Philip and I returned to Piedmont to become more familiar with the region and explore the hill top villages that popup above the vineyards producing stunning ‘B’ word wines – Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera.
It was a travel day from Burgundy to our destination for 4 nights in Piedmont called Neive. So it was driving on the Autostrada, plus through the very long tunnel under the laps called Fres Jus. Our day cost 75 E in toll!!. The roads are full of huge trucks travelling the length of Europe – they have to stick to the inside lane thank goodness. You certainly don’t have any choice if you want to travel long distances quickly .. Philip was travelling between 120 and 130km per hour in the middle lane and the outside lane cars kept whizzing past.
The very neat rows of vines carpet the hillsides of Piedmont. They are on slopping hillsides consequently everything is done by hand here from pruning, thinning to weeding and picking . They have just started picking the whites and Dolcetta grapes and although the thunder is rolling around the hills the rain doesn’t come to much .
Neive is so cute and our hotel Al Palazzo Rosso is a beautiful example of simple tasteful decorating. It only has four rooms and it is run by an exuberant Benedetta who can’t do enough for you. We arrived on a Monday night which means most restaurants and shops are closed. We did find a lovely ‘local’ run by two young girls who served one of the best dishes I have had all trip . Veal Tartare – thin slices drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Philip had grilled capsicums with tonnato ( Tuna) sauce.
From Neive it was an easy hours drive to Torino. Visiting big cities is fraught with anxiousness – coping with one way streets, parking and traffic queues. We did pretty well and spent a day visiting the city sights and a fleeting visit to the most amazing Egyptian Museum. Sitting down for lunch is always a relief when you do so much walking and our salads were delicious . The waiter was thrilled to know we were from New Zealand and showed us a bottle of St Clair Sauvignon Blanc he sells.
Each day there was always other village to visit. The highly prized wines here are very famous and the Villages of Barolo and Barbaresco have plenty of places for wine tasting and purchasing. Hazelnuts are also prized from this region and they are growing in abundance – consequently they appear in everything from Nougat, Cakes and Chocolate Spreads (Nutella). The Alba Market had many stall holders selling their products and away from the main fruit and vegetable market was a special section with small producers selling their organic produce. From many stalls selling fabulous cheese there was honey, wine, Veal, Pork, Olives and nuts.
One of the highlight of our four days in Piedmont was arriving in Asti for a visit the day before the Palio. I have been to this twice before on previous tours. Sand is packed into a strip around the perimeter of the triangular piazza and thousands of people fill the stands twice a year for the amazing spectacle .The Palio is a traditional Italian festival of medieval origin that culminates with a bareback horse race. The race has been run each year since the 13th century. Italian towns and cities have areas like suburbs and each district participates in a dazzling parade in which medieval costumes take pride of place, racing gets going as the Palio di Asti reaches its climax in the late afternoon.
But… the day before the Palio it is the childrens turn and I have never seen such a glorious spectacle of these delightful children. Some very tiny – all disciplined, some beating drums ,some throwing flags and all 27 districts, all in period costume and all patient and very proud. It was very emotional and the excited parents and families were waving and clapping.
To end our four days in Piedmont our lovely NZ friend Jeffrey Chilcott invited us to a wine tasting with the NZ consul General Ann Clifford and her partner Jeremy, Blair Walters from Felton Rd in Cromwell and his wine maker partner Sarah and two Italian wine gurus from Genova and afterwards to a long lunch in a quiet Village. ( or so we thought ) I swear there was abut 80 people sitting in family groups all taking part in this delicious long lunch . We all had to take a bottle of wine for a blind tasting !! – No pressure . Mama kept coming with the food and served stunning pasta, ravioli and meat straight from the pot. This was the best example of a family run trattoria with 3 generations all cooking and serving and all controlled by Mama.
Piedmont is a fabulous region to visit. Once again 4 days is not long enough but as Jeffrey always says :
‘We have to get up early in the morning as there are things to do’ and in our case places to see!
A day in Dijon on a Sunday means everything is closed. Families spend time together and lunch is a long affair. It was a perfect day for following little brass Owls on the pavement for a self guided city walk. The architecture is stunning and of course the French do sculpture and monuments so well. The Dijon mustard shop was open!! A couple of years ago, I took a 1kg jar home to NZ – but not this time!!! From the city’s public garden, past many masterful churches, through narrow streets where the Dukes of Burgundy lived and around the very quiet market we had a great walk and enjoyed the city with very little traffic or frenzied shopping. I remember when Sunday was all about everything being closed and I liked the quietness.
For many years I have dreamed of visiting the garden of Notre Dame Jardin D’Orsan. It is about three and half hours from Beaune. My tour has finished and my group has dispersed all over. Some have headed home, others have gone on a canal barge for a week with friends and two or three have extend their travelling time and headed to places like Spain and Puglia in Italy. My husband Philip has joined me now and we have a lot of travelling ahead. We have a rental car and our first day is rather long just to visit a garden.
Well … It was AMAZING, everything I expected and so much more . In the middle ages, the dual purpose of monastery gardens were to nourish the body and mind. Orsan is a set of enclosed gardens on the site of a Fontevriste priory founded in the 12th century. The Orsan Gardens are a true architectural gem inspired by medieval tapestries and illuminations. These remarkable Gardens combine symbolic landscape creation by creating old cloisters with hedging and organic crop production. The maintenance, skillfull framing to espalier and train anything and everything and the shear structure is so clever and disciplined. We had a magical few hours on a very hot day . It was such an interesting drive through really diverse countryside starting with fields of the lovely white Charolais cattle, on through kilometres of agricultural cropping of maize and hay, then through avenues of Oak forests probably used for the production of wine barrels. It was a very long day’s driving for Philip but so worth it and we even found a gorgeous house in a very remote village to buy !!!
Geneva to Beaune via Cluny for lunch … Its a great stop. Lunch was very traditional in a classic French cafe. A set menu is common here. The French like to sit and have a long lunch with 2-3 courses before going back to work. Ours was one course with a glass of wine!!!
Cluny was the centre of a major monastic moment in the middle ages. At its height in the 12th Century over 10,000 Benedictine monks committed their lives to continual prayer, worshiping in the largest Christian building until St Peters in Rome was rebuilt in the 16th Century. Today 1 transept remains . Sadly the ‘Light of the World ‘ was demolished and the abbey stone was sold .
It starts to get exciting driving from the South towards Beaune, especially when you pass towns called Chardonnay. But, a few kilometres up the road the landscape becomes a sea of vineyards stretching up to the low hills on the left and far away on the flat to the right. Villages are grouped in little pockets amongst the grapevines and my group gets their first glimpse at the historical Burgundy countryside. Beaune is a stunningly beautiful walled town. It is always my stop for the last four nights of the tour and its all about the wine !!First night dinner menu introduces everyone to typical dishes of the Burgundy region, Snails, Eggs poached in Red Wine, Ham and Parsley Terrine, Beef Bourguignon, Spiced Gingerbread Cake and a huge delectable cheese selection.
Vincent Martin is my guide for the morning and after 4 hours my group is all familiar with the wine classifications. Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village and Borgogne become familiar terms. There are only two grape varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir so they know not to ask for anything else. Then comes the best bit a wine tasting in a village called Nuit St George. The most expensive wine in the world comes from this region infact, Vincent is sitting just in front of the rows – they look the same as any other grapevine. But, the terroir here makes something exceptional with about 4,500 E a bottle minimum . Guess what … we didn’t have any.
Truffles feature all over France and Vincent’s Aunt Claire and her husband Hubert intoxicate everyone with Truffles for the evening – from watching their two cute dogs finding truffles in the forest, to learning the flavours and names of varieties. Ending up with cooking dinner together. It was a fun day and Burgundy not only turned on fabulous hot weather but taught everyone why it is so famous.
From lunch beside a canal in the Santernay countryside, to a visit to Chateau Mersualt, complete with tour and wine tasting, a morning wandering around the amazing Beaune Market – full of locals shopping for the week, a leisurely walk around the town walls on the quiet Sunday morning to our last visit to Hospice de Beaune before eating dinner outside on a balmy Autumn night. I have once again had a fabulous group to travel with. From Italy to France we have explored the food, wine, culture and history and had many many good times to remember for ever.
From Italy to Switzerland and France you have several choices. Do you choose a mountain pass or do you drive for a very long time through a tunnel? The Simplon pass is the closest from Lake Maggiore to Yvoire. Picturesque villages sit under the mountains where cows graze in the summer on the lush grass and they are driven down to the valley in autumn away from the harsh winters. One of my group used to holiday up here in a village called Simplon Dorf, with her parents and grandparents as a child. It was lovely for her to be able to return( if only very briefly) she had a photo and it certainly looked very different.
The pictuesque village of Yvoire sits in France on the shores of Lake Geneva with Switzerland up and down the road and its a very very nice stop for four nights. We always have lunch on this journey at Martigny. It’s well down the valley from the pass in Switzerland and close to the St Bernard Pass. In this quiet little village they have the most amazing art gallery and this year it was featuring Picasso. We were all overwhelmed to see so many paintings, so close and with hardly any people.
Three days in Yvoire means we get to explore Geneva and because we had a wet day it was a perfect chance to tour around Lake Geneva taking in the Olympic Museum in Lausanne and Chinon Castle at the end of the lake. Lake Geneva is known for it wonderful lake fish and dinner in Yvoire at Lac Leman is always special and one of Albertos favourite meals along with Charles, me and the rest of the tour group. A day in Annecy includes its fabulous market, plus the compulsory picnic lunch with market purchases and my surprise garden visit – which was definitely a surprise and won’t be on the tour next year!!. Finishing with the French Alps on the last day., we had the most stunning sunny day to enjoy a mountain lunch and an exhilarating cable car ride from Chamonix. Our hotel back in Yvoire is gorgeous and dinner outside beside the pool on out last night was pretty nice and hard to beat.
Its not hard to enjoy a tour when you are sitting in a bus – especially our brand new little 29 seater. There is no hassle or stresses about where to go, which route to take and the fact that you can’t take your eyes off he road if you are driving to look at the scenery . Plus, we have Charles who knows this area like the back of his hand and provides a commentary with lots of humour.
Lake Como and Lake Maggiore are actually quite close together but I choose to meet up with New Zealander Jeffrey Chilcott in Barbaresco – Piedmont for a wine tasting at the winery he has been working with for over 25 years . – Marchesi do Gresy. A very long delicious lunch follows the wine tasting up in the village Our driver Alberto always looks forward to the many courses of local regional food and loves this stop.
For 3 nights we enjoy Lake Maggiore – this year in very hot temperatures and high humidity.
A slow day island hopping on the lake Ferry – stopping at the Borromean Islands of Isola Madre, Isola Bella and Isola Pescatore means everyone can take in the gardens , beautiful villas and sit with a glass of Prosecco. It’s another look up / look down moment especially through the palace on Isola Bella where Napoleon Bonaparte visited and stayed with his wife Josephine.
The traveling markets visit villages and towns each week and they sell everything from food to clothes , handbags or equipment – it can be like a mobile Mitre 10. Our visit to Villa Taranto is one of my favourites. The collection of trees is exquisite and oddly so are the Dahlias – colourful as always with the most enormous flower heads. This year the bed of Lotus was also putting on an impressive display.
Close to Lake Maggiore is Lake Orta. I quiet hideaway especially for the religious order of Nuns that live on the little island of St Julia in the middle of the lake.
Sitting in the piazza enjoying yet another glass of procecco and a platter of salami and prosciutto was a perfect late afternoon aperitif before our last night in the Italian lakes.
Did you know that you could virtually work in Milan and live in Como.? It’s only a train ride and little more than an hour away. Charles Barkla my guide lived and worked in Milan for 8 years as New Zealand Consul General and although he didn’t live in Como he did live on one of the other 7 lakes in this area. It is like traveling with a local and he knows all the tricks.
On a 3 night stopover we can include a big city day in Milan which means walking a lot and a quieter strolling day taking in the Gardens of Villa Carlotta,the sweet town of Bellagio which also has a stunning garden of mature trees at Villa Meltze and free time in Como.
Cities are not easy and although our Milan day started with mild temperatures it became increasing hot in the afternoon. First up had to be a coffee at my favourite bakery then a walk through the impressive Galleria to the eye popping Duomo. Milan is famous for its Opera Theatre, Galleries, Fashion Designer streets and pure style – Not everywhere do you see a guy in a pink suit with the bottoms rolled up wearing swede loafers. My group spread out and everyone took in something including lunch in the cool before our walking tour and visit to Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper ” – a once in a life time must . It was a very tired looking group that sat very quietly in the air conditioned bus for the hour trip back to Como.
In contrast a drive up the lake past beautiful villas and a walk through Villa Carlotta and gardens was very relaxing, quiet and a chance to view the lake both up and down plus across to Bellagio. The ferries on the lake provide a brilliant service and its easy to pop from one village to the next or across the lake like we did to Bellagio for lunch. A faster hydrofoil also travels the lake if you haven’t got time for a slow leasurely ride.
I have been telling everyone to ‘Look Up’ and ‘Look Down ‘ The ceilings in many buildings are amazing the the terrazzo floors just as fabulous. Of course you could always look up at Villa Carlotta and see Charles on the Balcony.!! But, whether its the huge magnificent trees that are abundant in this region or the endless little villages high on the hills surrounding the lake. It is a photo bombing opportunity.
Last year I said 4 days was not long enough in Venice. However, traveling with a tour group four nights is pretty good. My itinerary along with my best friend Cristina (my exceptional tour guide ) introduces this city beautifully. It just means you have to come back and it would take weeks to get around the galleries, museums, palaces and restaurants.
Talking of restaurants – this year I was recommended a beauty : Antica Pizzo in San Polo. You know its good when it is full of locals. It was a lovely walk on a balmy evening although we caught the Vaporetto one way past a glorious colourfully lit palazzo on the grand canal filled with a party in full swing .
Venice has a no stop button.. It’s tolerant locals have tourists 24/7 . I think it is evident in the mass movement of Venetians living in Venice to the mainland . Many people – (like Cristina) commute each day. My hotel is Locanda San Barnaba in the Dosodura. This area is full of locals and students. The campo has children playing in the evening – kicking a football or riding scooters. The famous aperitif’s like – aperol spritz , campari and prosecco only cost 3.50 E and the bars are full in the early evenings with people socialising and enjoying the warm weather. The local bar has become our bar of choice too and my group can be found very happy here at the end of the day.
I love traveling out of Venice into the Veneto where once upon a time many of the wealthy living in Palazzos in Venice had large villa’s the countryside. They would live here during the summer away from the canals and mosquitoes. The countryside still has thousands of these palatial villa’s sitting in beautiful grounds.
It is important to investigate the home of prosecco and actually see the beautiful rolling hills that are covered in the DOCG vines and of course visit a winery and taste the wine. This year we went to Villa Sandi – a huge producer and the one we can buy in Dunedin.
Lunch on this day is always in Asolo – a stunning village tucked in the hills. Albergo Sole is prepared and our long table set for my group on the terrace . Lunch never fails to have the ‘wow’ factor and 2 hours passes too fast.
Today is the first of many beautiful lunches .The Italians do this so well – always with beautiful white linen, gorgeous glasses and dinner ware and impeccable service.
Venice sits in a huge Lagoon around 550 square kilometres and has about 35 inhabited islands. Our second day is with a private water taxi on the Lagoon – Popping into the major Islands of Murano and Burano. Being a Sunday many of the glass blowers were not operating. However, lots of my girls enjoyed my favourite jewellery shop and now have rather nice piece of contemporary Venetian glass. Burano on the other hand – famous for lace making is a photographers heaven – colourful houses sit side by side along the narrow canals and became a bright beacon for the fishermen coming home in the fog. But lunch… on the island of Torcello is always a highlight. Osteria al Diavolo had our beautifully set table under the outside awnings in the shade and served stunning handmade, handcut pasta, turbot fresh from the lagoon and light as air strawberry mousse.
Before departing Torcello for Venice (past the vegetable island ) we had to visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta the oldest church in the Lagoon – over 2000 years old and is always a beautiful visit. The most important artistic element of the cathedral is the mosaics, the earliest remaining mosaics in the neighbourhood of Venice and they are stunning.
So four days went very quickly – Venice needs several visits – It is easy to get away from the hideous crowds in San Marks Square and the Rialto bridge and there is so much to see and do. My list is huge and I never have time to see enough.
Next year is the Venice Biennial – 4 years ago I had a private group in Venice for a week then onto Milan for 3 days .They had the the best time . We had a Palazzo on the grand canal and a butler called Allesandro – he invited me out on his little boat for an hour and I felt just like a local – well as long as you don’t open your mouth.