Living like a princess in Piedmont

Following our unbelievable stay at the Villa Feltrinelli in Lake Garda, we headed to Piedmont in order to experience the opening of the annual Truffle Festival in Alba.  If you are a lover of truffles, hazelnuts,  Barolo wine, and Torrone nougat; among other delectable treats, this destination should be on your bucket list.

We were picked up following lunch at the Villa Feltrinelli, and settled in for an uneventful three hour car ride.  We were heading west, bypassing Milan to the north, ultimately ending up in Guarene at The Castello di Guarene. The Relais & Chateaux property is an actual Castle built for the Count of Roero in the 18th Century,  and it is considered to be one of the best hotels in the region.  IMG_1715.jpeg

From the castle’s position at the highest point atop the hill, it was certainly a sight to behold.

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We arrived as the sun began its descent, and used the last bit of daylight to do a quick look around before we were shown to our room.

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The grounds, particularly the manicured topiaries, were impressive.  The town of Guarene itself is quite small, but truly lovely.

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The staff who welcomed us couldn’t have been friendlier, and quickly showed us to ur room.  We had booked a Castle Deluxe room, which was nicely appointed with period furnishings, and was quite spacious.

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Our accommodation had a lovely plaque outside, but curiously was located next to this evil looking fenced in area.  It may have been quite innocent, but my imagination went straight to the scary scenarios of misbehaving guests being locked away.  If there were any prisoners back there, we were  grateful we didn’t hear a peep out of them during our stay.

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Sometimes the “old School” description is spot on, as it was in this case.  While all the modern amenities were present, you could easily imagine you were stepping back to another time.

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The bathroom was rocking a bit of a 70’s vibe in my mind, with the choices of marble seeming a bit shagadelic.

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The Hermes toiletries were a nice addition, and went a long way in making up for the brown marble.

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We left our unpacking until later, and continued on to explore the rest of the Castle.  The interiors were quite expansive, and filled with all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies.  Although I believe the hotel was full in anticipation of the Truffle Festival the next day, it seemed very quiet.  We could have played some pool if we had the urge.

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The bar was small but inviting.  I tested out the bartender’s skills with a Negroni, he did a good job.

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There were tempting candy jars on display that were constantly being refilled.  The multi-colored marshmallows were a nice touch.

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We had booked a dinner for our first evening at a local Agriturismo, but once we had arrived at the Castle, we decided we wanted to stay put.  We were tired from our day of travel, and feeling just a little bit lazy.  The Castello offers two dining options, a casual restaurant called Le Vele, and a more formal option we were slated to dine in on our last night.  IMG_1724.jpeg

We were the only guests dining in the casual restaurant that evening, but it was just right for us.  A good bottle of Barbaresco (we would be visiting Ceretto in a couple of days) , as well as a salad and a standout array of local cheese was perfect.

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Following our dinner we stopped for a couple of marshmallows,  unpacked, went to sleep; and dreamt about the truffles we would find the next day in Alba.

We had planned ahead and hired a driver for the duration of our stay.  Eugenio, who also picked us up from the Villa Feltrinelli, was to arrive at 9:30 am in order to get us to Alba for the opening of the Festival.  We had been forewarned that it gets crowded very quickly.  We ambled down to breakfast, and happened upon another interesting tableau that we found a bit odd.  I suppose that they might have been relatives of the people locked in the chamber next to our room, but maybe not.

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Continuing on past the weird couple and their baby, we found breakfast.  It was in a truly beautiful setting, and was nicely displayed. There was a small menu of hot dishes and omelettes you could request, but we stuck to the buffet offerings.

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The food choices were varied, and the cheese in particular was tempting to me, but they did not have decaffeinated coffee which was very surprising, and disappointing.  Frankly, we found the hotel to be a bit of a conundrum.  The best word to describe it is quirky.  It hit on some levels, but fell short on others.  It may  well have been that  we were comparing it too harshly following the perfection of Villa Feltrinelli.

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After breakfast we headed out front, and Eugenio drove up at precisely 9:30.  Alba was very close by, and is considered the capital of the Langhe region of Piedmont.  It is famous not only for truffles, but it is also the home of Ferrero, the maker of Nutella and other confections.  This year marked the 89th year that the International White Truffle Fair has been in existence.  The festivities and market are spread out over a 6 week time span, from the beginning of October, until the end of November- the peak of the truffle season.  IMG_1740.jpeg

One word of advice if you decide to go, buy all your tickets for both the festival, and related events online before you arrive.  This will expedite your experience.

We were ushered along with all the other enthusiastic truffle hounds to an exposition center that was in the middle of Alba.  There were many signs directing us there, but in reality we could have followed our noses.  The smell of truffles infused the air.

The hall was filled with booths filled not only with truffles, but also local wines, cheeses, hazelnuts, chocolates and other treats.  Everywhere you turned there were samples, and the ability to discuss the products with experts.  The truffles varied in size, some being as large as softballs!

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There were abundant offerings of not only the more rare and valuable white truffles, but the black truffles as well.

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Once you decide upon the truffle you want to purchase, you can bring it to an independent evaluator who will let you know if your truffle is of the highest quality.  All of the vendors will take the truffle back if it is deemed to be inadequate in any way.

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Aside from the truffles, there were an abundance of other mushrooms on display as well.

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The truffles found their way into a varied selection of cheeses, and I felt it was my duty to do a taste taste.

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This local cheese soaked in Barolo (which I enjoyed the night before) was really delicious, as well as a sight to behold!

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It is hard to get a sense of the general energy of the event. At one end of the exposition area there was a bar where people could do wine tastings.  This was a popular spot, especially taking in to consideration that it was just 10:15 am. Everyone there was enthusiastic.  It was an international group judging from all the languages I heard around me.  We found that aside from Italian, every vendor seemed to speak English, which made it very easy to converse.

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One of the highlights for me was the Sebaste Torrone, literally the best nougat I have ever tasted.

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We purchase the large bag of the chocolate covered nougat to bring home with us.  Sadly, it only lasted about 4 days.

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While there were plenty of tastes at the festival, we were in the mood for a real lunch.    As consequence of the  festival,  Alba itself was overrun with tourists, and all the restaurants were packed, so Eugenio recommended a spot in La Morra, a very picturesque hill town that wasn’t too far away.  We would return the next day for another special event, so we were happy to explore some of the other towns.

We found ourselves at Osteria Veglio which is located just at the base of the road to  La Morra.  The restaurant was filled with locals, not another American in sight. We were able to eat on the terrace and enjoy beautiful views.

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Thankfully the portions were not too large, as my husband had snuck in a big bowl of buttered Tajarin (the local pasta) blanketed with freshly shaved truffles at the festival.

In order to fit in just a little bit of green, I started with a mixed salad.

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The cured cod with potatoes and mushrooms was delicate and delectable.

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Rather than the freshly made Tajarin, I was able to substitute in some gluten free pasta to have along with my mushroom sauce.

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When it comes time for dessert, I can never refuse meringues!

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After a relaxing and enjoyable lunch we set off to explore the town.  The architecture was  impressive.

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In  addition to the sights there was a gelato shop with an offering I couldn’t resist, dark chocolate flavored with Barolo wine; the best of both worlds!  The addition of alcohol didn’t allow it to freeze completely, so the texture was slightly different than I am accustomed to, but it was still tasty.

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After we explored the hills of La Morra, we drove to the town of Barolo, which is a bit more touristy.  We happened upon a Gauguin exhibit in a small church, which was a treat.

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We also discovered the Wine Museum of Barolo at the very top of the town, so we decided to take a look.  If I can impart any wisdom in this post,  avoid this museum at all costs.  I am not joking or exaggerating, this place is so weird I can’t even begin to explain it.  It looks official, but it is a folly.

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Here is one of the exhibits representing the birth of wine.  There was room after room of the interpretation of the history of wine. Much of it seemed to have been cooked up by someone who was completely stoned.

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The gift shop on the other hand had some valuable information and interesting displays.

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We asked Eugenio whether he had ever visited the museum, wondering what his take on it was.  Not surprisingly, he had not visited, deeming it a place just for tourists.  Skip it!!

We had seen photos of the Sol Lewitt Chapel in Barolo, so that was next on our itinerary.  It was simply fantastic, such a happy place.  It was presented by the Vineyard Ceretto, which has put a real emphasis on uniting wine and art in the region.

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After our day of exploring we were dropped off back at the hotel to spend a little time at the Spa.  The Castello is very proud of their spa and pool, and justifiably so!  The journey  underneath the castle is very dramatic and atmospheric, but the reward is well worth it.  

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Not just a simple pool, there are waterfalls of differing strengths, as well as steam rooms, cold baths, and an ever-changing light show.

Fully refreshed and rejuvenated, we walked down to the small town center of Guarene for our dinner at MiraLanghe.  I don’t think you could conjure up a more charming town.

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MiraLanghe is both a restaurant and a small hotel that occupies a prominent spot just across from Town Hall on the Piazza Roma.  There is a compact bar area as well as a large open dining room that affords views of the Langhe Valley.  There is a set menu each night, with loads of food brought out by an amenable staff, as well as the ever present owner, AnnaLisa.  She reassured me that I would have plenty of vegetarian and gluten free options, going so far as making sure I was charged less for my meal while she calculated the final bill, as I had eaten less than my husband.  The restaurant was filled the night we were there, again, with only locals. It is a terrific value, and an excellent example of hearty local Piedmontese cuisine.

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The menu is filled with lots of local and well priced examples of Barolos and Barbarescos.

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We didn’t snap many photos because we were too busy eating, but this local cheese was so outstanding that I had to have seconds.

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As the evening drew to a close, we discussed our agenda for the final day of the trip, which also happened to be my birthday.  We had a lot planned.

Eugenio arrived at the hotel at 10 am in order to get us to our first activity, a Cru tasting at Cerreto .   The Ceretto family has a passion for wine, as well as the location to grow truly outstanding grapes.  They are unique in that they have also branched out in to restaurants including Ristorante La Piola the one star Michelin restaurant in Alba where we would be having lunch. The Ceretto family also owns Piazza Duomo in Alba which is a three star Michelin restaurant, as well as  being recognized as the 29th best restaurant in the world.

To say they are a family focused on excellence is an understatement.

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After an informative  tour of the facility we worked our way back to the main area for tastings.  We were joined in the tasting by a very nice couple from Hong Kong.

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We enjoyed a terrific variety of Ceretto’s wines.

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We benefitted from a lesson in the local topography from our very knowledgable host.

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The wine tasting was informative and satisfying, and it whetted our appetite for the lunch we had booked at La Piola!  We were cutting all our activities close, as it was not only my birthday lunch that we had to get to, but also the Donkey Palio and Medieval Parade through the streets of Alba.  Perhaps you are familiar with the Palio in Siena?  The Donkey Palio is a bit more light hearted since maybe you are aware that donkeys are quite stubborn, and racing is not usually what they excel at.  More on that in a bit.

We bid a hasty adieu to our new wine friends, and Eugenio got us as close to the center of Alba as he could.  The city was even busier than it was yesterday.  It was easy to find La Piola, as it was located just in the middle of town.  We were a bit late to our reservation, so amid lots of apologies we were led to our table.  The restaurant is light and bright, and very casual.  The atmosphere is very buzzy, with a palpable energy running throughout the room.  The service is absolutely professional, friendly but not too familiar.

The menu is simple and appealing , we found ourselves wanting to try a great deal.

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We were immediately served a basket of bread, but we held ourselves in check until the real food started to arrive.

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My husband couldn’t resist ordering the assorted  Selezione of Salumi, which was a little bigger than anticipated.  I enjoyed the mixed pickled vegetables a great deal.

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Between courses we heard the sounds of a band coming through, and I joked that it made for a good birthday surprise. As it passed right by the restaurant we were able to run out to experience it.

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After getting in to the spirit, we returned to the table for the next dishes.

The Misticanza salad was for me, and the addition of the beetroot cream made it pretty in pink.  It was just the right balance of crunch and dressing.

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Because it was truffle season, we had to get the egg topped with a shower of truffles.  It was so rich and silky, perfumed by the essence of truffle.

We didn’t have enough with the first course, so more truffles were in order with the classic Tajarin pasta with white truffles.  This was just perfection on a plate.

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I decided on the gnocchi with Porcini Mushroom sauce.  The gnocchi tasted as though I was eating a bowl of mushroom flavored clouds.  They were ethereal.

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Finally dessert- chocolate perfection with the last bit of wine.  Being that the restaurant is owned by Ceretto, we enjoyed a special bottle.  La Piola should most certainly be on your list if you are visiting the Piedmont area.  It was outstanding from start to finish. If you will be in town during truffle season, all the  better.

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Fully satiated and happy as can be, we made our way to the arena that was set up in the center of Alba.  Again, we had purchased tickets on line for the Donkey Palio, and we were directed to the “Gold” section, akin to the 50 yard line.  We entered the bleachers just as the fun began.  Before the race gets started, each of the individual boroughs in the city (nine) present a skit inspired by an episode in history.  The  main themes centered around good vs evil, many with a religious bent.  These skits were often elaborate with scores of townspeople participating.  The use of smoke was quite prevalent.

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The production value of some was clearly better than others, and at the conclusion there was an award for the best.  It seems hokey, but it was quite entertaining.

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The donkeys lined up for the next portion of the event, the actual race.  Number four seemed to be the crowd favorite.

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Apparently, it’s not so easy to line donkeys up for a big race.

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As you can see below,  the general atmosphere of the race was chaotic,  light hearted, and at some points hilarious.

The winner was finally proclaimed amid great fanfare, and it was time to go home.  This was a really unique and fun attraction of the truffle weekend.  There are different highlights each weekend of the season, but the parade and Palio always take place during the opening festivities.   As all the teams left the arena there was more of a show,  with these folks showing their talent in the art of flag throwing.

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It was time for us to get ourselves back to the Castello to pack and enjoy a final meal at the fancier Ristorante al Castello.  Chef Tommaso Roberto is recognized by the Michelin guide for his excellence and innovation.  There are several prix fixe menus, but as we were still a bit stuffed from lunch we ordered a la carte.

The formal dining room is really lovely, and it so happened that even though it was a Sunday evening, it was almost full.  There were many guests there who were not staying at the hotel, but it was certainly easier for us to just amble upstairs at the conclusion of the meal.

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As we were in Italy, we had to order another bottle of wine.

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There were several rounds of amuses bouches even though we had not gone with the prix fixe option.  The restaurant took great pride in the service and presentation.

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This gluten free pasta made with chestnut flour was incredibly good.  I was sorry it was such a small portion.

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My husband’s homemade pasta stuffed with mushrooms was also outstanding.

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We both figured sticking to fish for our mains was a smart move calorie-wise.

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What we didn’t anticipate was all the treats at the end of the meal.

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The sweets brought the dinner to a close, and they even sang happy birthday to me.  It was a perfect way to end our trip.  Back at the room we had one more surprise waiting, a meringue that pretty much summed up our day of eating…

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We were sad to go home, but our waistlines were ready after a week of tasting our way through Northern Italy.  Piedmont is absolutely worth a visit, and if you can make it during the truffle festival you won’t be sorry.  The Castello di Guarene won us over in the end.  There were some aspects to the hotel that were a bit odd on first inspection, but when the enthusiasm and earnestness of the staff is taken into consideration,  it is quite an endearing place.

The following morning Eugenio picked us up and drove us back to the airport in Milan. Everything worked like clockwork!  Arrivederci Milano!

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