I’M IN LOVE WITH THIS BEAUTIFUL REGION AND ALL IT HAS TO OFFER; STUNNING SCENERY, ONE OF THE MOST RENOWNED WINE REGIONS IN THE WORLD, A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE, A UNIQUE LOCAL CUISINE, GLORIOUS LAKES – AND THE LAID BACK FRIENDLINESS YOU EXPECT FROM ITALY.
Piedmont means ‘at the foot of the mountains’ and it’s name is apt as it’s surrounded on three sides by the Alps which add a breathtaking backdrop of snow capped ruggedness to the soft rolling hills topped with red roofed ancient towns. If you are a connoisseur of great food and wine, this region of North West Italy is for you. Home of the slow food movement, the Langhe wine region, Ferrero Roche chocolates and the truffle, don’t expect to go home without some excess baggage, both in your luggage and round your waste!
90 minutes from Milan Malpensa airport, (or even less from Turin airport), we were soon in Alba, the heart of the Langhe area. The scenery is stunning, the Alps out of one car window follow you all the way there, the land before them gently rolling, a geometric patchwork of vines in perfect rows and hazelnut trees in neat fields – every inch of land is covered.
The perfect base for a recce of the wine region, Alba is no distance from Barolo, Barbaseco, Asti and the Roero region, just across the river. Meaning you can try lusty reds, light fizz and minerally whites all in the same day! It’s also very foodie, housing some great restaurants where you can try the particular traditional food of the region, so expect lots of rabbit, veal, and nonna’s favourite plin pasta.
Once through the modern outskirts of Alba and in the confines of the old town, we abandoned the car and walked the narrow pedestrian streets to find a beautiful town, steeped in history. Those narrow streets open up into a lovely cobbled main street with big piazzas at either end. Piazza Risorgimento is home to the Romanesque Alba Cathedral with its 13th Century gothic campanile and an amazing interior of huge stone arches holding up the vaulted ceiling, painted a stunning blue.
Also housing an elegant city hall, some cafes and a Michelin starred restaurant, this is the heart of the town. An after dinner perambulate finds the locals playing bingo, strolling, enjoying the warm evening and a natter. This is typical of all the little hilltop towns and villages in the area – there are at least two enormous churches and a castle perched at the centre of a communal area, showing what’s been important to the people over the centuries.
Wandering the streets we found the other main square, where we enjoyed our traditional first day boozy lunch and discovered the flinty whites from Roero which would become a theme of our trip. Sitting out in the sunny square of this elegant town, we have the conversation we always have on day one – ‘we could live here. Why don’t we live here?’!
Exploring the Langhe Region
This being the most renowned wine region ever, we had planned some wine tasting experiences in advance. There are so many wineries, big and small, ancient family run and new and innovative, which means you would do well to get some advice and choose your poison in advance – red, white, hearty or minerally, at least. We wanted to try the big reds, made from the Nebbiolo grape, so had arranged, via the wonderful host at our Alba B&B, to visit a famous, traditional family run winery in Barolo – E. Pira e Figli.
The amazing Chiara Boschis has made a name for herself as one of the ‘Barolo Boys’, encouraging the locals to go organic on the land and constantly innovating – not easy when some of the wine houses have been doing things the same way for generations. We had a great tour of the cellars and a tasting of four different wines. You will generally pay around €15-25 for a tasting which will be waived if you buy some wine. They will ship home for you, too. We booked a taxi for this excursion as we’d be having a drink – though the Italians couldn’t really understand why, there was little chance of getting caught! So we took full advantage and enjoyed a great long lunch and put our new found wine knowledge to good use.
As with most Italian regions, Piedmont has its own traditional cuisine which you’ll find on all menus. For anti pasti there’s Carne Cruda which is raw ground beef. Tajarin is the traditional long thin past made using a huge number of rich local eggs, served with a rich ragu and truffle shavings. Agnolotti del plin is small ravioli stuffed with deliciousness, often veal though I enjoyed a couple of different types. Then, of course, there’s the usual delicious dolce or a gelato for dessert! Once you’ve tried the traditional delicacies you’ll be ready to try something a little different and there are plenty of amazing restaurants to choose from, you really can’t go wrong – Alba hosts the Michelin starred Piazza Duomo and, featuring the same chef there is the slightly more reasonably priced La Piola and a good number of great alternatives which won’t break the bank. We were expecting to pay fortunes for the good vino too and were pleasantly surprised that you could get a really good Nebbiolo for €20 – 25.
There are some beautiful villages which exemplify this amazing region; Neive, La Morra, Roddi, Verduno, Montforte d’Alba. Popped up on the tops of hills, offering amazing views of the surrounding landscape, they all have huge baroque churches at their heart and an individual personality. Each is lovely to stroll around, grab a gelato or lunch, pop up a campanile and breathe in the view off to the Alps. La Morra is a little larger and has a great big piazza with stunning views at its centre, Neive is probably the most charming and had a great fair selling local produce and crafts on the day we visited. None of them take terribly long to take in as they are so tiny, but well worth a visit.
Barolo is the centre of the wine universe. It’s really tiny to be such, just one main street ending in the Castello Comunale Falletti di Barolo. But it also contains a huge number of wineries and the surrounding countryside produces some of the world’s best known wine on its gentle slopes.
After a few days enjoying the delightful villages within half an hour of Alba, we headed for a change of scenery – the beautiful lakes – and it was lovely to have the water on our doorstep. Lake Maggiore is the more popular lake in the region, big and blingy, but we headed to the lesser known Lago d’Orta, a quieter and totally charming option. Leaving our car outside the town to head into the narrow pedestrian streets, Orta San Giulio is a tiny town with a lot to offer. Right on the water’s edge with stunning views of the mountains on the far side and of San Giulio island, this is also home to the UNESCO site of Sacri Monte, a trail of 20 chapels dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi spread in the woods above Lake Orta. The tiny pedestrian street our B&B is on, leads to a piazza which opens out on to the water, with a small marina where boats head off to the island.
September is perfect. There were some day trippers so the boats were a little busy at peak times, but when they had headed home it was lovely to wander the quiet streets and plot our night out. There are a couple of great bars serving small plates of nibbles with your drinks, a perfect start to the evening. We enjoyed a roof top view of the lake from a swanky bistro one evening but otherwise opted for street side enotecas serving amazing spreads of meat, cheese, bread and Mediterranean delights where the locals sit well in to the evening sharing and chatting.
We jumped on a boat to visit the island. The boats are every fifteen minutes which gives you a clue how big the island is. It’s very beautiful and peaceful with a silence and meditation trail round the monastery. There are a handful of restaurants but really you visit for the stunning views of the lake and back across to Orta San Giulio. From the garden of our B&B we could jump in the lake, so beautiful and refreshing to swim in on a hot day. Those less lazy than us hired kayaks or paddle boards to enjoy the water.
Stressa, on Lake Maggiore, is just 30 minutes away from Lago d’Orta. The big and glitzy neighbour is renowned for the large Art Deco hotels which line the wide, tree lined promenade. Lake Maggiore is beautiful, glittering in the sunlight as you wind down the hillside. It’s surrounded by mountains and huge – stretching off in all directions so you can’t see all of it from any one spot.
Stressa is the jumping off point to the lovely Borromean islands – three small islands of just 50 acres altogether. Isola Dei Pescatori is home to the fishing village and is best visited at lunchtime for the great seafood restaurants. Isola Bella has been turned from a barren rock into a vast ornate palace with a huge, eccentric garden, including a theatre and peacocks. Though the boats get busy at peak times, the islands are well worth a visit, the palace and gardens (€17) are quite something and take up the time between breakfast and lunch, so you can enjoy one of the splendid restaurants with a stunning lake view.
So, I hope we’ve whetted your appetite for this glorious region.
Some top tips: September is a great time to visit. The heat is lovely, 25-26 degrees most days, but the crowds have gone and the vineyards are at their most beautiful, full of russet and gold. Be wary of October, truffle festival season, as the towns really fill up.
Driving is straightforward, the roads and connections are great and you can get to lots of beautiful places in a short time with a car, to really get a flavour of the area. It would also be a fabulous place to cycle round, if that’s your thing. There are lots of tours which looked great fun – with an electric bike maybe, its pretty hilly!
Book a wine tour in advance to avoid disappointment, a few days should do it for a September visit. The regional enoteca’s are a great way to try the local wine otherwise, there is one in each area showcasing the best on offer.
If you would like to know more about Piedmont and how to travel it in style, why not drop us a line and we’ll be happy to share our experience and help you plan a suitable trip. Otherwise, leave your thoughts below, we’d love to hear from you.