It’s no small feat to take a vacation these days. Rescheduling travel arrangements have become commonplace, as I found enduring cancelations and spending hours on the phone rebooking with travel agents. The climate was right, however, in 2022 for a trip overseas as countries began easing their travel bans, lifting mandates for “non-essential travel,” and dropping lengthy quarantines. I was ready to head to the foothills of northern Italy, known as the Piedmont region.
As the summer kicked off, I watched the news as reports announced massive flight cancellations, with claims of staffing shortages and weather-related issues. The 2020 pandemic still left its mark on world economies trying to recover, with travel industries hit the hardest. Traveling with friends and family, we braced ourselves for the worst. Any leg of the trip could be disrupted, so we discussed how to prepare for possible setbacks which inevitably came.
Like most airlines, United struggled to keep original schedules for its passengers. An email notified us that our route had been changed. Our new flight itinerary had us bouncing back and forth across the United States. We had been rerouted to Los Angeles from Las Vegas. From Los Angeles, we flew to Denver, Denver to New York, and New York to Europe.
Our connection in Los Angeles posed a problem. We had less than 30 minutes to connect to our flight. There was no guarantee that we would make it on time. Airlines were experiencing frequent delays. Once we disembarked from the plane, we had to consider how much time it would take to walk from the arrival gate to the departure gate. Even United noted on their webpage that they could not guarantee checked luggage would make connecting flights that had a 30-minute or less window. So we were compelled to wait on the phone again while we booked a more reasonable schedule.
We were lucky. Another couple joining us at our final destination sent a text with disturbing news. Their flight on Air Canada was canceled 24 hours before their departure. Could they even make the trip? Their travel plans became a lot more complicated as they searched for a solution that involved nine hours on the phone with Expedia.com and other airlines. Eventually, they made it, but not without a crazy route that included a 12-hour layover in Vienna and a three-hour drive to our destination city. They were determined travel buddies! It was no secret that taking a trip overseas could turn into a big hassle but we were all nomads at heart.
Italy had been on the radar for some time. It had a special attraction for my husband, Jim. He was a wine enthusiast and a winery near Alba, Italy carried his surname. It was my task to organize an itinerary for a region I had never visited, placing us strategically by a handful of wineries. Google Maps was a great tool to understand the drive times involved for the places we wanted to see. Little did I know that my choices would put us in the heart of Barolo wine country.
Turin was a good starting point for our adventure. It sat at the northernmost end of wine country and as the capital of Piedmont, was a large commercial and cultural center. It had several historic sights to check out from cathedrals to palaces dating as far back as the sixteenth century and it was one of the best places to try Piedmontese food.
A network of trains ran from Venice, our arrival city, to Turin. A Frecciarossa or fast train would get us there in three and a half hours. Booking our tickets on ItaliaRail.com was fast and easy. A confirmation email along with a PNR code to show the conductor that we had purchased tickets made our transportation hassle-free. Masks were still required while on the train; however, they were not required in the train terminals. Go figure!
Turin had many culinary surprises for us. It is the birthplace of Vermouth, and we found local bars thrilled to introduce their collection. Customary as an aperitivo (aperitif), we enjoyed a pre-dinner drink and an antipasto on our first night in Turin. The Italians were generous with their appetizers which are always served with a drink at no extra charge. A bowl of large green olives, a few cured meats, and bread was a great starter. The experience was at our hotel, the Turin Palace Hotel. After a long day of travel, going to the rooftop bar was a pleasant treat.
Outdoor seating afforded us great views of church steeples, domed cathedrals, picturesque red-tiled rooftops, and the Alps in the distance. Jim found his favorite Vermouth at the Turin hotel and later bought it at our local liquor store. Served straight up and chilled, it was satisfying on a hot day. During the next two days, we easily fell into a routine, starting out with a sumptuous breakfast in the dining room, sightseeing during the day, and finally relaxing with a drink at night.
Touring on our own, we pulled up our Google maps, finding Turin’s handful of sights near the hotel. There was a cafe that made a unique coffee I was determined to try called a Bicerin. Mixed with local chocolate and whipped cream, it sounded like heaven. The Caffe San Carlo was noted by both bloggers and travel books as a great place to try the coffee. Sadly, the coffee house was closed permanently. Was it a victim of the pandemic?
Information on the internet could be sketchy, so I quickly resorted to our hotel staff to recommend dining options. The front desk booked a local trattoria nearby, Trattoria Alle Volte. When we arrived, we were greeted with a warm “Buon Giorno”. The waiter led us down narrow stairs to the wine vault. Tables were set up by the wines, and our friend Dave asked, “why were we sitting here?” With a smile and a twinkle in his eye, our waiter declared that the hotel insisted that they find a table where cooler air was running (if that isn’t service, I don’t know what is!).
Most of Europe was experiencing a heat wave and the only room that had an air conditioner was the wine cellar. We were very appreciative. We started off with a refreshing Aperol Spritz, a popular summer drink in Europe. Then we ordered the Agnolotti al Sugo d’ Arrosto along with the Tagliolini Fatti in Casa al Ragu, the Pork in a creamy sauce, and the Steak filet. The Agnolotti is a traditional Piedmontese staple. It looks like a miniature ravioli. The Agnolotti was stuffed with meat. Lightly roasted meat juice was drizzled over the pasta.
Piedmont recipes are not your ordinary Italian food. Influenced by the French(one of the Kings of Turin married a princess from France and the fact that Piedmont borders France), I noticed more creamy concoctions than tomato-based foods. We passed our plates around, opting for a family-style approach. It helped to maximize our culinary experience and save us on the bill!
I was up early the following morning and saw a text on my phone from Lisa. The day was filled with sightseeing and she wanted to pick up tickets at the Egyptian Museum before they ran out. It was one attraction we didn’t want to miss. The museum claimed to have the world’s second-largest collection of artifacts. Time slots were allocated to the ticket holders and masks were required according to the information posted on their website.
We left our husbands and made our way through town, walking past businesses yet to open for the day. Passing through the spacious Piazza San Carlo, we found the museum one block over to the right. When we got up to the ticket window, the attendant waved off our concerns about limited times. Our tickets were good for all day. So real-time information seemed to be at odds with information over the internet. The requirement for masks noted on the museum’s website was no longer enforced.
The Mole Antonelliana, another attraction on our itinerary, was a different story. Claiming a spectacular view of the city, we wanted to check it out. The elevator ride, taking folks to the top of the building, was restricted, requiring visitors to wear a KK2 mask. The type of masks we brought were the N95. They were not acceptable. We ended up not going inside.
We headed for the Royal Palace of Turin, hoping entry would be easier. The Palace was built for the Dukes of Savoy in the 1600s and once housed the Shroud of Turin. Masks were no longer required but encouraged. Visitors were put into a timed queue to walk through the palace. Only a few visitors were standing in line, so we were able to enter within minutes. I wondered if Sunday was typically a slow day. We proceeded up a grand marble staircase, walking into the first room. The rooms were elaborate, decked out in gold, crystal, and velvet with parquet flooring. Murals were painted on the ceilings, and an armory displayed knights poised on horses. Each room was more breathing-taking than the last. This is an attraction that should be on everyone’s list!
On the third day, we headed out of Turin in a rented car. With Maps open on his cell phone, Dave navigated the narrow roads of downtown Turin and merged onto a four-lane highway. I watched out the window as we passed a group of abandoned buildings and a monorail that were once used for the 2006 Winter Olympics. The structures had an eerie presence as they stood abandoned, vines growing on them. I couldn’t help but recollect that this wasn’t the first time that I had seen signs of neglect. Parts of downtown Turin had frequent stretches of graffiti-marked buildings. We were baffled by this display of vandalism. It didn’t make sense as I watched shopkeepers wash down the sidewalks in front of their shops and women watering flower beds. They appeared proud of their city. Active caretakers of public property. Why was this city facing such abuse?
Leaving Turin, we took backroads and saw farms with fields of corn and other crops. Small vineyards began to appear along with hazelnut trees that lined up like toy soldiers as they marched away from the roadside. Nutella is made from hazelnuts and is one of Italy’s biggest exports. It seemed like we were in the “bread basket” of Italy. Ahead of us was an hour’s drive to Alba d’ Serralunga. We would stay there for two nights, learning about the Nebbiolo grape and its contribution to Barolo wine.
Le Case dei Conti Mirafiore in the Village of Narrante (a few miles from Alba d’ Serralunga) served as a great location to stay while we explored nearby wineries. In the heart of Barolo wine-making country, we didn’t need to drive far to some of the top wineries in Piedmont. The village alone had a remarkable history. It was built in the 1800s by King Vittorio Emanuele II’s son to house workers on the King’s estate. We stayed in one of the historic buildings recently renovated where rooms were furnished with built-in wine coolers. Private outdoor patios extended from the bedrooms with views of vineyards cascading down surrounding hills. It was a great place to relax with a glass of wine.
Driving on our own wasn’t without a few challenges. Finding the village was a bit tricky. The route suddenly disappeared on Dave’s App. My husband pulled up another map but got the same results. Cell reception was intermittent, driving in and around folds of vine-covered hills. We drove further into the countryside past vineyards and a few colorful buildings that hugged the road. Turning the car around, we decided to stop at a hotel and ask for directions. I was a little concerned that we would face a language barrier. I had only studied a few polite words before the trip and my friends were in the same boat. If we got into a bind, we would need to resort to Google Translate.
Within minutes Lisa and Jim emerged from the building, laughing. I asked, “what was so funny?” Lisa explained the proprietor was hilarious. In expressive, heavily accented English he gestured with his hands, claiming, “You can’t miss the property. There is a sign in large individual letters like HOLLYWOOD with a statue of giant grapes at the entrance!” The letters spelled out Fontanafredda, the winery where the village was located. Of course, we were looking for the name Le Case dei Conti Mirafiore.
Fontanafredda had a long history of wine-making. The land was bought by King Vittorio Emanuele in 1858 as a gift to his wife or so he claimed. He really wanted to produce his own Barolo wine (doesn’t seem like men have changed much). Over the years and under different ownerships, Fontanafredda Barolo gained many accolades. Wine Spectator put their Barolo on the Top 100 in 2012. The winery was awarded European Winery of the Year in 2017 and in 2018 two of its Barolos scored 95 and 94 in Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.
Fontanafredda was just the beginning. We had made reservations at two additional wineries. Quickly unpacking our suitcases at the hotel and knowing how easy it was for us to get lost driving, Jim insisted that we hire a taxi to take us on our continued adventure. It was a smart move. We relaxed while our friendly driver managed the roads. The next winery was recommended through a connection back home.
Weeks before traveling to Italy, Jim and I had been dining at our favorite restaurant, Gaetano’s Ristorante. Nick the owner came over to say hello and ask how things were going. It was common practice for Nick to be in the restaurant. We were regulars and conversation flowed easily. Jim asked what wine would he recommend for the meal that night and Nick replied that he had just visited Sicily and had a bottle of great Sicilian wine. I then mentioned that we were visiting the Piedmont region of Italy. Nick perked up and asked, “are you staying in Alba?” I, too, became surprised and said, “yes!”
“I have a winery for you to visit, Pio Cesare. Let me see if I can get you a reservation.” From there, “the contact” was made.
In nearby Alba, we drove up to Pio Cesarea, its outer walls extending an entire block. Built like a fortress, there were two separate doors built into the wall. I walked up to the nearest one and knocked on the thick, dark wood. There was no response. A woman poked her head out of a second-story window that towered over the wall. Curious about the newcomers, she wanted to see what was going on. Our driver, speaking in rapid Italian, informed her that we were there for a tour. She waved her hand towards another door further along the wall. Ringing the doorbell, it immediately opened.
A thin man named Silvio greeted us warmly as we walked into a courtyard. After introductions were made, he began to explain the layout of the winery. Offices occupied the outer wall, while a private residence across the courtyard housed Frederica and her family, the owner and fifth generation of the winery. Pio Cesare was a 150-year-old winery.
We were escorted down into cavernous tunnels, where our guide proudly pointed out an exposed Roman wall. Alba was built on remnants of a 2000-year-old Roman settlement. Large wooden barrels were lined along the walls and held Barolo wine, one of five appellations that Piedmont is known for. Barolo, made from the Nebbiolo grape, is required to adhere to strict producing methods. In order for the wine to be labeled Barolo, it can only be grown in the Barolo region of Piedmont. The wine is released no less than three years after being put into the barrel.
Further along the tunnels, Silvio showed us an old conveyor belt. Wine bottles were once hoisted out of the vaults before elevators were invented. We walked up to a large rack where hundred-year-old bottles sat revealing an age gone by. The labels printed so long ago hadn’t changed that much.
Climbing out of the lower levels of the winery, we headed for the tasting room. Family photos, books, certificates of recognition, and awards covered the brick and stucco walls. Sitting at a nicely appointed table, we listened to Silvio’s explanation of each wine. I found the red wine to be high in tannins, full-bodied, and acidic. This was not a wine to drink by itself. Our host along with locals we talked to stressed that Barolo was a wine to drink with a meal. It becomes velvety smooth the longer it is held. Seven to ten years are considered prime aging periods for the wine.
Pio Cesare has tastings arranged by appointment only. Reservations are a common practice in the Piedmont area. Most of the wineries are family-run and are not set up for large numbers of day trippers dropping in for wine tasting. This made for a wonderful private experience with the winery open only to our small group. Our tasting launched us into appreciating the Barolo wine. For more information check out https://www.piocesare.it/en/
Our next stop was the CaViola Winery. It had my husband’s surname, so he was curious to find out if there was a connection to his father’s family. CaViola was located 30 minutes away in Dogliani. We traveled up steep hills where vineyards could be seen for miles. I caught glimpses of fortified castles, standing like sentinels on top of the hills. There were so many of them! How many kingdoms were there? I wondered.
The car swung us around a bend and suddenly dipped into the lush green folds of the farms. The land was vibrant and plentiful. I was glad we decided to pay for a taxi. The roads were curvy and narrow. Locating the CaViola winery wasn’t easy. After three attempts to locate the estate, (again navigation maps were not helping) my husband handed over his phone to the driver insisting that he talk to the winery for directions. A string of Italian was spoken and finally, the driver handed the cell phone back with a smile of relief. He knew where to go.
The CaViola Winery was on a beautiful estate. A large manor stood beside the processing facility. We were greeted by the owner’s daughter, who guided us into dark, cool rooms where the wine barrels were stored. The winery is relatively new, beginning in 1991. Only producing about 55,000 bottles a year, it ships to the United States, Japan, and Canada. The Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo grapes are grown on the estate. Monica explained the business in her heavily accented English. Leading us through a few rooms, we ended up in the tasting room.
As we sat tasting the delicious red wine, an unexpected visitor charged into the room seeking shelter under our table. It was a Goldendoodle pup. Looking for treats, he nudged our legs for attention. I couldn’t resist giving him part of my breadstick. Monica continued to explain the notes of oak present in the wine until we were interrupted again. A little girl appeared looking for the dog. He had escaped her care and she was there to apprehend the offender. Running the CaViola winery was definitely a family affair.
Guiseppe Caviola later showed up to find out who this other Caviola might be. A brief discussion ensued about the origins of each family. Jim’s ancestors originated in the south of Italy while Guiseppe’s were in the north. It was possible that a branch broke away but like many things in history, family stories became lost. Searching for his roots only left my husband with more questions.
Arriving back at Le Case dei Conti Mirafiore, we enlisted the help of the staff in booking reservations for dinner. They did an excellent job. More e Macine, located in the nearby village of La Morra, created the most beautiful dishes I had ever seen.
We were seated outside on a rooftop patio. The waiter brought a chalk-board menu whose entrees changed daily. Written in Italian, David pulled up his GoogleTranslate to decipher the words. When in Rome…it was time to learn more Italian. In a few minutes, we figured out what Fegato meant. Liver! Another waiter appeared and asked in English if he could help. With relief, we all said yes!
We had to try what the locals were ordering. Four antipasti, two Primi, and two Secondi later, we felt that we had a good representation of the local fare as we passed our plates around, sampling the food. For the antipasti, the Cheesecake di Piselu (ricotta & peas) was creamy, cool, and refreshing. It was a perfect starter for the unseasonably hot days. We enjoyed the Seppia, Patate, Olive, and Sedano (Cuttlefish, potato, olive & celery). The local fish featured on the menu had a strong, pungent taste. The Risotto with mushroom was delicious!
As the evening progressed, more folks arrived until the patio was packed, and the indoor tables were mostly occupied. My gaze fell on a young man and woman as they wrestled with their golden retriever sitting beside their table. Like a restless child, the dog wasn’t allowing the couple to have an uninterrupted meal. To my left, another patron snuck morsels of food to her Jack Russell. Yes, Italy was very dog friendly, and it was common to see a pet or two or three at a restaurant. I smiled inwardly as I thought of my dog at home safely in the care of a family member.
The surrounding buildings and the road below grew somber and quiet as the landscape darkened to a midnight blue. A few lights twinkled in the distance. The evening ended with an order of dessert and Digestivos. My praise goes out to the Tiramasu. L’ Amaro Desgena Barabao was a hit with the guys. As I looked across into the stillness of the night, I felt as if we were the only people on earth happy and content.
The following morning, Stefano with Albawinetours.com picked us up at the hotel for a day tour through wine country. I liked his itinerary. It was mixed with tastings at selected wineries that included short walks through some of the many medieval towns that populated the Barolo region.
We began our tour in the town of Barolo. Stefano, parked in front of a coffee house. As I stepped out of the van, I noticed a few locals were sitting on the patio, enjoying an espresso. Jim and Stefano decided to order a coffee while our friends and I explored the cobblestone street that weaved its way toward a castle. We were experiencing la dolce vita (the sweet life). Why hurry on such a beautiful day?
Castello Falletti di Barolo dominated the landscape as it towered over the small village. For a Tuesday, the town was exceptionally quiet. On exploring the cobblestone streets and tight-set buildings, I learned that only around 500 folks live permanently in Barolo. The village is a staging ground for wine enthusiasts with dozens of wine shops, tasting rooms, and restaurants. We were early in the season. Later during the wine harvest and white truffle hunts which Barolo is famous for, the town would swell with people.
The castle is a museum that features the history of Barolo wine-making. The wine took the name Barolo from the town where in the 1800s it became popular with the King. Today Barolo is referred to as “the King of Wines” because of the King’s preference for the wine.
In the cellars, local wines are featured and can be sampled for a few euros. Walking around the castle affords a bird’s-eye view of the town and the expansive vineyards that stretch to the horizon.
Next on the itinerary was Serralunga d’ Alba. This medieval town had a commanding view of the expansive landscape below as it sat on a pinnacle. A thousand hills spanned toward the horizon with lush, green vineyards and colorful farmsteads. We walked and listened to Stefano’s narration of the town and its many wineries nearby. Again, a castle stood at Serralunga’s highest point. Walking around its base, we enjoyed different views of the countryside.
At around 11:00, we arrived at Pira winery. Built into a hillside, the winery overlooked the vineyards below. As we entered the building, a balcony overlooking the farm beckoned us. We never tired of gazing at the green patchwork of grape vines. Family-run and operated, the owner’s daughter led us to the start of the wine-making process. Steel tanks lined a wall and began the fermentation process. We walked further into the winery and saw steel barrels that held Dolcetto wine. Walking deeper into the hillside, we came across barrels of oak that were filled with Barolo and other reds.
Luigi Pira started the business in the 1950s. Only around 55,000 bottles of wine are produced yearly. We enjoyed tasting a few of their wines as we sat at tables prepared for us. More information on this winery can be found at https://www.piraluigi.it/en
By 1:00, we were ready for lunch. Stefano booked us an exceptional culinary experience at Agriturismo Iride in Roddino. Perched on a hill, the restaurant was a two-story manor surrounded by trees. It looked like the perfect place for a peaceful lunch. Mama Iride escorted us to tables under an awning overlooking the landscape below. As she brought out orders, balancing dishes on a tray, she was energized by our arrival, fluttering like a bird between patrons. Her son, Isaia, is the chef. The restaurant was another example of families working together.
Using farm-to-table ingredients, the food was delicious. Veal tartar, quail eggs, and raw salmon on a cheese puff were just some of the cuisine. Ravioli and steak followed with a hazelnut dessert to complete our meal. Lunches seem to be a big affair among the Italians. We concluded that our lunch would hold us over until the following day!
Temperatures continued to rise toward uncomfortable numbers. Stefano, concerned for our comfort, ran the van’s AC before we jumped back in to go to our final visit to a boutique winery, Stroppiana. We drove up to a home built into a hillside. A woman in a bright yellow cotton dress waved us down as she stood in front of her garage. She was the winemaker’s wife and enthusiastically greeted us. We walked into the lower part of the building which was the garage. It penetrated deep into the slope where we saw already bottled wine stacked in crates. The wine was processed off-site and the winemaker’s home was staged for tastings.
Truly a mom-and-pop business, we watched their son unload newly bottled wine off the flatbed of a trailer, deftly maneuvering his forklift. After a short explanation of labeling and sending the wine off to various buyers, we headed to the tasting room. Eager to showcase their wine, we ended up drinking 8 bottles. Finding ourselves a bit tipsy, we thought we were done for the night, but Stefano had one last place he insisted we visit. It broached the mystical.
We drove to La Morra. We were all feeling jovial and our senses were a bit fuzzy. We followed Stefano like lambs led by a shepherd into an ancient-looking church, The Parish of S. Martino. The hour was late and it was likely that the church was closed. Stefano pushed at the heavy wooden doors. They slowly swung inward. We stepped up into the main hall where I noticed one lone parishioner sitting on a wooden bench. The devout follower was in silent prayer. Stefano lowered his voice. We were asked to look around the walls and niches. Did we see anything unusual?
Comparing its humble exterior to its elaborate interior, I was surprised to see such wealth inside the church. Large paintings both framed along the walls and set into the high vaulted ceiling displayed scenes from the bible. Gilded trimmings, statues of angels, and saints made from marble occupied niches and alters along the walls. I noticed a statue of a woman holding a flame in her outstretched hand. She reminded me of the Statue of Liberty in New York City Harbor. Strange. I didn’t recall this person from Christian teachings. Further along the wall, a statue of two men interwinding their arms created Hilter’s swastika. What could it mean? The Knights Templar icon adorned the walls. A yellow cross stood at the altar. It was an odd mix of messages.
Stefano guessed that we had heard of the Knights Templar(made popular in books and movies). Their symbol was on every column above our heads. But what was up with the flame-holding woman?
During the 12th and 14th centuries, a community of Christians known as The Cathari or, in Greek, Katharoi (the pure ones) once practiced here. It was a Christian dualist or gnostic movement. Its followers believed in two gods. The good god (which they followed) was from the new testament and the Creator of the spiritual world. The evil god was the Creator of the physical world. What did the flame-holding lady represent? Stefano had one theory. The statue was erected as a reminder that because the evil god was the maker of the physical world, this god enlightened mankind with carnal knowledge while our spirit was kept in bondage inside our human form. The evil ways of man derived from this god. This religion was so obscure that we had a hard time wrapping our heads around it. Lisa was skeptical. She immediately pulled out her cell and started a search. The web had indeed information on this little-known religion.
In exploring the Piedmont region, there was much to digest for both body and soul. Humanity sought to make sense of the world back then and as it does today. I was simply happy enjoying the fruits of the land, acknowledging that it was hardworking folks like Silvio, Mama Iride, and Stefano who brought good wine to my table and hospitality to my heart.