Travel adventure round the horn of Africa
Our trip is sadly coming to an end. Tomorrow we fly from Malpensa airport in Milan, from there to Doha in Qatar and then home to O. R. Tambo in Johannesburg. We are celebrating our month-long journey at international acclaimed chef Enrico Crippa’s restaurant.
The setting is the beautiful square at the cathedral in Alba and Enrico cleverly gives you the best of both worlds. Downstairs there is the laid back informal La Piola, while upstairs and thought a seemingly secret entrance the Grande dame and Michelin stared Piazza Duomo with more formal fare (and break the bank prices!)
We opt for La Piola. The menu is small and changes every day, ensuring the freshest produce and creative changes possible. The staff is extremely informative and while we try in our best Italian they are practising their English. They spoil all our translating fun by supplying a menu sheet printed in Italian, German and English!
We decide to share the Misto di antipasti (assortment of traditional hors d oeuvre- a la the translation). An interesting plate arrives: thinly sliced veal with tuna fish mayonnaise, Russian salad, cured ham with sweet and sour vegetables, a local cheese (Ariobra) with onion marmalade, veal tartar with seasoning and Parma cheese, a fish pate with basil pesto and slivers of beef tongue.
Goodness and this is just the starter! We are having an Italian feast with a twist. Then follows the Primi. I choose the Agnolotti del plin al burro e salvia (freshly homemade ravioli with butter and sage) alternatively it is also served with a roast veal sauce. Hubby has the Tajarin al ragu di salsiccia (homemade tajarin pasta with an Italian sausage sauce). This option is alternatively available with the more traditional butter and sage version.
The pasta is to die for. After a month of exposure to Italian fare it has to come to our last night to have the best pasta ever. The ravioli melts in your mouth and is fragrant and juicy. The tarjarin looks like angel hair pasta and leaves your every taste bud utterly satisfied.
I have no space for a Secondi but hubby tries out the Tagliata di fassona con patate morbide, topinambur croccanti e spinaci saltati ( Fassona veal steak with mash potatoes , crunchy topinambur and spinach) It turns out that topinambur, is deep fried parsnip crisps and fassona, is a veal product of the area. Our meal is accompanied by an aromatic glass of red Nebbiolo, a wine grown and produced locally. With really no space for dessert we end off with a cappuccino served with mini halva cakes. La Piola signifies everything that modern dining out is about. Simple classic food extremely well prepared with fresh local produce in season and service of top quality.
It is our last night in Italy; nostalgically we wander the paved old streets and reminisce about a magnificent journey with many highlights and memories for a lifetime.
Arrivederci Bella Italia! (Till we meet again, beautiful Italy)
We arrive in Alba late in the afternoon. Our first priority is to find accommodation.” Mini hotel” SoleLuna looks promising and is actually a guest house in disguise. The eccentric proprietor cannot speak a word of English and with our phrasebook and three words in Italian we manage to negotiate a reduced room rate since we are planning to stay for two nights. We have learned that even in Italy you can ask ‘Is this your best price?’
Alba is the home of many gastronomic delights one being the Ferrero Rocher factory; we are disappointed to hear that there is not an option to do a factory tour and that there is no asses to the factory outlet shop unless you are an employee. Even the tourist office says that the factory should come to the party since it would mean so much for the little town as a tourist destination. Well maybe next time… The closest we come to the factory on this visit is our hotel room window overlooking the factory’s big FERRERO sign!
However the first supermarket that we visit makes up for any possible Ferrero sadness, since we meet half of the marketing staff from the factory, busy setting up an enormous, extensive Ferrero Easter display. All products are available to taste and we make ample use of the opportunity! We buy numerous items that we have not seen at home and our suitcases are stocked with Ferrero gifts galore. The pocket coffee (a dark chocolate cube filled with a shot of strong espresso coffee) is a hit and all the chocoholics should look out for the Ferrero copy of the Lindt Bunny, Easter is going to be a bunny war!
Another foodie commodity that is associated with Alba is the exquisite truffle. Truffles are related to the fungi family and are harvested by being sniffed out around trees by trained pigs or dogs. Alba is best known for the white truffle but various species grow around the area and is sold for astronomical prises in the yearly truffle festival. A big truffle fan myself, I marvel at the ingenious ways that local delis make use of this rare but delicious earthy tuber. There is obviously the actual truffle preserved in brine but truffle shavings, - salsa, - oil, -honey, - cured meat, -salt,-cream makes the truffle list go on. For dinner it is inevitable that we have something with truffles and even though the truffle pizza is tempting, I opt for the steak laden with ample truffle shavings, sublime!
Alba is surrounded by hills that boast some of Italy’s most prise wining wines. The most well-known of these, the full bodied Barolo from the neighbouring town with the same name. For fun we pop into a local Mc Donald’s just to see what they have to offer and are not disappointed. There is an Italian Mc Burger with an herby bun and mozzarella cheese included! The rest looks like pretty standard fare.
At night Alba becomes a wonderful sensory Italian small town experience. The street are filled with local families and their dogs, just strolling around the historic centre with its paved alleys and floodlight old churches , cathedrals and piazzas are magical and the numerous restaurants try to outdo each other with welcoming aromas. There is a pleasant vibey atmosphere and even if it is pretty chilly outside everybody dashes for some of the gorgeous local gelato!
We have spent our last two days absorbing everything we could about Italian country life. We tried to life like Italians, although I still struggle with the shot of espresso and sweet pastry quickly dashed down while standing at a bar for breakfast ( I will enjoy my poached eggie on toast once back home again!) Italian bars refer exclusively to what we might call coffee shops and the ample bar counters are filled at any time of the day with local standing around getting their espresso fixes. Having said that, I will miss the fantastic decaffeinated coffee available here. Not being big coffee fans we always opt for the non-caffeine version of the world’s most popular drink. Italians, unlike anywhere else in the world does not punish or discriminate against decaf drinkers, they still over you an excellent quality coffee with an amazing crema and an aroma to go with it.
We plan to spend our last night in Italy at a Michelin star restaurant and where better to do it than in Alba. More about this in the next episode!
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After a hearty breakfast at Hotel Cavalieri we debate our route for the day. Our main priority is to visit the series of five fishing villages situated amongst extraordinary cliffs and ravines all mainly assessable by the ocean. If you arrive by car you have to park at a central point and walk into each village as motorized transport is not allowed.
The whole area is a national park and numerous hiking trails and dive sites are available. Since we are no longer at sea we will have to drive from village to village and walk into each one. We decide to approach them from the harbour city of La Spezia. Known for hosting Italy’s largest naval base it is frequently just a thorough route to the Cinque Terre. The amazing view we see from the top of the city however makes you wonder if it is not worth a visit in future and the naval war ships and submarines lying in the harbour is not a sight you see every day.
Our little Fiat Panda makes the climb to the road, which leads to the entrance of the first of the villages slowly. The road is narrow and in some places becomes only one lane. The view is worth the effort though. From the top you can see nearly all 5 villages speckled along the shore with shear rock faces dividing them from each other. Riomaggiore is our first stop and the road winds down steeply again to come to an end in a communal parking lot. From here you walk. The village is spread out on either side of the pedestrian walkway and is laid out on different terraced levels with vineyards, olive- lemon trees alternating. It is a steep drop to the little harbour and we are reminded that we still have to climb the whole way back up later on.
We feel as if we are part of an Italian countryside movie scene as village live goes on around us and multi-coloured houses are classically draped with the morning’s washing. Tiny little fishing boats bob up and down in the harbour and on the key side a man with a long wild white beard is tying some knots. On the nearby rocks a couple clearly in love sit with bare feet in the crystal clear ( and freezing cold) water. Somehow you feel like an intruder in this easy-going laidback lifestyle.
After making our way back up laboriously we decide to skip the next three villages and head for the last one that is easily accessible by car- Monterosso. Here we get a lesson in Italian logic. We drive about 20 km along the only road that connects all the villages. In defence I have to say one of the most beautiful scenic rides you can do. However as we approach the last village there is all of a sudden a big road sign saying the road is closed for repairs. The construction worker waves feverishly: Definitely NO ENTRY. Fair enough we double back on the way we came, that settles it then we will visit the previous village Vernazza, the road winds down beautifully just to be greeted by another closed sign indicating road works. By now we are not surprised to see that Corniglia the neighbouring village’s access road is also closed and being repaired.
So much for the villages then. At least we saw one and got a good view along the ocean’s edge of the rest. We are getting hungry and since recommended seafood lunch in one of the harbours is not an option we dash for one of the inland villages. To add insult to injury we arrive 5 minutes before siesta time (an institution the Italians take very seriously). The only meal we are going to have is a focaccia with either turkey or cheese assembled by the irate Italian mama that had locked her shop door already and reluctantly opened for us to serve the last 2 focaccia sandwiches in a radius of 20km!
Verona, made famous by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has a very romantic feel to it. The city has caught on to this energy and everywhere hears in all shapes, sizes and packaging are displayed. The centre point of the old city is the impressive Roman arena. Bathed in hues of light pink it contributes to the magical atmosphere of the city.
The arena hosts outdoor opera’s in summer and the 30000 seats are always fully booked to enjoy these spectacular events. Sadly we are not in season, but it just gives us a good reason to revisit, specifically this year, since the concerts celebrate their 90th anniversary and lo and behold this year’s theme is: LOVE!
A visit to Casa Gulietta is an eye opener! It doesn’t matter that Juliet was a complete fictional character; people still flock to the spot to legally write their love messages on the graffiti wall leading up to the statue and balcony. Don’t bother to pay the entrance fee you can see the famous balcony and alleyway for free it is only when you want to stand on the balcony yourself that money has to change hands.
The film Letters to Juliet ( well worth seeing) cleverly mimics’ itself with a real downstairs room where you can also write a letter to Juliet at no cost and post it in the boxes provided. A wonderful example of live imitating art. There is even a Tomb of Juliet (we skipped that one) if you really want to experience the full story first hand.
After a good few hours spent in Verona ogling the outdoor frescos and cobbled piazzas we start heading south, our next destination is the difficult to accesses Cinque Terre situated on the Italian west coast. That night we stop at a little village just off the highway south of Parma. We decide a picnic in our room is on the cards since you cannot be in the Italian gastronomic heartland and not try some of the local produce. We head for the closes supermarket and stock up properly. On the list is without a doubt Parma ham, Parmigiano cheese and Lambrusca from the nearby vineyards. We expand our feast with some olives stuffed with anchovies (still brought along from Spain) as well as pistachio nuts, beautiful succulent lemongrass prawn kebabs and crumbed crab claws all freshly made by the nearby market.