31 October 2015

2015 ITALY Alba 11 - Lodging

The Palazzo Finiti (click here to read more) in Alba wins for most square feet of space. Our suite named Azzura (or Blue) had two large rooms--a spacious bedroom with lots of storage and separate spacious lounge with desk, sofa, chairs, TV. The bathroom was also spacious except the shower. It was Jacuzzi style with several jets, but for us ugly Americans, we felt a bit squeezed in.

The view from our Juliet balcony was across a narrow cobble-stone street onto resident windows trimmed in lace curtains, flower boxes and wrought iron. Very quaint and Italian-ish. You could look up and down the street to lovely local buildings and passageways.

Chef John was right on for every location. This hotel has only nine well-appointed suites. It is located in the heart of Alba just 1-½ blocks from the historic main square and festival action. From the outside the building did not look like a hotel and, I think, originally must have been a wealthy family's residence. No signs other than the address numbers.

The lobby was warm, elegant, and inviting. In order to recreate the original atmosphere of Palazzo Finati, they house paintings of local artists of the area, which are also of sale.

The building itself is early 19th century recently renovated to preserve the original architecture, but add modern amenities. It had a tiny elevator just big enough for two and luggage. Rooms are individually decorated in Old World Italian style--lovely frescoed ceilings, antiques, marble bathrooms, hardwood floors, and Persian rugs.

The room keys weighed about a half pound each with a heavy doorknob like piece attached. This encouraged you to leave the key behind when you went out, so it didn't get lost. That worked for Mikie.

The breakfast buffet was in the lower level. It had a coved ceiling and original stonework. The two hostesses were most smiley and accommodating. They prepared your choice of coffee in extra large cups instead of the mini-espresso size. Needed it, loved it.

The buffet included cured meats and cheeses from the Langhe area, homemade breads and croissants, and fruits and jams. That was all we needed to get us going in the morning. Heck, we were still full from the previous day's meals.

Here is S&K's room.

Fun, fact:
Each room had a little card in it telling what famous people had stayed in that room. Lina Wertmüller (a female Italian director and one of our faves that often features Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini), Fioretta Mari (Italian actress), and Yōichi Takahashi (Japanese cartoon artist) had stayed in our room. And apparently Churchill, Marilyn Monroe and JFK (probably not at the same time!!) had also stay at this hotel.

Here is where our hotel was located in Alba (at Karen's cute face in white circle) and the donkey races were in the green field to upper left of us.

30 October 2015

2015 ITALY Alba 10 - City Tour

After a moment to get organized in our rooms, we met again in the lobby. Outside Chef John and our Alba tour guide, Gabriella, were waiting. We had a 2-hour walking tour highlighting Alba's history and city center. The population here is 33,000 (about the same as Manitowoc, Wisconsin), it had 32 towers at one point (known as the city of "100 towers"), and it lies along the Tanaro River. It is known for its white truffles and Nutella (made of chocolate and hazelnuts, company established in 1946).

Celts at one time inhabited this area of Italy, but were run out by the Romans. Alba is the Scottish Gaelic name for Scotland and we had a Scotsman in our group, so that was a cool factoid.

In the main square, Piazza Duomo, we saw the Alba cathedral of San Lorenzo built in the 12th century. It was built on holy Roman ruins and the floor is cut out at the entrance to view the original Roman baptismal fount. There is also a beautifully carved wood choir area behind the alter.

It was very busy in the Piazza as we continued through. This weekend was the Palio digli Asini--race of donkeys (more on this tomorrow). Antique vehicles were parading into the square for display and awards--various Fiats (established in 1899), fire engines, military, and others. Many drivers wore period clothes to match their cars. Mike was going crazy to check them out, but we could not spend much time here now. We came back later to look, but drizzle had ended this event early.

As we continued we passed through the main shopping street and other churches were pointed along the way:
- San Giuseppe, now turned into a cultural center, has the best bell tower view in town if you can climb the 134 steps.
- San Domenico was built in the rare Primitive Gothic architecture, rather than Baroque, and is also used for cultural events.
- Maddalena was quite primitive outside (uneven bricks, etc), but beautifully Baroque inside. Now it is converted to a museum and art gallery. The original church is intact in the front, while the works of Kiki Smith, a German-born American artist, are displayed behind the alter in the choir area. Her work is modern and a bit odd for my taste.

There was lots of entertainment and excitement along our tour route. People were dressed in colorful medieval costumes. Flags were being thrown high into the air and skillfully caught. Later found out these are called "flag weavers." Music playing.

At the end of the shopping street was another main square, Piazza Veneto (hope I have my piazzas correct!). There was a lovely antique carousel and lots of tents selling food items and wares.

We doubled back to our hotel and readied ourselves for dinner. Honestly I don't know how Steve and Karen continued. After traveling from the U.S., this was a long day for them, but they were not about to give up or miss anything.

Wines of this region are primarily barolo, barbaresco, and barber varieties, all made from the nebbiolo grape. We hopped on our van about 18:00 and drove 25 minutes to the town of Barolo. There we visited the first of nine wineries on our list, the Marchesi di Barolo Winery. It has a long (200+ year) and VERY interesting history (click here to read more). We had a tour of their cellars and learned about their process--some wood barrels and some stainless steel. Their operation is on a grand scale with barrels that each hold enough wine to fill 18,000 1.7-liter bottles.

This winery hosted our first dinner of the trip and it was fabulous. The dining room had only three tables. Ours was the largest holding eight (Giuseppe joined us). As you can see it was elegantly dressed with silver, linens, flowers, chair covers.

The meal was beyond anything our mind's eye could imagine. Each plate decorated colorfully and beautifully. The food included a beef carpaccio dish (veal and beef tartar is a specialty in the Piedmonte region and we had it three times during our Alba meals--not me, of course), polenta cake, the eggy tajarin noodles of the region, fresh veggies including purple potatoes, pomegranate seeds, and much more. Just no words or even photos to really describe.

And we tasted seven excellent wines throughout our scrumptious meal.

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was after 22:00. I think Chef John was still raring to go, but S&K must have collapsed in bed. They were troopers though and did not miss a lick. Even though we had a jump start to the trip, we were ready for bed as well.

29 October 2015

2015 ITALY Alba 9 - All Together

Again, ignore differences in font and paragraph formatting throughout. Blogspot is doing its own thing -- though it made "terribly" in paragraph four in a larger font for some reason which was appropriate.

I must interject a disclosure here ... My notes are quite shaky from writing in our van while driving and my mind is quite flaky from years of wear and tear, so I don't swear that any of the information I write about this trip is absolutely true. I will do my best to be accurate, but if you find an error, let me know and I'll fix it.
Today we had a 09:00 pick up from our driver Guiseppe (more about him later.) At first glance, he was prompt and pleasant. I had to apologize because he was making an extra trip to pick us up in Torino center city, while the other three travelers were being met at Torino airport.

Roads in the city seemed terribly narrow and twisty for his big 10-passenger van to maneuver through. It seemed like he was going above and beyond just to get us to the official start of the road trip. Little did I know that this is the norm for all Italian roads and traffic.

Chef John, Steve and Karen arrived on time at 10:00. We met them outside of Customs and Immigration. They looked a bit weary, but smiley and ready to go. Hugs all around and happy to be all together for the official start of our venture.

Our first destination was the Hotel Palazzo Finati (click here to read more) in Alba, about 1-½ hours away. I was puzzled by the road signs. Our route took us on 2-lane roads with lots of roundabouts, and every way we turned there were signs pointing to Alba, Asti, and back to Torino. I felt like we were going in circles. 
We indeed arrived at the hotel. It was too early to occupy our rooms, so we checked in and headed for a light (ha!) lunch at nearby cafe L’Inedito (translates to The Unpublished). Chef John seemed to personally know each chef and host of all the places we visited. I think this got us a few special perks along the way. Always hugs and both-cheek air kisses (first left cheeks then right) between them (man or woman). 

What a start to a culinary tour. I'm not going to show you a photo of every course of every meal on our trip, but I will for the first one, so you know what things were like. I wish I could remember the details of each dish, but things are a blur to remember after the fact. The first course was a red pepper soup with a splash of salty anchovy cream and rosemary focaccia. 

I am a pescatarian, so the only "meat" I eat is fish or seafood. This is not for religious or PETA reasons (although I do advocate for animal welfare rights), but I am a texture eater and "fleshy" things do not work in my mouth. Gnawing on a rack of ribs is just about the worse thing I can think of and it goes on from there. I don't mind if others enjoy carcass; just don't put it in my mouth.

Chef John was able to accommodate this situation at every place we ate and I appreciate that extra effort so very much. Our next course was a meat dish, but I got artichoke (if I remember correctly) smothered in fabulous fresh parmigiana cheese.

Several versions of local breads, bread sticks or crackers came with our food at each restaurant.

The pasta here was a rich egg noodle called tajarin and a specialty of this region of Italy. There was a veal ragú topping for everyone but me and I got a butter sage sauce.

Dessert was a chocolate on chocolate on chocolate cake with hazelnut sprinkles. Hazelnuts are a big crop in this area. During our drive here and later we would see lots of hazelnut tree orchards. These trees are quite short and squat compared to fruit orchards we see at home.
At the end of every meal a caffè drink was offered and served in a small teacup. Traditionally cappuccini are served before noon and espresso after noon.

And we had the Amaro we tasted in our Torino hotel room as a digestif.
After our meal we were invited down into the basement to see the wine cellar. This was housed in recovered ancient Roman ruins. Walls and ceiling were painted white and the wine displayed beautifully.

Back in our rooms we all needed a nap, but had only about a half hour to recover before continuing our activities.

28 October 2015

2015 ITALY Torino 8 - The Foodie Part

The culinary part of our tour included stops at four distinguished and historic caffès (or coffee houses). We went into Caffè Confetteria al Bicerin (established 1763), Caffè Torino (1903), Caffè San Carlo (1842), and Baratti & Milano (1858). Each had a variety of caffès, their own unique and fantastic pastries and chocolates, and spirits served later in the day. We peered into the windows of others as well.

They were all elegant and highly decorated with chandeliers, gold leaf, fancy staircases, mirrors, and painted motifs. Here we are in one of the caffès.

These caffès played an important role in Italian history. They were the gathering spots of politicos, artists, writers, composers, aristocracy, and intellectuals. Plots were discussed here to end struggles with Austria and Germany. Refugee politicos from other Italian States found safe haven here.

Baretti & Milano was our last stop and we treated ourselves and Arturo to caffès and macchiatos (coffee with chocolate). We learned that this shop so impressed the royal Savoy family that is was honored with the House of Savoy Coat of Arms. Our tour ended on this high note.

The others went back to the hotel, but I had a chore. I had ordered tickets for later in our trip from Eurail, but for some reason could not print them at home. I was going to the Torino train station to get them here to have in hand. When I got there the queue was on number 53. I was number 87. Luckily the line went fairly fast, and the people and dog watching was good. Not as many dogs on leash here as in France, but still entertaining.

When I got to the front of the line, the agent did not speak English and did not understand that I was not leaving from Torino on a train today. What was more confusing was that we had changed our destination city from Como to Varenna. 

Luckily I had printed lots of paperwork, confo numbers, etc. No one there spoke more than a few words of English, but I finally got my intentions through to the fourth person helping me. He worked a long time, but made me a happy person when our tickets popped out of the printer.

It was a nice walk from and to the hotel in the rain. I took two routes and saw some everyday shopping areas, kids returning from school, high end shops, gardens, book stores, young lovers and older couples holding hands. It was fun window shopping alone and at my own pace.

The other three were hitting the comp mini-bar when I returned. They discovered a new (for us) Italian liquor called Amaro, an herbal drink often used as a digestif. Personally, I didn't care for it that much.

So ... after a quick nap, off to dinner. L&S had scouted out a place called the Huntsman. I wasn't too keen on it to start with, an English pub in Italy?! Shouldn't we be eating somewhere Italian-y? But it was a good choice after all.

We had the best Margarita pizza we would have in all of our trip. We hung around for a few Heinekens (Mike says they taste MUCH better in Europe than the U.S.) and red wines. For a while we were entertained by an Italian rugby team after their meet. Those curly haired, dark eyed guys were just too cute.

After that a few more hits from the mini-bar, I began studying up on our next few days of travel in Alba.

27 October 2015

2015 ITALY Torino 7 - Black and White Magic

Arturo introduced us to the supernatural concept of Black, White, or "Both" magic cities. 

White magic cities are:  Prague and Lyon, France

Black magic cities are: London and San Francisco (never felt that way when we lived there and where does New Orleans fit in?!)

On the axis of both black and white magic cities or triangles is: Turin

This makes Turin a very powerful juju place. It has dark and light areas, depending on where you are. There is even a tour that guides you through areas displaying devilish faces, mysterious sundials, inverted pentagrams, and Masonic symbols on palaces, churches and elsewhere. 

And supposedly the legendary entrance to the Underworld is right here in Piazza Statute. There are dueling "good" and "bad" statues eyeing down each other. And once you get closer to the Shroud, things are on the lighter side. Hmm!

Read more black and white magic it at: maribiella.com/2012/10/02/turin-the-devils-city/



I'm not particularly sold on the concept. But hey, it's in The Washington Post, so it must be true.

2015 ITALY Torino 6 - Touring

We woke refreshed and ready to roll. First things first though. We were hungry. We met L&S in the lobby for a huge breakfast buffet. We ate our fill and then some. Several coffees (caffè in Italian) later we headed to the front desk for our meet up. Chef John had arranged a historic/culinary tour of Torino for 10:00. We were not sure what that was going to be, but we were ready.

Arturo was our guide for a delightful 2-hour walking tour. We learned of Torino's 2,000-year history, Italy's royal Savoy family, and much more. Torino, located along the Po River, became Italy's first capital city in 1861 and is the current capital of the state of Piedmonte.

Today was a pretty drippy day, but fortunately Torino has ten miles of open, arcade "hallways" constructed on the fronts of the buildings. This allows you to walk outside during the rain without the need of umbrellas.

Much of the old city is in Baroque style, very decorated and ornate. It evolved in this direction during Martin Luther's time, when people were turning to the reformed and simpler Protestant religion. In order to lure patrons back to Catholicism, churches were built more elaborately, colorful, fancy woodwork and alters. Much of that architecture still stands today.

But during WWII, 30% of the city was bombed by American troops--the target was industrial areas to halt the production of warfare vehicles and weapons. In the end, Italy was grateful for these actions because it helped to stop the Mussolini and Hitler regimes. But many buildings had to be replaced and were done so in a more modern style.

Two historic churches stand on one end of the Piazza Castello square. Behind them, in a kind of juxtaposition, is a Lictorian tower, also know as the "Finger of Mussolini." That is an Italian architectural style developed during the late Fascist period and inspire by ancient Roman architecture.

It was constructed in 1933, is 19-stories tall (extremely high compared to everything else in the area), was the first building in Italy to be built with a welded steel skeleton, and is stark and modern. This was one of Mussolini's headquarters and he spoke from its balconies. Later this was headquarters to Fiat Motor Company.

We continued browsing this historic square where we saw the side-by-side Savoy Palazzo Reale (palace of the King) with green gate protecting it

and the Palazzo Madama (palace of the Queen) with its imposing towers. Talk about sleeping in separate bedrooms!! In the Madama, the entrance floor was removed and replaced with thick glass to see down into the even older Roman ruins upon which the palace was built. The wide twin staircases were imposing. I can just picture the gowns and military uniforms swooping up and down those steps.

Adjacent to the palace is the private House of Savoy family church, the Church of San Lorenzo. It was built in 1560 and from the outside looks like an ordinary office building. Inside is quite a different story. Very elaborate with eight colors of marble, gold leaf everywhere, many huge and colorful religious paintings and statuary, and windows in a high cupola (some configured as a face to keep the devil out). At another window, the light only shines into the church during the two equinox days. This is classic "baroque" and my description really does not do the place justice. 

A replica of the Shroud of Turin is displayed in a side chapel here. The actual cloth, which is speculated to be the shroud covering Jesus after his crucifixion and on which his face is imprinted, is rarely on display. So this replica, along with other religious artifacts and information, is displayed here for the public to view.

We also saw the Opera House's big artistic metal gates protecting the entrance. Apparently they had to be installed because skate boarders were ruining the façade of the building. Opera season here starts this weekend, so there was a flurry of people about. Aida is first on the ticket.

We also walked past the Italian National Museum of Cinema (wish we could have lingered longer there). Throughout our time in Italy, whenever we told someone we had been in Torino, they asked if we had visited this museum. A definite for next time.

Then we arrived at the fascinating Royal Library. It is now part of the University of Turin. This was a private library owned and used by the royal family. The public was not allowed in as it was not "prudent" for the common man to become educated.

We were only there for a few minutes, but I could feel the knowledge enveloping me. So many ancient books, maps, papers, and artifacts. We even viewed original drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and scripts by Alessandro Manzoni, whose writings led to the development of the modern Italian language. We could not take photos inside, but here is one looking in.

For more info about Turin:

Read the "History of Mussolini in One Hour" on Kindle. Turns out he was mostly a bad guy AND a little bit of a good guy!