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yorkshire Jun 7th, 2012 02:46 PM

A Taste of Piedmont and Longing for Liguria
Asti proved to be a good place to start the trip, an easy two-hour train ride from our arrival city, Milan. We had enough time to explore the old quarter before gelato (licorice!), apertivo at Il Ciccheto, and dinner at Pompa Magna. The asparagus sformatino and risotto were highlights. We wanted an English-accessible first dinner, but there were many choices in the area. It was great except for the two Italian women who really obviously talked about us and laughed for some inexplicable reason (we were not loud nor ill mannered) I seriously almost asked "un problema?" but of course I do not speak Italian and could not have said anything else.
The room at Relais Cattedrale was perfect, total comfort in a huge room in a medieval house with eclectic touches and a friendly host. I wonder about the artistic efforts in the hotel courtyard, which this night consisted of "live painting" amid poufs and light boxes. The older guests that would be expected to pay the rates here may not appreciate the music (guns n roses). We would have hung out had we not been totally sleep deprived from the flight. Neither the music nor the cars driving over a grate outside could stop me from sleeping, as I said I could have slept through an earthquake (I actually did! Though in Bologna, as we found out at breakfast). Asti seems to lose in comparison with Alba, but I found it a pleasant place, with a lively main street and really friendly people.

Alba unfortunately held some disappointment--the weather was rainy, just as predicted (of course an accurate forecast for once!). This ruled out my main planned activity, hiking. Also, my first inquiry at the tourist office did not result in the map I knew existed, of hikes accessible from town (there are some stellar walks if you drive or take a bus as well, but, alas, terrible weather). The employee also said we could not find umbrellas anywhere on a Sunday. Maybe that is not part of her job, but it was certainly of utmost importance to this tourist! (we found them, in the luggage store right across the square.) Instead, we walked through the town numerous times, where I encountered another disappointment, La Birroteca is closed Sunday and Monday. I know a lot of places are, but I had not noticed they were. This was supposed to be a treat for my beer aficionado husband. We ended up at the bustling enoteca across from Osteria dei Sognatori. I had noted fodorite Marija's recommendation since the Osteria is open Sundays. It was also a wonderful description, and as soon as we walked in we knew it would be our kind of place. It was our first great, memorable meal. They were welcoming to this vegetarian, serving the best giardinera I've ever had, plus a pesto of a local plant that from the waitress's description of a three-leaved plant I think was oxalis/sorrel (though not the French sorrel I have in my garden). My meat eating husband is more culinarily adventurous, so he had the pleasure of a large plate of beef crudo, which he admirably ate exactly half of. Also being neurotic, he later worried it would make him ill. The rest of the meal consisted of spinach/ricotta ravioli with sage and butter and a wine braised roast with fat succulent asparagus. The Roero strawberries deserve their reputation.
We also had them at our b&b, Casa Dellatore, which had an exceptionally good breakfast--probably the best I've ever had in Europe (huge breakfast fan here). The tastefully decorated and impeccably clean room is behind a cute cafe with gracious staff. The room is not large but has a high ceiling and closet, plus a spacious bathroom. When weather is bad, you appreciate a wonderful place to stay even more. We were able to catch a break after purchasing a better hiking map at the tourist office and the clouds literally parted and the sun came out for a two hour walk above Alba, so I got my vineyard walk after all, albeit briefly.
Casa Dellatorre is a few doors down from La Libera, site of my final disappointment, neglecting to make a reservation. We had a nice meal at a pizzeria knowing we'd make up for it in Liguria tomorrow.
P.s. Chocolate clouds! The chocolate aroma wafting from the factory (which my outdated Cadogan incorrectly said did tours) seriously lifted our spirits as we trudged in the rain.

I would definitely return to Piemonte for an extended stay, but we are of the sea and happiest by the sea. I felt immediate relaxation upon seeing it out of the train window. A late train put us in Camogli later than we wished, and instead of the 20 euro taxi, we opted for the bus to Ruta. Our usual fumbling meant we somehow missed the bus to San Rocco and so walked the thankfully flat road. As we passed Nona Nina's, a sign said they were closed the whole week--oh no! But I later realized it was the macellaria below the restaurant that was closed. The Rosa Bianca b&b was a little farther than I expected, 15 minutes past the church in San Rocco, but when we saw the million dollar sea view and met our friendly host, it was all worth it. Plus, we were just steps from Portofino park. After relaxing a bit, we thought we'd try out the 800-step path to Camogli (other evenings we managed to catch the bus down at least). For dinner, I thought Da Paolo would be perfect for us, being on a back street and specializing in fish. Unfortunately, it was extremely overpriced. We selected a beautiful fish, but the waitress dressed it for us, resulting in two paltry servings. I can only guess they thought Americans do not want a whole fish, despite that being what we ordered. For 50 euros, we do want the skin, cheek, and everything else. A total bust, followed by 814 steps back up (we counted).
Finally, good weather, so after visiting the market in Camogli for provisions, we set out for our first hike, and it was a doozy. The EE sentiero to San Fruttuoso...with chains. We both have a touch of agoraphobia, but we conquered it for this experience. We have a much stronger aversion to 70 euro taxi boats, so we practically ran over the last up and downhill stretch, making the last ferry with one minute to spare. Two scoops of gelato later in Camogli, we were restored. Tonight NN really was closed, so we returned to Camogli. This time, we lucked out with our restaurant selection. Osteria da Sigu has an interesting menu--and high quality for a seaside location. The tuna crudo was amazing--sweet and without a hint of fishiness. The seafood risotto and trofie with fava, clams, and bottarga were also excellent. Time for 800 (814) steps again, this time in a surprise rain storm. Naming the Presidents (or not) was a nice distraction.
Today we set out to do an easier hike. After picking up lunch at Maccharini, We crossed the promontory on a high mostly flat path (up to pietre strette), but when we were almost to Portofino, we headed back toward San Fruttuoso. We were startled for a moment by what looked like smoke, but when we inquired with a man tending his garden, we learned it was a cloudlike mist created by the sea hitting hot rocks (I think). This path was just as scenic as the other side, and without chains. We took the ferry to SML and a bus back to Ruta. Dinner at Nona Nina consisted of a decadent antipasto of fritters,the most tender fresh sliced artichoke, gnocchi with shrimp, and a linguine with assorted fish. Hazelnut gelato. I tried the pigato, but I prefer vermentino. {One quick note about buses--tickets are half price at kiosks, so not having to buy them from the driver can add up.}
So we thought the next day we'd really take it easy, plus the weather was iffy, but haha. We descended to Punta Chiappa with another Maccharini lunch, caught a boat to SF, where we took the brutal middle path up, then onto my favorite of the paths, Toca. Anyone who wants a coastal view but is not up for the more strenuous paths should definitely try this trail. We headed back down to Camogli in the mood for pizza, and La Primula fit the bill.
After a stormy night, we again lucked out with good weather for another easy inland walk to Portofino. Unfortunately, the rain began as we descended to Portofino, making the steps treacherous. It was not quite as exclusive or posh as we expected, not that we care about such things, and full of day trippers. I am astounded people pay the hotel rates for that kind of environment.
Since the weather was uncertain, we took the boat to SML. On the bus to Ruta we chatted with a sweet older lady who took much interest in my Italian glossary to learn some English. For our final dinner at Nona Nina, we had the seafood antipasti since they were out of acchiuge. I wish the two anchovies on the platter did not show us what we missed! We shared the perfect corzetti with artichoke, then had the stuffed squid and stuffed lettuce. I tried to finish my almond cake. We were sad to leave the paradise at the sea.

One night in Milano, where the NH President was clean and convenient. We watched the tour cyclists pass by, then walked to the antique market at Navigli (one of the largest I've ever seen). It didn't look like our scene enough to return for dinner, so we walked some more and Brera did not look promising either. We ended up in La Bruschetta, one of those cute homey places with photos on the wall.
Another delicious trip to Italy down, many more to come I'm sure. Thanks to everyone who offers their recommendations for restaurants and hotels here on Fodors--it is very appreciated. Thanks again to Zeppole for the La Rosa Bianca di Portofino recommendation, that was the perfect place for us (two avid hikers).

Marija Jun 7th, 2012 03:15 PM

Glad you enjoyed the Osteria dei Sognotori in Alba. We were so pleased to find such a great place to eat on Sunday. Sorry that the rain put a damper on your hiking plans. Thanks for writing. Liguria is on our wish list.

tarquin Jun 9th, 2012 03:21 AM

What an interesting (and different) trip.

Agree about Portofino - I went off season but couldn't imagine what its reputation was based on, just a line of designer shops.

Lucky you to eat so many times at Nonna Nina!

ekscrunchy Jul 18th, 2012 05:54 AM

Don't know how I missed this!

I thought of you when I found this interesting blog with lots of detail about walking in inland Liguria:

dina4 Jul 18th, 2012 08:21 AM

looking forward to reading this later!! thanks for sharing...

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