Tag Archive | "Italy"

Swiss Trains & the Italian Lake District with National Geographic Expeditions

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itinerary-header

Swiss trains?

The best in the world.

National Geographic Expeditions?

A guaranteed way to enjoy group travel with an expert who takes you inside a destination.

So I’m thrilled that National Geographic Expeditions has asked me to take two groups of travelers on National Geographic Expeditions trips to Switzerland next summer.

On Swiss Trains and the Italian Lake District, you’ll experience the Alps and the beautiful lake of Northern Italy, as well as ride on some of Switzerland’s legendary trains, including the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express.

From the twisted peak of the Matterhorn to the breathtaking vistas of the Bernina Pass, you’ll soar high above Zermatt in a gondola, and enjoy a choice of hikes, walks, and tram rides through beautiful mountain landscapes. Then cross the Alps into Italy and cap off the trip on the shores of stunning Lake Como.

Departure dates are July 10-19, 2015 and July 24-August 2, 2015.

Visit National Geographic Expeditions to learn more

Vivacious Vinegar: Italy’s Balsamic

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Balsamic vinegar casks in Modena

Balsamic vinegar casks in Modena

by Kim D. McHugh

Photos courtesy Acetum – Balsamic Vinegar of Modena P.G.I.

I’m standing in an acetaia, Italian for “vinegar room”, watching as Giovanni Cavalli, the proprietor of this balsamic vinegar producing facility in Reggio Emilia nurtures his batches. Essentially a large villa, the two-story stone structure was easily 100 years old, unobtrusively blending in with similar villas in this farming community 16 miles east of Parma.

Stored in an attic in a series of aged wood barrels, some of which are more than 100 years old, the balsamic vinegar is maturing, a process that will take at least 12 years, and up to 30 years. The outside temperature on this June day is pushing 90 degrees. In the attic, it is 115 degrees—just the way aging balsamic vinegar likes it.

In this environment the fermenting process required to make this revered liquid revs into high gear, accelerating the ingredients toward qualifying as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio-Emilia or Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of the Reggio-Emilia region of Italy.

Equidistant from Milan and Bologna, Reggio Emilia is in the north central part of the country in the Po River Valley, a region known for its agricultural prowess. Besides being recognized for producing the world’s best balsamic vinegar, the region is also famous for Prosciutto di Parma (the ham of hams) and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Caprese salad with balsamic vinegar

Caprese salad with balsamic vinegar

Prior to visiting Mr. Cavalli’s attic, I thought all wine vinegar was created equal. Not so. In fact, the production of balsamic vinegar in Italy is serious business, so much so that the country has a consortium that decides if the prized condiment is worthy of its seal of approval. To guarantee quality, a law was passed in 1986, and in 1987, a Ministerial Decree was announced so that the centuries-old methods employed for crafting this beloved vinegar would be preserved and regulated.

Those wishing to commercially bottle vinegar must submit it to a tasting commission whose members are registered master tasters in one of Italy’s two recognized consortiums; consorzio balsamico tradizionale of Reggio Emilia and consorzio balsamico tradizionale of Modena. Participating in a blind taste test, the tasters rate the balsamic vinegar for certain characteristics, including taste, aroma and visual appeal. If the vinegar scores enough points, it passes, receiving a red, silver or gold sticker of quality and also the Denomination of Controlled Origin (D.O.C.) title.

Pumpkin ravioli with balsamic vinegar in Modena

Pumpkin ravioli with balsamic vinegar in Modena

The law, the decree and the nod from the consortium notwithstanding, Mr. Cavalli told me that producers are respectful of the time-honored tradition of making balsamic vinegar the way it has been produced for more than 1,000 years. Historians have discovered ancient tomes referencing the gastronomic potion dating to 1046, the year Holy Roman Emperor Henry III traveled from Europe to Rome for a coronation. During his travels, it is believed he procured a bottle of the stuff from Bonifacio, Marquis of Tuscany and father of Countess Matilde di Canossa.

Since that time, kings, emperors and the noble families of Europe have kept a private stock of balsamic vinegar, first enjoying it for its perceived, if not real, medicinal value. In the 1800’s, the vinegar was used to enrich the dowry of noble women that were to be married. Today, the very best balsamic vinegar can fetch upwards of $500 for a very small bottle. Continuing my attic education, Giovanni explained how his balsamic vinegar is made.

First, sun ripened Trebbiano, Spergola and Occhio di Gatta grapes, grapes specifically grown within the province, are harvested. Careful not to subject them to the stress of mechanical pressing, they are hand-crushed, producing a liquid called must. The must is cooked down for upwards of 30 hours to sterilize it, prevent fermentation, evaporate some of the moisture content, and to concentrate the sugar.
Once cooled, the must is transferred to five or six wood barrels, each one smaller than the first, and the aging process begins. Yeast is added to start the alcoholic fermentation process, which is followed by acetic oxidation (the evaporation of oxygen) and the eventual transformation into vinegar. In a year’s time, 10 to 25 percent of the vinegar will evaporate and the barrels have to be filled, although no barrel is ever filled completely so further evaporation and condensation can occur.

Starting with the smallest barrel, all the barrels are topped off with vinegar from the preceding barrel, continuing on to the largest barrel. Finally, each barrel receives and infusion of new must, and the process continues annually. In accordance with the guidelines established by the consortiums, balsamic tradizionale can’t be sold in Italy as such unless it is at least 12 years old. However, because there are no such regulations in the U.S., it’s easy to be tricked.

The first giveaway is the price. For a 100 milliliter bottle of D.O.C. Red Seal produced by Cavalli cav. Ferdinando, expect to pay between $60 and $125 ($100 or more for Silver Seal, north of $200 for Gold Seal). A knock-off or look a like brand at your local supermarket costs around $10, $18 and $26 respectively. Another red flag is consistency. Balsamico traditionale is thick, yet silky, like maple syrup, while most mass-produced balsamic vinegar has the consistency of water.

Lastly, before it is corked, a representative of the consortium who seals the bottles with a wax crest supervises balsamico traditionale. The imposter often has a screw off cap. After examining each barrel, Mr. Cavalli reached for a small bottle whose contents contained 12-year-old balsamic vinegar. Nursing half a dozen drops onto a small spoon, he invited me to taste it.

I drizzled the heavenly liquid on my tongue and, though I can hardly consider myself a connoisseur, the harmony of sweet and sour was undeniable. It was rich, buttery and absent the acid bite of faux balsamic vinegar. Mr. Cavalli shared 18-, 25- and 30-year-old samples with me, and each was more delightful than its predecessor. With the attic tour complete, I joined Giovanni in his shop, walking out with a half dozen bottles of balsamico traditionale.

Returning to my rented villa to join my wife, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. We spent the rest of our vacation searching out restaurants that served the delicious liquid. Since returning from the Reggio Emilia region, we break out the coveted elixir on special occasions, giving a nod to craftsman like Giovanni Cavalli who keeps the tradition alive.

Details:
To arrange a tour contact www.balsamico.it, www.balsamicotradizionale.it, www.acetum.it and www.emiliaromagnaturismo.com.

For villa accommodations, surf www.italianvillas.com, www.homeaway.com or www.tuscanynow.com.

To find balsamico traditionale, stop by your local gourmet food store or go online to www.modenafinefoods.com, www.cybercucina.com or www.thefind.com .

 

McMugShot 2   Kim D. McHugh is a Lowell Thomas award-winning writer and member of the Golf Writers Association of America. His articles have appeared in SKI, RockyMountainGolf.com, Hemispheres, Colorado Expression, Tastes of Italia, Luxury Golf & Travel, Nicklaus and Colorado AvidGolfer.

The Interview: Kathy Bechtel of ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

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Biking in Asolo with ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

Biking in Asolo with ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

By Ed Wetschler

Most European bicycling trips range from sag-wagon easy to blisteringly hard, but a single ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine trip often features both extremes, and the same goes for the company’s hiking and skiing vacations. Wondering how they manage that, we sat down (on proper chairs, not bicycle seats) for a chat with co-owner Kathy Bechtel.

Kathy Bechtel of ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

Kathy Bechtel of ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

EW: What’s your elevator speech about what makes Italia Outdoors Food and Wine unique?

KB: We talk with each guest, learn what their hopes are, and we work to make it all happen. We accommodate different fitness levels and interests, and my business partner, Vernon McClure, and I personally lead the trips. For every custom trip we create a unique itinerary. I’m working on one now that includes experts who want to ride 60-90 miles a day, and mellow riders who may be done at 30 miles.

EW: How can you manage a trip whose participants have such a wide range of skills?

KB: We don’t ride as a group, unless that is what the group wants. We supply maps, GPS units, and everything you need to ride at your own pace. Those who wish to race along, can. Those who wish to stop, visit a church, take a picture, enjoy a snack, can do that. If you wish to ride more, we map out another loop.

We do have a vehicle for support, but it doesn’t follow the participants. If someone on a bicycling trip needs to call a sag wagon, than the operator did not design a good route for that individual. Of course, if you have mechanical problems or are exhausted, give us a call and we’ll find you.

Chefs on Bikes Tour from ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

Chefs on Bikes Tour from ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

EW: You emphasize cuisine. Doesn’t every bike tour operator do that?

KB: Yes, but when companies run groups of 20 or more, the dining options are limited. Our tours include eight participants, maximum, so we’re more flexible. We can even make changes at the last minute if, say, everyone is dying for a good pizza (which seems to happen every trip). Many tours control costs by offering a fixed menu and not including wine. Our guests choose from the menu, and I order local wines so we can taste and learn while we eat. Also, I’m a chef and cooking instructor, so we have real discussions about food. On our culinary bike tours, such as “Chefs on Bikes,” participants actually get to cook.

 

Vernon McClure of ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

Vernon McClure of ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

EW: Is Vernon also a chef?

No, Vernon is a former Airborne Army Ranger and Head of Recreation Programming for U.S. service personnel in Italy. He lives in Italy now and is a certified mountain guide as well as a skiing, snowboarding, scuba-diving, and sailing instructor. He’s an expert in program design and risk management, has designed bicycle tour itineraries, and has a BA in history and Italian studies, and an MA in European literature. He’s also a master at maintaining bicycle equipment.

EW: That’s all?

KB: [Smile] That’s all.

On the slopes in Italy with ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

On the slopes in Italy with ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

EW: ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine also offers ski trips. Why might someone book an organized ski trip instead of just traveling alone or with friends or a spouse?

KB: Exploring a new ski area, especially in Europe, can be intimidating for people unfamiliar with the area. A good tour operator will choose the best ski area for the trip – and for each day – based upon snowfall, weather conditions, and crowds. Participants also get the benefit of local guides.

Singles enjoy group trips because they can find other skiers with similar abilities. Couples with differing levels of expertise like groups, too, because they can split up, with each skiing at their preferred pace. And from a safety perspective, I always recommend skiing with a partner, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the area.

EW: Kathy, if you wanted to wow me with your own cooking, what would be on the menu?

KB: The dishes most people love are the simplest. My favorites? Risotto – a straightforward technique, with the right rice, and you can make it so many ways; seafood, mushroom, peas, sausage, radicchio. Also, I like to braise pork in milk. Two inexpensive ingredients, a bit of time, and it’s fantastic. The sauce gets all brown and chunky and delicious, and it doesn’t look at all like milk.

Visit ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

 

ed  Ed Wetschler,  Associate Editor of Everett Potter’s Travel Report, also serves as Caribbean Editor of Recommend magazine and Executive Editor of Tripatini. He has written for The New York Times, Delta Sky, Frommers, Gadling, bank magazines, and other print and new media. He is a past chair of the Northeast Chapter of SATW and former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine who can navigate Greenwich Village without a GPS. In a previous life he played backup piano for Jay and the Americans as well as The Toys, whom he considers the consummate interpreters of Mozart.

She Said, She Said: Venice

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Venetian Gondola. Photo by Jenny Keroack

By Geri Bain and Jenny Keroack

Inspired by the grand tours of aristocrats past and the more recent adventures of TV’s Gilmore Girls, 18 year old Jenny Keroack proposed that she and her mom, travel writer Geri Bain take their own grand voyage. This summer the two set out to share as much of the Old Worldas thirty days would allow, recording their favorite places and activities along the way.  Jenny’s are in italics while Geri’s are in regular type. Read about their adventures, explorations and all the schleps in between. The following is their installment, logged from Venice.

 

The train fromVienna toVenice only runs straight through at night, but we’d read that the seven-hour daytime train/bus trip was worth taking in daylight. Seeing the tiny villages nestled into deep river valleys and cliff-top castles, we agreed.

 

Londra Palace Hotel. Photo by Geri Bain

 

Settling in: Arriving in Venice, we found our way to Venice’s mass transit, the canal-cruising waterbuses, or vaporettos, and 20 minutes later, were thrilled to see the Hotel Londra Palace. Our Biedermeier-decor room felt quite elegant with its fabric-covered walls, lovely brocade work, high ceiling and marble bathroom. Our first floor balcony provided wonderful views of the lagoon and the lively waterside boulevard, the Riva Degli Schiavoni. The hotel has hosted many luminaries. In fact, Tchaikovsky composed the first three movements of Symphony No. 4 when he stayed here in 1877. We loved that St. Mark’s Square and the Bridge of Sighs were steps away and that water taxis stopped right at our front door, and we especially appreciated our concierge, who mapped out the perfect walking tours for us each day.

 

Piazza San Marco. Photo by Jenny Keroack

 

San Marco Square. Piazza San Marco, famous for its beautiful architecture and outdoor cafes, is far from your average European town square. During the day, you’ll find people taking pictures of their children and loved ones feeding and, in many cases, covered in pigeons. Venice is a city that truly celebrates its rats with wings. Off to the side, bands play and dancing in the streets is encouraged. The music continues well into the night; it may be a tourist trap, but having a drink on the square is an only-in-Venice experience and well-worth doing. The two most historic, Il Caffé Florian and Grancaffé Quadri, date back to the 18th century. Just be prepared for the persistent hawkers and even more persistent Italian gentlemen– especially if you’re a girl on your own.

Do Leoni Restaurant. Photo by Geri Bain

 

Food: It was hard to go anywhere without being tempted by wonderful things to eat. But then what would you expect? After all, this is Italy, and a seaside city at that. Fresh seafood was plentiful and Venice has some interesting ways of preparing it. I loved sarde in saor (sweet and sour sardines). And Jenny loved the seafood ravioli. Our favorite meal was on the terrace at Do Leoni at our hotel, where planters created a buffer between us and the passing parade of tourists and entertainers and we enjoyed the modern twist on classic Venetian dishes. And of course, there was always gelato and pizza by the slice for quick pick-me-ups  as we explored.

 

Shopping along Calle Larga XXII Marzo. Photo by Jenny Keroack

 

Shopping. In the tradition of its over 1000 years as a trading center, Venice still offers a diverse shopping scene, from the shops on the ancient Rialto Bridge to the high-priced boutiques of Calle Larga XXII Marzo. My favorite item to look for in Venice was jewelry. While famous for their masks, lace, and blown glass, Venetians also sell fine silver jewelry, much of it crafted right in the city. My mom got textured silver earrings from the craftsman himself at La Foglia D’Oro and I found a locket on a velvet necklace from Israel at Michal Negrin. For clothes, check out Coin, a Venetian company with top brands from all over Europe. Since Venice is basically a city of tourists, stores are found everywhere and stay open late. A piece of advice: if you see something you like off the main streets, get it or forget it. Venice is a maze and you may not find your way back.  

 

El Museo della Musica. Photo by Geri Bain

 

A Vivaldi Museum: Walking across San Maurizio square (Campo San Maurizio), strains of lovely music came from what looked like a neoclassical church. It was the former San Maurizio church which now houses El Museo della Musica (Music Museum). Admission is free, and inside, we enjoyed recorded music by Venice-born composer Antonio Vivaldi while perusing a small but fascinating collection of centuries-old stringed instruments and Vivaldi memorabilia. Interpretive panels provided detailed information in English and Italian about the composer and his times. A low-key gift shop offers CDs, books, and tickets for performances by a professional ensemble, Interpreti Veneziani, at the nearby, art-richChurch ofSan Vidal. We didn’t have time, but serious Vivaldi aficionadas may also want to visit the church he attended, La Pieta, with a small exhibition open by appointment only.

 

Bridge of Spires, a.k.a Ponte delle Guglie, leading to the old Jewish Ghetto. Photo by Jenny Keroack

Jewish Ghetto. My main purpose in going to the Ghetto Vecchio (Jewish quarter) was to find the architecture and landmarks described in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Locals tried to help, pointing us towards their two oldest bridges and the old town square. We also saw tall, skinny buildings, much like the one where Shylock and Jessica would have lived. However, for those who are less enthusiastic about Shakespearean plays, there are some actual historical destinations. Those interested can join a tour of the quarter’s synagogues and visit  the Museo Ebraico (Jewish Museum) to learn why so many Jews lived here, in Europe’s first ghetto, starting in the 1500s. In fact, the word “ghetto” comes from the Venetian word geto (foundry), for the iron works located on this island before Jews were required to live here. Getting there is pretty walk from center of town; we stopped at a lively street fair along the way, and the ghetto area has some traditional restaurants, like Gam Gam, which was recommended by several locals.

 For more information on Italy and Venice, visit http://www.italia.it or  http://en.turismovenezia.it/.

 

Next stop: Barcelona

Geri Bain (right), a widely published travel writer and editor, has written about more than 60 countries and contributed to publications including inc.com, N.Y. Daily News and Robb Report. While travel editor at Modern Bride magazine, she wrote an acclaimed guide to Honeymoons and Weddings Away. She is a past president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editorial director of Endless Vacation magazine.

18-year-old Jenny Keroack wrote for the Observer Tribune from 2009 to 2012 and her work has appeared in the Riverdale Press, Elegant Lifestyles and other publications. She was a researcher/blogger for the N.Y. League of Conservation Voters last summer and is now studying political science at theUniversityofChicago.

Active Travels: Sardinia

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Sardinia Multisport with Ciclismo Classico

By Steve Jermanok

This is the time of year when I receive a flurry of catalogs and press releases from outfitters updating me on their favorite trips for 2012. So this week, I want to describe a handful of those trips that excite me. Ciclismo Classico has branched off to destinations like Norway and New England, but their specialty is still the Italian countryside. Next summer, CC owner Lauren Hefferon is featuring a multisport jaunt to one of her favorite locales, Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean. Far away from the congestion on the European continent, you’ll bike along the pristine coastline, stopping at underused beaches for a dip. Other highlights include a hike up Capo Spartivento, rewarding young climbers with vistas of the shoreline, a day long boat ride in and out of coves, soccer on the beach, strolling to the markets in small villages, and a grand finale feast at the home of your Sardinian guide, with his mother and brothers grilling sausage. After all, what child doesn’t like Italian food?

 

  Steve Jermanok As a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, adventure travel expert at Budget Travel, and regular contributor on outdoor recreation for Outside, Men’s Journal, Health, and Sierra, Steve Jermanok has written more than 1,000 articles on the outdoors.He’s also authored or co-authored 11 books, including Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England and Men’s Journal’s The Great Life. His latest book is Go Now! Put Your Life on Pause and See the World. He’s currently an adventure travel expert at Away.com and blogs daily at Active Travels.

Songs of Vicenza: Palladio and its Music

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Entrance to Teatro Olimpico designed by Palladio, Vicenza, Italy

Story and Photos by Julie Maris/Semel

Vicenza, a World Heritage Site, is all about Andrea Palladio who in the 1500s designed palaces, churches, and villas. Referring to classical Roman architecture, Palladio’s unique style influenced architecture from Venice to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and to today’s contemporary American houses. Vicenza is Palladio.

For a student of Palladio’s work or anyone interested in Italy’s history and art, Vicenza is imperative. The Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, now the Center for Architecture Studies and the Museo Palladiano, is dedicated to Palladio and to architectural history.

Palladio designed a majestic building for Barbarano and made architecture democratic by demonstrating the beauty of buildings using less costly materials. He rusticated or used rough surfaces on the ground floor exterior walls and smoothness on the upper floor, the contrast accentuated by strong sunlight.  Columns made of bricks were coated with marble plaster in mortar. The result: grand illusions without great expense.

Interior of Teatro Olimpico designed by Palladio, Vicenza, Italy

For the Accademia Olimpica, Palladio designed Teatro Olimpico –– Europe’s oldest interior theatre –– an archaeological version of the Roman amphitheatre. The rectangle proscenium with Corinthian columns, a central arch, and two smaller side gates is elaborately decorated with statues, friezes, and pilasters.

After Palladio’s death, Scamozzi completed a perspective background, trompe lʼoeil, The Seven Streets of Thebes, seen through the proscenium arch. During performances, to maintain the spatial illusion, children stood in the rear of the set. In the spring and fall, the Orchestra del Teatro Olimpico presents classical concerts and jazz.

Palladio designed Palazzo Chiericati, now the Musei Civici with works of

Tintoretto, Veronese, and Tiepolo. His most important commission, with the support of his patrons, was the Logge of the Palazzo della Ragione, the Basilica on the main square of Vicenza.

Students at Piazza dei Signori, Vicenza, Italy celebrating the graduation of student with flippers singing, "Dottore, Dottore." Celebratory students that just completed their university degrees singing “Dottore, Dottore,” the hawking of vendors, covered stalls, and locals shopping for food and crafts at the market in the Piazza dei Signori, the city’s historic center from Roman times, momentarily distract one from noticing the imposing white marble Basilica with its keel-shaped roof and repetition of Serlian windows.

 

Palladio incorporated classical architecture in modern terms. He was a cutting edge architect with wealthy patrons. His styles included a simple loggia façade; Greek temple façades with pediments and columns for houses; and double columned fronts. Brick, stucco, and terra cotta and interior frescos cut building costs. The Villa Rotunda’s and the Basilica’s interior spaces and harmonic proportions established Palladio as the foremost architect of the Veneto and of his time.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library and City Hall, and the United States Capital in Washington, DC are studies in Palladio’s bilateral symmetry. Pattern books that American architects and builders used in the 17th and 18th centuries and Jefferson’s University of Virginia Rotunda exemplify the great influence of Anglo-Palladianism through the 20th century.

Gondolas and the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore by Palladio, Venice

 

The exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of Andrea Palladio’s birth, Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey organized by the Royal Institute of British Architects Trust will be at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania until December 31, 2011.

View Julie Maris/Semel’s slideshow of Vicenza

 

 

Julie Maris/Semel, with camera in hand at age seven, discovered travel photography as a teenager. Following her passions, she worked with Bill Maris, a well-known architectural photographer, and subsequently for editorial clients, that include Traditional Home magazine and Design New England, producing stories about gardens, architecture, and travel. Her sense of adventure turned to the Antarctic, the Arctic, Asia, and Africa while working for Quark Expeditions, TCS Expeditions, and national tourist boards. Her photographs, Images of India, were exhibited at the New India House sponsored by the Consulate General of India. See more photos at http://www.juliemarissemel.com

Songs of Vicenza: Palladio and its Music (photos by Julie Maris/Semel)

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Five Treasures of Piedmont, Italy

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Barolo , the heart and soul of Piedmont.

 

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.)

Fontanafredda

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:  info@fontanafedda.it.

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.”

 

Sanctuary of Oropa.

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: info@santuariodioropa.it.

 

The Cathedral in Biella.

 

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.

 

Caffe Al Bicerin. Photo by Bobbie Leigh.

4. TURIN

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.

 

Locals in the Passion Play, Photo by Bobbie Leigh.

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; info.somaschi@marachellagruppo.it.

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.

Alpine Autumn Randonees in France & Italy

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Village of Megeve, France viewed from Calvary Footpath

 

Story and photos by Julie Maris/Semel

The music of cowbells, the sweet smells of mountain grass, the gentle breezes, and the crystalline vistas of spiky peaks overwhelmed my senses. I was fully awake but living a dream in the Alps.

Unlike summer excursions, September randonnees or rambling walks in the mountains of Megève and Chamonix, France and Turin, Italy have the advantages of fewer hikers, the ability to nibble wild blueberries, and to find yourself nose-to-nose with cows with black-circled eyes that reminded me of très-chic eyeglasses.

My friends and I stretched our legs on Megève’s cobbled streets, followed by an Alpine picnic overlooking wildflower meadows. My daypack, stuffed with farmers’ market charcuterie, pates, and local cheeses could nourish us for a week!

In France and Italy, the Slow Food movement is the opportunity to savor seasonal food and precious moments. At the Chalet du Mont d’Arbois’ 1920 Restaurant, we shared that moment with the richness of sautéed duck foie gras with a subtleness of dark chocolate in the crisp cocoa tuile and the moist, delicately flavored monkfish with meunière butter and curry sauce.

Mountain guide with ropes, at the access to the Vallee Blanche near Mont Blanc, Chamonix, France

 

Chamonix, forty minutes from Megève, is its slightly older and more sophisticated cousin, with bustling streets filled with high energy. After our spectacular ear-popping cable car ride, we reached Aiguille du Midi’s summit. Crystalline air, royal blue skies, breath-taking views, and the snow-covered Mont Blanc were adrenaline to my soul.

Anxious to have lunch after our return to the valley, we caught the rack and pinion railway, Montenvers Mer de Glace. Excited and chattering school children filled the train for the twenty-minute ride through mountain forests to the glacier.

Sipping wine, as crisp as the air, on the sunny terrace of the Grand Hotel du Montenvers waiting for our Haute-Savoie comfort food, the traditional tartiflette, we could see cable cars descending to the ice grotto and overheard lectures about the jagged granite peaks surrounding us.

Daydreaming, I returned to my nest––the Hameau Albert 1er––three unique rebuilt Savoyard farmhouses. Dinner at its Restaurant de Pays, an extension of a country kitchen with an enameled stove, old walls, and antiques, was perfect. The rich boudin, seasoned with allspice––a hearty farmhouse meal and regional specialty––was followed with cheeses of Savoie and a fondant de chocolate.

Cafe al Bicerin, located in the Piazza della Consolata,Torino, Italy

 

The next morning, I was still living that dream, as Mont Blanc receded in the distance during our early drive to Turin. The ride past farms didn’t prepare me for the beautiful Baroque aristocratic buildings. Recognition as a World Heritage site attests to Turin’s importance. Turin woke me up!

The National Museum of the Mountain is a repository for historical films that includes Heidi––the movie that caused tears when I was seven––documents, and exhibitions relating to the Alps. I quickly put on my hiking boots after seeing the spectacular panoramic vistas of the Alpine arch from the top of the museum.

We hiked the Plaisentif Path in the bucolic Olympic Mountains near Usseaux, a jewel of rural architecture. Our lunch waited for us at Alpe Pintas, a mountain restaurant: bagnetto, a garlicky pesto; ricotta served with honey; and a creamy goat cheese with dried Muscato.

Turin, the heart of Piemonte’s gastronomy, is at the center of Slow Food that promotes artisanal food and consumer awareness. At Eataly, a market linked to Slow Food, I was in heaven.

In the morning to fortify us for our hike in the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, established to save the ibex, we walked through quiet streets to Café al Bicerin, one of Turin’s numerous historic cafés. Bicerin, served in a glass, and made with a bottom layer of hot rich melted chocolate topped with strong espresso, then capped by frothy cold cream, inspired earlier patrons, Nietzsche, Dumas, and Puccini.

Cows and cowhand in meadow along The Plaisentif Path in the Olympic Mountains, near Usseaux, Italy.

 

En route, the narrow road wove past hamlets of ancient stone farmhouses. Our guide assured us that we could reach our destination along a comfortable path. Suddenly, I wished I were that protected mountain goat! We easily scrambled over boulders to Rifugio Pontese’s hut with its yellow metal roof for our country lunch.

Back in Turino, we headed for the revitalized Roman Quadrangle. Young and hip crowds were shopping at cutting-edge boutiques and sipping wine at trendy bars. Still in our hiking boots, my friends and I joined them for one last glass of wine. Back at the hotel, I squeezed boxes of gianduiotti chocolates and grissini, those classic breadsticks, into my suitcase, packed my boots, and fell asleep dreaming, not that I was Heidi, but that I was one of her sturdy mountain goats.

 

 If You Go:

Megève Tourism: www.megeve.com

Megève hiking guides: www.guides-megeve.com

Hotel Relais & Chateaux Chalet du Mont d’Arbois: www.domainedumontdarbois.com

Chamonix Tourism: www.chamonix.com

Hotel Hameau Albert 1er: www.hameaualbert.fr

Turin Tourism: www.turismotorino.org

Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso: www.pngp.it

Rifugio Pontese: web.tiscali.it/rifugio.pontese

Fort of Fenestrelle: www.fortedifenestrelle.com

Slow Food: www.slowfood.com

Eataly: www.eataly.it

Café al Bicerin: www.bicerin.it

National Museum of the Mountain: www.museomontagna.org

National Cinema Museum: www.museonazionaledelcinema.org

Egyptian Museum: www.museoegizio.it

 

Visit a slideshow of Alpine Autumn Randonees

 

Julie Maris/Semel, with camera in hand at age seven, discovered travel photography as a teenager. Following her passions, she worked with Bill Maris, a well-known architectural photographer, and subsequently for editorial clients, that include Traditional Home magazine and Design New England, producing stories about gardens, architecture, and travel. Her sense of adventure turned to the Antarctic, the Arctic, Asia, and Africa while working for Quark Expeditions, TCS Expeditions, and national tourist boards. Her photographs, Images of India, were exhibited at the New India House sponsored by the Consulate General of India. See more photos at http://www.juliemarissemel.com

Lucca: A Forgotten City in Tuscany

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Lucca, Tuscany's forgotten city.

By Bobbie Leigh

How can an exceptionally charming Italian town have an inferiority complex? It seems odd, but that’s definitely the case for Lucca, a former ancient Roman  colony founded in 180 BC  that’s about a half hour’s drive from Pisa.

“We have such a low profile,” complains one Lucchese.  Foreigners  go to Florence,  Siena,  even Pisa which is so close — but not here.”

That’s a huge mistake. Lucca should not be overlooked. For a start, consider the  Passegiata delle Mura,  the “walk on walls”  on 16th and 17th century  ramparts which surround the town, where locals bike, stroll, jog, and hang out at sunset.  The hike is an easy three miles with broad paths and scenic spots  for a picnic on a warm afternoon.

Biking along the walls in Lucca

 

Lucca is not quite Amsterdam, but biking is the way to see the town whose historic inner city is closed to traffic. Rent a bike at one of the rental spots near Porta Santa Maria and you can pedal along narrow streets with ease.  You won’t be alone as most of the women do their daily marketing on bikes and everyone under 30 seems to  get around on two-wheels.   The pace is slow, the people polite, and at every turn there’s a church or a charming piazza surrounded by cafes and even a carousel.

San Michele in Lucca

Lucca doesn’t  just have  ramparts and  pretty  piazzas, but some  50  churches including one  recently  opened for the immigrant Romanian community.  San Martino, Lucca’s  Duomo, first consecrated in 1070,  is Pisan Romanesque style, highly decorative  with little Gothic grace.  All the columns differ one from another and of the three rounded arches, the one next to the bell tower is smaller.   By far, the much more interesting building is the ornate, over-the-top  11th  to 13th century Pisan Romanesque San Michele in Foro.  The “Foro”  refers to the fact that  the church  sits on what was once the Roman forum. The church has a marble façade, slight bands of gray and white, and four levels of colonnades, crowned by a statue of St. Michael.  Although a bit top heavy with a false front, it is certainly fanciful and unlike anything you will see elsewhere. Right behind the church is the 1881 Pasticceria Taddelucci where you should stop for an espresso and the iconic buccellato, a sweet raisin, anise, cinnamon bun.  In the little piazza San Salvatore, around the corner from San Michele, is the Enoteca Vanni where you can descend into aged wine cellars, still musty, dark, and damp. Surprisingly the wine is stored vertically, not on its side.

Cafe in a Lucca square

 

Wandering around the tiny streets and squares of old Lucca,  you  can’t  miss  the dominating  tower of the  medieval palace, Casa del Guinigi.  The tower is perhaps the only one you will ever see with seven leafy  trees  growing on its top level.  The sandstone and brick Guinigi is one of four original towers that still survive. Its base is now a little craft shop where weavers ply  their looms. (Lucca was once a rich city, a center of the silk trade from the  12th-14th century.)  The climb up the tower is worthwhile for the unspoiled view of the red-tiled roof town and the green countryside.

Di Simo, Lucca

 

Via Fillungo is the main shopping street  of Lucca lined with the usual upscale boutiques  and a few rarities. One favorite is the old-fashioned 1880s Di Simo, Antico Caffe  at Number  58.  Stop by for a gelati or a latte macchiato and cornetto — lighter than the French croissant.   The 1800 Carli jewelry shop  at number 95 is  another must-see as its ceilings are frescoed and the jewelry, especially the watches,  have a timeless elegance. Fillungo which runs north to south corresponds to the Roman “cardo maximo”  while the east-west Via S. Croce  is based on the  “decumano maximo,”  an interesting factoid as many Tuscan cities including Florence are laid out in similar Roman fashion.

Like Rome, Lucca has its Anfiteatro Romano, an amphitheater  that once seated some 10,000 people. Not much remains but the central  empty space, as most  of the stones were used in the Middle Ages to build the town’s many churches.  La Bottega di Mamma Ro, a ceramics, linens, and tabletop shop where everything is handmade, contemporary but not crafty is  at Piazza Anfiteatro, 4.

 

MUSEUM OF ITALIAN EMIGRATION IN LUCCA

As you might expect, Lucca has its fair share of  art and history museums. One that is relatively new and not in the guidebooks thus far is the intriguing  Paolo Cresci  Museum for the History of Italian Emigration. It’s in the lovely gardened Palazzo Ducale at Via Vittorio Emanuele 3. Cresci  was a major collector of documents relating to the history of Italian emigration, The  museum excels in historic footage and photographs  documenting  the conditions which led to emigration, the departure, the journey, and arrival in a strange land.  Anyone with roots or family in Italy might want to do a historical search in the  museum’s database (fondazionepaolocresci.it).

 

Hotel Ilaria, Lucca

DINING & STAYING IN LUCCA

It’s almost impossible to have a bad meal in Lucca, as most of the restaurants  take pride in  their cuisine.  Specialties of the region are a zupp di faro , a veggie soup made with the grain, farro: tortelli lucchesi; and coniglio  (rabbit) alla cacciatore.. A few best dining  bets are Ristorante Giglio, Osteria da Rosolo, and Buca  di  Sant’ Antonio.

Among many good  hotel choices, consider the  reliable, clean, mid-priced  and four star with al fresco dining  Hotel Ilaria.

If you become truly engrossed in Tuscan cooking, head north about 30 minutes to a 15th century hilltop estate  where  Sandra Lotti  has her cooking school, Toscana Saporita.  Here’s what she writes about her classes:  “More hands on than before. Students love making raviolis and gnocchis and are challenged by deboning chickens.”  This is the place to learn the not-at-all-difficult recipes popular in the Italian Tuscan kitchen.

Gabriele Calabrese is an experienced and enthusiastic English-speaking guide who will enthusiastically lead you to the city’s treasures. The best way to reach him is  by email: gabrielecalabrese@virgilio.it or turislucca@turislucca.com.

 

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.

 

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