Whetting portly appetites in Piedmont

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May 11th 2010
Published: May 14th 2010
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We woke fairly late again and headed back to the lead singer’s café for coffee and free wifi. The heavens opened and we scurried back to the hotel to check out by 9.30am. We caught a train to Santa Margherita, picked up a take away lasagne and headed up to a hilltop garden to lunch in the rain overlooking the Mediterranean. An absolutely amazing way to travel - steadfastly refusing to give in to the weather. We then walked back into the city centre and caught a boat to Portofino, climbed the slippery steps to the castle and cathedral and then headed back on a 5km walk to Santa Margherita. We arrived at the train station at 5pm for our 5.30pm departure, and played table soccer to fill in the time (we were soundly beaten by our guide and a fellow traveller).

We discovered our train to Asti had been delayed by 20 minutes, which suddenly extended to three hours in a matter of minutes. In a desperate attempt to get to Asti in time for our scheduled dinner at 8pm, we chanced another train to Genoa in the vague hope that we could catch a connecting train to Asti. We arrived in Genoa around 6.30pm, narrowly missing the connecting train. We now had to wait for another train, which wasn’t going to arrive until 10.30pm. We settled down in the open air on platform 6, picked up a few pizzas and drank red wine from plastic cups. We played cards, charades, sang songs, learnt a few tai chi moves and generally had a ball while we waited. There was nothing we could do - water had flooded a tunnel on the Cinque Terre railway and only one train could get through at a time. Every train in the area was delayed, many were cancelled and we simply made the most of a completely unavoidable situation. It was brilliant!

We eventually left the station at 10.25pm, arrived in Asti at midnight, checked into our hotel just across from the station, had a beer/mineral water and went to bed...

We woke early and headed down for a great breakfast at 7am. We then caught a bus to a small village with a group of young art students who we were encouraged by our tour guide to sit next to and ask their name, age and where they lived. Our conversations went well beyond that. I sat next to Valentina, a 15 year old art student who lived in a small apartment in Asti with her parents and her younger brother Andrea. My incomprehensible Italian was useless, so her patience and language skills breached our communication divide. We dropped the students off at their destination, reached our small village and walked among the vineyards until lunch time, where we reconvened for a wine tasting. The wine was unbelievable and the setting (especially the cellars) was fantastic. A thunderstorm erupted outside while we tasted reds and sparkling whites accompanied by cheese, jam and salami. We then walked to one of the most amazing restaurants we have eaten in to-date - a small family run business in a small Italian country town. Words can’t really convey the taste experience. The hospitality was amazing, as was the wine and complimentary grappa at the end of the meal!

We then caught a bus to a small art theatre where our young art students had spent their day. They treated us to an afternoon of carousel entertainment and theatre that exceeded any expectation I had of this trip. Valentina ensured I experienced the art they had created, and on the return journey to Asti I discovered her favourite television program was a cartoon staring Hilary (a young singer) which I promised to try and watch on morning television before I left Italy.

We headed back to our hotel, had a very short nap and ventured out for a light dinner of mushroom risotto, truffle pasta, tiramisu and profiteroles. Asti is an amazingly welcoming place. I met young guitarists who were more than happy to share their guitars; young artists who were more than willing to share their art, and young teachers who were more than willing to welcome tourists into their town and into their classrooms. If I was asked to nominate the most incredible experience of any holiday I have ever had, I would say the time I spent in Asti with young art students who were prepared to share their art so enthusiastically and willingly. This was a truly amazing experience, and one which I really owe to Intrepid Travel.

I may have lived to tell the tale after walking the Cinque Terre path but I was harbouring a sore and angry left knee after the event, so I hadn’t really been looking forward to carrying a pack and travelling to the region of Piedmont. However as travel days go, we were very spoilt. On our way north, we stopped for a few hours to visit the seaside town of Santa Margherita. We caught the train from Levanto to Santa Margherita and had a picnic lunch in the grounds of Villa Durazzo...Lasagne is famous in these parts, so armed with some from Trattoria Da Pezz near the Duomo, and some bread and hard pecorino cheese we settled in for a little feast under some palm trees in the mansion’s lush gardens...in the rain! When I said the rain hadn’t stopped us from doing things we wanted to do, I wasn’t kidding. 😊

We were then treated to a very pretty boat trip to the ritzy peninsula of Portofino which is a pretty place but not without its fair share of tacky souvenir shops. Andrew and others from the group walked up to the look-out at the castle; but I had to be kind to my knee, so Claire, David and I decided to get an early start on a walk back to Santa Margherita (5km). I highly recommend this walk - the view was breathtaking. On one side of the path were gorgeous mansions with beautiful gardens, gates and high walls, and on the other side were yachts and rocky outcrops in blue green waters. A most agreeable way to spend a drizzly/muggy/sunny spring afternoon on what was essentially a travel day.

We got back to the train station in Santa Margherita with about 30 minutes to spare only to see that our train was delayed by 20 minutes...and then one hour...and then two hours...and then three hours! It turned out that a tunnel in the Cinque Terre was flooded and trains were only trickling through (excuse the pun). Alvaro thought that we would be better off getting a short train to Genoa which was a bigger station and try getting to Piedmont from there. Our original train was eventually cancelled and we were faced with a five hour wait at Genoa station for a 10:24pm train. Normally this would have been a pretty horrible thing to happen, but being surrounded by fun and happy people meant that this was more of an adventure than a mishap. Alvaro picked up pizzas, Andrew broke open a bottle of red we had bought in Lucca, and others shared chips, chocolates and biscuits. Alvaro then taught us how to play a card game called briscola or scopa (depending on where in Spain or Italy you hail from). Between card games, bad singing, charades and telling jokes, the time passed relatively quickly but we were still very happy to finally get on that train!

And on to Piedmont we went. Piedmont is the home of rare white tartufi (truffles), hazelnuts and lots of wine. We are based in Asti which is a quaint little town (the little we saw of it) and a fabulous location from which to experience regional Piedmont. As we pulled into the station in Asti at midnight, I remembered that Piedmont is also the home of ferrero roche, nutella and frangelico. 😊

We stayed at Hotel Cavour which was a great family owned hotel with warm and welcoming staff and a great value breakfast. And the fact that it is only a two minute walk from the train station was much appreciated after the LONG travel day. We were just too shattered the next morning to manage anything more than a coffee and a nutella filled pastry in the hotel café before we headed out.

We were heading out to the countryside in the Monferrato area for the day and we happened to catch a bus with school kids from a local Art school going out on excursion to a theatre in Castagnole (where we were heading too). Alvaro wanted us to practice our Italian and give the students a chance to practice their English, so he arranged for us to pair up with the students for the bus ride. It was all very awkward at first, but as we all relaxed, it was surprisingly fun and very rewarding. I sat next to Manuella who was a very beautiful young woman with a bubbly personality, so it was very easy to share stories and a laugh with her...making ourselves understood with some words, but mostly gestures and smiles. When the journey ended, we exchanged contact details and I look forward to possibly having a pen friend in Italy... 😊

The group spent a day exploring the countryside in Castagnole, which is gorgeous and filled with little hilltop villages and vineyards, and we eventually stopped at the Luca Ferraris winery to do some sampling. The ruche grape variety is unique to this part of Italy and it’s grown in just the surrounding small villages around Asti - talk about local! Ruche is a light wine, and Andrew and I favoured the fuller bodied barbera red wine much more, and it matched the salami that was provided very well.

We had lunch down the road at a fabulous agriturismo (these are farm properties that have been converted into rural hotels and restaurants around Italy) called La Miraja, which served a delicious four course long lunch matched with the ruche and barbera wines we had just tasted. It was run by the very amiable Eugenio (who ran the front of house) and his mother who cooked the fabulous food...veal with a mustard and mushroom mayonnaise cream, leek tart, penne with sausage and ragu sauce, a slow cooked beef stew with vegetables, fresh fruit salad, and an espresso and a shot of grappa or limoncetto (Asti’s version of limoncello) to finish. 😊

After lunch we met up with the students again at their theatre outing, and the theatre experience helped along by our ‘buddies’ was fantastic! It was set up in the grounds and large rooms of an old mansion and the resident artist - Antonio Catalano, was an extroverted performer and visual artist who had entertained a bunch of 15 year olds the whole day and then fully committed to entertaining a bunch of travellers. We were asked to regress to a childlike state to fully enjoy the fantasy setting of the theatre...Andrew and I had absolutely no trouble doing that! Much fun was had but we were really looking forward to a short nap when we got back to the hotel.

We have never tasted white truffles before, so we had been very disappointed that the delayed train had meant missing out on a truffle focussed dinner - but luckily we managed to get into the same restaurant - Tartufo D’oro the next night. However we were still very very full from the massive lunch and all we could fit in was a primo of risotto porcini (risotto with porcini mushrooms) and fettuccine alla tartufo (fettuccine with white truffles). We both definitely prefer the fuller flavour of the black truffle to the very subtle flavour of the white one, but it was still such a fabulous experience to be able to taste these unique and distinctive delicacies in their traditional home region.

Just quietly between you and me…I think we are really starting to discover the secrets of la dolce vita on this trip… 😄

You would be forgiven for thinking that we love Piedmont solely for its overabundance of glorious food and wine! This is partly true, but we also love the culture and way of life here. It appears that most of the tourist world is unaware of the many treasures hidden in this quiet and unassuming region and for that we are very grateful, it would be such a pity if it got as crowded as Tuscany.

We travel further north to Milan in the Lombardy region next…

postscript: after a week of being back home I realised that we had forgotten to address a rather major cause for concern for me (Ren) on this trip - squat toilets! I had no idea that they existed in Italy and so was rather taken aback when faced with them in train stations and regional areas like Asti (and I had had no chance to mentally prepare myself for it as I do when I travel to Asia). But happily they were very clean and usually had no queue for them, so we (well, Ren) managed to negotiate them without too much anxiety or agitation. Speaking of toilets in general in Italy, even though I heard many people complaining about having to pay to use public toilets, I was more than happy to part with a few coins if it meant a clean and non-stinky toilet! 😊


16th May 2010

Guys am totally in awe of your travel tales. I just look forward so much to each one and to my delight I find 2 in my inbox today! My mouth is watering everytime I read your description of all the fresh food and glorious wine! It sounds like you are having such a wonderful time and I'm so pleased! Can't wait to hear more!
17th May 2010

Re: wow
Thanks Sang! Yes as you might have guessed, the food is a HUGE highlight of this trip. We are such piggies! xx

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