Category Archives: Our Tour

Barolo and Beyond




Making our way through all the grapes; meandering our way up as many hilltops as we can; seeing castle ruin after castle ruin – this area has it all! Piemonte is truly an amazing place. There is so much history here – we’ve discovered ancient Roman ruins in Pollenzo which subsequent civilizations built new homes over and  countless Medieval fortresses and towns scattered throughout the area.


And throughout it all – wine! The Piemontese are very proud and knowledgeable about their grapes and the various types of wine they produce. It seems like everyone is in the wine making business! And perhaps the wine fortifies them with the strength to walk up all the hills!! In every town we visited, I felt like I was always walking uphill!


Beginning the Piemontese Adventure




I’ve been waiting to experience this corner of Piemonte for a long time – and, so far, it is not disappointing! We just arrived today into this spectacular region after spending some wonderful time on the French Riviera and Provence! Our home base for visiting this area is the Cascina Barac – a beautiful agriturismo near Alba – completely immersed in vineyards!


For tonight’s dinner, we took a 1 km walk through the vineyards. We found out later that wild boar and fox like to hang out in the vineyards….it’s a good thing we didn’t have any walking companions!


The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso


santa_caterina_sasso1[1]While on a private boat tour of Lago Maggiore on Day 3 of our Italy – Wine, Dine & Unwind Tour, we will have the opportunity to explore this very ancient and beautiful sanctuary, Santa Caterina del Sasso, perched precipitously on the side of a cliff.  It is located a few miles north of the town in which my parents grew up and it wasn’t until 2009 that I was able to actually visit this magical place.  The sanctuary sits on a cliff above the eastern shore of the lake, and it is best accessible by boat.  We accessed it by road, but we had to climb down (and then eventually back up) from the parking lot.  The climb was a bit arduous, but the result of being able to explore this extraordinary place was beyond compare.  My mom used to tell me that the lake’s depth here at the sanctuary is the deepest in the entire lake and that there are rumors of sunken treasure which no one has ever been able to recover due to the great depth.  Who knows if this legend is true, but it just adds to the mysticism here.  The sanctuary is home to a small group of Domincian friars, after having been part of the Carmelite order of monks for many years.  The church has recently been restored, and the frescoes have been cleaned and brought to light after many years of being hidden beneath rubble and dirt.

The story of the this sanctuary and how it came to be are enchanting.  The story goes that a certain rich merchant by the name of Albert Besozzi, while crossing the lake during a storm in 1170, capsized his boat near the rocky shores of the stone cliff.  He clung to the rocks and prayed to Santa Caterina to save him.  He promised that if his life were spared, he would build a santuary to the saint and live the rest of his days as a hermit.  His life was saved, and he kept his promise by devoting his life to her.  It is believed that several miracles happened here, all due to the intervention of Santa Caterina.  The evidence of one of these miracles can still be evidenced today, and I was fortunate to see it.  During a rock slide in the 17th century, a huge boulder came off the cliffs and was destined to destroy the altar and Alberto Besozzi’s tomb.  Miraculously, the rock was lodged above the altar and never came down to destroy it.  The site is still evident today, with that part of the chapel being kept unrestored so that the miraculous recovery can be seen.


Strolling along the arches and gazing out at Monte Rosa in the distance, you can see how this very scenic piece of coastline would lend itself to a life of devotion and prayer by the faithful.  Experiencing the silence, only interrupted by the sounds of the lapping waves on the rocks, was a moment that will stay with me forever as I remember the shores of the lake that is such a part of my core.


The Wines of Piedmont – a guest post


I am pleased to share this great article by Gabriel, from Panoram Italia, about this wonderful region of Italy, which by the way we’ll be visiting on our upcoming tour (click on “tour with us” in the menu above to see all the details!)  Tempting, isn’t it?


The Wines of Piedmont

Visit the Langhe Territory

2011/08/04 – Written by Gabriel Riel-Salvatore

Barolo countryside - Ceretto Tenuta Bricco Rocche (photos Gabriel Riel-Salvatore)

Barolo countryside – Ceretto Tenuta Bricco Rocche (photos Gabriel Riel-Salvatore)

Near the end of October, the wine-producing backcountry of Piedmont offers an impressive visual spectacle as the region’s thousands of hectares of vine transform into a symphony of colours.

The panorama displays rows of plants revealing tones of yellow, orange and red that take on the steep curves of the hills of the region. These characteristic alignments, locally called rittochino or girapoggio, as they slide down the slopes or groove them in steps, are the traditional signature of the Langhe, in the province of Cuneo.

It is in this historic area that the best terroirs of Piedmont are found. Nestled at the foot of the Alps, about an hour from Turin, the Langhe benefit from an ideal microclimate for wine production. Split in half by the Tanaro River, the north forms a zone called Roero, renowned mostly for its white wines made from Arneis, while the south, the Langa, includes the famous appellations of Barolo and Barbaresco made from Nebbiolo at the base of some of Italy’s finest red wines.

On the international market, the wines from the Langhe region distinguish themselves thanks to their strong personality. Nebbiolo is without a doubt the varietal that yields the most interesting wines of the region. It is on the slopes surrounding the villages of Barolo and Barbaresco that this grape, locally called Spanna, Chiavennasca or Picotener, expresses itself with the most eloquence. The terms sorì or bricco that often go along the names of the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco relate to a “cru” or a specific soil type that belongs to one or more wineries of the region. (Brunate, Cerequio and Cannubi; Asili, Martinenga and Sori Tildin) are amongst the greatest parcels of Barolo and Barbaresco.

Visit the Langhe

The Langhe are filled with activities for history, outdoors and gastronomy lovers. While it is possible to visit the region in a few days, it is however recommended to spend at least a week in order to fully grasp the splendours of the area.

Alba and its surroundings

Halfway between Barolo and Barbaresco, the city of Alba – a lovely, posh and sophisticated little town – hosts Vinum every year in the month of April, an event that brings close to 200 wine producers together for a grand, open-air tasting. I also recommend visiting Alba in the fall for the famous Fiera del Tartufo (truffle fair), the most sought after in the world. You will then be able to purchase the legendary Alba white truffle, which releases a delightfully unique scent when fresh. But beware, at 1000 Euro per Kilo, the famous mushroom is well worth its weight in gold!

Shopping lovers will also appreciate the luxury boutiques of the via Maestra that leads to Piazza Risorgimento, commonly called Piazza del Duomo, where you’ll find the lovely Romanesque cathedral of San Lorenzo. This public square hosts two restaurants: Trattoria La Piola and Piazza Duomo that both belong to the Ceretto family, also renowned for its wines. The philosophy of the two restaurants looks to promote the incredible gastronomic heritage of the Roero and Langhe territory – the former thanks to a more traditional and accessible wine bar formula and the latter through a more experimental and researched setting. Playground of chef Enrico Crippa, restaurant Piazza Duomo offers a menu that cleverly deconstructs and reconstructs local dishes and ingredients in a supreme culinary alchemy, pairing tastes and colours with a refreshing and comforting harmony worthy of the two Michelin Stars it was awarded.

Alba offers various types of accommodations and has the advantage of being easy to tour by foot. However, for those who prefer the country-style atmosphere to the city, it is recommended to find a room in one of the surrounding villages of the area. Generally perched on top of a hill, they offer an impressive view of the region, that largely compensate for the additional time required to move up or down from them.

You will be particularly amazed with a stay at the Case della Saracca in Monforte d’Alba. Located in the historic center of the village, this hotel is composed of three ancient medieval houses completely restored and designed following a successful marriage between modern architecture and the original materials of the buildings. The unique complex counts six rooms, as well as a wine bar and a restaurant which are both frequented and supplied by the best wine producers of the region.

Follow the wine route

A vacation in the Langa obviously means discovering great wines. Many producers offer guided tours of their property combined with wine tastings. The Strade del Barolo e grandi vini di Langa’s official website highlights a series of itineraries that follow the region’s wine routes. It is always preferable to book in advance and to plan a budget for your visits and purchases.

Barolo: south of Alba

Eleven villages make up the region of Barolo of which La Morra, Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba are amongst the more renowned. Perched on a hill slope, the Castle of Barolo dominates the village of the same name. Property of the Falletti marquis from the 13th to the 19th century, it now hosts the regional enoteca (wine bar) where it is possible to taste and buy wines of the area. The village of Barolo also counts the Corkscrew Museum with its 500 different types of bottle openers dating from the 17th century to present day, as well as many restaurants and souvenir shops.

Recommended visit: Ceretto A stone’s throw away from Alba, the property of Monforte Berardina of the Ceretto winery offers a unique experience with its Californian style wine bar (dangling in the air like a springboard hooked to an impressive ancient medieval warehouse) that houses the head office of the business. Conceived by architect Giuseppe Blengini, the platform, nicknamed the ‘grape’, has a retractable roof that gives an exclusive view on the surrounding vineyards. In the heart of Barolo near Castiglione Falletto, their famous tasting room nicknamed the ‘Cube’ located on their Bricco Rocche property, is also worth seeing. Inspired by the concept of the Louvre’s pyramid, it was conceived by architect David Tremlett. Similar to a greenhouse, it is entirely made out of glass.

This audacious architecture reflects the image of the Ceretto family that mixes eccentricity with tradition in its business philosophy – a signature that Alessandro, Marcello Ceretto’s son and in-house winemaker, also tries to express through his wines thanks to exceptional raw materials and state-of-the-art technology. The winery has various ‘crus’ in Barolo as well as Barbaresco. Their Barolo Bricco Rocche Prapò and Bricco Rocche Brunate distinguish themselves from the other Barolos with their smoother and refined character tied to their unique terroir.

Producers to watch for: Prunotto (Barolo Brunate), La Spinetta (Barolo Campè), Michele Chiarlo (Barolo Cannubi, Cerequio, Brunate), Aldo Conterno (Barolo Granbussia)

Barbaresco: North of Alba The steep flanks of the villages of Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso (determine) the territory of Barbaresco. Recognisable because of its tower, the little village of Barbaresco has its own regional enoteca (wine bar), a few restaurants and holds the head office of the Cantina Sociale dei Produttori del Barbaresco.

Recommended visit: Gaja If the wines of Barbaresco now enjoy an equal reputation to that of their Barolo counterparts, it is mostly thanks to Angelo Gaja. A visionary and formidable businessman, he was able to emulate the French classification model of the great Bordeaux wines hoisting his wines to the top of the Barbaresco appellation prestige pyramid.

Like it is commonly accepted that a Château Latour sells for a far higher price than a simple Bordeaux, in addition to their taste, what distinguishes the wines of Angelo Gaja from the other producers is their prohibitive prices. Bruno Giacosa from Neive is one of the rare producers whose wines enjoy a similar standing to those of Gaja’s best labels. Even though Angelo Gaja became famous worldwide for his exceptional Barbarescos, he did not hesitate to downgrade his best crus such as the Sori San Lorenzo or the Sori Tildin to experiment with new blends, pairing Nebbiolo with great international vintages like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, thus ignoring the regional controlled denomination system’s regulations (DOCG).

An appointment is absolutely mandatory to get through the iron door of the winery located right in the heart of Barbaresco. If you manage to enter the dragon’s den, sumptuous cellars and an exceptional tasting room will be awaiting you.

Producers to watch for: Bruno Giacosa (Barbaresco Asili et Rabajà), Pio Cesare (Barbaresco il Bricco), Marchesi du Gresy (Barbaresco Martinenga)

Recommended visit: Marchesi Alfieri If Nebbiolo is king in Piemonte, it is however Barbera that dominates the region. Capable of the best and the worst, this grape type planted around the end of the 18th century, is easier to cultivate and more at ease in the flat lands surrounding the cities of Asti and Alba that each carry a specific appellation (Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba). Strongly recommended is a visit to Marchesi Alfieri which excel in the production of high-end Barbera. Their historic cellars in the basement of the Alfieri Castle in San Martino Alfieri are simply beautiful and their winemaker Mario Olivero is as intriguing and affable as his wines. The property also owns villas and rooms for rent.

On your way back towards Alba, stop by the small village of Prioca to experience the cuisine of the Cordero family at Il Centro restaurant. Their exquisite dishes such as the pancetta di maialino caramellata con purea or the pesche al forno ripiene con cacao e amaretti combined with a selection of close to 600 labels of the area will definitely make you appreciate the splendours of Piemonte even more.

Producers to watch for: Prunotto (Barbera d’Asti Costamiole), Vietti (Barbera d’Alba Scarrone), Olim Bauda (Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza)

View our selection of Piedmont wine reviews   

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Isola Bella and the Borromeo Family


The islands of Lago Maggiore, near Stresa, are owned by a very influential family, the Borromeo’s – one of their most famous ancestors was St.  Charles Borromeo, or San Carlo Borromeo as he is known throughout most of the Latin world, and he is the favorite saint of Lago Maggiore.  His giant statue in Arona stands high above and watches over the Lake.  He is buried in Milan’s Duomo and his holy day is celebrated with much fan fare in the Cathedral and beyond.  I find it intriguing that one of the California missions closest to me here in the San Francisco Bay Area is named after him – Mission San Carlo Borromeo in Carmel!  It seems like he has followed my family’s destiny – even though he came long before my family left the beautiful shores of Lago Maggiore and settled in San Francisco!!  But I like to believe that it is the other way around 😉

The Borromeo Family acquired much fame and fortune around the 15th century when Vitaliano I, treasurer to the Duke of Milan, began accumulating much property in Northern Italy.  The Borromeo State was established in the 16th century and the family had complete rule over this area.  Lago Maggiore was right in the middle of their state – a strategic position between the Alps and Lombardy, and a beautiful oasis for their enjoyment.  In the 16th century, the rocky island of only an acre in size, was transformed into a wonderous palace and  garden masterpiece.  For centuries, many aristrocrats of European society visited the island, including the likes of  Napoleon and Josephine!

Today, Isola Bella is open to the public allowing access to parts of the palace and most of the gardens.  The Borromeo Family still resides there (when they are not in Milan tending to their business dealings), and the upper three floors of the Palace are their private quarters.  Amazingly enough, they are not bothered by the thousands of tourists that stroll through their property every day.  Their privacy is very well maintained.  They even have a walled garden that is all their own.  Their families spend much of their summers there, with the younger ones partaking in all the water activities like water skiing and jet boating.  The  senior members of the family, the Principessa Bona Borromeo and her husband, Principe Giberto VIII, do not like being in the public eye.  They prefer to live a quiet life, even though their many relatives are part of the European social scene.  For them, it is enough, to be able to reside in one of the most beautiful locations in all the world – a stunning view always in front of them!!

Join us in visiting this gorgeous island next September on our Italy…Wine, Dine & Unwind Tour.

A Glimpse into Italy’s Antiquity – L’Abbazia di San Donato


In Northern Italy, where the Ticino river leaves Lago Maggiore, is a small town named Sesto Calende.  During the ancient Roman Empire and later, this town was a stopping point for many as they made their journey from the North, over the Alps, on their way into Italy.  As this map shows, several towns along the lake were important destinations for them.

People like the Roman Longobards, Hannibal, Napoleon, and Garibaldi stopped in Sesto and left their mark.  One such mark is the tiny church of L’Abbazia di San Donato.   We will spend a very special evening (and be treated to an extra special event)  in this beautiful and ancient church on our Italy…Wine, Dine, and Unwind Tour.   The original church, which was built between 500 and 600 AD,  stood on the site of an ancient pagan temple.  This location was chosen to beseech God to protect those travelling across the lake.  The first structure is no longer standing, but an ancient stone was preserved.  This stone was originally gilded in gold and silver and was probably part of the pulpit.

The current Abbazia di San Donato dates from the IX century and was erected by the bishop of Pavia, Liutardo del Conti.  Even though, geographically, it was within the Diocese of Milan, it fell under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Pavia and belonged to the Benedictine order of monks.  During this time, the Benedictines were extremely influential with the Holy Roman Empire  and benefitted both in wealth and power.  These circumstances created conflict  with both dioceses, and in 1111, the monastery and all its wealth were seized by the Diocese of Milan.  Conflicts arose and with the help of the Holy Roman Emperor, Barbarossa, the Benedictines once again regained control of the Abbazia itself but not of the surrounding territory.  Their possessions now belonged to Pope Innocent III.  The monks’ morale and San Donato suffered until 1455 when a Benedictine name Nicola Tatti took control and the Abbazia regained prosperity once again.  Over a period of 40 years, many monks passed through and works of art were commissioned.  This beautiful choir room behind the altar was one of these wonderful artistic masterpieces.  The monks would sit here during Mass and sing their beautiful hymns.

In 1534, once again, the monastery passed into control of Milan and this time the monks left. Over the centuries, the Abbazia fell into the care of others and into disrepair, even becoming a home for soldiers during various insurrections and wars.  In 1911, badly damaged and in total disrepair, it lost it’s status as a parish.  But this gem could not be forgotten…and in 1959, restoration began in the hopes of bringing this important piece of history back to be treasured once more.  With the help of many, it regained its parish status in 1963.


From the XV Century



Il Domm de Milan (The Duomo of Milan)


Another of Milan’s treasures which we will be visiting on our upcoming Italy…Wine, Dine & Unwind Tour  will be it’s most massive Gothic cathedral, Il Duomo. I have visited this stunning architectural wonder several times, and once in the winter when it’s spires were covered in snow making it look like a decorated cake!


The Duomo is the center of Milan, with the streets radiating out from it’s piazza. Begun in 1386, it took over 6 centuries to complete! Most of it was completed during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte when he crowned himself King of Italy. It’s official finish date, though, wasn’t until 1965 when its last gate was inaugurated! Throughout all of it’s construction phases and many architects, it took on various architectural styles. Some Gothic purists complain that it “steals from every style in the world; and every style spoiled.” This may be true from an architectural standpoint, but to the lay person’s eye, it is magnificent. It’s many spires and statues are awe-inspiring and create a façade of intricacy that looks like lace. Henry James described it as “a structure not supremely interesting, not logical not…commandingly beautiful, but grandly curious and superbly rich…”
The Duomo is constructed of marble quarried from the shores of Lago Maggiore and brought to Milan via canals that were built especially for the purpose of covering the Duomo’s façade. Leonardo Da Vinci engineered these canals under the direction of Ludovico Sforza. They were called the Navigli, and most of them have been boarded over except for the Naviglio Grande which today houses restaurants and art galleries.


The inside of the Duomo has some very interesting elements, one of which is an astrological map. The zodiac signs are arranged in a long line on the floor of the Cathedral and span its width. There is a tiny hole on the ceiling which is open to the sky. When the sun is exactly overhead at noon, the shadow cast from the sun’s ray will fall on the current astrological sign. I was fascinated by its precision! It is like an ancient calendar!
Sitting on top of the Duomo, is a beautifully golden statue of “La Madonnina”.


She has become the symbol of Milan. During WWII, she was taken off the church and put into storage to keep her safe. To this day, no building can be higher than “La Madonnina”. Here is a very famous song which has become a sort of anthem for Milan.