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Why hadn’t I returned to Piemonte? After my first year of university, I lived with an Italian Professor of Philology who was eager to perfect her English. It was a great trade-off. She received daily lessons and I lived with her in this magnificent part of the world. Claudia, her boyfriend and I would pop into her car to visit libraries all over the country from Ferrara to Bologna, even as far as Munich. Needless to say, not only did my Italian improve, but also I ate so well. Lucky for me, she was a brilliant home cook. How could she not be with the produce that was available right at her doorstep?
I already felt at home before we drove through the gates of the Relais Sant’Uffizio, our home for two nights. On the winding roads leading up to the hotel, I couldn’t help but feel the years disappear. Everything was a reminder of that heavenly summer, especially row after row of grapevines lining the roads. No wonder my favorite wines, Barolo, Barbaresco, Dolcetto, all come from this area – Claudia only served local wines with dinner.
It’s hard to imagine this 16th C former monastery might hold the riches it does today until you discover its history. On the outside, it does emit a serious, authoritarian vibe that made it perfect for the home of the Inquisition Tribunal and the Dominican Inquisitor himself of Casale Monferrato.
It may all sound like doom and gloom, but these same religious-minded Dominicans produced wine for mass here. Rumor has it that even nearby Franciscans wished they had as much fun as these guys.
All was going well until that Frenchman Napoleon spoiled all the fun by conquering nearby Monferrato and taking control of the area. Out went the Dominicans and the land was redistributed.
Now, of course, we can enjoy the view without fear of being burned at the stake for our wicked ways. Never ending vistas of the surrounding hills towns dotting the landscape make it difficult to leave your room. Then, I heard the sirens’ call for lunch.
La Locanda Restaurant
We were in Italy and that means only one thing to me – pasta. Although everything on the menu is served looking like a work of art, more importantly it tasted just as good as it looked. Each course was served on different, patterned china, but it was the woodpecker motif that stole my heart – the woodpecker being the mascot of the hotel.
The Spa – who could resist!
After lunch we took a short bike ride around the area, but we all really wanted to get back to the spa! Water features, sauna, steam rooms, whirlpools – all the requirements for a wonderful spa were here with one added bonus – the view! From every point of view you could enjoy the outside. It was a bit of a blustery day, but sitting in the heated pool, looking out as the autumn leaves were sent spiraling by the wind outside, was the height of luxury for me. Thank goodness we really didn’t have to move until dinner.
Although you’ll never want to leave the hotel (and it’s not required!), I suggest renting a car and experiencing the small towns that make Piemonte famous. It’s hard not to be drawn into the lure of Alba with its tartufi, tagliatelle and torrone. I definitely think it’s the town to begin with if this is your first time in the area.
Tartufi & Tagliatelli
One of the strangest luxury items, even more so than caviar and oysters, looks like a little knobby ball, kind of half potato and the other half something you see on Embarrassing Bodies.
The Tartufo, not to be confused with the ice cream treat of the same name, is technically a fungus found near tree roots by trained dogs. Tartufi Morra is the truffle store in town, if you want anything to do with truffles!
Founded in 1930 by Giacomo Morra – he had the marketing prowess to turn this hard-to-find aromatic wonder into one of the most desirable food items in the world. Every year he used to present a truffle to the biggest celebrity in the world, from Marilyn Monroe to Winston Churchill. Make sure you ask them to show you the sculpture of the biggest truffle ever found!
Fresh Tagliatelle, a few slices of truffle, with a little dash of Parmesan and the rest is history. Ah that aroma – even looking at the picture makes my mouth water.
NB: You can bring your own truffle to any restaurant in town and they will add it to pasta. All you have to pay is the slicing fee!
How can you follow the best pasta dish of your life? Why with Torrone, of course. Torrone is Italian for that special nougat made from sugar, egg whites and nuts. As Piemonte is the home of hazelnuts – that’s what you find in the local product.
You can find it everywhere in Alba. These wonderfully kitschy stands lure you in, even if you don’t eat hazelnuts (which I don’t, but it was so tempting).
Neive – a gem in the land of Barbaresco
A short 15-minute drive from Alba and you are alone, without the truffle seeking crowds, in one of the chicest hill towns in Piemonte – Neive. The cobbled streets lead you up to the centre of the village where it seems that the locals vie for the title of sweetest looking house.
Blue or brown shutters, ivy covered houses, views that go on and on, but most importantly, this small village has tons of restaurants.
Il Ristorante Donna Selvaica has the prettiest view and the most modern cuisine. Sit and don’t leave until the sun goes down!
A hidden treasure in Neive is the Cantina del Glinice. Not only a wonderful winery and shop where Adriana Marzi and Roberto Bruno are ready with open wines and grappa for all to taste, they even have cheese and bread out and ready as well.
Make them show you the 16th C wine cellar in the back!
Serralunga di Crea – Paradiso Found
For your next visit, head north of the Relais Sant’Uffizio to the usually unvisited north side of Piedmont. Equally as beautiful as the south but without the magnet of Alba to attract visitors , this area gets short shrift from tourists, but holds some wonders of Italy.
Photo of the Hall thanks to justtwenteen
Unmissable is the tiny town with the long name, Serralunga di Crea. The simple town square holds a few cafes, a shop and a huge church. Not the prettiest in Italy, if I am truthful, but you would be remiss not to pop in. Inside there is a special hall where hundreds of pictures line the walls. These simplistic drawings are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, thanking her for saving them from car, motorcycle, work accidents, illnesses, operations, and more. It was very moving and revealed how important the power of faith was to the local citizens.
Cappella Il Paradiso
The primary reason to make a stop is to head up to the Cappella Il Paradiso. The Sacro Monte di Crea is one of the nine Unesco protected “Sacred Mountains of Piedmont and Lombardy.” At the top of this small mountain (not a taxing walk) sits a wonderful chapel. The Stations of the Cross that led up to the chapel acted as a substitution for those who couldn’t make it to the Holy Land.
Inside the chapel, three-dimensional angels fill a trompe-l’oeil sky above a painted altar. Pure artistic paradise, no matter what religion you may be.
After that overwhelming spiritual experience, you need a glass or two of the local wine! Thank goodness right down the hill sits the Tenuta Tenaglia winery. Sabine Ehrmann welcomed us in for a tasting and a lunch of local cheese and charcuterie. It has been in her family since 2001 and she has passionately led the company to win the Decanter World Wine Awards for their Barbera d’Asti DOC “Emotions” 2007 and the Monferrato Rosso DOC “Olivieri” 2007.
After only two days, we had eaten our fill of truffles, drank Barolo from barrels, relaxed in the most glorious of hotels and still had time to take a turn around in a carousel with some amazing colleagues. I definitely won’t let it be as long before I return again.
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NB: I was the guest of the Relais Sant’Uffizio & RMG PR & Events. I can’t thank them enough for inviting me to return to Piedmont, Italy and their lovely hotel after so many years. Everything I write is always my own opinion!