After our week long stay in Naples, we had ten days to spend in Piedmont. Although I don't like traveling without a plan and hotel reservations in place, that's what we did, except for reservations for the first four nights in Alba. We thought about renting an apartment for 10 days in Turin and doing daytrips from there to places like Alba, Bra and Asti but I couldn't find a suitable apartment close to the historical center and I wasn't sure we really wanted to commit to 10 days in Turin. Our decision not to rent a car added to the complexity since we had to stay in places we could reach using public transportation. Of course we didn't have any idea of how many nights to reserve in Alba and started off by reserving two nights. The hotel assured us that they could arrange for a car and driver if we wanted, so we decided to add two more nights to our stay.
We arrived at the Turin airport from Naples on a cheap nonstop Air Italy flight and then took a 45 minute or so bus ride (5E) to Porta Nuova, the main train station. After lunch in Turin we were ready to board our train to Alba which took about an hour and a half, with train changes at Lingotto and Stazione di Cavallermaggiore. Our hotel was a 15 minute walk from the train station, although it took us quite a bit longer since we didn't have a map and walked from church to church expecting each one to be the Duomo. There are a lot of churches in Alba!
We stayed at the Albergo San Lorenzo, http://www.albergo-sanlorenzo.it, behind the cathedral. The rate was 100E double with breakfast, 85E without. Although its website claims timeless elegance and decor, we didn't notice it. Our very basic room was clean, the bathroom large, the bed reasonably comfortable. There was no view and with the window open there was a lot of road noise.
This was the first of several places in Piedmont where our iPhone wouldn't connect to the free Wi-Fi. We though that the Albergo's Wi-Fi was broken since we could connect to unsecured networks of restaurants in the piazza. We were allowed to use the computer in the reception area but that's obviously not as convenient. Not being able to consistently connect to Wi-Fi was a problem in Neive and Turin also. The McDonald's in Turin told us right off that American iPhones don't work on their network, although they worked just fine in a neighboring coffee shop. (Our stop at McDonald's was solely to see if the Wi-Fi would work!)
The owners of the Albergo San Lorenzo own the organic bakery on the ground floor where breakfast is served. The breakfast was adequate and covered all the basics. After two days we opted out of breakfast and went to a nearby coffee shop for cornetti and espresso. If you don't need luxury the Albergo San Lorenzo is a convenient and clean place to stay in the old city.
Without a car we couldn't do what everyone on Fodor's writes about--drive around to the wineries, admire the scenery and eat in out of the way locations. That concerned us, although we knew that Alba's many good restaurants would keep us from getting hungry and thirsty.
What we did in Alba
After checking in we immediately made reservations at La Libera for that evening. Then we walked over to the nearby tourist information center and enquired about the possibility of tours. Bingo! The tourist office had just started three tours that only operated on Friday and Monday from the 17 September to the 15 of November. We signed up for two tours for the next day, Friday. The first tour, the Barolo Tour, left Alba at 10:30 and returned at 13:30. It included a visit to Ceretto Monsardo Bernadina for a lengthy wine tasting accompanied by cheeses and bread, a self guided tour of the Grinzane Cavour castle and the Cavour Piedmontese Regional Enoteca, and a stop at La Morra for the views. Unfortunately, visibility was quite poor that day.
The afternoon Barbaresco tour lasted three hours and included a visit to Tenute Cisa Asinari Dei Marchesi di Gresy. One of the six people on the tour was a vintner from New Zealand, as is one of the vintners at the winery, so we were treated to especially numerous and fine tastings. After strolling around Barbaresco we headed to Neive for a brief visit. The guide was very enthusiastic about the restaurant La Contea and the village is considered one of the prettiest in Italy, so we decided that we would try to return on our own and spend the night. The third tour was an hour long "simulated" truffle hunt in the nearby hills. We passed on that.
The cost of the tours is 30E for one tour, 55E for two tours on the same day, and 75E for three tours on the same day. The tour allows a maximum of 12 people. Our guide spoke excellent English and we were very pleased with the day's activities. Going on a small group tour eliminated the awkwardness of visiting a winery and then not buying wine because you're traveling and eating at restaurants. We prefer drinking the wine to visiting the vine, so stopping at a couple of wineries was enough for us.
On Saturday we spent the morning at the very extensive market that takes place in Alba. All we bought was a salumi (don't ask) since we didn't have a kitchen and still had three weeks on the road ahead of us. There's a lot of activity in Alba on Saturday so we enjoyed strolling, window shopping and eating and drinking. That evening there was a pre-Palio degli Asini event on the square in front of the cathedral---lots of music, flag throwing, and colorful costumes. I wish we could have seen the Palio itself which was taking place the next weekend but we had to be in Florence that day.
Although we didn't sign up for the simulated truffle hunt sponsored by the tourist bureau, we did sign up for a truffle hunt offered by one of the truffle shops in town that sported a "truffle hunt every day" sign on its door. I didn't record the name of the shop but it was on a side street, somewhat removed from all of the activity. A relative of one of the owners, a school teacher who is president of some local truffle society, picked us up on Sunday morning at the shop and took us for a two hour truffle hunt in the hills outside of Alba. He didn't speak English but that was an advantage since we got to practice our pathetic Italian. His mighty dog Kayra (sp), who has traveled to Russia and China representing Piedmont, found six small truffles: four black, two white. The cost of the hunt was 25E per person (there were only two of us) and we were offered the truffles as well. Unfortunately we declined the truffles, only later realizing that we probably could have taken them to dinner and had them shaved on our food. The weather was glorious and we enjoyed our walk in the hills watching Mario and his mighty dog (who got pasta each time she found a truffle).
Sunday afternoon was the much advertised Go Wine: Degustazione de Vini in Alba. Tickets were 8E each. Several years ago we attempted to attend the wine fair in Greve in Chianti and were turned away because tickets were sold out. I was determined not to repeat this mistake and spent considerable time trying to buy tickets in advance. The tourist information center printed us a form and told us to mail it in. They seemed oblivious to the fact that it was taking place in two days. Our hotel, as well as assorted wine shops, had no idea where advance tickets could be bought. Finally on Sunday, as the booths were being setup, I was told that tickets would go on sale at 2:00 PM when the event was scheduled to start. A little before two I left my lunch, under Bruce's dubious care, and rushed over to the ticket booth and bought a ticket--I was the only one there. Seems that getting a ticket to this event was just not a big deal. Fortunately, when I returned with our wine glasses, I saw that Bruce had left me some lunch.
We spent the afternoon wandering among the booths and tasting wines, mindful that we wanted to leave room for the bottle at dinner. After dinner we went to some sort of choral competition taking place at one of the lesser churches. (Initially we went to the cathedral where after 10 minutes of sermon we realized we were in the wrong place.) The groups we heard were excellent but all of that wine and food was lulling us to sleep so we headed back.
Despite our initial concerns we had no problems amusing ourselves in Alba for four days but I don't know if we would have been as content if we hadn't found the all day tour, the truffle hunt, market and wine fair.
Next up: Eating in Alba
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Bruce and Marija spend 10 days in Piedmont: Alba, Neive and Turin