The golden hour tinges the sinuous vine-wrapped valley on the last night of two weeks travelling the myriad glories of Piedmont’s Langhe Monferrato Roero and Tuscany’s Valdichiana Senese and Val d’Orcia.
Fine dining and wining, ultimate wellness and outdoor activities surrounded by majestic scenery, these two regions (both UNESCO World Heritage sites) are the perfect match for independent travellers on a quest to indulge in Italy’s very best offerings.
The distant barking of dogs (perhaps the Lagotto breed excited by the scent of truffles buried like treasure in the untouched ground), the reassuring clink of metal as an artisan crafts a masterpiece and birdsong are the only sounds as I gaze out at a hazy sunset over a patchwork of Nebbiolo vineyards. For an hour or so, I mislaid my mobile phone, inspired to write by the humble beauty of this rousing land.
Alba is the alpha and omega of our visit, an alluring octagonal-shaped city whose late 15th-century cathedral stands at the centre—observe closely and you’ll see the place name cleverly “spelled out” on the façade in the form of an angel, lion, ox (bue) and eagle (aquila in Italian). Ambling around the charming streets is a flavourful pastime as historic stores tempt you in with their culinary delights, from locally grown hazelnuts to tajarin, the region’s pasta par excellence kneaded from 40 egg yolks. Time your trip to coincide with the International White Truffle Fair, held in October and November every year.
“A kilometre in the Langhe takes longer than most,” quips our private tour guide one bend after another on the drive due north to the extraordinary Castello di Guarene. This is a place where dreams come true for those fortunate enough to stay at the impressive 18th-century palace turned uber-luxury hotel—nature and cherubs keep you company on the stylized walls of the opulent breakfast room, while wide-ranging panoramas await on the terrace by the indoor pool carved from the rock face.
Next up is a visit to the underground cathedral cellars of Canelli where we watch in awe as cellarman Mauro demonstrates his 45 years of experience riddling 300 bottles of bubbles per minute. “Thanks to mobile phones left and right, and all this technology, I’ve understood what I do.” The sparkling wine is equally mesmerizing: characterful and charming, an ideal match for local hams and cheeses. In an effort to sober up, we stroll down Canelli’s cobbled lovers’ lane—via degli Innamorati—lined with pastel-painted homes, centuries-old chapels and exquisite boutique hotels. The chef is warm and welcoming as we don our aprons and learn the secrets of Piedmontese cuisine before sitting down together for a delicious dinner in the archaic surroundings.
Now it’s time for a cooking lesson as we ascend the long winding road to the former hilltop monastery elevated to five-star hotel heaven: Relais San Maurizio. Every inch of the high-lying hillside is planted with Moscato Bianco grapes; for a wine lover, it’s a wondrous sight that inspires respect for the producers and their battle with the elements.
Determined to do away with the calories of the previous 24 hours, a morning run is followed by an electric bike ride to Barbaresco as the mist lifts and the scenery unfurls before our astonished eyes. After climbing the town’s medieval tower and gaining our bearings from the top of the brick edifice, our next stop is the striking Grinzane Cavour Castle, once home to Italy’s first prime minister and now the venue of the first regional wine centre, established in 1967. Further north, Asti provides shopping opportunities for culinary specialities in addition to extraordinary monuments, museums and cathedrals.
A visit to the Langhe is incomplete without a bottle of Barolo. Selected labels age in peak conditions to craft an Italian wine archive for the future at the Banca del Vino near Bra, set in the Harvard-like manicured grounds of the town’s University of Gastronomic Sciences, while the epitome of the Barolo experience is tasting at a family-run estate in the company of a winemaker who fathers his land like his firstborn, with the utmost attention and affection.
“What makes this part of Tuscany so special is that it’s a trusting land,” explains our guide as we set out from pretty Torrita di Siena towards Montepulciano. That trust is echoed in the historic subterranean cellars in the town centre as we descend unaccompanied down the steep slope once travelled by oxen pulling big barrels of Vino Nobile into the damp dungeon lit by flickering lamplight; the only tugging of casks that goes on these days is along the streets by muscular men during Bravìo delle Botti on the last Sunday in August. Back in the bright of day, we visit Enoliteca, the consortium’s perfectly restored wine centre, whose see-through flooring unmasks Roman foundations and whose modern shelves showcase Vino Nobile bottles from all of the area’s producers. A bottega, a grocery store, entices us with its pici pasta, succulent salami and regional grains before we leave Montepulciano for tastings at one of the zone’s bucolic wineries.
A craving for cheese swiftly ensues, hence our next port of call: Pienza. Known as Corsignano in the Middle Ages, a certain Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini was born here in 1405. On becoming Pope Pius II, he had the entire village rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance town and renamed it after himself. Still idyllic in its layout and environs, Pienza’s main draw is its perfection and pecorino, a cheese made from cow’s milk that’s enjoyable fresh and sublime when aged. The countryside calls as we mount e-bikes and head for the hills, or rather the gravel road to Bagno Vignoni, a spa town with steaming hot springs in the central piazza. Our day ends in San Quirico d’Orcia, a quiet village of such beauty that I ache to return to the perfectly symmetrical Horti Leonini Italian gardens and the blissful Madonna di Vitaleta chapel, a late Renaissance gem flanked by cypress trees.
Montalcino is our next destination, the renowned winemaking town winking at pleasure seekers on a quest to taste refined Brunellos. The scenery is equally intoxicating: double rows of cypress trees, single-track railway crossings and verdant Sangiovese vines stretching over the serpentine slopes. A walk around the picture-postcard town results in grazing boards of crostini topped with sun-drenched tomatoes, cold-pressed olive oil and inevitably a glass of enigmatic red. Regardless of the road you take from Montalcino, you will find yourself at a winery. Perhaps the iconic Greppo estate belonging to the noble Biondi-Santi family; the extensive land owned by Banfi, whose founders were the first to recognize the export potential of Brunello; or Ciacci Piccolomini di Aragona, inspired by one woman’s belief in her land and now home to a unique bike museum-cum-scenic tasting room. If you’re feeling active, sign up for the Eroica Montalcino vintage bike rally in May 2020, which will wind its way along the area’s dirt tracks; the route is permanently signposted year-round for independent cyclists.
Horticulturalists will fall head over heels for La Foce, a formal Italian garden designed by English architect Cecil Pinsent in the 20th century, whose gentle terraces and box hedges enhance and expand the spectacular views all around. Dropping down through woodland into Chianciano Terme, this perfect tour of Italy’s best ends with wellness. The town’s cinematic allure (think Hollywood-like letters on grand hotel rooftops) ends at the Terme Sensoriali for a spa centre with a healing approach, where the resident cook serves colourful dishes as we return to reality, happier and healthier after a fortnight touring the very best of Tuscany and Piedmont.