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Day 0: Falling in Love with Langhe

ITALY | Saturday, 31 May 2014 | Views [2973]

The first time I met Pietro, our host, for what would become my most memorable trip to date, he was complaining. Someone had told him that my assigned filmmaker Carl and I would arrive at his B&B at midday. We didn’t. It wasn’t until 24 hours later that I truly grasped Pietro’s almost poetic, Italian ability to curse, but seeing as it was our first meeting, he politely bit his tongue when we arrived half an hour late. Together with a friend of his, we ditched our bags at his B&B, Relais Al Bel San Domenico, and went for a casual lunch. 

I’m always impressed by Europe, especially little towns like Alba. The narrow streets are paved with cobblestones and all the buildings are hundreds of years older than in my country, Australia. It seems odd when a car squeezes past pedestrians – most of the locals walk everywhere. We turned a few corners and ended up in a little square. Nearby was Osteria dei Sognatori, a cosy, atmospheric osteria that never sleeps. It was full of families and groups, so we were lucky to nab a spot as patrons at a corner table got up to leave.

A quick chat between Pietro and the owner – there’s no written menu – and we were off. Antipasti came thick and fast, including my first taste of raw, hand-minced veal seasoned with salt, pepper and a generous dash of olive oil, known as carne cruda. Think of it as steak tartare of royalty, so tender it dissolves and with the same satisfying freshness as tuna belly sashimi from the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. More followed – about five plates in all including cheese and black truffle, mixed salumi and vitello tonnato – before a couple of mains arrived that harked back to traditional times. I ate chicken coated in egg and fragrant with vinegar, which is how meat was preserved before refrigeration. Despite decreasing stomach space, I wasn’t about to turn down the fluffy tiramisu.

After a quick espresso at the bistro across the road operated by the same owners, we took the scenic route around town and back to the hotel, delaying each other to snap impressive buildings, while Pietro’s friend pointed out roman foundations and reminisced about an absurd, three-wheeled vehicle called a Piaggio Ape that used to drive around Alba selling gelati. Back at the B&B, Pietro showed me to my room, fit for a princess. Luxurious red curtains matched the bedspread, decorative and almost Venetian in style. There was plenty of space in the grand wooden wardrobe for me to hide my mess, as well as elegant period furniture and an impressive modern bathroom (two showerheads equals two ticks in my books). After consecutive 16-hour days, that shower soon became my best friend. I slept with my windows open and didn’t set my alarm so that the bells of the Al Bel Domenico church across the road would be my natural alarm clock. I told the team I felt like an Australian princess, and it stuck.

The weather forecast didn’t look promising over the next few days, so we decided to spend the remainder of the afternoon exploring by car and taking in the scenery. That way, if it bucketed for the rest of the week, at least Carl had some footage to work with. We cruised around Tre Selle and Trezzo Tinella in Barbaresco, and stopped at Treiso in Rocche dei Sette Fratelli, the Rock of the Seven Brothers. Local legend has it that seven brothers working the fields on Good Friday refused to stop in honour of the Procession of Christ. The earth opened up suddenly and swallowed them whole. Now there are seven fingers of land in the rock formation, one for each brother.

Pietro’s explanation, which blames tectonic plates for the landform, was more plausible. It’s a fantastic location from where to see a cross-section of the unique, layered terroir that causes differences in Nebbiolo produced from grapes growing just a few rows away from each other. During white truffle season, locals descend these cliffs when it’s still dark so that they can hunt prized, wild truffles in secret. Opposite the cliff face where we stood, a wiry tree sculpture was strung with excerpts from well-known children’s books and poems, written in Italian, English and German. We drove on, realising we were in the hands of an Italian Speedy Gonzales as we flew around each bend, stopping to take photos and walk through wild poppies. Later Pietro’s cheeky spirit earned him the nickname Muttley, after the mischievous cartoon dog from Wacky Races.

It’s difficult to capture the Langa landscape with a camera, and even more of a challenge to depict it with a few, inadequate words. They’re not simply rolling hills, but hills that flow back as far as the eye can see, alternating altitudes and changing colour with the weather and time of day. On some mornings they’re covered in a blanket of haze that melds the distant hills with the sky. Come noon the world seems split into two: the blue sky and the rippling landscape dotted with neat rows of vines and deep green hazelnut trees. The palate is calming, and the urge to run through the fields fills every ounce of your being. When the sun falls, the vines cast gnarly shadows that creep across the grass, and in the final moments of the sunset the hills are washed with a flush of rose gold. By night, you can make out the arch and bow of each hill by the tiny lights from each town, like huddles of frozen fireflies. 

This is what we were blessed with every day in Langhe e Roero. One of the best places to get your bearings is from the outlook at La Morra, where the villages and towns are laid out before you and the snow-capped Alps stand to attention on the horizon. We stopped in at More e Macine for a quick beer and some salumi, surrounded by local products, people and Piemontese wine. We stood, squished up against the bar, completely in the way of everyone who passed but without anyone giving it a second thought. People are relaxed here. They don’t mind if they have to bump past you, or if you go behind the counter with a camera to get a shot of the tourist throwing her head back and dangling mortadella in her mouth.

Pizza was a two-minute walk away at nearby at Pizzeria Per Bacco. Oddly enough a young DJ had set up and was blasting incongruous music through the otherwise quiet streets. I thought that perhaps it was normal, until I realised that all four of us had the same confused looks on our faces. But it’s the pizza that’s important here. I have no problem admitting it was up there with the best I’ve ever eaten, although that could have something to do with my personal preference of a thin, puffy base swimming in creamy burrata, washed down with a couple of local beers. It was here that our lessons in Italian swearing and blasphemy commenced, perhaps a little too loudly. We exchanged words and sayings, often related to particular body parts, and I laughed until I felt the beer about to escape from my nose.   

After dinner we returned to More e Macine to meet one of Pietro’s friends. Despite bursting at the seams, panna cotta is always a good idea, especially when it’s made with fresh strawberries and you’re in Piedmont during summer. By this stage we were five. We drove to Monforte and were shown around Le Case della Saracca, a bar and B&B unlike any other I have seen. The building has been restored and its medieval atmosphere given a new lease of life by an incredible architect with respect for the old and a knack for the new.

Glass and iron feature heavily within the limestone walls, where a spiral staircase leads to six unique rooms, and a glass balcony suspended over the street guarantees vertigo. Tables are wedged into tiny corners and crannies across each level and they make for an intimate drinking spot, or you can mingle downstairs, like us. Pietro perfectly referred to it as a glass labyrinth. Some wine, a gin and tonic and a glass of sparkling later, we called it a night around 2am. We hadn’t even started day one of our itinerary, and I sure as hell didn’t have any time to jot it all down. 

Tags: italy, langhe, passport & plate, piedmont, piemonte, roero, travel, world nomads

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