Top Destinations 2019: Piedmont, Italy
Topping Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel – Top Region to visit in 2019 was Piedmont in northern Italy.
Often overlooked in favour of Tuscany, Piedmont has more than its fair share of beauty, culture, nature and gastronomy – and not to visit would be to miss out on one of Europe’s hot spots.
CLC World’s well-travelled team has brought together just some of the highlights of Piedmont to tickle your travel taste buds.
The unified Italy’s first capital and the current capital of the Piedmont region, Turin has a long history and a beautiful heart.
From the Basilica of Superga, on a hilltop overlooking the city, the most incredible view of the city lies before you. The distinctive pinnacle of the Mole is clear from a distance, and becomes a handy reference point as you wander the streets of the city.
Lined with baroque palaces, museums, restaurants and cafés are large squares where café society is very much in evidence. Even in winter, expect to find the Torinesi (Turin locals) sipping their coffee or hot chocolate at tables lining the squares or in the colonnades.
In fact, Turin is known gastronomically for three things – coffee (Lavazza), chocolate (both Nutella and handmade delights) and aperitivo (Martini, Cinzano and Gancia) – all of which mean you are in for a treat when it comes to food and drink.
For a taste of the original bars and coffee houses, try Caffe San Carlo or Caffe Torino in Piazza San Carlo, a gorgeous square known as the drawing room of Turin.
With a castle in its centre and two palaces, Piazza Castello is the place to head to for historical culture.
Originally constructed as residence for a returning son of Regent Christina Maria in 1645, the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) later became the seat for the House of Savoy. Its simply breath-taking Baroque architecture is worthy of the UNESCO listing and is a rival for the French Versailles and Its southerly neighbour in Caserta, Naples.
Within the palace is the Chapel of the Holy Shroud, built to house the Turin Shroud, a fire in 1997 seriously damaged the building and the shroud is now kept in the Cathedral of Turin. An amazing restoration project has taken place and the chapel reopened in 2018, but some of the devastation is still evident and shows the magnitude of the damage and restoration work.
Originally constructed as a synagogue, Turin’s landmark building, the mole (which means monumental building in Italian) is named after its architect. It is now home to the National Cinema Museum and is believed to be one of the tallest museums in the world. It is featured on the obverse of the Italian 2 euro cent coin.
Reflect in Piedmont’s Lake District
Piedmont’s lakes are fed from the Alps that edge the region’s northern side and with two exquisite gems to choose from, there’s a little of something for everyone.
Lake Orta, surrounded by spruce and chestnut forests is enchanting. The village of Orta San Giulio particularly, with its narrow streets of rococo decorated houses and small fishing boats pulled up on the lakeside, continues that fairy tale feeling.
From here, you can take a ferry or row yourself to the picturesque San Giulio Island with its 12th century Romanesque church whose pulpit is an incredible piece of medieval sculpture.
Continuing the religious theme, the Sacro Monte sits atop a hill with 20 chapels dedicated to the life and work of St. Francis. Pilgrims walk the hill, but there is a shuttle or you can drive up and park. The views across the lake are mesmerising and, religious or not, you can’t help but commune with nature in these wonderful surroundings.
Lago Maggiore’s islands and hillsides offer a different perspective on the Piedmont life and history. The western half of the lake boasts the attractive towns of Stresa, Pallanza and Arona, with manicured gardens surrounding elegant villas and the Borromeo Islands each with its own atmosphere.
Isola Bella is occupied entirely by the Palazzo Borromeo with exquisite formal terraced gardens, while Isola Madre has spectacular subtropical gardens – both are open to the public from April to October. Isola Pescatori, as the name would suggest is home to a charming fishermen’s village. Take a ferry from either Arona or Stresa to the islands.
For literature lovers, there are links to Hemingway’s ‘Farewell to Arms’ which was partly based in Stresa and Robert Browning wrote his tender poem ‘By the Fireside’ in Orta. As for Nietzsche, he may or may not have stolen a kiss with Lou Salome at the Sacro Monte!
Italy is renowned for its incredible ingredients and delightful dishes, and is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement founded at Bra, around 30km outside Turin. But did you know that a good proportion of Italy’s tantalising tastes hail from the Piedmont region?
The climate and mountain foothill terrain make Piedmont a world-class wine destination. Home to Barolo, Barbera d’Asti and Cortese di Gavi and the sweeter Moscata di Asti, all the wines complement the rich regional flavours.
Take brasato al Barolo as an example, a base of mirepoix and herbs is sweated before beef is seared and braised in Barolo. It melts in the mouth, and served with polenta it’s a heavenly winter warmer.
For the world’s supreme white truffles, look no further than Alba. The trifola d’Alba Madonna, or ‘truffle of the White Madonna’, is divine shaved over a bowl of ravioli del plin. They’re not cheap, but worth every penny.
Hazelnuts and Chocolate
The hazelnuts of Piedmont are sweet and highly regarded. Growing plentifully, the locals naturally use them in a variety of dishes from cakes, to gelato (ice cream) and pasta fillings.
Nutella made the traditional sweet Turin hazelnut chocolate spread known as gianduia (or gianduja) world-famous. Created by chocolatier Michele Prochet to make his chocolate go further when Napoleon squeezed his cocoa supplies by banning British imports, gianduia was a stroke of genius that can still be purchased in its more traditional form.
The alpine foothills of Piedmont hosts swathes of Arborio and Carnaroli rice paddies. The town of Vercelli – the self-proclaimed ‘Capital of Rice’ – grows approximately half of Italy’s risotto rice. Naturally, the Piedmontese eat their fair share of risotto, as well as panissa – a rice dish made with lard, pork rind, borlotti beans and vegetables.
Vying with Trieste for the ‘best coffee in Italy title’, Turin is where espresso came into its own with thick, intense cups of the stimulating dark liquid. Turin is home to Lavazza and there is nothing better than taking coffee the Italian way, standing at the bar, slowly stirring in your sugar before downing the espresso in two or three good slurps. Follow that with a small glass of water and you’re out the door in less time than it takes to order it!
With the Alps and Apennines forming two of its borders, Piedmont is a great destination for winter sports.
Just over an hour away from Turin is the ‘Milky Way’, a 400km stretch of runs encompassing seven ski resorts. Choose from Sauze d’Oulx, much loved by British après-ski enthusiasts, Sestriere and Mota where the Torinesi head with their families, or if you’re a boarder, Bardonecchia.
The valley town of Susa is on the skiers ‘supply route’ but it’s worth popping in to see the once important Roman town and admire its 1st century BC gate.
Courmayeur, at the foot of Mont Blanc, is the most popular of Valle d’Aosta’s ski resorts and the region’s oldest Alpine resort. With great skiing and scenery, it’s also a fantastic summer destination for hiking and biking. Just 6km south are the thermal baths in Pré-Saint-Didier, a great place to soothe aching muscles after an energetic day.
With so much to offer, Piedmont should definitely be part of everyone’s exploration of Italy. With its marvellous scenery, fantastic food and fascinating history, its very diversity makes it such an interesting region to discover and explore.
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