Getting Acquainted With Italy's Piedmont Region
By Laurie Ellis
When most people consider traveling to Italy, they think of Florence, V, nice and Rome. But if you’re interested in an alternate Italian experience, with great food and wine but without the crowds, look into Torino (Turin) and the Piedmont region.
Sure, I had heard of Turin - as in “ Shroud of,” and, ok, the 2006 Winter Olympics, but I never really gave the city or area much thought. I sure couldn’t place it on a map. Somewhere near mountains, apparently. So before going I didn’t have any pre-conceived notions.
Had I known anything about wine, I would have been jumping up and down for joy. Had I known about the incredibly beautiful scenery, I would have cried out in happiness.
As I was lucky enough to find out, Torino is a vibrant city in Northwest Italy. Once the seat of immense power under the House of Savoy, Torino was the capital of the newly unified Italy in 1861.
Bordering France and Switzerland, the Piedmont region is known for fine wine – Barbaresco, Barolo and Barbera, for example - but until the Olympics this area was not so well-known to tourists, and is still a bit of a mystery. It’s time to change that.
You can’t talk about Italy without mentioning the great food and wine, so let’s start there.
The wine of the Piedmont region is world class – this is where the Nebiolo grape grows, giving the world the excellent Barolo and Barbaresco wines. And the white wines aren’t too shabby either!
I know next to nothing about wines, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying just about everything I tried.
The people in Torino and the Lakes region are only too happy to fill you in on what you’re drinking and why. If you already know your wines, you’ll be in heaven.
Yum! From a simple everyday espresso to Caffe San Carlo’s melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi and fabulous affogato al caffe (vanilla gelato gently doused with espresso), to Al Bicerin, fine purveyor of things chocolate (think firm creamy chunk of Nutella, but so much better) and their signature drink, the Bicerin: a layer of espresso, layer of chocolate, layer of cream; you can’t go wrong dining in this region.
Cheese and cured meats are also a specialty of the area, so be assured that the proscuitto is outstanding. This place is a gourmand’s nirvana.
In Torino, they even have something called the “ChocoPass”. It’s a book of tickets that offers you 10-15 samplings of chocolate in 24 or 48 hours. If I had only had the opportunity…
The Piedmont region is the birthplace of the Slow Food Movement, an effort to increase awareness of the food we eat. “Slow Food is good, clean and fair food.” To that end, the SF movement was instrumental in the recent opening of Eataly in Torino– an amazing market that offers an educational as well as gustatory experience.
They have a “cooking with top chefs” series of classes on site as well as other events on a regular basis. I mention this for two reasons: I was duly impressed with the store and philosophy, and there are plans to open an Eataly in Rockefeller Center, New York, NY, in 2008. Check the website and keep an eye out for it.
Beyond the food and wine, Torino and the Lakes have a lot more to offer.
Torino: the Shroud and then some!
Less than two hours west of Milan, Turin, or Torino, is full of old charm and new energy. Once a fortified city – there are still remnants of Roman walls – now it’s a lively city with vibrant cultural and art scenes. There’s something for everybody, whether you prefer classical or modern art or something in between.
Sometimes periods collide: I stayed at Townhouse 70, where old doorways belie the funky modern hotel rooms behind them. As you’ll read below, some historic buildings are home to contemporary collections. Sometimes this meshing of eras works fine, sometimes it feels a little jarring.
Museums for all tastes
There are so many museums to see that by the end of my time in the city, I had a serious case of “museum head.” Perhaps multiple museums in a day is a bit much, but with limited time and a tight schedule, you do what you can…
The city is ideal for walking and a traveler could easily pass a few days in Torino checking out the sights and taking in the museums at a more leisurely pace. The Museo Nazionale del Cinema (the National Cinema Museum) is my favorite – I could spend the whole day here.
Where else can you walk into a huge refrigerator and sit on a toilet seat to watch clips of absurd movies?!
Or lounge on a soft red recliner in a 19th century never-actually-finished synagogue watching Ferraris depicted in the movies on a huge screen (that was the featured theme while I was there).
There’s also a glass elevator that takes you up to the top of the Mole Antonelliana – the tallest brickwork construction in Europe - for a panoramic view of the city. If you get hungry after all the movie watching, check out the café - the color-shifting tables are fun!
Other museums worth seeing include The Egyptian Museum; Castello di Rivoli: Museum of Contemporary Art which is housed in a Savoy family castle, some parts of which date back to the 1300s.
Palazzo Madama – the Municipal Museum of Ancient Art which just reopened this past December (2006); and The Giovanni and Marella Agnelli Picture Gallery at the old Lingotto Fiat factory, which is now a multi-use building.
The Agnelli museum houses a permanent collection of works by Manet, Picasso, Renoir and Matisse to name just a few artists. These works don’t travel, so you can only see them in Torino. With the price of admission, you also get to walk on the old Fiat test track.
And of course there’s the church of the Holy Shroud, Duomo di San Giovanni, named for Turin’s patron saint, St. John the Baptist.
If you want to see the shroud itself, you’ll have to wait a while. It is rarely on display and the next viewing is 2025. The church is still worth seeing, though, as it is the city’s only surviving Renaissance building.
For those of you who prefer markets to museums, Torino is home to Porta Palazzo, the largest outdoor market in Europe.
There are also many open piazzas, or squares, complete with statues and monuments, perfect for people-watching while catching up on Italian history.
And don’t forget to enjoy a treat at one of the historic cafés like Baratti and Milano where the Turinese go to see and be seen.
Torino has so much to see and do and I’ve just barely scratched the surface. If you go, check out the Torino Tourism office. We had a guide and that made a huge difference in my appreciation of the city. Turin resident Carol Bazzani is superb – she knows her city and region, and handled everything related to our group outings with calm professionalism. If a guide is what you’re looking for, I can’t recommend her highly enough.
And now, on to the Lakes.
Two lakes, four islands and a plethora of museums
Winding our way through hairpin turns, catching glimpses of sparkly water below, the road from the main highway down to the village of Stresa on Lake Maggiore in Northwest Italy is not for the weak of stomach.
The houses lining the road are picture-perfect with meticulously manicured lawns and terraced gardens, just a foreshadowing of what there is to see in Italy’s Piedmont Region. Stresa is about an hour north of Milan and less than two hours from Torino.
A quaint town on the west side of the lake, Stresa is ideally situated as a base for exploring the area, and for picking up gifts and/or passing some time with an espresso on the piazza.
I stayed a short walk out of town at The Grand Hotel Bristol, and it really is “grand”! A big old-style hotel with beautifully appointed rooms and well-maintained grounds to match. Being a swimmer, I was particularly pleased to find a good-sized outdoor pool. The indoor pool is nice too, but a little warm for me.
The lobby is finely decorated; very open and airy. Many rooms face the water and have small terraces perfect for contemplating the crystal blue lake and distant mountains. And the food is really tasty – especially the pesto lasagna and desserts.
Next door to the Bristol is The Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees where Hemingway is said to have written A Farewell to Arms. Rumor has it you can check out the “Hemingway Suite” as long as nobody is using it.
A little further down the road is a cable car that brings people up the mountain to Mattarone. I didn’t go, but I’m told the views are spectacular.
The three islands close to Stresa, known collectively as Isole Borromee (Borromean Islands) are Madre, Bella and Pescatori. [The Borromeo family has been in the area practically forever and basically owns everything.] Pescatori is still a working fishing island, and offers a stark a contrast to Madre and Bella, which are maintained as tourist destinations.
Isola Madre is the biggest of the islands and features a lavish villa built by the Borromeos in the 16th century. The gardens are landscaped in the English style; they give the feeling of barely contained wildness. Peacocks and other birds fill the air with their cries and songs.
A walk through the villa reveals how this wealthy family lived and entertained in their day.
On a sad note, the 200-year-old Kashmir Cypress, Europe’s largest, was damaged in a freak tornado last year. It was uprooted and practically cut in half.
The heroic efforts to save the tree can be seen in the form of feeding devices and large stabilizing cables, and have so far paid off. New growth is visible.
Isola Bella, a smaller island with a bigger villa, was adorned with its palace and gardens in 1631-32.
The gardens on Bella are along the lines of traditional Italian baroque style: very organized and ornate. The villa is an amazing example of architecture. It is richly decorated and houses beautiful works of art, including Murano glass chandeliers.
Don’t forget to look up: beyond the chandeliers, the ceilings are also part of the artwork. You’ll see the family’s coat of arms everywhere with “Humilitas” in the center. It kind of makes you wonder, however, when you see the extravagance… maybe “humility” had a different meaning back then! At any rate, these properties are definitely worth seeing.
Unlike Isola Madre, Bella has great restaurants to help with post-museum hunger pangs. Try Restaurant Elvezia along the water: the pasta in the bowl made of parmesan cheese is delicious.
If you’re lucky, the chef might have some homemade Crema di Limoncello available. It’s like drinking a lemon merengue pie. With a kick. Wow!
The Borromeo family still owns the islands but leases them out to be run as museums, April through September. There is a public ferry from Stresa that makes the rounds of the islands.
Another lake, another museum or two
A little west of Stresa is Lago d’Orta (Lake Orta) and the lakeside town of Orta San Giulio. The town itself, the Sacro Monte, and the convent on the nearby island are the highlights here.
Orta San Giulio is pedestrian-only unless you live there, so if you have a car, you’ll need to park outside of the village. You can park outside of town and walk in, or leave your car up near Villa Crespi (check out the cool Moorish-style hotel) and take the little train (Trenino di Orta) into town.
The town itself is small, and makes for a leisurely walk along cobblestone streets past houses and little churches with intricate frescoes in varying states of decay and restoration. Many of these structures date back 600 years or more.
If you get hungry while in town, the San Rocco Hotel has excellent food. The chef there, Paolo Viviani recently won the “Risotto Olympics” – the international rice competition in Spain.
I can attest to the fact that he cooks up a mean risotto, among other things. The terrace of the hotel overlooks the lake, so even if you don’t eat at the hotel, it’s worth stopping to have appetizers and a drink on the terrace to admire the view.
There are many Sacred Mounts in the Piedmont area. These hilltop reproductions of Holy Land locations were originally conceived as a way of bringing Jerusalem closer so that more pilgrims could, as least in intent, make their pilgrimage.If Religious Art Is Your Thing
At the one above San Giulio, there are 20 chapels, each decorated with frescoes and life-size terra cotta statues depicting different aspects of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The work was started in 1590 and spanned more than a century.
Other Sacred Mounts are similar in design but may depict the life of Christ or other important religious figures, and are more or less elaborate – the one in Varallo is much bigger, for example. These sites have been named UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The convent on Isola San Giulio is a closed order. The nuns rely on research of ancient texts, restoring religious fabrics and other handiworks for their livelihood.
Other than the tourists traipsing through the Basilica to see the ancient green marble and frescoes from the 1300s, it’s really a very peaceful place with few “regular” inhabitants.
A path, La Via del Silenzio, (The Way of Silence) circles the island and is ideal for a contemplative walk.
Around the Lake Area
As for museums, I mentioned the ones on the Borromean islands, but there are also a bunch of small niche museums in the area. Our terrific tour guide, US-born Lauren Crow, mentioned some of them in passing and they sound really fun, especially the umbrella and parasol museum.
It seems you could spend a fair amount of time wandering around the area finding all sorts of gems. The website Distretto Turistico dei Laghi has more information about the area, as does The Regione Piemonte site.
Lauren is also available for groups and she’s very knowledgeable about Piedmont, having lived on Lake Maggiore for the last 20+ years.
Beyond City and Lakes
The Piedmont area has so much to offer beyond the tiny bit that I saw. City-lovers will do well in Torino, while those who like to poke through small towns and villages will have a lot to explore around Lakes Maggiore and Orta.
Outdoor enthusiasts can find plenty to do here too. Obviously there’s skiing and snowboarding in the areas made famous by the Olympics, but there are also some wilderness areas for back-country fans. The website Piemontefeel boasts a comprehensive list of outdoor activities.
If you’re more interested in white water pursuits, take a look at Centro Canoa e Rafting Monrosa.
As for me, I wouldn’t mind going back for the food. And the chocolate.
Laurie Ellis lives in Arlington with her husband Shady Hartshorne.
Husband and wife team Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis of Arlington, Massachusetts are among our most adventurous travel writers. Whether it’s open-water swimming in the British Virgin Islands, house-boating on the Suwannee River, zip lining in Costa Rica or soaring over the Grand Canyon in a Maverick helicopter, they go the extra mile to bring us great stories from all over the world. They live in Arlington, Mass.