|View in Novara courtesy Giovanni Novara|
As we near the end of our Piemonte journey, we head east and north to explore elegant lake towns and sprawling vineyards producing some of the world's finest wines. Lombardia has Lago di Como and half of Lago di Maggiore, but the rest belongs to Piemonte. The famous towns of Asti and Alba anchor an epic wine making region, bolstered by the glory of truffle season in Fall. Lesser known but no less special, you have the towns of Novara and Vercelli, bringing delicious varieties of risotto to your table.
Langhe is the best known wine region, and popular with bicyclists due to its gentle landscape and stunning scenery. Renting a car is ideal, though you can indeed make use of the generally excellent bus and train network to get from town to town. A car frees you from the restrictions of route limitations and worrying about missing the last ride back, getting stuck in the countryside. Pack a picnic from any one of the great markets and stop off wherever strikes your fancy.
The lakes enjoy a unique microclimate meaning relatively mild weather almost year-round. The usual recommendation to avoid August remains, and the deepest winter months will generally result in fewer businesses open and shorter hours. December through February is certainly chilly, but it all depends on your preferred activities and personal tolerance. From Easter to October ferry service is comprehensive, increasing for peak season, but drops significantly outside that time frame, especially for the more far-flung towns. Cable cars and lifts connect many lower towns to ones further up the slopes, providing gorgeous views and a light thrill.
There are two main lakes in the northeast of Piemonte: Orta and Maggiore. Maggiore is split in half between Piemonte and Lombardia, but its best known destinations, lie squarely in Piemonte. Stay in Stresa, Baveno, or Verbania where you can easily hop the ferries to each town or the little Borromean islands framed by these towns. The incredible Borromean palace and gardens will stun you with opulence and white peacocks. Journey north towards Switzerland to kick back in Cannobio. Luxury lodging abounds, where you can spoil yourself in sumptuous rooms and decadent spas. This is not only a playground for those with cash to splash about: if you hit the shoulder or off seasons you can spend like a pauper and live if not like a king, at least like a duke!
For lovers of the outdoors, hike yourself silly before returning to your hotel, apartment, or one of the many campsites sprinkled along the shores of Lake Maggiore from Dormelleto in the south to Stresa and all the way to Cannobio. Depending on the site, you can rent either pitch sites or little cabins and trailers. Like most Italian campsites, there are many amenities like electrical hookups, cafes, and organized activities.
View on Isola Bella courtesy Andrea Costa
Orta is much less famous than its larger neighbor, but no less lovely and definitely ideal for those that like to try out the underdog. It too boasts a gorgeous island, Isola San Giulio. Enjoy a walk and bit of solitude (depending on the time of year) on this small but rustically beautiful tiny island. The little town of Orta San Giulio makes for a gorgeous base to explore this lake, loved by Nietzsche and the Italian writer Piero Chiara. Inspect this lovely map of Orta San Giulio detailing selected attractions in and around the town.
Panorma of the main square in Orta San Giulio courtesy of Giovanni Novara on Flickr
Crowning the hill above town is the Sacro Monte di San Francesco, which is dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. Stroll the wooded grounds and explore any one of the 20 chapels filled with aging frescoes and unusual painted statues. Your strenuous hike will reward you with sweeping views on the lake and a serenity encountered only in places such as this. You might even witness a wedding, as it is a popular spot for nuptuals.
Across from Orta San Giulia is the blink-and-miss-it town of Pella, inhabited since the Iron Age. Pella is certainly a quiet place, ideal for those seeking a day of quiet relaxation minus strenuous hiking. In the far north tip of the lake, you'll find the old center of Omegna, surrounded by newer sprawl. Unexpectedly, Omegna is a center of Italian industrial kitchen design, and if you're a shopper you'll find a number of outlets along Via VI Novembre.
Wine, Truffles, & Riso
Piemonte is arguably one of the finest wine producing regions in Italy with a dizzying array of DOCG and DOC wines. It is most famous for Langhe (much like Chianti in Tuscany), which includes the town of Alba and expands south and west. Asti lies in the Monferrato region, reaching the opposite way going east and south. Petite Roero holds Bra, and you'll often see these names on labels. Gorgeous landscapes roll across all the regions, with gentle hillsides glowing gold and rust in the fall as the leaves in vineyards turn. Sip on velvety Barberas and Nebbiolos, and finish with a sweet Brachetto d'Aqui or an effervescent Moscato. While the reds are indubitably the most famous amongst aficionados, there are a handful of delicious whites produced in Piemonte too.
Vineyards sprawl over rolling hills courtesy Francesca SpecialK on Flickr
Pair a fall vineyard visit with truffle season, which typically starts in October and runs into November. Fairs and festivals abound, where you can drop your hard-earned cash on these rare delicacies with eye-watering price tags. While white truffles are the most prized, black truffles aren't cheap either. Using specially trained dogs, truffle hunters trek the woods searching for their big find. Shave a little of your splurge over pasta or risotto and enjoy one of the most incredible culinary experiences you'll likely ever have.
Truffles shaved on pizza courtesy Michele Ursino
If you need to work off your indulgences, Piemonte also holds a number of excellent golf courses where you can stroll the links in the afternoon sunshine. Visit World Golf, which lists numerous Piemonte golf courses for you to investigate. Golf Club Villa Carolina offers 9 and 18 hole courses, and is situated just south of Alessandria. Also near Alessandria is Golf dei Colline Gavi, with 18 hole courses and helpful info on its site for biking, hiking, and horseback riding too. Italy loves its spas, and you'll find no shortage of elegant locations to rest and recharge throughout Piemonte.
Fireworks in Vercelli courtesy Simone Saviolo
Round it all out with a visit to Novara or Vercelli, both well known for their production of riso, which when prepared becomes delicious risotto in varied iterations. In Vercelli, visit the Petite Museo Borgogna or the Basilica of Sant Andrea. Novara is crowned by the stunning Basilica di San Gaudenzio, and you can take in a ballet or opera at the Teatro Coccia. Surrounded by rice paddies, the towns themselves are delightful, perfect for a day trip from the lakes, Milan, or Langhe.
And so we conclude our time in Piemonte, an exploration that has admittedly taken much longer than anticipated! I suppose when I said I'd be undertaking a 20 region odyssey, even I underestimated how difficult it would be to condense the richness of a region into just a few posts. Next up will be the petite and oft-forgotten region of Molise, sandwiched between Abruzzo and Puglia. Until then, trace back through Piemonte, first by exploring Turin or Cuneo, then get your belly rumbling with the culinary delights of Piemonte.