.  These funghi nuggets usually grow underground, and need to be ferreted out by a dog with a trained nose.  How they ever train these mutts is a complete unknown. A truffle auction is held in the Piemonte every year, and people pay as much as $100,000 for a truffle about the size of a man’s fist.


The abbey of Santa Maria di Vezzolano
In a real departure from wine, we visited the abbey in Vezzolano, one of the most important Romanesque monuments in the Piemonte.  Santa Maria di Vezzolano was built during the 12th-13th c.; when we visited, it was devoid of any people, yet the doors were wide open so anyone could walk in.  It is perched on a wooded hill out in the countryside in a somewhat desolate location, and it felt as if some monks from the Middle Ages might show up at any moment! 
 More pictures of the marvelous Piemonte:  
Frank inspects the vines in Barolo
Notice the snow-covered Alps in the distance

Gorgeous rooftops and bell towers
in the villages of the Piemonte

So many wines, so little time

Even the cows are extra friendly here
in the Piemonte!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Magic of Turin

On Piazza San Carlo
Turin is an elegant city of arcaded streets and monumental squares, but the magic doesn’t end there.  The world is supposedly composed of lines of energy and Turin is part of a triangle of white magic connecting with Lyon, France and Krakow, Poland.  BUT, Turin is also part of the black magic triangle that includes London and San Francisco, making it the one city with a foot in both camps.  Filled with both religious images and symbols of the occult, this truly is a city of good and evil.

View of the Alps from a street in downtown Turin
Situated at the foot of the Alps, the city is known as “Turin” to Americans, but Torino in Italy, meaning “little bull.”  Fiat built its first factory here, and for years, throughout the 20th century, Turin was known only for cars.  In fact, Turin has been the origin city of 70 car manufacturers, including Ferrari, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, and many we’ve never heard of, or that have gone defunct over the years.  The 2006 Winter Olympics changed everything when the world got a closer look at Turin, and residents started to realize the city had lots more to offer visitors than just a tour of the Automobile Museum.

We are staying in a wonderful apartment hotel called "Residence Sacchi" where we have an amazingly spacious multi-room apartment with a full kitchen.  And yet we still get daily maid service that includes fresh towels, detergent for the dishwasher, and even a vase of fresh flowers every few days.  We are going to hate to leave this apartment and this city!

The Egyptian Museum

Statue of Pharoah Ramses II
Believe it or not, Turin has the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo, some of which date back to 2000 years BC.  The Museo Egizio offers a remarkable array of sarcophagi (some still holding dried up mummies), canopic jars that held the mummy’s internal organs, actual papyrus, and a whole army of shawabti (doll-like figures that were put into the person’s tomb and were intended to do agricultural work in the afterlife so the deceased could take it easy). 

Mummy of Kha
One room contained the treasures from an unplundered tomb, a rarity in itself since tomb robbers seem to find their way into all the Egyptian tombs.  Kha and Merit, were a wealthy, but non-royal couple whose tomb was filled with all kinds of stuff: a board game similar to checkers, dried up bread that held up pretty well over the millennia, and even an early western-style toilet!

Frank is impressed by Egyptian toilet design

Egypt in Turin: the Statuary Hall
at the Egyptian Museum
One of the best rooms of all was the Statuary Hall, a dark room lined with well-lit statues of famous/non-famous pharaohs, Egyptian gods, and sphinxes.  We almost felt as if we were in Egypt!







Walking Turin: Arcades and Piazzas

Ornate arcade outside our apartment
Turin is a great city for walking with about 12 miles of arcaded streets providing ornate, pillared porticos to protect pedestrians from the elements while shopping or just strolling the streets. Since we seem to have arrived during the rainy season, these arcades were much appreciated!  The city is also filled with beautiful palaces and all kinds of elegant architectural features.  Masonic and satanic symbols are said to be hidden in the architecture, proof that Turin really is a city of both white and black magic.

Carnival atmosphere on Piazza Castello in front of
Palazzo Madonna (Madonna Palace)
When Napoleon conquered Turin, he envisioned a city of gardens and public spaces, and as usual, he got what he wanted.  Turin has numerous piazzas, huge open spaces surrounded by impressive architecture like Piazza San Carlo with its historic cafes and Piazza Castello with its amazing baroque palaces.  Turin also has miles of pedonale (pedestrian-only) streets lined with top fashion shops and a never-ending supply of fine chocolatiers. Yummy!

Images of suffering miners on the monument in their honor
on Piazza Statuto
 One of the most interesting piazzas is Piazza Statuto said to lie at the apex of the black magic triangle.  The piazza looked pretty tame when we visited: beautiful buildings and a park where locals were pushing baby carriages and walking their dogs.  However, the square was once a Roman necropolis, and a guillotine was hard at work here during the days of the French Revolution.  The statue at the front of the square is also quite disturbing -- a craggy pyramid draped with male figures in poses of great agony.  The monument was dedicated to the miners who suffered and died while building the Frejus Rail Tunnel connecting Italy with France.  This was the very tunnel we rode through when we arrived here!

Ghoulish figures decorate the bulidings
of Turin

 The Shroud

Copy of the Shroud of Turin
The greatest symbol of white magic in the city is, of course, the revered Shroud of Turin.  The actual shroud is kept hidden in a vault in the duomo, and can only be shown in public on orders from the Vatican.  On the day before Easter, the Vatican allowed a film crew to video the Shroud.  We walked past the cathedral that day, and the whole area was swarming with security types and visiting dignitaries.  No, the Supsics were not invited for a private viewing of the shroud; it must have been an oversight.  No doubt heads will roll when they discover that omission!   

Image of how the Shroud originally covered the body
However, many copies of the Shroud are on display around town. The best one is the enlarged version of the face on the Shroud that is prominently displayed near the altar of the duomo (Turin Cathedral).  A silent video plays constantly on large flat screens positioned nearby, providing a tutorial (in Italian subtitles) that describes how the Shroud was placed over the body and explains flaws in the Shroud, such as holes and burn marks from the fire of 1532, and stains from water damage over the years.

Close-up of the face on the Shroud
To really get the skinny on the Shroud, we visited the Museo Sindone (“sindone” means "shroud" in Italian).  The sweetest, little old Italian ladies run this all-volunteer operation with great efficiency and dedication.  Although only one of them spoke any English, they were so kind and went out of their way to make us feel welcome.
The museum is careful to make no claims about the origin of the Shroud, but it is clear from all the evidence that the Man in the Shroud (as the museum refers to him) was crucified by the Romans. And the Shroud has been around for centuries, showing up repeatedly in paintings and other artifacts throughout the ages.  (A wonderful example of art supporting historical and scientific investigation.)  What is not clear is how the man’s image was imprinted on the Shroud.  Scientists are still studying this phenomenon; their best guess is that it was a result of some kind of geologic radiation.


Canaletto painting of Venice's Grand Canal on display
at the Pinacoteca Giovanni Marella Agnelli
Lingotto is an area south of the city center that was once the headquarters for car manufacturer Fiat.  Today, the sprawling Fiat factory has been turned into a giant shopping mall full of Italian fashions.  This former factory complex also includes an art museum called Pinacoteca Giovanni Marella Agnelli.  The small but significant collection included lots of Antonio Canaletto paintings (that always make us feel as if we are in Venice), several colorful Matisse paintings, and a lovely Renoir.

Pasta galore at Eataly!
Just beyond the mall, we spotted “Eataly,” a multi-story food store offering the best of Italy.  We never saw so much designer pasta, sauce, and breadsticks in one place!  The Eataly vendors also serve lunch, so we enjoyed wonderful thin-crusted margherita pizza with Dolcetto wine (a deliciously fruity red commonly found in this region).

Steam-powerd bicycle at the Turin Automobile Museum
After lunch, we walked over to the Museo Nazionale dell'Automobile (Turin’s Automoblie Museum).  The museum covered the history of the automobile including the steam-powered bicycle and other early motorized attempts making us appreciate how far we’ve come. 

Gorgeous red Ferrari at the Turin Automobile Musuem
The museum seemed a bit disjointed, but we certainly enjoyed seeing all the Ferraris and Alpha Romeos (Anne thinks a red Ferrari could brighten up her life).  A video with a collection of car commercials was also fun, including an old Oldsmobile commercial with a sing-a-long (just follow-the-bouncing-ball) called “Me and my Merry Oldsmobile.” The bad news is that Frank remembers those early commercials on TV!  Was it really that long ago?



 Mole Antonelliana

The Mole, symbol of Turin
The graceful 167-meter tower (547 feet) called Mole Antonelliana is the symbol of Turin, much like the Eiffel Tower is the symbol of Paris.  It was the highest brick building in the world when it was completed in 1889.  We took an elevator to the top for stunning views of the red rooftops of Turin, the many historical buildings, and the Po River nearby. 

Rooftops of Turin with the Alps in the background
as seen from the top of the Mole Tower
The Mole is also home to the Museo Nazionale del Cinema (Cinema Museum).  Again the museum felt disjointed, but we certainly enjoyed the displays on the history cinema from shadow puppets and simple optical tricks to Edison’s first attempts at making moving pictures.  Other displays included clips from all kinds of movies, a copy of the original screenplay for “The Godfather,” and Marilyn Monroe’s bustier! 

Our unintentional video broadcast at
Turin;s Cinema Museum
The funniest part of the museum was an interactive display that superimposed images of us into some footage from the movie “The Matrix.”  Of course, we had a great time messing around and taking photos of ourselves inside the movie.  Little did we know that our shenanigans were being broadcast on a big screen out in the main hall for all to see!





Tempting Turin

Super colorful display inside the famous
Pfatisch Sweets Shop
One thing that France and Italy have in common is that the gastronomic temptations are buono non basta (goodness non-stop)!  Turin has the most beautiful old chocolate shops loaded with goodies, and the shops seem to magically appear around every corner. 

Temptations of Turin!
Turin’s specialty is something called giandujotto, a luscious combination of chocolate and hazelnut paste.  Needless to say, we are stocking up on choco bars to bring home!

Fillin' our bellies at Zelli's Wine Bar
Another special treat in Turin are aperitivos.  Much like tapas in Spain, aperitivos are served in bars during the pre-dinner Happy Hour; however, rather than paying by the individual plates as you do in Spain, here in Turin you pay a single charge (i.e. about 8€), and you get a generous drink plus all the aperitivos you can eat. It's like tapas smorgasboard!!  Quite a good deal; for about $10 American, you can have a filling buffet dinner!  Our favorite aperitivo place is a wine bar called “Zelli” ; a great place to relax, drink wine, and eat till you can't antmore – or as we like to say "Zelli will fill your belly" (LOL)!





 Eccentric Italy

The Italian people have been nothing but kind and charming; however, the Italian culture can be a bit eccentric.  Here are some examples:

How do you think the Post Office came up with
these bizarre hours?
A man and his cow -- an advertisement for milk.

Hard to know which via Nizza we should take!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Paris: Encore Une Fois (one more time)

After M&M returned home to the U.S., we were on our own again.  But we still had two full days left in Paris and plenty of time for a few more adventures.



E. Dehillerin and Company

Storefront of the famous E. Dehillerin
E. Dehillerin is a kitchen supply store which may not sound particularly exciting, but a visit here is a classic Paris shopping experience.  E. Dehillerin first opened in 1820, and when you walk in the front door, you get the feeling that not much has changed since the original grand opening. 

Warehouse-like shelves in E. Dehillerin

The store is dimly lit with creaky wooden-planked floors and narrow aisles just barely wide enough for two people to pass one another.  Sometimes the aisles are even blocked by displays and gadgets, which only the sveltest of patrons can negotiate. The floor plan is a meandering maze that sometimes leads to dark corners and dead-ends. 

Shiny copper pots in the basement at E. Dehillerin
Merchandise is displayed on dark wooden shelves giving it a warehouse atmosphere.  E. Dehillerin offers top quality knives and other tools, but they are piled in metal tins – like something you would see at a flea market!  The shelves are heaped with all kinds of pots and pans from solid stainless to sparkling beveled copper; as a side note, Julia Child bought her equipment here when she lived in Paris.   

Frank fell in love with this giant cooking pot
The dingy-looking basement is even more fun to wander around, and Frank, the consummate engineer and gadgeteer, had an affinity for checking out the specialized kitchen tools and the oversized cookware, all of which were clearly intended for restaurant use. 
Pricing is also antiquated:  When you want to buy something, you need to memorize the 6-digit item number and look up the price in one of two telephone-sized books hanging on the wall near the cash register at the front of the store.  ‘Why not just put the price tag directly on the item itself?’ we wondered.
Who else could have this much fun
 with kitchen supplies?
The staff is eccentric, and the old building must have lots of hidden stairways because clerks seem to pop in-and-out of closet doors at unexpected moments.  Of course, we had to buy something for our own kitchen – we ended up with a hefty commercial-sized meat fork, a chef’s tool to julienne veggies, and an adorable little stainless steel pot for browning butter.  The man who waited on us spoke some English, and seemed to know all about Philadelphia, the sports teams, and especially the famous Restaurant School there.  When we expressed surprise at this, he chuckled and said, “We know everything here in France!”

Behind-the-Scenes Eiffel Tour

The incomparable Eiffel!
In the interest of full disclosure, we should tell you that we have been to the Eiffel many times on our own, but this time we were “on assignment” to take this Behind-the-Scenes tour of the Eiffel having contracted with the Viator Travel Blog to write an article about our experience.  We will share that full article later when Anne has completed it and has it published.
But as a preliminary teaser, this tour gave us the opportunity to visit some relatively “unvisited sights” around the Tower, like a bunker beneath the Eiffel Tower that housed telegraphic equipment during WWII, and now stores food for the famous Jules Verne restaurant that sits on the second floor of the Tower itself.  All the food has to be sent up to ground level via elevator, trucked over to the east pillar of the Tower where it rides up another elevator to the restaurant.  (I guess this explains the exorbitant prices – 210€/person for dinner!)
Inside the Eiffel engine room
Also, the tour took us into the engine room to see the hydraulics and the unique pulley/cable system that moves the elevators safely up and down the Tower.  By the way, they do lot of hoisting: 7 million people visited the Tower in 2010. 
Up onto the second floor we went, where we enjoyed fabulous views over the city of Paris.  Altho the lines of people to the upper floors were horrendous, there was no waiting for us folks on the tour! Thank you Viator!!  

The twinkling Eiffel
And as we left, the Tower started sparkling with its now-famous flashing lights; this happens every hour for just 5 minutes.  That way, costs are cut back on electrical consumption.  But practical reasons aside, it seemed (to Anne) like the Eiffel was thanking us for our visit.








 TGV to Torino

The superfast TGV train
As always, it was hard to leave Anne’s favorite city of Paris, but new escapades awaited us in Italy, so we boarded a super sleek, superfast TGV train to the city of Torino (known as “Turin” to most Americans). 

Snowy scene way up in the Alps
This was a very scenic train ride through the Alps past several small ski towns.  In fact, it started snowing, and as we climbed the highest peak, the mountains and trees were snow-covered, looking like a wilderness scene from a Courier and Ives Christmas card.

Happy Easter to all -- or as they say here in Italy, "Buona Pasqua!"