On the Italian side of the alps you'll find Piemonte, the famous wine growing region of northern Italy nestled between the countries of Switzerland and France and the regions of Aosta, Liguria and Lombardia. If you wanted an adman's choice phrase for Piemonte's diverse landscape, perhaps you'd start with "Between the Alps and the vineyards and rice paddies..."
There is no question that the region is as diverse as it is beautiful. At times when you reach the crest of a hill in your rental car you'll be amazed that you seem to be floating above a sea of vines, especially if you are lucky enough to be wending your way through the major wine producing area called the Langhe, marked in purple on our map below.
The vines nurture white wine grapes called Arneis, Nascetta, Favorita, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay as well as the reds of Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Barbera, Freisa, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to name just the major ones. Pick the best Nebbiolo, age it well, and it might become Barolo DOC, the most famous wine of the region and considered the best of Italian reds.
Then there are the famous risotto rices grown near Vercelli (along with the frogs attracted to the water that rice grows in, celebrated in the Sagra della Rana held the first week in September), the famous truffles of Alba, Italy (and the world's) best chocolate, the 160 types of cheeses and Italy's treasure trove of herbs. By the time you have pursued the list of Piemonte's best you realize you're in a gourmet paradise small enough to explore easily by rental car.
But it's not all about food, either. History buffs will enjoy the historic forts guarding the border with France as well as monasteries like Sacro monte di Varallo near Lago di Orta and the Sacra di San Michele west of Torino.
Great food, great wine, lots of history and eye candy plus a major lake called, interestingly enough, Lago Maggiore; how can you not want to spend a month in Piemonte?
Starting in the north, you know Lago Maggiore, a prime resort lake, especially for folks coming from Milano in Lombardia for the weekend. The smaller lake to the west, Lago di Orta or Lake Orta, was named one of the top romantic places in Italy by Martha of Martha's Italy. An alternative to the larger Lake Como, it's far more enchanting.
The Sacro Monte di Varallo, just west of the lakes, is the oldest of the sacred mountain monasteries, founded by Bernardino Calmi in 1491. Volunteers can take you through the site on a one hour tour. There is a walking trail to the monastery from the Vecchio Albergo Sacro Monte; it takes 35 minutes.
Domodossola is the end point of the famous Centovalli scenic train ride, which starts in Locarno, Switzerland and passes through the Simplon tunnel, ending up in Domodossola. Here's a description of the trip, which is covered by your Eurail Pass:
On the ride between Domodossola and Locarno you can see gushing waterfalls, vineyards, chestnut forests and villages that time forgot, roll by your window. Unspoiled landscapes and lush vegetation change their appearance in the course of the seasons and make this journey an unforgettable experience. Centovalli Railway runs all year long with 1st and 2nd class and panoramic coaches.
Novara is a provincial capital and Piemonte's second largest city after Turin. The city was founded by the Romans. on March 23rd the locals celebrate the 1849 battle of Novara with a re-enactment featuring period uniforms and weapons called Novara Risorgimentale. (See other folklore festivals in Piemonte.)
Torino, Turin to Americans, is the largest city in Piemonte. The 2006 Winter Olympics put it back on the tourist map. Have a Bicerin, the famous coffee drink of Turin, visit the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, peruse the newly update Egyptian Museum, and see the Holy Shroud Museum, (the Museum has set up a special path for the blind, the result of a collaboration with the Italian Blind Union of Turin).
Select Italy offers a very fine introduction to the city: Introduction to Turin: City of Chocolate and FIAT.
To the west of Torino near the border with France are the winter sports centers around Sestriere. A very interesting visit can be made to the Sacra di San Michele; the vertical Abbey with the great view of the Susa Valley inspired Umberto Eco to write The Name of the Rose. Originally built between 983 and 987 atop mount Pirchiriano, the Romanesque carvings on the church are fantastic. Many of the sites are accessible to people with disabilities.
An interesting little tidbit about this Abbey. If you find a map, draw a dead-straight line on it in the right place, you'll see that the most famous Saint Michael shrines in Europe are laid out in a linear path. Thus:
The Langhe is dense with little castles on the tops of hills surrounded by vines. You can learn an awful lot about life in the 1400s by driving out to Manta Castle, where the frescoes will wow you and there's a great restaurant nearby.
Alba hosts the famous truffle fair between mid-October and November. Bra is the nexus of Slow Food, and hosts a famous Cheese Festival in September. Barolo has a fine castle and is the center for tasting the wine of its name with very fine food. You can also visit a grissini bakery in Barolo to see how they're made (or watch the video via the link).
In the 15th century Mondovi was the largest city in Piemonte. It's the place to taste Dolcetto. Cuneo is a provincial capital and a charming town with a Renaissance style arcaded main street lined with shops and cafes, giving it an elegant appearance. Cuneo's old town center dates from the 12th century when it was a fortified town. In the area the thing to eat, especially on Sundays with your family, is the region's famous Bollito Misto, elegantly served with several sauces.
Along with the wine and cheeses, Piemonte has some very fine chocolate, especially around the town of Cherasco, also known for its snails. If you'd rather be driven by other people when you wine and chocolate taste, Select Italy offers a Chocolate, Wine and Cheese Tour of Piemonte you might like.
The highly anticipated harvest followed by truffle season makes the best time to go to Piemonte is the period between October and December. How much bigger is fall than other seasons? The percentage of restaurants that are full in the Fall are between 25 and 30 percent, compared to less than five percent for the summer. Barolo is particularly beautiful in the fall when walking amongst the vineyards is the thing to do.
May is also a good time to go, especially if you like your food served with the fresh flowers and herbs the Piemonte is famous for. May is a wonderful time for wildflowers, spring showers, and the budding of Piemonte's fresh herbs.
We have a trio of unique places to stay in Piemonte. If you're exploring the Langhe, we recommend the evocative 18th century tower apartment called Torre Barolo. It's not good if you have mobility issues; there are lots of stairs as you can imagine. But the view from the rooftop terrace is second to none and the tower is right in town.
If you are up to exploring the Olympic Valleys and the Sacra di San Michele, then we highly recommend an extended stay at Bella Baita in Borgata Serre Marchetto, marked on the map. You will not find hosts more willing to help you have a great time than Marla and Fabrizio, whether you're up to a mountain bike ride or a day of exploring forts, abbeys and castles. It might sweeten the deal to tell you that Marla is a highly trained pastry chef, so breakfast, you know, the most important meal of the hedonist's day, is likely to impress you greatly.
If you've come to Piemonte in late October and November and it's truffles you crave, get thee to Tra Arte e Querce in the village of Monchiero. The owner is a truffle hunter. Go to breakfast early and your nose will alert you to his return from the sacred truffle hunting grounds; the smell of the fungus is unmistakable--and grated over your morning eggs makes the perfect breakfast of champions.
Use the buttons to take you to places in Piemonte you'll never forget.
Article published on Feb 18, 2017, updated on Feb 19, 2017