By: David Appell
Already toured Tuscany, run around Rome, visited Venice, and in the market for a luscious slice of the bel paese not clogged with turisti? Have we got an under-the-radar charmer for you: Piedmont.
Winter sports aside, this diverse and sophisticated region of 4.3 million offers a huge amount to see, do, eat, and drink all year round in both town and country, what with eight glorious national parks, hundreds of historic towns and cities, several thermal-water spas, and glorious wineries both aboveground and subterranean, all in an area just a tad larger than Vermont. And though the area is obviously appealing at anytime of year, fall is an especially wonderful time to visit thanks to the wine and truffle harvests, along with the various and sundry festivals that accompany them.
Though the name of Piedmont’s capital may be most identified – especially among Roman Catholics – with the Shroud of Turin (the supposed burial cloth of Jesus Christ), there’s plenty more history, art, and other culture in this burg and surrounding region. Turin was founded by the Roman emperor Augustus, and the region later became the stomping grounds of the powerful House of Savoy rulers and lorded over for a time by Napoleon Bonaparte; Turin also briefly served as unified Italy’s first capital before becoming better known in the past century as the birthplace of the Italian Communist Party and HQ of Fiat and the country’s most powerful family, the Agnellis.
But as nuts as we are about gracious, cosmopolitan, and dynamic Turin, the heart, soul – and stomach – of Piedmont arguably truly lies in the rolling hills south of the city. A bounteous hinterland that’s amply sophisticated in its own right, producing, for example, some of Europe’s most glorious wines and spirits and some of Italy’s signature foods and dishes, Piedmont has also nurtured important writers like Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, and most recently Umberto Eco, who set works like The Name of the Rose and his current The Flame of Queen Loanna in these parts.
While you could easily spend a week strolling Turin’s suave baroque downtown, with its cobblestones, porticos, and piazzas, a three-day visit will give you a good picture of the city’s charms. We’d also strongly recommend setting aside several days to overnight among the myriad villages, towns, and wineries that compose the surrounding countryside.
Despite its industrial reputation in some quarters, Turin is, at heart, a venerable, appealing, and classy city, and one with historic and downtown areas which are fairly compact and walkable. Most of Turin’s historic center, cafés, museums, palaces, and other attractions, are to be found in an area roughly stretching some two-dozen blocks northwest from the Po river and some two-dozen blocks northeast from Corso Vittorio Emanuele and the Porto Nuova main train station up to Piazza della Repubblica. It’s an area bursting with impressive palazzos, piazzas and monuments, gracious baroque architecture and galleries, cobbled streets and grandiose boulevards. The Lingotto Convention Center area, which dates largely from the early-to mid-20th century, and several key museums, are a few blocks southwest of Porto Nuova/Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
Finding your way around is not difficult, but you may want to get oriented by taking the hop-on/hop-off Turismo Bus Torino (€6), which offers a running narration as it shuttles between more than a dozen stops around town. Once you’ve gotten your bearings, you’ll make your way around the sights much more quickly and easily with the Torino Card (€16–€18), which gets you free public transit and admission to 130 area sights, plus performance, tour, and kids’ discounts over a two- or three-day period. Pick one up, along with a map and other useful info, at the Atrium Torino in Piazza Solferino (39-011/516-2006; daily 10am-7pm); there are also branches in the main Porta Nuova train station and at Caselle airport.
Churches, Museums, and Palaces
Since urbane Turin was a ducal, royal, and cultural capital for generations, it’s rich in palaces and also boasts at least half-a-dozen world-class museums, in addition to its namesake shroud. Here’s a brief rundown of the must-sees.
The big kahuna, churchwise, is the Duomo di San Giovanni Battista (Piazza San Giovanni; Mon-Sat 7am-12.30pm & 3-7pm, Sun 8am-12.30pm & 3-7pm; free), a handsome late-15th-century Renaissance bit of business best known for housing the Santa Sindone (a.k.a. the Shroud of Turin), perhaps the world’s most famous miraculous artifact – or religious fraud, depending on your point of view. The actual shroud and chapel in which it’s stashed are still closed to the public (and won’t be publicly on view for another 20 years), but there’s a copy on view in front of the main altar. Shroud-aholics can follow up with a visit to the nearby museum, the Museo della Sindone (Via San Domenico 28; daily 8am-12pm & 3-6pm; €5.50; www.sindone.org).
The number-one museum not to miss is the Museo Nazionale del Cinema (Via Montebello 20; Tue-Fri & Sun 9am–8pm, Sat 9am-11pm; €5.20; www.museonazionaledelcinema.org), both because of its striking design and contents, as well as the unusual Mole Antonelliana, a soaring 19th-century landmark (named for its architect), which houses it. Originally intended as a synagogue – but turned down by the city’s Jewish community – it subsequently went through several incarnations (including a film archive) until its current gig as national movie museum. If the line’s not too long, don’t miss an elevator ride to the roof, where the view over the city and surrounding peaks is quite a bella vista .
Those who really want their mummy will dig the Museo Egizio (Via Accademia delle Scienze 6; Tue–Sun 8.30am-7.30pm; €6.50; www.muzeoegizio.it), with one of the best Egyptian collections outside the land of the pharaohs. Car nuts, on the other hand, might appreciate the Museo dell’Automobile (Corso Unità d’Italia 40; Tues–Sun 10am-6.30pm; €5.50; www.museoauto.it) a little outside the center of town. It's devoted to the wheels and the industry that have been major butterers of Turin’s bread for more than a half-century – look for defunct Trabants from East Germany, sleek hyper-capitalist Rolls-Royces, and, of course lots and lots of FIATs.
Turin has been a big-leaguer in modern design and art, as well, so it’s no shocker that its Museo d’Arte Contemporanea (Piazza Mafalda di Savoia; Tue-Thur 10am-5pm, Fri-Sun 10am-9pm; €6.50; www.castellodirivoli.org) is one of Italy’s most interesting and cutting-edge – especially because of its interplay of contemporary art installations and elaborate 17th-century Castello di Rivoli surroundings, complete with marble, wood and plaster work, and painted ceilings and walls; the building itself was the Savoys’ favorite castle and is found on the outskirts of the city.
Of the castles and palaces most worth checking out on their own merits, the Palazzo Madama (Piazza Castello; Tue-Fri & Sun 10am–8pm, Sat 10am-11pm; www.palazzomadamatorino.it) gets high marks. Smack in the middle of the old town, in Piazza Castello, it dates back to the 13th century but later got an extreme baroque makeover. Its current moniker is the result of its stint as the residence of a well-known royal widow; today, it’s worth a gander both for its grandiose interior and its Museo Civico d’Arte Antica, crammed with Piemontese art from the Renaissance and Middle Ages.
Right nearby, the royal apartments and gardens of the Palazzo Reale (Piazetta Reale; Tues-Sun 8.30am-7.30pm; 39-011/436-1455; €6.50 guided tour) also offer up an eyeful thanks to its 17th-to-19th-century tenure as residence of dukes and kings.
The newest don’t-miss on the palace circuit is the Venaria Reale (Via D. Bertolotti 2; Tue, Thu, Fri without appointment; Mon, Wed, Fri with appointment; call 39-011/559-2211; €3; www.lavenaria.it), Turin’s 17th-century royal complex from which France’s "Sun King" Louis XIV copped ideas when he cobbled Versailles together a year later. Reachable by train and bus, about seven miles northwest of town, it’s still under restoration and won’t completely open until 2007, although at press time, a good chunk was expected to open to the public (on guided tours) during the Olympics. Along with the main palace, it will include not only parks and stables, but an equestrian center, hotel, and cultural and conference facilities.
EXPLORING SOUTH PIEDMONT WINE COUNTRY
Turin, Piedmont’s capital, is located just southwest of the center of a territory extending from the alps north of Lake Maggiore nearly down to Genoa on the Mediterranean coast. Here, we focus on Piedmont’s south, characterized not by spectacular craggy peaks, but gorgeous rolling hill country which produces some of the world’s most distinguished wines and foodstuffs. Scattered throughout this area are various distinct local regions, such as the Langhe, La Morra, Roero, and Monferrato, with well over 100 establishments where you can tour, sample, buy, and otherwise experience the many forms of wine that originate here, including Asti Spumante, Barolo, Barbera, Barbaresco, Dolcetto, Malvasia, Moscato, and Nebbiolo, along with the grappas derived from them. Wine isn’t all there is to taste here, mind you, as the region abounds with local delicacies from chocolates to escargots. You’ll also find the region’s most famous and emblematic cities – historic rivals Alba and Asti – both southeast of Turin and not far from each other.
While regular train service connects Turin with Alba, Asti, and several other lesser towns in the rolling wine country to the south, the best way to appreciate the area is by car; conveniently, virtually anything in the area is within a one-or two-hour drive, making day-tripping a snap. You can also join an organized tour; better bets include Turin agencies such as Promotur (www.promotur.net) and Fromatour (www.fromatour.it), as well as regional tourist offices including that of Asti (www.terredasti.it) and Alba (www.langheroero.it) and its surrounding area.
Alba Old Town
Some 29 miles (30 minutes) southeast of Turin, Alba’s atmospheric main square, Piazza Risorgimento, is ringed by nearly 24 red-brick towers dating from the Middle Ages, built by aristocratic clans competing to see who could erect the highest and grandest phallic symbols. It’s also the site of the recently restored 12th-century red-brick San Lorenzo cathedral (whence the square’s more common name, Piazza del Duomo, I.E. cathedral square); inside you’ll find some lovely 19th-century paintings and elaborately carved choir stalls dating from the 16 century. Browse some great boutiques along nearby Corso Vittorio and consider making one of your days here a Saturday or Monday, when open-air markets are held in the center of town.
Asti Old Town
Also a short drive southeast is Alba’s age-old rival of Asti, which offers a bit more in the way of visitor sights. One of its most charming plazas is Piazza Medici, where you can climb the 13th century Torre Troyana for views over the medieval quarter and beyond from a 37m-high perch (April–Oct Sat–Sun 10am-1pm & 4-7pm; weekdays by reservation only; 39-0141/399-460; €2). A short stroll away are the city’s principal churches, predating the tower by a good 500 years; the Chiesa Collegiata di San Secondo, in particular, holds the banners used in Asti’s famous annual Palio (horse race) in September. Saturdays and the fourth Sunday of the month also bring an outdoor market to Piazza San Secondo.
Augusta Bagiennorum Roman ruins
About an hour from Turin, outside the towns of Bene Vagienna and Roncaglia, and close to Barolo, this 15,000 acre estate holds a 2000-year-old aqueduct, amphitheater, baths, temple, and several houses (by reservation 39-0171/734-021; free).
THE WINE AND FOOD TRAIL
Enoteca or bottega, wine cellars or emporia where you can sample a number of local labels and vintages from the surrounding region, free – and buy the ones you like – abound in the area, as do cantina, azienda, and cascina, wineries and vineyards, many of which are also open to visitors. Following are just a handful of choice picks; you can locate more at the tourism offices indicated below. You’ll also find local purveyors of chocolate, truffles, hazelnuts, and various other foodstuffs.
Top spots include the Enoteca Regionale del Barolo (Castello Falletti; Feb–Dec Fri–Wed 10am-12.30pm & 3-6.30pm; www.baroloworld.it), housed in an 11th-century castle that dominates the picturesque and eponymous town. Just north of Alba, the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco (Via Torino 8/A; Feb–Dec Thur–Tue 9.30am-1pm & 2.30-6pm; www.enotecadelbarbaresco.it), occupies a former church. Also not to miss is the more diverse Enoteca Regionale Piemontese Cavour (Via Castello 5; Feb–Dec Wed–Mon 9.30am-12.30pm & 2.30-6.30pm; 39-0173/262-459), part of an imposing castle in the gorgeous hilltop town of Grinzane Cavour. Also in Alba, Barolo’s Cantina Mascarello (Via Roma 15; Mon-Fri 8am-12pm & 2.30pm-6.30pm, Sat 8am-12pm & 3.30-6.30pm, Sun 8.30-12.30pm; 39-0173/56-125) is housed in the Mascarello family’s 19th-century ancestral home and is particularly well-known for the stubborn purism and traditionalism of its recently deceased longtime patriarch.
The town of Canelli (www.commune.canelli.at.it) is famous for its "underground cathedrals" (www.cantinestoreiche-canelli.it) – massive, brick-vaulted caves and galleries where wine is made and stored. Two notables that date from the mid-19th century are the extremely atmospheric Cantina Contratto (Via G.B. Giuliani 56; Tue-Fri 8am-12pm & 2-6pm; www.contratto.it), and Cantina Gancia (Corso Libertà 66; by appointment at 39-0141/830-253 or Veruschka_Fissolo@gancia.it; www.gancia.it), where Asti Spumante was invented in the 19th century; the latter now has a historic section, wine museum included, as well as a modern assembly line (note: you might want to tote a sweater, it gets chilly down here). The area is also known as truffle country, and you can sniff out fabulous fungi with the pros at Casa del Trifulau (reserve at 39-0347/299-1832; www.lacasadeltrifulau.it).
About a dozen miles west of Alba, we never miss a stop in the handsome town of Cherasco (www.cherasco2000.com), where you risk hypoglycemic coma amid the shops and artisans that produce exquisitely handcrafted chocolate (an even better known local specialty, by the way, is escargots). Make sure to visit the Confetteria e Pasticceria Barbero (Via Vittorio Emanuele 74; www.pasticceriabarbero.com), a charmingly old-fashioned shop that's well over a century old.
Both the historic center and the Lingotto convention/trade fair area are the most accommodation-rich parts of town, mostly upscale lodgings in the latter and rooms in all price ranges in the former.
For 19th-century-flavored luxe and a slightly more hoity-toity vibe, you can’t do better than the 114-room Grand Hotel Sitea (Via Carlo Alberto 35; 39-011/51-70-171; www.thi.it/english/hotel/sitea); it’s centrally located and convenient to most everything, and offers one of Turin’s top Piedmontese restaurants, to boot.
Excellent, central mid-range options with character include the 30-room Hotel Napoleon (Via XX Settembre 5; 39-011/561-3223; www.thi.it/english/hotel/sitea), its red-toned interior awash in memorabilia from the era when the eponymous short Frenchman lorded over this burg, and the Hotel Liberty (Via Pietro Micca 15; 39-011/562-8801; www.hotelliberty-torino.it), its public areas and 34 rooms cutely dolled up in Art Nouveau style.
We’d say the best rock-bottom budget lodging deal in town is the Ostello Torino (Via Alby 1; 39-011/660-2939; www.ostellionline.com), a three-story Novecento mansion in a leafy neighborhood off the tourist track but an easy stroll from downtown. The digs here are simple but spotless, both dorm-style quarters and bathroom-equipped private rooms.
A dreamy top-of-the-line option is the Relais San Maurizio (San Maurizio 39; 39-0141/841-900; www.relaissanmaurizio.it), with 31 uniquely adorned rooms in a former 17th-century monastery atop a hill surrounded by Moscato vineyards just outside the town of Santo Stefano Belbo, not far from Canelli; there’s a gourmet restaurant, and the spa here includes a rackful of wine-based treatments.
A more moderately priced but just as charming option is a bit further south, near Barolo; Casa Pavesi (Via IV Novembre 4; 39-0173/231-149; www.hotelcasapavesi.it), a dozen-room jewel in the picture-postcard castle village of Grinzane Cavour, is, as the Italians say, molto carino (way cute).
Need something a bit easier on the wallet? You can in fact score comfortable budget digs for less than $100, as well, such as Asti’s clean, homey Hotel Genova (Corso Alessandria 28; 39-0141/594-228), with 13 rooms, a little restaurant, and a brick-vaulted basement wine bistro. At the edge of the historic core of Alba, the area’s other main city, the similar-caliber Leon D’Oro (Piazza Marconi 2; 39-0173/441-901), has both a cafeteria and fine restaurant attached.
Also give serious thought to the more than 600 rural "agritourism" B&B’s", charging mostly $50 to $100 (including breakfast); our regional favorites include Villa Brichetto (Via Case Sparse 20; 39-0141/557-215), outside Asti, where a fetching spread comes complete with horses and hillside pool, and Grinzane Cavour’s more townhouse-style Locanda del Conte (Via IV Novembre 21; 39-0173/231-909; www.cantinadelconte.it).
The region is renowned for Italian fare like risotto, agnolotti, panna cotta, and zabaglione, and for being the birthplace of the international Slow Food movement (promoting top-quality and locally-crafted food over the fast-food or pre-prepared fare). You’ll also find plenty of exquisite, locally produced truffles, hazelnuts, and chocolate.
For top-notch local cookery like roast goose and mixed-fry, in an atmosphere that’s classy without being stuffy – think paneled walls, etched-glass windows, and wood-beam ceilings – head to Turin's classic Tre Galline (Via Bellezia 37; 39-011/436-6553; closed Sun), in the old, but gentrifying, Quadrilatero Romano district. Or, sit outside under the huge hanging lanterns and grand baroque arcades and chow down on risottos, bollito misto, hazelnut tart and other Pedmontese standbys at another old favorite, Porto di Savona (Piazza Vittorio Veneto 2; 39-011/817-3500; www.portodisavona.com), in Piazza Vittorio Veneto’s oldest building.
If you’re really feeling both flush and daring, have a whack at the 16-course “creative menu” at Combal.Zero (Piazza Mafalda di Savoia; 39-011/956-522; closed Mon-Tue), ensconced since late 2002 on the outskirts of town, in the old Rivoli castle complex. The decor flaunts the minimalist feel of an Armani showroom, while Michelin-starred Davide Scabin ploughs avant-garde terrain; witness fish steamed inside a clay shell with white beans and black truffle – you need a mallet to break the thing apart – and dessert floated out by balloon. Usually it works admirably, and it always makes for a great show.
More down-to-earth tastes and budget can both be appeased at the low-key La Rosticceria di Via Gramsci (Via Gramsci 12; 39-011/535-805), which has outdoor seating and wonderful panini; Exki (Via XX Settembre 12, 39-011/560-41-08) a natural-food emporium with very good pastas, sandwiches, and salads; and Pizzeria Gennaro Esposito (Corso Vinzaglio 17; 39-011/19507444; closed Sat lunch & Sun) – its pies are widely lauded as the best in town.
It’s also worth making a jaunt out to the small town of Baldissero Torinese, just outside Turin. Here, in an idyllic setting near the imposing Superga Basilica, Marina Ramasso’s homey Osteria del Paluch (Via Superga 44; 39-011/940-8750; summer open daily, winter closed Sun dinner & Mon; www.ristorantepaluch.it) is a lovely spot to dine – indoors or out – overlooking the city. Goodies like Savoy-style cod, caramelized lamb with thyme potatoes, and asparagus tips with poached eggs, sautéed with nuts and black truffles are on the menu; if you want to try any of this at home, Marina even gives cooking classes.
Chocolate, coffee, and pastry
On your perambulations around the historic center, check out some of the many historic baroque and novecento chocolate, coffee, and pastry emporia, such as Al Bicerin (Piazza della Consolata 5; 39-011/436-9325); Buratti & Milano (Galeria Subalpina, Piazza Castello 27); and San Tommaso (Via San Tommaso 10; 39-011/53-4201).
As in wine regions the world over, you’ll find some top-flight ristoranti, trattorie, and osterie out here. Most of our favorites are in the countrysides around Alba and Asti, but we’ve included a few good bets in these principal towns, as well, especially useful if you’re there on day trips.
Second to none is Canelli’s San Marco Ristorante (Via Alba 136; 39-0141/823-544; closed Tue & Wed dinner; www.sanmarcoristorante.it), a cozy, upscale little spot whose kitchen is exquisitely helmed by Mariuccia Roggero Ferrero – her take on the classic tajarin (the artery-busting local version of tagliatelle) is made especially velvety by herb-and-truffle-infused butter.
Also updating Piedmontese cuisine, amid cutting-edge contemporary surroundings with soaring brick columns, arches, and walls, is Guido Ristorante Pollenzo (Via Fossano 19; 39-0172/458422; closed Mon; www.guidoristorante.it), next door to the University of Culinary Sciences, near the city of Bra. The agnolotti, pasta, capretto (kid goat roasted with rosemary and olive oil), and vitello tonnato (veal in a creamy tuna-based sauce) are among the many dishes for which Italian foodies make pilgrimages.
For fab fare that’s a little less gussied up but comes with a stellar view, the Trattoria nelle Vigne (Via Santa Croce 17; località Cascinotto; 39-0173/468-503; closed Sun–Mon & Wed; www.trattorianellevigne.it) is scenically sited right amid the vines near the town of Diano d’Alba, in an area near Alba known as the Langhe. It’s bright, contemporary and very Napa-Valley-feeling, but what comes out of the kitchen couldn’t be more local; Sabrina Farioli dishes up a set menu of scrumptiously traditional Piedmontese fare such as braised rabbit and the ubiquitous agnolotti.
For good inexpensive eats out here, best bets are vinerie (wine bars) and caffeterie, which serve lunch only, have set menus, are self-serve, or some combination of the above. Our picks in Asti include La Caffeteria del Borgo (Via Cavour 70; 39-0141/592-774), the dining room of the Hotel Genova (Corso Alessandria 28-30; 39-0141/594-228) and Il Reale (Piazza Alfieri 5; 39-0141/532-279; closed Tue), downstairs from and under the same ownership as the elegant, and pricier, Il Flauto Magico (www.ristoranteilflautomagico.com).
In Alba, the Self-Service Leon d’Oro (Piazza Marconi 2; 39-0173/441-901), on the ground floor of the lodging of the same name, has a fresh, contemporary vibe and fresh, inexpensive grub that puts American fast food to shame; also attached is Divina Gula (39-0173/364-040; closed Tue), a more elaborate yet still very affordable grill restaurant whose barrel-vault ceiling is whimsically tarted up with faux-Renaissance scenes.
The streets and arcades of downtown Turin are packed with elegant and often trendy boutiques, especially along Via Garibaldi, Via Roma, Galleria San Federico and the Galleria Subalpina; if you’re into antiques, head to Via Maria Vittoria, Via della Rocca and Via Principe Amadeo. Europe’s biggest open-air market is the Porta Palazzo, open daily except Sundays on Piazza della Repubblica.
But the most evocative and memorable souvenirs of Piedmont are those you can consume, especially chocolate and wine. Local treats include gianduja (bonbons flavored with hazelnuts, another Piedmontese specialty) and grappini (filled with grappa liqueur). In Turin, the king of cocoa is the elegant Peyrano (Corso Vittorio Emanuele II 76; www.peyrano.com); a March chocolate festival called Cioccolató (www.cioccola-to.com) runs a web site listing other shops and resources. Apart from the wine country enoteche, which we cover, below, most Turin shops have a good local selection; one excellent central emporium is the Enoteca del Piemonte (Via Nizza 294; www.enotecadelpiemonte.com).
Outside the Alps themselves, northern Italy has a milder climate than most in Europe, with winter temperatures rarely dipping below freezing and summer average highs in the low 80’s. The most agreeable times of year to visit are spring and especially fall, the latter of which also brings most of the year’s cultural, food, and wine events and festivals, including Asti’s historic Palio horse race the third weekend in September and November’s Turin Film Festival; Alba hosts a satirical version of the Palio races on donkeys, in October, the same month as its white-truffle fair. For the best bang for your buck, consider springtime and winter – though the latter, of course, is peak season (so to speak) up in the Alps. Otherwise, high season is fall thanks to conventions in Turin and food/wine festivals throughout Piedmont. Summer brings a fair bit of tourism from elsewhere in Europe and the highest transatlantic airfares, but there are still some good hotel deals to be had.
Best bang for your buck
There are no direct flights into Turin from the US; for non-stops, you’ll need to fly into Milan from Chicago (Delta), New York (Alitalia, American, Continental, Delta) or Miami (Alitalia, American, Delta), then connect to Piedmont by train or car – it’s about one to two hours, depending on your final destination. A somehwat pricier option is flying directly into Turin’s Caselle airport via several European gateways, including Frankfurt, London, Madrid, Paris, and a dozen Italian cities.
Few U.S. tour operators effectively cover Piedmont; there are a small handful of exceptions such as ShopWineandDine.com and Butterfield & Robinson, which both offer air and hotel packages to the region, and land-only providers like La Vita Vera and the Tourisimo Torino. The official U.S. sales agent for the Olympics is CoSport (877/457-4647); its still-available hotel packages include breakfast, transfers, and three events but not airfare.