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The Langhe (Piedmont): white truffles, castles and Barolo

The Langhe (Piedmont): white truffles, castles and Barolo

Georges Rouzeau - 2009-12-22

Peaceful countryside, small medieval art towns, white truffles and Barolo: the hills of the Langhe, located southeast of Turin in Piedmont, delight all five senses.

Southeast of Turin there is a wonderful region which produces white truffles, Barolo - one of the great Italian red wines - and the Tonda Gentile hazelnut, which makes succulent cakes… This region is the Langhe, all rolling hills covered with vineyards and topped with villages and medieval castles of red brick. For writer Cesare Pavese, the Langhe embodied the lost paradise of childhood that he never found again until his suicide in Turin in 1950… For today’s tourist, this countryside combines the serenity of the scenery, the beauty of the architecture, the pleasure of the senses and the cheerful, lively atmosphere that reigns in the wine cellars and restaurants.
From north to south, you can follow a loop (3-4 days) starting from Bra which, via Pollenzo, Cherasco, Barolo, Monforte d’Alba, Monchiero and other villages, takes you to Alba, capital of the white truffle… A hospitable region also served by accommodation remarkable for its charm and value for money.
This peaceful little town in Piedmont seems entirely devoted to the pleasures of living. Historic café, restaurants, Slow Food offices, food shops full of truffles, chestnuts, hazelnuts and cepe mushrooms… In Bra, you can sleep at Ombra sulla Collina, have an aperitif at the Converso historic café and lunch at the Osteria del Boccondivino, the “canteen” of Slow Food whose offices are located in the same street. Be sure to take a little stroll around the old town (starting from Piazza Caduti). The magnificent Baroque façade of Sant’Andrea church, built by Guarino Guarini, is wonderful, as is that of Santa Chiara church (on the corner of Via Barbacana and Via Craveri), a masterpiece of Bernardo Antonio Vittone. Two local museums will appeal to both the leisurely stroller and the curious. The first is a museum of archaeology and history set in a beautiful Gothic palace on Via Traversa; the second (Museo Federico et Ettore Craveri) is one of Italy’s first natural history museums.
Named Pollentia in Latin, the destiny of this originally Roman village was bound to be linked with gastronomy. Pollenzo is home to the most ambitious project of Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food: the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Since it opened in 2004, this unique school has trained two years of 70 students (half of them foreigners) destined to become veritable “taste humanists” rather than mere food technicians. This neo-Gothic complex, built as a model farm for King Carlo Alberto in the mid 19th century, also houses other institutions. The Wine Bank, for example, was founded by Carlo Petrini to collate the history and memory of Italian wine, by selecting, storing and presenting all the wines of the Italian peninsula. Slow Food has also recruited the services of a hotel and several restaurants, including Guido Pollenzo, a Michelin star-rated establishment where talented chef Guido Alciati officiates. Sadly, it’s better to be part of a group (and book well in advance) to have a hope of visiting this unique complex.
So much beauty concentrated in such a small town is astonishing! Just like a fortified town tightly enclosed within its ramparts, this “new” town founded in 1243 follows a strict geometrical plan. Four churches, a Gothic municipal palace, a secular tower, two triumphal arches, a castle of the Visconti family: all in a space the size of a pocket handkerchief. The Salmatoris Palace, where Napoleon signed the peace treaty with the duchy of Savoy in 1796, regularly hosts art exhibitions. Cherasco is also the Italian capital of heliciculture (snail farming)… This good old mollusc is on the menu of all the restaurants, while Baci di Cherasco (Cherasco Kisses) – chocolate and hazelnut sweets – are sold in every confectioner’s shop. Cherasco’s antiques market is also one of the most renowned in Italy.
La Morra
Of Roman origin, a free commune subsequently integrated into the duchy of Savoy, this little village, set like so many others on a hilltop, lives at the pace of Barolo, enjoying the best parcels of land in its area. Via Umberto I leads to Piazza Castello, which offers a very fine view of the Langhe and beyond to the Alps. A bell tower (the only vestige of the castle built in 1544), a convent, a few churches and some remains of ramparts give La Morra a certain charm. The Sunday that we visited, all life had taken refuge in the square of the Baroque San Martino church and in the municipal wine cellar, which occupies the ground floor of an 18th century palace…
This small village of 679 inhabitants has given its name to one of the greatest Italian red wines, garnet-red in colour and with spicy, floral aromas of violet and ripe fruit which, on ageing, turn into a rich, complex bouquet of smoke, tobacco and leather. The pedestrian streets are dotted with wine merchants, wine cellars and boutiques dedicated to this terroir. There is even a little corkscrew museum (to be recommended only for fanatics). Barolo’s flagship monument is its castle, which is of medieval origin but has been greatly altered through the centuries. The Marquis Falletti of Barolo and his wife Juliette Colbert (great-granddaughter of Louis XIV’s minister) lived here, and spent endless amounts of money to make Barolo an exceptional wine. On the “noble floor” (guided tour in English and Italian only), you can admire the 3,000-volume library where writer Silvio Pellico, a patriot, worked as a librarian. The castle’s cellars contain a splendid wine collection, given over entirely to Barolo: it is rare to taste a wine beneath the very vaults where it was “born”...
Monforte d’Alba
Another magical town of the Langhe! A maze of sloping cobbled alleys takes you to the top of this old Cathar town, brought into line by archbishop Ariberto Intimiano, who immediately had the “heretics” burnt at the stake in Milan… There, an amphitheatre serves as a setting for a bell tower, a Baroque oratory and a church. Serenity reigns supreme. Benefiting from outstanding acoustics, the place also serves as a concert auditorium.
Monchiero Alto
Monchiero new town is as of little interest as Monchiero Alto, the borgo antico (old town), is sublime. At the top of this wild hill are two houses, a chapel and even a Baroque “basilica”, Our Lady of the Rosary, a centre of pilgrimage since the late 18th century. All the roughcast bears the mark of time. Local legends recount that this place is inhabited by spirits, like that of the mascha that writer Beppe Fenoglio speaks of: this witch of the Langhe can turn herself into anything she likes – black cat, goat, snake, and even tree leaf or copse. The painter Eso Pelluzi lived here all his life and his house is now occupied by bass player virtuoso Ezio Bosso, composer of film scores for Gabriele Salvatore and Peter Greenaway. Down below is the Tra Arte et Querce restaurant, where the trifolau (truffle hunter) Ezio Costa is in charge.
Grinzane Cavour
With its red-brick finery and impressive build (conferred by its square medieval plan), the castle of Grinzane Cavour is not easily forgotten. Nor is the superb view that you enjoy from each of its windows. The principal architect of Italian unity, Count Camillo Cavour, stayed here from 1832 to 1849. His tiny room has been restored: here Italian schoolchildren piously file past, creating a huge queue. Each year, the castle is the setting for the awarding of one of the most prestigious Italian literary prizes, the Grinzane Cavour Prize (created in 1986), which has the aim of cultivating young people’s interest in reading. It also pays tribute to the Langhe, land of writers (Pavese and Fenoglio to mention the most famous) and of great freedom fighters. The best comes last: the wine cellars contain the regional wine collection of the Langhe, bringing together over 200 wines served by a team of enthusiastic female wine buffs.
The capital of the white truffle is also nicknamed the town of a hundred towers; only a few of them have survived, fine red-brick towers which give the town its distinctive appearance. Of Celtic and Ligurian origin, called Alba Pompeia by the Romans, the town has kept a spiral-shaped medieval plan. To explore it, leave from Piazza Savona (car park) and take Via Vittorio Emanuele to Piazza Risorgimento, where you will find San Lorenzo cathedral (12th century), a beautiful medieval tower and the communal palace. The truffle fair and the finest food boutiques are in Via Vittorio Emanuele, which is also where the inhabitants of Alba take their daily passegiata (promenade).

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