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Off the beaten – Piemonte

12 Oct
Leaving Le Marche and moving across the country, we took three trains to reach Bra in the Piemonte. No, it is not named for a feminine underthing. That word in Italian is reggiseno. There was, however, a bra thief that struck there.

Kitty has a view…of trains. Tromp l’oeil in Bra.

Many people have heard of Asti and Alba, but Bra is a smaller town with less than 30,000 people, famous as being the place the Slow Food movement started. For such a tiny place it had amazing restaurants. Two out of our three dinners there were truly stellar.
Boccondivino was the first restaurant to be opened by the Slow Food Movement in the 1980s. We found the food to be inspired without being pretentious, and prices unbelievable for the quality. It is Michelin-listed; no stars, but still! Even excellent Piemontese wine was available by the glass for €3-5 per glass. Our total bill was only €70 including a shared antipasto (a roasted yellow pepper wrapped around tuna pate), two secondi (rabbit for Ric that was perhaps the most beautifully prepared rabbit we’ve ever seen, and roasted guinea fowl for me), a shared dessert, four glasses of wine, a grappa, and caffè. We so appreciated the impeccable-but-not-stuffy service and fair pricing to go along with memorable food. Unfortunately, I was so caught up in the moment, I did not even take any food photos. That is a good thing.
We so enjoyed Boccondivino that we wanted to go back on our third evening. But I did not call until lunchtime Friday and they were completely booked. I sought out something completely different: a seafood restaurant in land-locked Piemonte. Ristorante La Bula serves only seafood and the reviews were terrific so we reserved a table. It may be landlocked, but this part of the region is quite close to Liguria where seafood is a religion.
I think I woke up the owner when I called to make the reservation in the mid-afternoon and we were the first to arrive half-an-hour after they opened. They did not look like they expected a big crowd. It is a lovely space, tucked back under the portico of a very old building, but modern and chic.
I am happy to say a few more dinners arrived and we had an amazing dinner! It was the best seafood dinner we have had since leaving Roma. We started with calamari alla griglia con crema di ceci (grilled calamari with creamed chickpeas, much like a soft hummus), then shared tagliatelle con ragu di polpo (pasta with octopus ragu). Ric had the fried Mediterranean goodness of fritto misto, while I enjoyed the branzino alla griglia con verdure (sea bass with vegetables). The wine list included many regional wines, but we snuck across the border to Liguria for one of our favorites, Vermentino. A lovely grappa capped off the dinner. I might not have reason to return to Bra, but if we are ever within 50 miles, I would detour to eat here.
Boccondivino night 1, La Bula night 3. Where did we eat on night 2 in this food capital? It was not so much where as when: we ate in the 1950s. Our B&B recommended Badellino and on the strength of that recommendation (after all, he also recommended Boccondivino) we made a reservation. We were first to arrive, but the restaurant quickly filled, mostly with locals, it seemed. The menu was uninspired, the presentation and preparation even less so. There was an antipasto cart where for €13.00 per person the woman in charge of the dining room would load a plate for you with beef tartar, the local bra sausage served raw, insalata russie (I abhor insalata russie!), guinea fowl salad (no doubt made from last night’s leftovers), and a few other rather unsavory looking items that had been sitting at room temperature. Can you say ptomaine? As a primo we chose a pasta which was pretty good, made from the local sausage that was mercifully cooked. My main course was roast beef Barolo, which was, in fact, a tender piece of beef in a Barolo sauce, but it was so lonely on the plate, just a slab slathered in the gravy, no side dish, no color, not even a sprig of parsley. It looked like something served in a church basement in the Midwest when I was growing up. Neither of the servers spoke any English, which was odd in a destination that attracts an international wine crowd, and the décor of this 100-year-old establishment might last have been spruced up in 1959. We paid the same here as we did at Boccondivino! At least they had grappa and the wine was a good value.
So what did we do besides eat? This is an amazing wine region after all. We took two daytrips: Alba and Cuneo.
We enjoyed traveling some by Regionale, the not-so-fast workaday trains of the Trenitalia system. Trains that are taken more by Italians commuting to work or to shop, and by students from middle school through University. There is a lot of commuting between cities like Torino and Bra and Bra and Alba. Every day we encountered swarms of students: out in the morning, returning mid-afternoon. 
We also saw a wide variety of agricultural landscapes, quite different from other regions of Italy. Corn fields dominated where we expected grapes, and small vineyards clung to hillsides. There were more hazelnut (filbert ) trees than in the Willamette Valley! In Alba, vacuum-packed bags of dried and roasted nocciole (hazelnuts) were in nearly every shop and a hazelnut torta was a featured dessert.
Bra is not really in the hills where they produce wine. It is rather on the edge, whereas Alba is right in the Langhe. In Alba, we found an immensely attractive town, very focused on the upcoming La Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba (white truffle festival). We are not truffle fans (you either are a fan, or are not, IMO) so I am glad we missed those crowds. We also found that Alba is the home of Ric’s favorite grappa, Sibona. We dithered for about five minutes before deciding to ship a winter supply home. You cannot buy this stuff in the U.S. 
In a small world moment, the little cafe we chose for lunch had a slight Oregon connection: the owner’s sister-in-law is in the wine business and knows Ponzi.
Now a departure for a few fashion photos. As anywhere in Italy, style is important and even in these little towns of rural Piemonte there were some interesting trends that caught my eye. 
We also ventured to Cuneo, capital of the province that encompasses Alba and Bra. This is an amazingly beautiful city, very busy and a delight to wander. There are no tourists, it seems. True, no big “sights” or “sites” but that is what off-the-beaten-path is about: Seeing places that do not attract the hordes. We only had a few hours, but could easily have stayed a few days. It is nestled up against the Maritime Alps. I would love to see it in winter when the peaks are snowy.

 

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Off the beaten – Le Marche

11 Oct
We decided to veer away from our original plan of going to Roma. As our son said, “You lived there almost five years! Why are you going back already?” On reflection, we realized we were mostly going there to eat at our favorite places, and to see our friend Eleonora. Sorry Ele, but Derek made sense: we decided to go to one region we’d never visited — Le Marche — and to Piemonte, where we have only visited Torino. Rome will have to wait.

The view from our room. The beach was never any busier than this.

For Le Marche it is difficult to pick one base. It is a region with such geographic diversity that it is time-consuming to get around only by train and bus. With a thought to visiting Urbino (famous Renaissance city) and Ravenna (for the Byzantine mosaics I have been wanting to see for years) I booked us into a very nice hotel in Pesaro (say it PAYZ-a-row).
Pesaro is an Italian beach town which in July or August would be swarming with bronzed bodies. In late September many hotels were boarded up for the season and the beach was deserted. No doubt the reasonable price for our room in the five-star Hotel Excelsior was due to the season. While in Oregon people still swarm to the coast in the fall, in Italy the season is over, no matter how nice the weather.
Offseason made for easy, if long, day trips to Urbino and Ravenna, with quiet walks and dining in Pesaro in the evening. Then there was the up-close view of the Adriatic from our balcony.
We really enjoyed walking around Ravenna and ogling the magnificent mosaics. Having dabbled in mosaics myself, I am in awe of the work done centuries ago. We had perfect weather and lucked into a fine lunch at Il Paiolo. Since Ravenna is in Emilia-Romagna, home of the piadina, we were able to get piadine made by people who really know what they are doing. It may seem simple, but a great piadina is not common. Mediocre ones are.
Urbino was interesting but it is a city of hardscape without much green to relieve it. We toured the Palazzo Ducale and were suitably impressed, but overall, we prefer quainter, less severe towns and more drama in our scenery. The Le Marche landscape surrounding it is lush and begs exploration with a car. It was a long bus trip made interesting by the other passengers and the little rural towns we passed through showing a slice of small-town Italian life.

These people are buying fish. I was amused by the view. The awning is down because the kiosk faces the morning sun. Wouldn’t you think they’d orient the kiosk the other way?

We were less-than-thrilled with seafood in Pesaro. I expected better from an Adriatic town. It wasn’t that the product was poor: it was in fact very fresh. But the preparation was uninspired. Simple grilling would have been best. There was often too much breading and a propensity to fry. With little seasoning, everything tasted the same. Even vegetable options were limited to potatoes and the ever-present insalata verde. Italians do not do great salads, which is a shame given the amazing ingredients available. Prices were not bad, but for similar prices in Lincoln City, we eat far better seafood. And I have had far better in Roma.

Pesaro is a working port and fresh fish is available on the docks.

After trying two seafood restaurants that were right on the beach (the scenery surpassed the food), we turned our attention to a little osteria in the centro storico, Osteria Pasqualon. We were warmly welcomed and served a simple but excellent meal of vitello alla limone, patatine fritte, erbe di campagnolo, melanzane parmigiana, and spiedini misti. (Veal scaloppini, French fries, sautéed field greens, eggplant parmesan, and mixed grilled kabob.) No fish. The price for all of this, with wine, was about €37.00. And that is another wonder of getting off the beaten path: you can find amazing food in Italy at an unbelievable price.
Pesaro was relaxing after Venezia – maybe too much for some people who feel they have to fill every day to the brim. We had had four busy weeks since we left home and more to come. We saw some places from this base that I am happy we got to see. And it was a great opportunity to practice my Italian as outside of the Hotel Excelsior the available English was limited. We liked having a base and not having to spend a series of one-and-two night stays to see some small towns.
P.S. – We are in Paris now. I am trying to catch up with blogging, but we are rather busy enjoying ourselves. Part II about Piemonte coming up soon!

 

Of castles and kings

29 Jan
Palazzo Reale, the royal residence in the heart of Torino at Piazza Castello.

Palazzo Reale, the royal residence in the heart of Torino at Piazza Castello.

Americans do not usually visit Torino (Turin in English), yet it is a remarkable city that deserves a closer look. We first visited in 2014. That year as a birthday gift for Ric, my train-a-holic spouse, I found the longest trip one could make in a high-speed Frecciarossa train from Roma: a little over 4 hours to Torino. As the ride was the objective, we only stayed one night (see “Motown Italy”). What a mistake. We decided to correct that.
Torinese architecture, the Museum of the Risorgimento in Palazzo Carignano, one of the Savoy Palaces.

Torinese architecture, the Museum of the Risorgimento in Palazzo Carignano, one of the Savoy Palaces.

Setting our sights on getting to know the area and seeing some of the museums as well as palaces of the Savoia, we slipped away this week for 3 nights. The charming B&B A Casa di Giò was our home. Here we found a quiet refuge, incredible hosts and, reinforcing my impression that Americans do not stop in Torino, we were the first American guests to stay in their home. Located near Piazza Castello, the heart of Torino, A Casa di Giò was perfectly located to explore the city on foot.
A typical porticoed street makes for nice shopping, protection from heat or rain.

A typical porticoed street makes for nice shopping, protection from heat or rain.

Torino is pedestrian friendly to a fault. Not once did a motorino creep up my backside as they do in Roma, and drivers actually yielded to pedestrians in the crosswalks. Lovely wide sidewalks under substantial porticos reminded us of Bologna, last winter’s city trip. The wide piazzas and generous parks combined with tree-lined boulevards reminded us a bit of Paris. No wonder! Napoleon’s occupation of the Piemonte resulted in a legacy that left the city of Torino with some of these grand public places.
Apericena is a thing in Torino as well as Milano. Buy a glass of good wine for €7.00 and you get a plate of savories at Mulassano. Stop a few places and you've had cena, Italian for dinner.

Apericena is a thing in Torino as well as Milano. Buy a glass of very good wine for €7.00 and you get a plate of savories at Mulassano. Stop a few places and you’ve had cena, Italian for dinner.

Who goes to Torino? It is very much on the radar of Italians and other Europeans. There’s a vibrant opera and the Piemonte region is also the home turf of the Savoys, Italian royalty that spawned several kings of the newly unified Italy in the 19th century. The patrimony of modern Italy is here. Castles and kings indeed!
La Mole Antonelliana. We tried to ascend, but were foiled by a Japanese film crew that had taken it over for a shoot.

La Mole Antonelliana. We tried to ascend, but were foiled by a Japanese film crew that had taken it over for a shoot.

La Venaria Reale is the Versailles of Torino. It is much easier to get to than Versailles, and far less crowded. We thought we would pass a couple of hours here. We could have spent much of the day! As the vast gardens were in hibernation, we chose to skip them and return sometime on a sunny spring day.
A sprawling estate dating to the 17th century, La Venaria was built as a hunting lodge. In its heyday, the stables housed hundreds of horses and dozens of hunting dogs. The estate has had a history of construction, destruction, additions and renovations so extensive that it is difficult to believe anyone had time to live here. Unfortunately, during the Napoleonic domination, the structures were turned into barracks and the gardens used for military training. The Italian military continued this tradition until 1978, after which it was ransacked to the degree that neither doors nor windows remained. We saw pictures of what a train wreck the property was just a couple of decades ago. Fortunately, those interested in preserving Italian history embarked on a restoration project and since 2007 it has been open to visitors.
This is how crowded La Venaria was.... Most of the people here are the same Japanese film crew we encountered at La Mole.

This is how crowded La Venaria was…. Most of the people here are the same Japanese film crew we encountered at La Mole.

I had some familiarity with the House of Savoy due to my work as a docent at the U.S. Embassy. The main palazzo at the embassy is called Palazzo Margherita as Queen Margherita of Savoy live in it for 20 years. This family has deep roots. Dukes and Counts, Marquis and Marquesses, not to mention Kings of Sardegna, Sicily, and Italy, this family dates back to 1003.
Ceiling detail, La Venaria Reale.

Ceiling detail, La Venaria Reale.

La Venaria is only one of many luxurious palaces ringing the city of Torino built, as the website states to create a refined “Crown of Delights” around the capital, as a demonstration of the magnificence of the House of Savoy. It is good to be the king.
A little something from the Egyptian Museum. Many of the artifacts were transported across the mountains from Genova in military wagons pulled by horses, 19th century style.

A little something from the Egyptian Museum. Many of the artifacts were transported across the mountains from Genova in military wagons pulled by horses, 19th-century style.

While we did not get to see any other palaces or castles from the interior (I can only handle so much majesty in a day), many are in use for other purposes, such as the Museum of the Risorgimento at Palazzo Carignano, and the Municipal Museum of Ancient Art in Palazzo Madama. This website has links to information about all of the Royal Residences.
We did manage to fit in a visit to the impressive Egyptian Museum, the second most important in the world for Egyptology enthusiasts (only the museum in Cairo is considered more important). A five-year renovation was completed less than a year ago, and the result is a well-curated, open, light, and engaging museum. Why is the second-largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in Torino? It all started with a purchase by a Savoy King, Carlo Emanuele I in 1630…. Castles and kings indeed.

 

 

Motown, Italy

7 Apr
We made a mistake when we visited Torino: we didn’t stay long enough. The trip was a celebration for Ric’s birthday and the goal was to take the longest train trip possible from Rome on a high-speed Frecciarosso.  Torino was a match for that plan, 4 ½ hours each direction, so we set out on the morning of Ric’s birthday expecting to find a pleasant enough city, have a good dinner, then another long train ride back to Rome on Sunday.
No driver! Passengers are free to observe the "view" of a clean tunnel as the train whizzes along.

No driver! Passengers are free to observe the “view” of a clean tunnel as the train whizzes along.

The train is such a joy! Faced with a 4 ½ hour flight I want to slit my wrists, but 4 ½ hours on the train facing my sweetie across the convenient table, gazing out the window, with time to read, nap, and surf the internet, is so fine! The stewards come by with coffee and little snacks, and of course there’s a bar car for light meals and wine. Certainly beats flying.
Torino is indeed a pleasant city. Much of it is new-ish due to heavy damage in WWII, but the predominant architectural style is Baroque. It was the first capital of reunified Italy in 1861 and home of Italy’s royal family, the House of Savoy. Today it is “Motown, Italy:” the headquarters of Fiat, Lancia, Iveco, and Alfa Romeo are here.
With only an afternoon and evening to explore, we had to make a
Happy passenger in the Torino Metro.

Happy passenger in the Torino Metro.

smart choice. After a quick lunch, Ric chose the  Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile (The National Automobile Museum) as our first stop. I was prepared to be bored, but hey, it was his birthday so the agenda belonged to him. After all he succumbed to my whims for my 5-day birthday celebration last month.
The first pleasant surprise was the Metrotorino: sleek, modern, Habittrail-like, no graffiti, no crowding, no noise…and no driver! Metrotorino whisked us to within a short walk of the museum. Boredom was not the emotion I felt upon entering. This is an amazingly well-curated exhibit of over 200 vehicles in 200,000 square feet! The collection includes an 1896 Bernardi and an 1899 Fiat, as well as cars by Rolls Royce, Peugeot, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Benz, Oldsmobile, and more. There are Formula One cars, family cars, a mock assembly line, films, WWII vehicles, models, perspective on the changing world of automotive transport, man-machine interaction, etc.
I decided the tube the Metro runs in resembles the hamster set up Derek used to have, a Habittrail.

I decided the tube the Metro runs in resembles the hamster set up Derek used to have, a Habittrail.

I thought the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile would be a bust and was amazingly surprised. I had looked forward to the Museo Nazionale del Cinema  in the Mole Antonelliana. While it certainly documents the development of film, it was a bit heavy on old equipment and artifacts from the earliest days of the cinema. The building itself is fabulous. As we were there at night, and a rainy one at that, we skipped the panoramic elevator noting we need to return on a clear day.
Click any picture below for a slide show featuring some of the exhibits in the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile. 
And on that note, we really do need to return to Torino. We missed the Egyptian Museum, the Baroque and Rococo palazzi , not to mention the gardens and shopping. The food was excellent and for our single dinner in the city we were fortunate to select Sotto la Mole. It is very small and intimate with a limited menu, beautifully prepared and served.
Ghost Bike detail

Ghost Bike detail

Ghost Bike sculpture in Torino

Ghost Bike sculpture in Torino

Torino is at the foot of the Alps, close to the French border, and the Piemonte Region is well-known for its food and wine. The Alps here beckon for summer exploration, so we will be back and spend more time in Torino on the way. 
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