Northwest Italy's Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta regions come with a large dose of mountain splendor, bourgeois refinement, culinary achievement, and scenic beauty. Two of Europe's most famous peaks, Monte Bianco (aka Mont Blanc) and Monte Cervino (the Matterhorn), straddle Valle d'Aosta's borders with France and Switzerland, and the region draws skiers and hikers from all over. You can ascend the
mountains by cable car, or, if you're an experienced climber, make a go of it with professional guides. For the less actively inclined, a visit to the mountain museum in Bard might well do the trick.
To the south, the mist-shrouded lowlands skirting the Po River are home to Turin, a city that may not have the artistic treasures of Rome or the cutting-edge style of Milan, but has developed a sense of urban sophistication that makes it a pleasure to visit. The first capital of unified Italy and the fourth-largest city in the country, it was once often overlooked on tourist itineraries as a mere industrial center (FIAT is based here). It was the Winter Olympic Games of 2006 put Turin on many tourists' map. Still, despite its higher profile, and its many excellent museums, cafés, and restaurants, Turin never feels overrun.
Farther south, vineyards carpet the rolling hills of the Langhe and Monferrato areas, where Barolo, Barbaresco and Asti Spumante wines, some of Italy's finest, are produced. Its here, as well, that the prized white truffle of Alba is found and celebrated during an autumn fair.
Piedmont has the longest border with France of any other region, and the fact of its having been ruled by the French Savoy for centuries is revealed in a Gallic influence in all walks of life—especially in the food and architecture. Turin's mansard roofs and porticoed avenues can make a walk through its streets feel like a stroll down a Parisian boulevard. Food is richer, creamier, and perhaps more refined than many other parts of Italy, and the standard of service, even in simple restaurants, is often very high.