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!

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