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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Piemonte: Beautiful, Colorful, and Tough


August is over, and I hope you've enjoyed sharing some it it with me in Stresa. September now... the days will grow shorter, the weather a bit more brisk, and so it's time to shift our focus to autumn, and all that it brings. With less crowds and cooler weather it becomes the perfect time to take to the roads and see more of the area.

I'd like to start by sharing this article, written by Diana Baur, of Piemontescapes , and posted on Bleeding Espresso as part of Michelle Fabio's wonderful Gita Italiana 2010 series. Diana has written an incredibly informative, eye-opening post on Piemonte, of which Stresa, and this end of Lago Maggiore, is a part.
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Piemonte: Beautiful, Colorful and Tough

I was in a funky little shoe store in Genoa awhile back. The girl that was helping me, a sweet little pea who had clearly spent every non-working, non-sleeping hour perfecting her tan on the beach in Nervi, asked where I came from. I told her that I was American, but living in southern Piemonte. Her eyes widened.

“Che duro,” That’s tough, she responded. I looked at her in surprise. Had she ever been there? After all, it’s only an hour from Genoa, the town where I live. “Mai!” never – with a an expression that clearly said to me, now why would I ever in a million years go there?

It’s funny how little people really know about where I live. Italians often see Piemonte as the North Pole of Italy, because it’s surrounded by snow-covered Alps. They see it as remote, save Torino, where so many from the central and southern parts of the country once came to work for Fiat, in the days when the company had over one hundred thousand workers from all over the boot.


Non-Italians often only associate one thing with Piemonte – Barolo. And often, it’s knowledge from a safe distance – Barolo is a wine with its price and for which a great deal of time and trial must be invested to truly understand and appreciate.


Of course, none of these paradigms begin to do Piemonte justice. To begin to understand what Piemonte is, it’s actually easier to start with the short list of what Piemonte is not.

Piemonte is not the beach. Unlike so many Italian regions, not a lick of salt water touches Piemonte’s borders. If it’s sandy Mediterranean or Adriatic coastline you are looking for, you would be better off looking elsewhere.

Piemonte is not Renaissance or Baroque Art. Please, oh, please don’t come here looking for Caravaggio or DaVinci. If we have any of these works of art, they are usually on loan from Florence or Rome.

Ok, now that that’s handled we can finally get to what Piemonte actually is.

Piemonte is stunningly beautiful. Ok, this might seem like a subjective statement, but the truth is that the ocean is the only thing we don’t have. We have beautiful lakes, Orta and Maggiore, that are surrounded by the western portion of the Alps (also part of the Piemontese landscape). The Lake Region is a combination of hip, historic, traditional and overwhelmingly majestic.

Speaking of the Alps, the Gran Parco Paradiso is in the shared regions of Piemonte and Val d’Aosta. A short ride from the flatlands of Cuneo will bring you to Limone Piemonte, where the skiing is great and the views are even better. Valle di Susa and Sestriere, Bardoneccia and many other famous ski resorts are all within Piemonte’s borders.

But of course, the most beautiful part to me is where I live, the wine country. We have over 70,000 hectars of vineyard, with over half of them registered as either DOC or DOCG (the largest DOC land registration in Italy). We have vast kiwi, hazelnut, walnut and cherry plantations. The geographic makeup of Piemonte is mixed agricultural combined with woodland, a fact that helps make it so beautiful.

Piemonte is the best food in the country. Ok. Relax, Umbria and Emilia Romagna. You too, Sicily. But seriously, this area takes the best of what Italy and France has to offer, spins the two together and produces some of the most amazing flavor combinations imaginable. It also helps that the selection of over 39 DOC wines to choose from. As the great Marcella Hazan states on her website Made In Italy:

Great wines come from (Piemonte) and it’s not a coincidence that the land that produces a great wine also produces a great cuisine.

Piemonte is part of the economic heart of Italy. It produces 8.4% of the country’s national wealth, is the cradle of the country’s auto production and invests 1.8% of its GDP back into innovation and science every year.

Piemonte is stylish and sophisticated. People often are shocked on their first visit to Torino. They somehow expect an industrial backwater. What they find is a city that is more European than strictly Italian, with fabulous shopping arcades, a gorgeous river promenade, great museums, a lively University district, great restaurants, and perhaps the most interesting café culture outside of Paris.

That sophistication trickles down to all of the smaller cities. Alba, heart of the Langhe wine region, has a wonderful pedestrian shopping district with local products and designers; the same can be said for Alessandria, Acqui Terme, Asti, Verbania, Stresa, Novara, Casale Monferrato, Cuneo and a myriad of other large towns that boast a cultured and colorful lifestyle.

Piemonte is the home of the first Italian. Piemonte is the birthplace of Italy as a singular nation. Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, who designed the contitutional structure for a unified Italian state, and for whom every town in the country has a street named, was Piemontese. Another notable street-name-worthy Piemontese: Vittorio Emmanuele II, the first King of Unified Italy.

Piemonte is close to France and Switzerland. This is not only handy for me, as a bed and breakfast owner catering to an international audience, but it’s handy for Piemonte as well, since it means that the region has a definite international flair. Our dialect reflects our proximity to France, as does our cuisine. The region is steeped in Napoleonic and Savoy history.

In short, with the exception of just a couple of details, Piemonte is what Italy is. Colorful. Strong. Proud. And yes, it’s sometimes tough as well. But that invariably comes with the territory and the culture of a land rich in tradition and history.

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Stresa and the heart of Piemonte wine country make for a perfect pair when planning a trip in this area. Either a few days in each, or, with Stresa's proximity to Malpensa, starting or ending a trip with a couple of relaxing days here, or day trips from one to the other, it's all good.

Diana Baur is an innkeeper, artist, writer and potter living and working in Acqui Terme, Piemonte, in the northwest corner of Italy. Much of the last seven years have been taken up with perfecting the art of luxury innkeeping at the Baur B&B and the restoration of her four hundred year old farmhouse and barn. She writes regularly for Italian Notebook, Slow Travel and Travel Dudes as well as for her own blogs, formerly Creative Structures and now Piemontescapes and A Certain Simplicity and spends her free time either in her studio, playing with her dog, or finding new local wineries to showcase with her husband Michael. Together they offer a variety of services, including wine tours, cooking classes, wine tastings and pottery classes. Photos © Diana Baur.



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