I am sitting on the plane headed back from an amazing vacation in Italy with my husband as I write this. I first went to Italy in my 20s, bouncing from town to town but not spending any length of time in one spot. I didn’t feel that I got to soak up much about the culture and the people; maybe I was too young to appreciate it.
For many years after, I didn’t do much international travel — until four years ago, for my 40th birthday. We headed to Cortona in Tuscany with two other couples and had a ridiculously good time. We soaked up the culture — okay so maybe we just ate a lot of amazing food and drank a lot of amazing wine, with a couple of historical tours thrown into our itinerary to save face.
Four year later, we decided it was time for another no-kid international vacation. We locked in the grandparents, cashed in our miles, and headed back to Italy. This time we chose another region known for its wine, the Piemonte region in the far northwestern part of the country, and booked a villa outside the small town of Costigliole D’Asti. One great thing I’ve learned about Italian travel is that the cost of a roomy villa in the country is less even than the rates at a budget hotel in one of the major population centers – and you just can’t beat waking up to the sounds of church bells and locusts outside your window.
Once we settled on Piemonte as our destination, I soon discovered that Madeline Patierno, the manager of The Hive, had a ton of family connections there. Madeline’s parents own the most amazing Italian restaurant – it’s called Girasole, in The Plains, Virginia and well worth the drive to Fauquier County – and much of their impressive wine list is imported directly from this area. Her mother and sister hooked us up with a few family-run wineries that made for perfect places to “wine down” while we vacationed.
The Piemonte region is famous for three wine types – Barolo, Barresco, and Arneis – and there are a few others that aren’t famous but should be. The rolling hills are covered with vineyards, literally covered as far as the eye can see in any direction, interrupted only by groves of hazelnut trees. Almost all the vineyards are family-owned, multi-generational, family-run operations – as the owner of a family-run business I loved it. The people were knowledgeable, passionate about their product, and incredibly friendly.
From the immaculate visitors’ center shaped like a giant transparent grape at Ceretto Winery, to the Patiernos’ soul-mate friend, Francesca, at G.D. Javra winery, above, to the dreamboat Riccardo at Palo Scavino, we could not have asked for a better tutelage into these awesome wines. Actually, I’m sure Riccardo was as knowledgeable about the wine as the other guides but, like my friend Alison, I was too distracted by his sports-car good looks to pay much attention to the words.
It only makes sense that after owning a shoe store for 14 years that I should have an Italian obsession, I mean they do make the best shoes and some darn fine wine. But here is the other thing, they do more right than just make shoes and wine better.
First, they take their dogs everywhere. It’s completely normal to sit at a café while the person at the next table has a well-behaved mutt resting patiently under his chair. And a walk through any small village reveals the math that virtually everyone in Italy owns a dog. I’ve always thought one of Old Town’s best traits was its dog-friendliness and there were several times on this trip when I wished my little Bonnie was with me – though I’m not sure she could mind her manners in a restaurant with amazing food smells wafting through the air.
Secondly, Italians have mastered the road-side gas station. Hear me out on this. Most of their interstates, as we would call them, are toll roads, with service plazas placed periodically that include a gas station with a faster food establishment inside. I say “faster” food because in Italy there is no such thing as fast food – they just don’t believe in it. The sandwiches in these stations are made fresh – a panini with tomatoes and mozzarella is typical, not a greasy hot dog that’s been rotating on the 7-Eleven griddle for eight hours. Instead of the powdered/instant coffee machines, they have a stand-up coffee bar. It took some adjusting for me, an all-day coffee sipper, to realize that you don’t carry coffee around in that country; you order it, pause long enough to drink it at that spot, from a real coffee cup, and then move on.
The shelves at these Italian-ized convenience stores are even stocked much differently – with fresh cheeses, risotto packed in cloth floral bags, and neat sugar candies with cute packaging. The closest American thing I can compare to it is Stuckey’s, the campy local roadside chain in the South, but with a major boost in quality.
Third, there simply is no comparison between an Italian Farmacia and a drug store in the U.S. While our CVS and Walgreens stores are super-sized and have blinding fluorescent lights and as much shelf space devoted to processed food as medicine, the Italian versions are tiny, immaculately clean, ornately merchandised, and exclusively deal in health and beauty products. They’re a lot closer to my local favorite, Neighborhood Pharmacy in Del Ray, than to the frustratingly more common big box druggists we have in suburbia.
Lest you think I spent the entire trip engaging in consumer behavior, I should note that we did tour the underground archaeological dig in the riverside city of Alba, we trekked to an amazing UNESCO World Heritage site high above Orta San Giulio in the Lake Region, and took a high-elevation hike in the French Alps near Mont Blanc. But let’s face it, as fun as those were, we really went there for the wine.
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