Piedmont, Italy: Monferrato’s Slow Food, Wine & Truffles

Motoring through Italy’s Piemonte or Piedmont region, I sometimes felt as though I’d been whisked back in time a few decades, perhaps even centuries. The dramatic hills of the Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato districts were wrapped with rows of grapevines and orchards, crowned with handsome fortresses, and dotted with villages wearing terra-cotta rooftops. Large-scale industry was largely absent from this swathe of the Northern Italian landscape, and that’s much of what made it so visually-appealing.

With just weeks to go before the 2015 grape and white truffle harvests, the enthusiasm among the locals was already palpable. Together with our local guide, Marco from Meet Piemonte, Shawn and I would spend two days exploring pockets of Piedmont. This article highlights our time in the Monferrato district, to include the city of Asti, home to the famous Palio horserace, plus wine-tasting and truffle hunting excursions in the countryside. An upcoming post in this series will focus upon the nearby Langhe-Roero hills, including the elegant city of Alba.

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Tasting Central California: A Paso Robles Wine Tour

Six decades ago, my grandparents and their then-eight children piled into the family car and drove to San Luis Obispo from Minnesota. My grandfather was to begin a teaching position there. Though the family’s chapter in San Luis Obispo (SLO) ended up being a short one (frankly, I don’t know how they bid farewell to charming SLO and its wonderful weather) my relatives left with sunny memories of playing at the beach and in the hills, and a now-iconic photograph of my father sporting golden-brown curls, pushing a 1950s-era wire stroller.

With that personal connection as well as the knowledge that fine wine country exists not only in San Luis Obispo, but also nearby Paso Robles, Shawn and I made a point to stop in SLO as we made our way along California’s coastline from Monterey to Santa Barbara. We were also lured in by SLO’s designation as the ‘Happiest City in America’ and felt that vibe the moment we took to the walkable downtown, past quirky eateries and shops, and the city’s 18th century Spanish Mission church.

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Magnificent Motors: The Enzo Ferrari Home Museum in Modena, Italy

 

Seen from above, Modena’s futuristic Enzo Ferrari Home Museum is said to bring to mind the hood of a sleek, buttercup-yellow roadster.

At ground level, the sparkling-glass gallery is a state-of-the-art showroom – one that contrasts with its Old World, red-brick neighbor, the building in which Ferrari was born in 1898.

Admittedly, despite having maneuvered a Bavarian driving machine on Germany’s famed Autobahn for a decade, I am not by nature, an automobile aficionado. When Shawn and I embarked on our Southeast Asian, North American and Southeastern European adventures in 2011, we sold our cars, and have embraced slower-paced bus and train travel ever since. Nevertheless, we appreciate good design – and since Modena is as well known for its automotive makers, as its mouth-watering cuisine, and classic architecture, we found that the Ferrari Home Museum foray gave us a more complete picture of life in the Northern Italian city.

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Growing Together: Moldova’s Family-Run Et Cetera Winery

 

For years, we had our sights set on participating in a grape harvest. As the golden months of the summer of 2014 dwindled, and Europe’s grapes grew plumper and riper, we decided to meander to Moldova to meet the newest vintage. It’s said that a whopping 25% of Moldova’s working population is involved in winemaking, and we instantly sensed this upon our arrival in the Eastern European country. Much of the autumnal landscape was dotted with vineyards, grape motifs favored heavily on the village architecture, and winemakers of the amateur and professional sort abounded. One of our first nights in the country, locals spotted us strolling the streets of a quiet village, and asked us if we wanted to try a glass of wine at their home. (Of course we said yes!) This warm extension of hospitality would continue for nearly one month, even as we hopped from locale to locale. Sometimes we were offered golden bunches of grapes, while at other moments we were given a generous glass of homemade wine.

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A Land of Hidden Gems: Moldova’s Wine, Food & Monasteries

On a quest to discover Moldovan wine, food and culture, we embarked on an adventure in the countryside, having just left the small European country’s capital city of Chisinau. Roadside merchants sold their wares: wicker baskets, colorful mums wearing autumnal hues, and large bowls containing green grapes fashioned into a pyramid shape. Farmers picked apples in orchards, a grape-harvesting crew took a break by lounging in a vineyard, and cows and goats grazed on the expansive golden plains.

If ever a swathe of land could be called ‘wine country,’ Moldova would be one of the most deserving to wear the label. Nestled between Ukraine and Romania, the country is abstractly shaped like a cluster of grapes. Winemaking accounts for 7% of the country’s exports, and when you go there, you get the sense that every family has an amateur winemaker in its ranks. Though family-made wines are common, the country is also becoming increasingly well-known for its high-quality, commercial wine, which is now made with adherence to international, modern standards. A National Office for Vine & Wine was established to help regulate the industry and promote Moldovan wine abroad.

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Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum & its ‘Pet’ Exhibit, Puppy

Journey to Bilbao, Spain, and the city’s celebrated Guggenheim Museum, and you’ll no doubt find yourself charmed by the modern-art museum’s ‘pet’ exhibit, Puppy. The 12 meter-tall canine (about 40 feet), modeled after a West Highland White Terrier pup, is comprised of thousands of flowers. It stands guard in front of the shimmering Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by architect Frank Gehry, and opened in 1997.

While I’m sure Puppy is probably effective at eliciting smiles from most passersby, I was especially fond of the flowery topiary since it reminded me of childhood dogs, Jenny and Bonnie, both Westies and real-life versions of Puppy. Puppy’s creator, Jeff Koons, used computer modeling to design Puppy, and when we visited, the canine sported blooms ranging from begonias, to marigolds and petunias.

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Where Tempranillo & Tradition Meet: A Wine Tour of Rioja Alavesa, Spain

As we motored through the Rioja Alavesa wine country in northern Spain, a golden landscape dotted with hilltop monasteries, sweeping vineyards, and walled towns with window boxes overflowing with red geraniums, I reflected on what we had absorbed that day. In a region famed for wine we’d enjoyed much wonderful vino, of course, but we also took in a rich amount of history – everything from walking in a 1,000 year-old necropolis with burial plots chiseled out of rock, to diving deep into a wine cellar that was originally dug out to be an escape tunnel during times of war. We also mingled with winery owners possessing a respect for tradition, and a desire to incorporate forward-thinking, sustainable practices into their businesses.

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Basking in Bilbao’s Renaissance: A Walking Tour of the Basque City

As we passed Bilbao’s state-of-the art structures, juxtaposed with timeless buildings flashing Old World flair, I had a hard time imagining what the Basque Country’s largest city was like before the Guggenheim Museum sparked its economic renaissance in the late 1990s. Still new to Bilbao, I was also fascinated with what constituted a Basque identity – what makes the Basque people unique from others in Spain. Our host, Marta, would help me better understand both as we explored the northern Spanish city’s highlights.

“Bilbao used to be grey and sad,” Marta said, as we began our day together. “It was dirty and industrial. There were political problems and high unemployment. People used to always say ‘I’ll go through Bilbao, but I don’t want to step foot there.'”

On this summer day, however, the aesthetics of Bilbao were a treat for the senses, because it was so different from other European cities we’d explored.

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