By Bobbie Leigh
The biggest thing that happened to the Piedmont region in Northwestern Italy since Hannibal crossed the Alps in 218 BC was the 2006 Winter Olympic Games celebrated in Turin. Now this former industrial region, where Fiat and textile mills were catalysts for growth, is poised for another major invasion — more visitors than ever before. Piedmont is doing its best to attract a new generation of travelers, those who have already “done” the big three – Rome, Venice, and Florence.
Of course, those cities can never be done. Their treasures are exhaustive, innumerable, and eternal. Yet roaming around northwest Italy does yield many compelling experiences. The region around the ski areas Sestriere and Bardonecchia are stunning. Farther south, the highlights are rolling vineyards, small preserved medieval town centers, culinary specialties like white truffles in September, cheeses and varieties of rice — and most of all, wine, especially Barolo. The Piedmont is also a paradise for hazelnut (nocciola) lovers. You can expect to find Nutella (pasta gianduja), the popular spread of hazelnut and chocolate, almost everywhere. (Experts say it tastes better in Italy.)
1. WONDERFUL WINE TOURING AND TASTING
Considered one of Italy’s most prestigious reds, Barolo is made from the Nebbiolo grape that grows in the calcareous (clay) soil of the Langhe area in the Piedmont region. At a local wine store in New York, a decent bottle of Barolo is about $75 while a great one might be $200. So it was reasonable to expect that on the wine’s home turf, it might be somewhat less. Yet, a good bottle in the Barolo wine region averaged about 25 € ($34). When a visitor gulped, expecting a much lower price, a helpful waiter suggested Gavi, one of the premier dry white wines of Italy. And it is quite affordable. So go to the region for the wines, but keep your wallet fattened with euros.
The best place to learn about Barolo is the E. di Mirafiore Foundation, which is the home of the Fontanafredda vineyards. The estate was originally built in 1858 as the hunting lodge of Victor Emanuel II, Italy’s first king and House of Savoy family member whose history dominates the region. The winery was founded in 1878 by Count Emanuele Guerrieri, son of Victor Emanuel and his mistress Rosa Vercellana, who he later married and named Countess Rosa of Mirafiori. Stretching across some 250 hilly green acres, the Fontanafredda property is dotted with the red and gold striped buildings, colors of the House of Savoy. The vineyards produce both still and sparkling wines, but the most highly prized is the classic silver label Barolo. A visit of the winery costs 2 €. A guided tour through the historical cellars with three wine tastings will set you back 10 € per person. To reserve: email@example.com.
For most people, seeing one oak barrel is quite enough, so take a quick tour and then spend as much time as you can at the wine shop and the restaurant (Il Ristoro della Fondazione E. di Miraflore: www.fondazionemirafiore.it). The current partial owner of the historic Fonatanfredda is Oscar Farinetti, the founder of Eataly, a high-end supermarket chain of all things Italian. The chain has five markets in Italy, one in Japan, and one in the US with more on the way. Farinetti, formerly owned an Italian electronics chain of stores, but got into food years ago. All the menus at the restaurant are prepared with ingredients selected by Eataly. Try to schedule some free time so you can take a short walk through a wooded retreat with vineyards and the ubiquitous hazelnut groves in what has been dubbed “Il bosco de Pensieri” or the Wood of Thought. Each station along the 45-minute walk has special thoughts—not all as profound as this one from Beaudelaire: “A man who only drinks water has a secret to hide.”
2. THE SANCTUARY OF OROPA
Leading up to the “Sacro Monte di Oropa” are 12 chapels dedicated to the life of the Madonna with fresco paintings and statues. Within the sanctuary, an architectural complex that is a UNESCO World Heritage landmark, is the “Old” Church and a 1774 “New” Church. While the original church of Oropa built on the complex near the town of Biella dates back to the 13th century, construction of the sanctuary seen today started in the 17th century with completion of the new church in 1960. The setting is Alpine stunning, but unless you have an urge to live like a monk or nun, skip staying overnight in one of the rooms outfitted for religious pilgrims.
The statue of the Black Virgin of Oropa, one of the best known in the region, is venerated by the pilgrims, among others. No one authority claims to understand the origin of the “Madonna Nera,” a statue holding the infant Jesus covered with gold and precious stones. Among many theories are: smoke turning the pine dark; a miracle; and simply age. The Black Madonna possibly can be traced back to the 12th or 13th century. One of the most intriguing aspects of a visit to the mountain-top sanctuary is a long corridor, a wing of the complex, lined with hundreds of folk art paintings as “Ex Voto” also known as votive offerings dating from the 15th century. Most are simple renditions of people who threw away their crutches, were healed from illnesses, recovered from auto crashes, and even triumphed at soccer games — all considered as miraculous outcomes due to their pilgrimages. For details: firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. THE SUNDAY CHRIST
Biella has a historic area in the city, fairly well preserved, but in its lower, newer section is the Cathedral with some fine Gothic panels, although nothing outstanding. But besides a little door, almost entirely hidden is an amazing painting: the 15th century Sunday Christ. In all likelihood you will never seen anything like it elsewhere. The Christ appears pierced and wounded all over his body, surrounded by axes, saws, and hoes … all sorts of agricultural tools. He holds a large sheep shears in front of his wounded body. The painting was designed to be a warning to all the farmers — do not work on Sunday: if you do, you cause Jesus immeasurable suffering. The painting is a visual admonition to the faithful to keep all feast-days and abandon their everyday work for one day a week.
A visit to Turin was supposed to be a shade more interesting than Detroit. Friends who had been there during its textile heyday had little to report, but the city is well worth a visit. For a start, the National Cinema Museum is hard to leave. With comfortable chaise lounges, you can stay for hours watching old and relatively new movies. It is housed in the Mole Antonelliana, a symbol of the city that was originally built to be a Jewish temple with construction commencing in 1862 and completed in 1889. Once the tallest brick building in Europe, it still towers over the rest of the city and from the top panoramic terrace you have great views of the Alps. Temple Hall is the heart of the museum with a large exhibition area devoted to film genres and themes — animation, horror, science fiction etc. The best of the archival materials are the silent Italian films projected on giant screens.
Turin is the city of chocolate, especially hot chocolate. Ice cream on a stick, the pinguino (also the Italian word for penguin) was invented here in 1935. Café culture in Turin was at its height at the end of the last century but still thrives. Several of the confetteria — the ornate Baratti & Milano founded in 1858, Caffe Mulassano inaugurated in 1907 and restored in 1978, the Caffe Fiorio opened in 1780 — are popular places for a coffee, an artisan gelato, and small treats. But the all-time favorite is the Caffe Al Bicerin on the small square, Piazza della Consolata. Founded in 1763, it has probably not more than 12 marble-topped tables, wood paneling, and a wood floor (www.bicerin.it) . “Bicerin” means small glass in the local dialect, but the drink is served in a large stemmed glass. The café, where supposedly Puccini wrote La Boheme, has always been run by women, and is best known for its bicerin, a 1858 hot, layered drink with coffee, chocolate, and cream. The recipe is well guarded, but here is an approximation. Heat some whole milk with at least 3 ounces of chopped bittersweet chocolate. Whisk the mixture until it boils for about one minute. Make some Italian strong espresso and some slightly sweetened heavy cream. Then compose three layers in the stemmed glass: first the warm chocolate mixture, followed by spooning the coffee, and lastly the whipped cream.
5. THE PASSION PLAY- ITALIAN STYLE
Sordevolo is a tiny town with one main attraction which will occur next in 2015. “La Passione,” an event similar to Oberammergau, is a folk art performance where 400 locals, the entire community of Sordevolo puts on its own version of a passion play. Since the beginning of the 18th century, the representation of the Passion has taken place here every five years. Work has already started on this three-hour theatrical performance that will next take place in 2015 starting in June and ending in late September. Until then, visit Sordevolo for little museum which documents past performances and watch a short film. According to local lore, villagers made a vow in 1634 to perform a passion play here in perpetuity because their town was spared the ravages of the plague. Even though it’s not the same as in the better known Bavarian village presentation, Sordevolo’s Passione is still a remarkable communal feat.
Where to stay:
Just opened the four-star Somaschi Hotel, the former Monastero di Cherasco, is a best bet. Cherasco is a hilltop town with a medieval ambiance. Totally renovated with a lovely restaurant, spa, spacious grounds, and English-speaking staff, it retains a lot of old-world charm but with a contemporary sensibility: www.marachellagruppo.it; email@example.com.
My trip was orchestrated by the Piedmont Tourism Board and Central Holidays (www.centralholidays.com) which organizes both individual and group trips to Italy as well as the rest of Europe.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.