Camogli

As we head out of town, the skies (which previously had so diligently guarded the condensation therein) finally relented to the swelling pressure, and the rain began it’s descent. Coming in waves as we drive the convoluted streets into the town of Camogli (that’s pronounced ca-MO-yee, with maybe the faintest hint of and ‘L’ between the “MO” and the “yee”), the rain finally lets up and becomes a drizzle as I execute the finest parallel parking job in history, coming within inches of the rough stone wall on the narrow winding road down into town. This is, of course, after driving down into the town once, not finding parking (or even being sure that we were in the right place), driving out of the town, looking at the crude map of Camogli given by the hotel, firing up the GPS, inputting an intersection as the destination, and following the GPS back to where we were.

Of course, this finely executed parking job was a bit too far from town. Sooooo, we get back in the car, drive to some free parking lots and find our first SUV-like vehicle mostly parked in it’s space, but not enough to allow us to park in the only remaining space in the two free lots. I’m not ready to give in to the pay-lot yet, so we start heading back to our original spot on the hill and find one a bit closer. After deftly parking yet again, we head into the soggy (but currently drying) town.

We start into the quaint, quiet town down a tall and narrow street. Not much happening here other than the occasional puddle. We decide to take a long steep staircase down toward the sea. As we enter the sea-front road and begin to pass some shops, nature decides to oblige our unconscious desire for more water and the clouds begin to relieve themselves. On us. A lot.

The beginning of Noah’s flood is too much for us to bear any longer (especially with no umbrella), and we duck under the closest shop awning. Hey look! It’s a gelateria! I resist, but Nancy gives in. We sit on a bench outside the gelateria, Nancy licking away at her single scoop on a cone, for several minutes. Through the deluge, we watch as people walk by covered by blankets, towels and (occasionally) an umbrella. Apparently we’re not the only ones unprepared.

Deciding that we can’t sit there and eat gelato all day in the rain, much as we may like to, we make a dash in the rain to the next awning. Hey look! It’s a bar! Nancy resists, but I give in. Well, on second thought Nancy has a beer too. We get our drinks and some prosciutto and a basket of semi-edible bread. The proprietor turns on some music on a DJ rig and Santana begins to fill the air in a hip-hop remix. Not bad… but the bread leaves us wanting. Finishing out drinks, we press on into what is now a drizzle.

Without the pressure of trying to stay dry, we hit a few shops (read: Nancy hits a few shops as I tag along). Knick-knack here, scarf there we go through pretty much everything the seaside has to offer. Looking at the time, we start thinking about dinner. A strange closet of a restaurant catches our eye, mostly because it’s lit up with red and dim lights internally, but it’s closed and to prove that there is no one to take our reservation, we knock on the door and get no reply.

Deciding to take one of the shop keeper’s bits of advice, we plan to go to one of the restaurants on the seafront at either end of the street. We’re looking for a bit of seafood. None of the places is open yet, so we decide to explore the next tier of Camogli. We stumble across a wine bar across from a bar that is oozing smooth bass onto the street. With nothing to stop us between now and dinner, we elect to step in for a drink. The bassist/owner informs us that he’s not open yet, but there will be live jazz and drinking later that evening. We decide to try our luck with the wine bar instead.

Success! As we sit down at one of the tables halfway into La Cantina Della Bossa, the Julio Iglesias look-alike owner gives us the wine menu. The place is nicely decorated, perfectly lit and some Ibiza-like chill music is playing in the air. We fit. Taking a look at the menu, we decide on some local wines that don’t disappoint. Well…. does this smell corked to you? Nancy’s not sure, but I’m usually pretty good at picking up the TCA in a wine. I take the wine up to Julio and say, “E posso il vino e cappo.” A dubious look. Which wine was it? Eh… I don’t know I wasn’t paying attention that closely, but I’ve got a 50/50 chance. It’s this one. He pours a glass. Sniffs. “No! E fantastico!” I’ve guessed wrong. The entire time, he does not smell the glass that I’ve brought to him, but he pours me a new glass of il vino fantastico and pushes it across the bar dismissively. We’ve lost our Julio card.

A new face (possibly Julio’s son) brings out some snacks for our wines. A tuna puree, olive tapenade, toasts. Then, fried mozzarella stuffed ravioli, fried zucchini blossom, meat stuffed fried olives, fried something else and something else fried. We order another round of drinks and inquire if they do dinner. They do and they start serving in 30 minutes. Great! We drink and wait and talk about the day as the 30 minutes passes into oblivion.

Enrique comes back to take our dinner order and does his best to explain what some of the handwritten menu is. We order a type of pasta called trofie with pesto (a specialty of the area) and gnocchi dish with polpi (which we learned was octopus). Both are excellent and the pesto is the greenest and smoothest that we’ve ever seen. A little red haired nonna (and I mean red hair) sits down next to us and orders her usual: two deep fried ravioli with mozzarella (these are much bigger than the snack version) and a glass of red wine. Her english is very good and she recommends that we not own a house and that we travel a lot. She finishes the night with a grappa and wishes us well. We do the same and order a plate of her ravioli.

Finished with dinner, we head across the way to the bar with the bassist. We order a couple of pints (well… half a litre each) and pick a table close to were the action will be. As we listen to the trio crank out standards on their sax, guitar and bass, we pick up a Scrabble set and begin to play as we drink. We do our best to play in Italian, but despite the excess of certain letters for the language, I am unable to get the right combo for words that I know. Nancy eeks out “duomo” across the board with a smile, and I continue to pull unfavorable letters and drink.

Eventually we head back to the hotel and I use the bidet the only way I know how: to do laundry. Our 6 days of socks and underwear fully washed and rinsed, I hang them to dry on multiple surfaces to dry. Exhausted from the labor (and possibly overeating and drinking) I join Nancy in bed and crash.

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Romantik Hotel Villa Pagoda

As we pull into the narrow gated driveway, discerning the front of the hotel is a little challenging, but after getting in and out of the car and putting it in drive and reverse a couple of times, we figure it out. It’s overcast, but I think that it may be clearing up a little.

The hotel itself is picturesque and the grounds a lush. A little new paint might not hurt, but this place definitely has its charm. As we finagle the car to the front of the hotel and get our luggage out, someone from inside greets us and helps us carry some of the luggage up the steps and inside. We check-in and Nancy takes the elevator to the next floor up with one of the suitcases. The elevator looks small, even for her. I wait for slightly less than a minute and then call the elevator back down for assistance with the luggage.

The doors open up and I look at my coffin, the worn wood paneling and brass welcome me to my impending doom. I wheel the luggage into the lift and then step in. I hear the cables and springs snap taught and echo in the shaft. As I look at the boilerplate stating the unit’s capacity, I realize that I have no idea how many kilograms I weigh. Figuring that I could probably survive a 1 story crash if I had to, I press the button for the next flight up.

I live, and quickly exit the deathtrap, deciding it’s best not to tempt fate. As I round the corner, Nancy is just wheeling her suitcase to the door of our room and I’m greeted by a huge chandelier, suspended in the middle of the floor and exposed to the great room below us. It’s easily 10 feet across and after marveling at it for a moment, I get on with my life an we enter our suite.

…which is in need of redecorating. I always marvel at people’s taste in decorating. I never would have picked these colors, and I can’t believe that anyone that wasn’t colorblind would have done the same. Shit. Even someone who was colorblind might have had a better chance at getting the colors right. Still, the room is quite large and looks onto the sea. It’s a little stuffy, so we open the windows and let the breeze flow into the room. There’s a huge walk-in closet and the bathroom is a pretty good size. This is probably the roomiest suite of our travels yet. If the sky wasn’t overcast, the view would be great.

We put our suitcases in their place and take a minute to unwind and check out the room and its views. Then…

WOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHN! WO-WOOOOOOOHHHHHHN! CLACKITYCLACKITYCLACKITYCLACKITY. The hotel has suddenly become less “romantik.” As we look out onto the courtyard below us and extend our gaze toward the sea, somewhere between us and it are train tracks. Train tracks that shoot trains past the romantik hotel every 30 minutes or so until around 12:30am. Not so romantik. In the hotel’s defense, the multi-pane casement windows do an excellent job of keeping the noise out. But considering how much we’re paying per night, I expected a less….  locomotive… experience.

As usual, we want to make the most of our day, so we decide to head to Camogli (one of Denise’s recommendations). We head downstairs to the front desk to see if we can get a map of the area, but there’s not much. We take what we can get, and with a minimal amount of information, we head off to Camogli!

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Moving day: To the sea!

We wake up in our castle chamber and agree — we will have breakfast here at the castle today. Sure it’s bit pricey at €10 per person (well, when you factor in the conversion rate of 1:1.5. Well… okay, not really), but we don’t feel like grabbing anything on the road and hey! We’re worth it! Actually, as we step into the dining room, it becomes apparent that the breakfast is totally worth it. Fresh-baked breads, cakes, rolls and croissants are displayed for the taking. There are cured meats and cheeses, fruit, juices, coffee, milk, yogurt, cereals, and cheeses. Among the cheeses is a pressed ricotta drizzled with chestnut honey. Yes…. totally worth it. Amazed that we can fit anything in us after last night’s feast, we gather our food and sit down with a couple that we met the previous night at the hotel: Vincent and Karen from Sarasota, FL.

After breakfast, we pack up everything for the road and haul it downstairs. As Nancy checks us out of the castle, I take the opportunity to do some last minute blogging. While checking out, Nancy gets some recommendations for places to eat in Lucca from Denise (the other owner of the castle), since she is familiar with that area. We figure that anyone who puts that much effort into a breakfast like that must know something about where the good places to eat are.

We planned to hit a little of Barbaresco before we headed south today, but by the time we got out of there, we just wanted to get to Nervi as fast as possible without incurring any penalties for speeding (‘cuz that’s just what I need. Another speeding ticket). On the way there, I realize that I am now able to read 4 more traffic signs, thanks to Liliana’s explanation about the name nebbiolo possibly being derived from nebbia or “fog”. Hurray! I’m learning!

We pull over at a gas station to fill up our tank, since we’re running a bit low and run into a bit of trouble. One, the gas station is closed, and the automated system only takes cash, not cards. I don’t want to give up my hard-earned cash for something as mundane as gas, but I relent. As I open the gas door on the car to fill up, I realize that there’s no gas cap! I’m not sure if it’s supposed to have one, as there is a metal flap that seems to close the hole automatically. Yeah, I know that ours are like that here in the US too, but this one looks different to me. More…. European. Nancy suggests that the guy in Bellagio that filled up our tank secretly collects them, “Ah now here is a prize… Ford Focus, 2008″. I grab the nozzle for regular gas (there’s no way I’m spending my hard-earned cash on super for a rental car!) and jam it into the hole. Er… jam it… WTF! It’s too big for the fucking hole! What kind of moron makes a car that won’t take gas?!

Betting that the little flap will open under the pressure of the gasoline flow, I press the end of the nozzle to the hole and gently squeeze the handle. Gush! The gas spills down the side of the car. Defeated, I put the nozzle back in the machine. At this point I notice something odd about the two gas nozzles: they have different sizes. Curious, I grab the “super” nozzle and bring it to the hole. It fits perfectly. There goes my hard-earned cash. I end up prepaying on the automated system two more times to get the car close to full.

We press on. After a couple of hours and about 20 tunnels later, we arrive in Genova, a dirty and crowded sea town with scooters flying everywhere. Glad that we’re not staying in Genova, we keep going down the road to Nervi. Nervi is less dirty and significantly less crowded, but still feels cramped. The streets that we travel on are one lane (that’s half of one lane in the US) but are thankfully one-way. It threatens to rain as we pull up to the Romantik Hotel Villa Pagoda, but holds for the time being.

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Nonna Genia

It’s dark, and we start our winding way through the town of Sinio, away from the castle to our dining destination: Nonna Genia. According to Nicola, this is the opposite of the previous night’s dinner. Whereas Bovio was about €60 per person for antipasti, primi & secondi plus dessert, Nonna Genia should be about €25 per person for everything on the menu. It turns out that Nicola was right…

After letting the GPS take us to the right place (although I refused to follow the directions that would have taken us through a vineyard), we arrive 10-15 minutes later. It’s in the middle of nowhere. For all I know, I should have followed the GPS blindly, as it looks like were are in the middle of a vineyard with a road running through it. There is no official parking lot that we can discern, but there is someone guiding cars to parking spots as though there was. We are pointed in the direction leading away from the establishment and toward the side of the road. I am now parked in a vineyard. On an angle In knee-high weeds and grass. If this is any indication of the milieu, we’re definitely in for some mom & pop culinary action.

We enter the large wooden building on the side of the road. The only building for miles kilometers, as far as I can tell. There are two huge parties in the main seating area. The two groups comprised of about 20 people each never actually stop talking or enjoying their time together as they regard the two Americans, with antennae sticking out of their heads, invading their space. We’re seated in the next room over, still within earshot and sight of one of the groups, at a small table in what appears to be the old kitchen of a farmhouse. The wood-fired oven is still in the corner of this room (currently in disuse), and an old, crumpled blue couch looks like it will welcome us after we’ve over-eaten, as it has for generations before us.

After getting a pitcher of acqua con gas (sparkling water) that they seem to make themselves (meaning that they impart the CO2 to the water, not that they have tanks of hydrogen and oxygen in the back and somehow fuse them together to make water), we order a bottle of barolo and trust that the fact that no menu is offered means that food will be coming automatically. Mmmmm auto-pilot…

After the wine is opened and we approve, we are served two trifectas of antipasti comprised of (among other things) salad, carpaccio, fried egg with picked something, and polenta squares (we think). As if this weren’t enough to appetize us, there is a basket of bread and breadsticks to keep us company. At some point in the dinner, possibly the point at which over half of the bottle of wine is gone, my hand falls haphazardly near the breadsticks and decapitates the lot of them in one fell swoop, their heads tumbling to the ground to join their long since fallen comrades: opps-my-meatball and may-I-have-another-fork-please.

The antipasti are followed by two primi, both pasta dishes. The first is a wedge-shaped tortellini stuffed with veal and herbs, accompanied by no sauce, just a little parmesan. The second is a taglietelli with a bolognese sauce. Both the pastas are freshly made and excellent. Everything is served family style, where the family actually brings the casserole dish full of the pasta to your table and continues scooping until you say “when”. The two antipasti were a clue as to how things operate here, so we knew not to accept too much pasta. More was definitely coming.

The main courses (secondi) showed up “family style” again. First, a roast of sorts. Slices beef covered in a sauce accompanied by creamy polenta. The second secondi was rabbit wrapped in prosciutto (also in a sauce) with carrots on the side. We hadn’t had much vegetables at this point in the trip (or so it felt), so I asked for a couple extra spoonfuls. Honestly, both of the meats were actually a bit of a let-down, especially when compared to everything else thus far. Their texture was a bit tough and dry as though overcooked. On the other hand, both of the accompanying dishes were fantastic. The polenta was very creamy but not entirely smooth, offering a bit of texture to avoid being tactilely bland. The carrots, I felt, were the best I’d ever eaten. Despite having been cooked long enough to make them soft, they somehow have managed to retain their raw carroty flavor. I almost ask them to bring more of them, but dessert will be coming shortly and I must save what precious little room remains. Somewhere in the middle of this course, Nancy posits that perhaps we are not supposed to finish each course. I shrug off the suggestion, and I believe that it is at this point where I execute the breadsticks with ninja-like precision. I am clearly an ambassador of my country.

After clearing the table, dessert is brought out. We have the foresight to request only one dessert to share, since we are both so full already. However, they still get the better of us. I’m not exactly sure how to say “dessert sampler” in Italian, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was “dolce miste”. The dessert is actually 6 desserts in one! Comprised of pannecotta, pear cake, hazelnut torte with some sort of eggy sauce, two other bits of something and in the middle… chocolate “salumi”. In the taste test, I believe that the pear cake came out on top for me.

After paying the bill, our wine bottle is adorned with a funnel, and the wine is poured from the decanter back into the bottle. We are not given a brown paper bag for it. Cheapskates! Stuffed, we roll ourselves back to the car and follow the GPS religiously back to the castle. It seems to not favor the cross-vineyard route for the return trip.

We get back and try to catch up on our blogging, but it’s 5 days into the trip now and I’m already a third of the way through my moleskine. Catching up while not miserably stuffed and mildly intoxicated would be difficult. In my current condition, I defer to Nancy. And finish the rest of the wine. Everyone in the castle has gone to sleep, and Nancy wants some tea to help her stomach. Pressed to find hot water, I spy the espresso machine behind the bar. I turn the only knob that logically won’t produce a caffeinated beverage or steam and…. yay! I didn’t break it… and I have a glass of hot water. I’m a hero. A drunken hero.

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Bras Suck

So after waking up at 8:45, we finally squeak out of the hotel at 10:00 to head to the Alba Market, approximately 600 meters (that’s about 6 football fields for the metrically disinclined) of open-stall shopping along two of the major streets in Alba. That’s in addition to the existing shops along the two streets. Everything is going great as we pull into town by simply following the signs that say “Alba ->”. Going great, until we make a wrong turn in the city. We end up on the other end of Alba (the end that we don’t have a map for) and park. We walk for a while until we realize that we’re going to be walking for a great while (this realization comes by asking a local where the market is).

After getting back in the car and letting the GPS do it’s job and get us to the right area, we ask an old Italian lady where the “mercado” is. She points us to what ends up being a mall. I dread that “mercado” can mean “mall” as well as “market” for a brief moment, but another 20 meters proves the dread to be in-apropos. The market is just ahead…

…and it’s packed! Clothing, shoes, more clothing, more shoes, and shops all along the sides of it. Truffle shops among them. We see some jars of tartuffi bianchi that are going for €260 for some jars that would just fit inside my hand. I briefly consider grabbing a jar in each hand and making a dash for it, but my superego usurps my id and I simply browse the rest of the shop and dream of what I might do with them instead. *sigh*

We get some fresh focaccia, pizza and focaccia rustica (along with a few other savory pastries) and munch on our bounty while crouched down on the side of the street in front of a shop. We wash it all down with an orange Fanta, something that seems to be invading our diet more frequently than I would expect. The food along with the long slender can of soda disappears in a few minutes and we’re back in the fray, fondling and disheveling merchandise and not buying the great majority of it.

Two hours later, we head to Bra for the Cheese Festival. The journey is pretty short (maybe 20 minutes to get from town to town) and we spend another 10-15 minutes looking for the festival itself. There are a surprising lack of signs pointing us in the right direction, but our GPS is guiding us and we will not fail. Hmmm… no signs. We expect signs. We expect crowds. We expect little to no parking. Cheese. We expect CHEESE! But after driving through the streets where there should be booths and throngs of people, there is a surprising lack of both.

At this point, we pull over and revisit the brochure that I printed out before leaving the USA and we see “2007″ printed on the front. There is no festival. There isn’t even a fucking cheese shop that we can find to buy a bunch of cheese and make our own festival!! Nancy describes me at this point as crestfallen in her blog, but heartbroken may have been more appropriate. Defeated, we head back to La Morra to visit Nicola. He is sure to have a few good ideas up his sleeve (hopefully involving inebriation).

We give Nicola the wine map that we brought with us of the northern Sonoma County (this one). We ask about visiting a few wineries in La Morra. He calls a few places and we’re off!

We meet up with Carlo Revello, a large, “Sinbad the Sailor” type of guy who started the winery (Fratelli Revello) with his brothers, as you might have guessed from the name. We taste through a dolcetto, the barbera the we had a dinner the previous night (Ciabot du Re), a blend, and 5 barolos (4 single-vineyard). We already know that we’re in trouble from the barbera’s being so good the night before. We also know that we only have 4 slots left in our wine shipper (due to having purchased two bottles from Nicola at the enoteca). We spend close to an hour in the tasting room that overlooks the valley and end up getting 3 bottles. Then, we head over to our next winery.

We show up at Renato Corino’s place and are a bit confused. It seems to be under construction or renovation, but there are two cars out front, so we take a look around. The name on the sign out front has the first and last names swapped if the list/map that we have is correct (which it turns out is not). We travel back and forth between the car twice before deciding that this is the right place and venturing into the deserted building. During one of these trips, Nancy has a “trip” of her own as some gravel gives way on one of the steps back down to the car. Shaken, but determined we enter the building.

There’s no one here. The place is clearly under construction. WTF? We hear noise coming from downstairs and Nancy wanders down to investigate calling “hello?” There are people here after all, and they’re giving a demonstration of some of the equipment to some other tourists. We join them and then head back upstairs to taste some wine after the other tourists leave. It’s at this point that Liliana introduces herself.

She and Renato are the proprietors here and are both very friendly. She is quite fluent in English and Renato speaks almost none. But even without Liliana’s help, it’s clear that Renato is a simple and genuine man who would tell you everything if the language was common. A strikingly handsome man and a true Italian wine maker, born here and grown into this life. Not just tied to the land, but part of it. He is Italy… Barolo.

Liliana, Nancy and I sit down outside to taste some wine, while Renato cleans up some of the equipment downstairs. She explains (as we taste through a dolcetto, two barberas and a nebbiolo) that her English is so good from watching US sitcoms and dramas (Friends, The OC, Heart to Heart, Knight Rider, etc). We laugh about how cheesy some of the shows were/are and she tells us about how bad Italian TV is. The sun is setting and the wind is picking up. She insists that we can stay outside but its clear that she’s freezing, so we pick up everything and move inside.

We taste a couple of Barolos and chat on about the barolo region. As Nancy mentions that Serralunga had “tre canni, due gatti e una persona,” we all have a laugh as Renato confirms that our description is accurate (“that’s Serralunga” :-) and that the desertion probably has nothing to do with the harvest. Carlo calls from the previous winery to let us know that we’ve left our credit card there. We let him know through Liliana that we’ll come by to pick it up in a little bit. But as a little bit turns into 2 1/2 hours, Carlo ends up bringing the card to us on the way into town.

Near the end of our visit, Liliana has to venture off to pick up their daughter in Alba (or Asti. I can’t remember which), because she doesn’t want to be seen riding the bus. (Kids!) We sit and talk with Renato in Italian for a while. The discussion is sporadic at first, but as we’re forced to speak it, Nancy’s and my Italian begins to surface more readily. We talk about the grapes and the vineyards. We try some of the nebbiolo grapes for one of the bottles that we bought (they’re surprisingly sweet and delicious, considering how tannic barolos can be), and we talk about how the waste of the grapes (skins, stems, etc) is legally required to be sold to a distillery to make grappa. We have an easier time understanding Italian than speaking it, but for having studied only about a month before traveling, I feel we’re doing pretty good.

We collect our wines (we bought two despite having only one slot left at this point) and head back to the castle before heading off to dinner. We thank Renato for their kindness and say goodbye. He and Liliana are by far the most kind and genuine people we’ve met so far. A very cute couple (cute individually, but more so together), they opened their hearts to us and welcomed us to Italy in their own way. Language seemed like it would be an issue at times, but it reality communication ultimately has very little to do with that. We stepped into their lives for a moment and they welcomed us in whole-heartedly. Thi
s is why I came to Italy.

That… and the food. ^_^

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Ristorante Bovio

A barking dog greets us as we approach the door. The ristorante overlooks the valley, but at 8:30pm it’s too dark to appreciate the view anymore. We are seated (after successfully confirming our reservations online in Italian (woo hoo!)) at the table with our place card which reads:

NANSIS
Americani

Well… I guess that sets the staff’s expectations of us fairly low. Nowhere to go but up, now! :D

We order antipasti and main courses. An amuse is sent out from the kitchen: breaded and fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with veal and herbs. Lovely. We order a bottle recommended by Nicola (a Barbera d’Alba) and it’s great (of course).

Nancy’s quail with its uovi looks and tastes great and my tartare of veal is wonderfully light and clean tasting. Both dishes are topped with shaved truffles. Neither dish stands a chance. When our next course arrives, my veal filet comes wrapped up as a gift in cellophane and ribbon. Nancy’s taglietelli with white truffles shows up as just pasta with a little butter, but having observed it several times in the restaurant already, we know what’s coming. The head waiter comes over with the white truffle and starts shaving. With every slice, I can hear the cash register bell ringing *ka-ching! ka-ching!* After about 45 slices, the dish is probably worth the €35 we paid for it. Both dishes are delicious.

With that course conquered, the desserts are offered and, despite achieving satiety, Nancy orders the pannecotta and the semifreddo. I get the tortello di nocciolo (hazelnut torte). Nancy eats half of hers, and I all of mine. An espresso and cappuccino finish off the meal.

Molto bene.

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Barolo

So, Sinio is right in the middle of the Barolo, Barbaresco and Dolcetto regions. With only 7 major communes in Barolo, we decide to hit that one first (and, as it turns out, last).

The first stop is La Morra. Not because it has an Enoteca Comunale (like a tasting room for that commune’s wines), but because it has sweeping vistas of the entire Barolo region. On the way there, we’re shocked at the vast number of vines on the hills. The density of the vineyards themselves is as common in Sonoma or Napa, but it seems that every square foot of space in the region is planted (unlike Sonoma and Napa). Combine that with the fact that the vines are trellised to resemble 6 foot high walls, and the “maze” of vineyards is incredible.

We get to La Morra and the entirely friendly (and fluent in English) lady gets us to the right spot. We enter the enoteca and make a friend. Nicola (that’s nee-COH-lah; a guy) is friendly, loves wine, loves food and lives 20 meters away. He helps us with some Barolo selections and several tastings, as well as dinner suggestions and reservations. After probably an hour in there, we step outside and notice that the sun has broken free! Picture-snapping ensues, and we head out to the commune of Barolo.

Barolo is pretty dead, by the time we get there. We mistakenly step into a producer’s cantina instead of the commune’s and end up paying €10 to taste 4 wines (only 2 barolos). The wines weren’t that great, but the situation could have been worse. We could have been tourists in Napa Valley and paid as much to taste Beringer’s wines or something. We eventually find the right spot, but it’s closed by the time we get there. After walking around a bit, we elect to head on to the other four communes. In Serralunga, we snap some castle pics and when lured into a small wine bar by Sinatra’s crooning, we find out why everywhere is so dead: harvest. We have a glass of wine each in the company of the 3 dogs, 2 cats and 1 person that seem to inhabit the town, then move on.

We manage to hit all but one of the communes before dinner, and with 30 minutes left to spare, we head back to La Morra for our dinner reservations. We arrive on time and see a couple we met earlier in the day (Bill and Jen from New York, who were staying at an agritourismo in La Morra. Sounded wonderful and cheap… Perfect).

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The Journey to the Castle

I went to get the car this morning after not paying for parking again. Are the small town Italian police lazy about issuing parking tickets (I would be) or are rental cars somehow immune to parking fees? I half-worry that somehow it’s all automated and since I can’t really read most of the signs, I’ll get a huge bill to pay as I’m leaving the country.

Nancy makes a comment regarding how nice the autostrade are on our 2 hours journey to Sinio. I’m thinking the same things as I glance down at the toll ticket on the console that we picked up about an hour ago. When we approach the pay booth for the toll ticket, I think, “Now we find out how the really nice highways are paid for.” €5.90. Not too bad, considering tolls have been €1-2 so far for much shorter jaunts.

Along the way, we stop at a gas station and get a slice of pizza to go. Sadly, this is the best pizza that we’ve had so far, and probably the cheapest. Topped with arugula, it has a nice sauce and a decently crisp crust. Maybe the pizza gets better as we go south.

We arrive at the castle on the wettest day of the trip so far. The sun is threatening to break free of the clouds tyranny, but so far their hold is strong. The castle is as picturesque as the brochures & website indicate. It’s owned by a couple from San Francisco and it’s been renovated over the course of seven years. We’re greeted by one of the owners, James. He familiarizes us with a few things and after about 15 minutes we get our key and head upstairs to our chamber.

We drop everything off and head out to explore the town… which, it turns out, is not so big. That out of the way, we decide to head off and explore the Barolo region…

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Il Computer

We get back close to 11pm from dinner. There’s a computer in the lobby for guests to use (what I had been using to post everything that happened in the first day or so). James asks if I’d like something to drink as the temperamental computer boots up. Some grappa, perhaps? After explaining that I’ve never really had grappa, he exclaims that he’s got the smoothest grappa ever. Intrigued (and not knowing that it would end up costing me €10 later on), I take a glass. It has a faint hint of hazelnuts and slowly disappears as I walk around (still waiting) and finally type.

We have an early morning tomorrow, but that doesn’t stop me from checking email and writing in journals until 3am. We hit the hay finally and get a few hours of sleep before getting up at 7:30/8am for Alba and Bra (for the market and cheese festival, respectively).

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Il Giorno di Como

Today we arise around 7/8am. For some reason, the bell tower at the abbey likes to ring their bells at 6am and again at 7-something. As though sensing that this was not enough of an alarm clock, the town garbage collector steps in with his truck and lack of respect for silence.

We get up and shower in the 6 square feet of space that passes for our shower and tub, then head to breakfast. If we had read our itinerary more closely, we would have realized that breakfast was included with our stay. Yummy cereals and yogurt soothe the tummy after a long flight and full day of adjusting to the time difference.

Next, we’re off ot the car to head to Bellagio on Lake Como. The GPS really seems to like the the neighborhood next to us, as it keeps detouring us through it.

After two toll booths and three autostrade, we arrive at Como Sud and start the serpentine journey to the center of the lake. Fun and stressful is how I’d describe it. I don’t think that I blinked more than 10 times in the 45 minutes that it took to drive to the end. Narrowing lanes (down to one lane at times), oncoming traffic, stopped cars (in the middle of the road (down to one lane at times)), and pedestrians, cyclists and nonnas with shopping carts (sometimes all three) keep me on my toes along the winding, blind-turn road guiding us to Bellagio. From a performance and handling perspective, I wish that we were in a sports car, but given the conditions, I’m appreciative of the smallness of the Ford Focus.

Bellagio is nice. Touristy, but nice. Nancy manages to make her first clothing purchase: a scarf at an “outlet” store near the top of the hill of shops. I have a feeling that the word “outlet” does not naturally exist in the Italian language, and as a result get the feeling that this could be a tourist trap. However, the prices are decent, the quality of the garments good, and the chain-smoking shopkeeper is a friendly lady who doesn’t speak very much English, but understands it enough to help us learn a few more words in Italian.

After that, we realize that the ferry boat to villa Balbianello that we’ve purchased tickets for is leaving in 15 minutes… and we’re hungry. As we descend the 60 foot mound of shops, we spot a small bar/panini shop and duck in. We manage to get a sandwich (and even manage to get it heated up, since we’re not paying attention to what the person is doing) and take it to go. We quickly scarf down the panino in the 5 minutes that we have left while we’re waiting at the dock, then hop on board the ferry. After 4 stops along the way and a water taxi, which apparently is the only way the villa is accessible (hidden cost), it’s all worth it. The villa and it’s grounds are beautiful. There’ll be pics later on.

Nancy managed to grab a gelato on the way to the villa in the quiet and peacefull town of Lenno. On the way back to the dock for the ferry (which we see docked at the pier) she decides to get another gelato, while I continue on to hold the boat for her. Deciding that buying a gelato isn’t the best use of her/our time at this point, she catches up with me in time to see the boat leave. We must wait 10 minutes for the next one. Deciding that buying a gelato is an appropriate use of her/our time at this point, we head back to the gelato stand and she gets a double scoop. Porco! :)

After getting back to Bellagio, we hop in the car and head back toward Como, looking for an Osteria along the way. No luck. We get into Como Nord, still looking. Still no luck. As Nancy mentions that the city reminds her of Oakland, I realize the futility of trying to find a decent place to eat at random along the road in a city this size and start following the signs for the autostrade.

We get back into town (Orta San Giulio) and hit up a little restaurant that wasn’t open during the last two nights: Jazz Cafe. It’s easily the best deal in town. Combined indoor and outdoor seating, smooth jazz, good food and inexpensive wine make this a winner.

We hit up the local enotecca and after a 50% success rate on the wines there, we call it a night. Tomorrow… our castle awaits.

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