Piedmont occupies the northwestern corner of Italy, nestled along the edge of the Alps (hence its name, which literally means "foothill"). Its capital is a renowned industrial center (see Turin), but this is largely a rural area of tiny alpine villages, gently rolling hills and broad fertile farmlands. A gourmand's paradise, it produces many of Italy's great red wines, along with the best tartufi (white truffles) in the world. Sample them in October, in practically any restaurant or trattoria in the Langhe region, centered around Alba, a medieval town with several impressive towers.
In the vicinity of Alba, stop in Roddi to sip some sparkling dolcetto in its lovely main square. Then go on to Cherasco, where the imposing bastions of the fortress contrast sharply with the extravagant baroque Belvedere Arch. Across the Tanaro River, a beautiful belltower hovers over the piazza of Monforte, where you'll want to see the baroque oratory of S. Elisabetta church. Just a few miles away is the town of Barolo, which gave its name to one of the world's great red wines. Farther on is La Morra, a fan-shaped medieval town offering panoramic views across the vineyards. On the outskirts of town, visit the former Benedictine abbey at S. Martino di Mercenasco.
To the north of the Langhe is Monferrato, an area known for its castles, its delicate fried foods and its sparkling white wines. Asti is the headquarters for the latter; a few miles north is Villadeati, worth visiting to see its breathtaking castle. This is the edge of Italy's rice country. From Vercelli to Novara you'll drive through a veritable sea of green, centered around the town of Arborio. Nearby, in Rovasenda, is one of the most spectacular castles you'll ever see. Lovely frescoes adorn the S. Silvano abbey in Romagnano.
Head eastward now, to Ivrea, gateway to the Alps. It has a fine romanesque cathedral and forboding castle. As you continue on to Piedmont's northeastern border, you'll be climbing into the foothills toward Carema, a picturesque fortress town built right into the rocks. Outside of Strambino is beautiful Valperga castle, which hosts the remains of Arduino d'Ivrea, who in 1002 was Italy's first king.
As you complete the circle and head back to Piedmont's southeastern corner, you'll want to stop in Chieri to see the lovely cathedral and baptistery. Acqui Terme is a spa town with an imposing romanesque cathedral and cloister, dominated by a hilltop fortress. Gavi also has a fortress, and its cathedral has an unusual relief of the Last Supper on its façade.
Experience Piedmont at a leisurely pace, wandering slowly from town to town, stopping to visit castles or hillside shrines. The people will welcome you with their warmth, but most of all with their extraordinary cooking. Plan to take a few hikes so you can absorb the peaceful silence of the vineyards, but mostly just to walk off all the calories.
Hiking and Biking in PiedmontHiking: Piedmont's Best Antidote to Truffles and Wine
There are loads of places to hike in this region, be they along steep, narrow mountain paths or across flowery fields. Here are some that offer something for every traveler:
Cross the Monte Rosa Animal Reserve. This easy, three-hour walk gives you a wonderful opportunity to see mountain sheep, deer, beavers, eagles and other fauna that live in the beautiful park.
Climb Mount Mombarone. When you get to the top (the round-trip hike lasts 4 hours), you'll be rewarded with a view that extends across the Alpi Marittime to Monte Rosa and the Po Valley beyond.
Hike Around the Lakes. Starting at Chialamberto, this trek takes an entire day, but the many different kinds of landscapes and the breathtaking views make it worthwhile.
Explore the Sesia Valley. Many protected trails strike out from the exquisitely preserved mountain village of Rima. For information and maps about routes encompassing all levels of difficulty, contact the Comunità Montana Val Sesia at Corso Roma 5 in Varallo Sesia.Cycling Through the Sesia Valley
If you're driving through Piedmont with your bike in tow, here's a wonderful route along a beautiful wooded trail (intermediate level difficulty). Starting in the town of Varallo Sesia, drive about 7 miles west along highway 299 until you reach the village of Piode. Here, to the left of the highway you'll see a bridge that crosses the Sesia River. Take the first paved road on the left after the bridge and park your car at the end of the paved section. The dirt bike path that originates here travels about 10 miles with very little change in elevation and no fear of straying. You'll be able to pedal all the way to the summit of Alpe Meggiana, where there's a comfortable rifugio (mountain hut) with plenty of drinking water. Return to your car along the same trail, which is open from June to September.
Piedmont's Lake District
Most people associate Italy's lakes with Lombardia or the Veneto, but Piedmont's share is just as beautiful. It includes the delightfully picturesque lake of Orta and the whole western half of Lake Maggiore, centered around the lovely town of Arona. Stop in here at the local tourist office (Piazzale Stazione) for maps of trails that lead around the lake. If you enjoy beautiful gardens, Stresa is the town for you. On the road from Arona is the Villa Pallavicino (open March-October, 9-6), glorious example of the art of blending manicured gardens with spontaneous local foliage. North of town is another magnificent garden, the 50-acre Villa Taranto (open April-October, 8:30-6:30). From the landing stage in town, take a traghetto (ferry) over to the Isole Borromeo.
Because these three islands are so different from each other, it's worth visiting them all. Isola Bella, the nearest, is occupied mainly by Palazzo Borromeo, whose formally terraced gardens are open from April through October. The largest island, Isola Madre, has perhaps the most spectacular gardens of the whole area. It is a subtropical paradise (open April-October). Isola dei Pescatori, the third island, is a charming fishermen's village.
Lake Orta is a tiny jewel compared to Lake Maggiore, but it is utterly enchanting. The hills and mountains are closer here, and somehow this lends a fairy-tale atmosphere to the villages surrounding the water. The nicest is Orta San Giulio, whose pretty little town hall has a frescoed façade and whose narrow streets are lined with rococo homes. From here, take a ferry (or row your own rowboat) to the even more picturesque San Giulio Island. Pop into the 12th-century romanesque church to see its pulpit, one of the outstanding works of medieval sculpture in northern Italy.
Back in town, stroll up the hill from Piazza Motta until you reach the Sacro Monte, a flower-filled hillside dotted with 20 chapels dedicated to St. Francis. Begun in 1592 by a Capuchin architect, the chapels contain life-size marble tableaux vivants and frescoes showing scenes of the saint's life. Bring along some bread, cheese and wine for a most unforgettable picnic overlooking the lake. Or, if you're staying at a local hotel, ask them to pack a lunch for you.
A Day in The Savoy Capital
Of all the great cities in Italy, only Torino shows almost no sign of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, and barely a tip of the hat to ancient Rome. History seems to have begun here in the late eighteenth century, at a time when three great architects practically rebuilt this provincial capital from the ground up. Their work is visible all over, but nowhere more dramatically than in Piazza Castello, flanked by Amedeo di Castellamonte's Palazzo Reale, Guarino Guarini's church of San Lorenzo, and Filippo Juvarra's Palazzo Madama. These three men, especially Juvarra, made Turin an architecturally homogenous showpiece of the baroque and rococo.
From Piazza Castello, walk down Via Roma, the city's most elegant shopping street, until you come to lovely Piazza Carignano. Be here by 9 a.m., because you can easily spend the entire morning in the Palazzo dell'Accademia delle Scienze, home of the Museo Egizio, which for Egyptian artifacts is second only to the Archeological Museum in Cairo. On the floors above is the Galleria Sabauda, the excellent private collection of the Savoy Dukes, who became Italy's only royal family. Here you'll see a good number of fine Italian paintings, as well as Italy's best collection of Dutch and Flemish works. Even Turin's world-class museums are uniquely unItalian.
Nearby is Piazza San Carlo, one of Europe's finest squares. Stop for drinks or a sandwich in one of the cafes. Next, if you're interested in 19th- and 20th-century Italian art, particularly the Macchiaioli, fascinating precursors to the Impressionists, continue along Via Roma to the Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna at Via Magenta 31. Or you can retrace your steps to Piazza Castello and turn right, down Via Giuseppe Verdi. You'll immediately spot your destination, the Mole Antonelliana, a 500-foot-tall architectural pastiche built as a synagogue in 1863. From the viewing platform halfway up its façade (don't worry, an elevator whisks you there), you'll have a marvelous view of the city, starting from the Royal Gardens just below. If period furniture interests you, don't miss the rooms of the Savoy residence, the adjacent Royal Palace.
More treasures are within walking distance. A reproduction of the much disputed Holy Shroud is on view in the cathedral of San Giovanni, around the corner from Piazza Castello in Via XX Settembre. Even if you don't believe this was actually the cloth Jesus was wrapped in after He was removed from the cross, you'll probably enjoy the extraordinary baroque chapel Guarino Guarini designed to house it. Perhaps a more interesting church to visit is the Cappella dei Banchieri e Mercanti in Via Garibaldi (which also starts at Piazza Castello). This is a theme chapel, a baroque representation of the Christmas story as told by 17th-century artists on canvas and in marble.
Once again in Piazza Castello, lovers of antique weapons should visit the Armeria Reale, one of Europe's best arms museums. Car aficionados will want to see the Museo dell'Automobile in Corso d'Unità d'Italia (take bus #34 from the Porta Nuova train station in Corso Vittorio Emanuele II). Oh, and if you insist on seeing something medieval, visit the borgo medioevale in the Parco del Valentino. It was built in 1884, but it's an "authentic reproduction."
The Hunt for White October
It was a clear, crisp October morning when we gathered in Alba's Piazza Savona. "We" were 5 American gastronomes ready to embark on one of Piedmont's most sacred yet secret rituals: the hunt for white truffles. We boarded a small van and headed into the countryside. Our destination was a muddy spot on the side of a narrow road in the heart of Le Langhe, as the hills around Alba are known. Beside the road we met Aldo, a seventy-something trifolau, and his dog Bianca.
Although Aldo is well on in years, we five middle-aged Americans had trouble keeping up with him as he pushed through dense underbrush, ankle-deep in mud. Bianca led the way, dashing over hill and dale as Aldo shouted commands in the Albanese dialect. Soon we were deep in woods so dense it seemed the sun had disappeared. The terrain became more rugged and we felt as though we were always headed straight up or down. About an hour into our run, Aldo shouted to us that Bianca had stopped running and started digging. Aldo caught up with her and joined in the digging with both his hand and walking stick. Seconds later, he lifted a large, muddy clump above his head. Bianca had found the prize: a white truffle of excellent size and shape.
Our morning with Aldo continued as it began, with the Americans constantly out of breath, Bianca leading the way to more truffles. The expedition was quite successful, yielding 6 good truffles with a wholesale market value of about $700. But despite our joy, Aldo preferred to keep matters to himself. When we encountered two other trifolau and their dogs in a clearing, Aldo quickly told us to say we had had a bad morning and found nothing. Clearly, he didn't want his competitors to discover his favorite hunting grounds.
The rigors of an actual truffle hunt are not for everyone and in fact are rarely witnessed by outsiders. Fortunately, there are many less strenuous and more accessible ways to sample the gastronomic joy of the white truffle. I first fell in love with white truffles at a dinner at Valentino Ristorante in Los Angeles. Owner Piero Selvaggio arranged a dinner in honor of the wines of Pio Cesarem, one of the leading houses of Piemonte (the region where Italy's most famous red wines are produced). The owner of the winery brought with him fresh white truffles, which Piero incorporated into a lavish menu. Other restaurants in this country obtain truffles during the season, but few handle them with more skill or creativity than Valentino.
Truffles are best enjoyed, however, when eaten in Piemonte. The opportunities to partake are numerous. During the season, every restaurant will have truffles on the menu. My choice of best restaurant is Il Vicoletto in Alba. Located on a quiet side street, it is the product of Ilvia Bonino and Bruno Boggione, a husband-and-wife team of extraordinary talent. The shy Ilvia runs the kitchen, while gregarious Bruno runs the dining room and oversees the wine cellar. Special dishes from Ilvia's kitchen include Jerusalem artichoke flan, roast squab with truffles and parmigiano, and torrone semifreddo with chocolate sauce. Bruno's wine list is top-notch and reasonably priced. The dining room is simple but warm and elegant.
Alba offers lots of options for taking home the truffle experience. Shops lining the main street carry not only truffle olive oil but also truffle puree (necessary for truffle risotto, among other things), truffle mayonnaise, whole truffles, truffle pasta and many other items. And one final stop in Alba is the Sacco Pasticceria, which offers hand-made chocolate truffles in both dark and light varieties. The chocolate truffles are flavored with the world's finest hazelnuts, grown locally. Delicious hazelnut cakes made according to the local traditional recipe are also available.
Alba does not offer much in the way of interesting hotels, although the Hotel Savona (on the piazza of the same name) is quite adequate. For the more demanding traveler, try the Locanda del Sant'Uffizio in Cioccaro di Penango, a farming village half an hour north of Alba by car. A family-run operation, the inn is located in a former Benedictine monastery to which several new wings have been added. The rooms have tiled floors, antique furniture and views of the surrounding vineyards, which are the source of the inn's own wines. There is a beautiful swimming pool, a tennis court and a modest health club. The restaurant serves exceptional piemontese cuisine, with particular emphasis on truffles when in season. Recent dinners have featured pheasant terrine with black and white truffles, fried quail eggs atop polenta with white truffles, sauteed squid and porcini mushrooms and all types of pasta topped with white truffles. The house-made lemon grappa is a good way to end the evening before walking to your room for bed.A Visit to Serralunga Castle
The Spaniards, Saracens, Goths and others coveting the fertile Barolo wine lands never succeeded in entering Serralunga castle. These days you'll be welcomed and you'll get an unexpected treat. Your guide, a signora with a macabre sense of humor and a deep knowledge of this massive fortress, will fascinate you with wicked quips on the unique architectural features that made it impregnable.
My question for our cooking tour group was "Find the toilet and tell us why it's one of a kind." (No, the answer isn't at the bottom: you'll have to go and find out for yourself!).
Built in the 1200's by the Falletti family for defence, the castle crowns the hilltop town of Serralunga. Its 1.8-metre thick walls and specially designed stairs, towers, floors and windows all impeded access. For example, the tower is divided by floors without staircases. The signora points out the drawbridge and platform where residents stood to throw boiling oil on enemies. In the kitchen, at the two huge fireplaces where pots and utensils still hang, she says the big mallet was used to cure headaches; one hit on the head did it. Off to one side of the vast banquet room is a small frescoed corner for praying. She remarks that then, as now, people liked eating more than praying. The eighteen window covers on the top floor open slightly so that defenders could shoot enemies without being seen. I suggest you open the windows wide for a spectacular 360-degree panorama.
Driving around the Barolo wine country, sampling truffle-topped dishes at one restaurant after another, it's easy to forget other sights, but whatever you do, don't miss out on Serralunga castle.
Unforgettable Food & Wine in Piedmont - Home of the white truffle, some exquisite cheeses and most of Italy's great red wines, this region is dotted with all manner of good eating establishments, from the tiniest "Granny's kitchen" to the most renowned (and expensive).