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.
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.