China 2020 – Itinerary – Chengdu

Our third stop will be the city of Chengdu in the Sichuan Province.

3rd stop Chengdu

From Xi’an, we’ll catch the Bullet Train to Chengdu. Chengdu is about 658km or 409 mi southwest of Xi’an and the train ride will take about 4 hours. This will be the most westerly location we’ll be visiting.

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan Province, and like most other Chinese cities, has a history of 2,500 years or more. The current population is about 12.4 million, making it the 6th largest city in China. It is mostly associated with the arts and craft trade and it is said that despite its size, the pace of life is more relaxed – we’ll see!

We’ll be staying for three nights at the Sofitel Chengdu Taihe, located in the center of the city right along the Jinjiang River. We will be within walking distance of the Tianfu Square, which is the largest square in southwestern China and a starting point for exploring the city.

Our most anticipated highlight will be visiting the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, also known as the Chengdu Panda Base, to visit with the Giant Pandas and other endangered animals. This is not a petting-zoo type of place; it’s more of a ‘watch from a distance’, so I’ll be sure to bring along a zoom lens.

 Photo: STR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES 

Ok, so besides the big, fluffy adorable pandas, we’ll also have a chance to explore the city, visit nearby Leshan – home to the Giant Sitting Buddha and take a short river cruise, visit the Chengdu Museum – famous for it’s puppetry exhibitions and, of course, take in a Hot Pot dinner. There is so much to see, so we’ll have to decide what we can squeeze in.

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So there’s a 600 lb gorilla in the room that is called “novel coronavirus”. Over the last few weeks, the news of a new SARS-like virus has been spreading. This week, the Chinese government took the extraordinary steps to virtually quarantine multiple cities to help stop the spread. I say extraordinary because it is the weekend of the Chinese New Year and millions of people would be traveling inside and outside of the country. This is not only a health issue, but will also be an economic drain as well.

There are thousands of people who are ill in China and there have been many reports of the virus spreading to other countries via travelers returning home. So far, the number of confirmed cases in the US is not high, but many more people are being monitored as this spreads. Vacation aside, we hope that they can figure this out to prevent it from becoming a worldwide pandemic.

We are watching the news and staying in touch with our travel representative to determine if a postponement will be necessary. For now, we are keeping our plans intact, but will be vigilant in deciding what we will do or not do.

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China 2020 – Itinerary – Xian

Our second destination will be Xi’an – capital city of the Shaanxi Province.

To arrive in Xi’an, we will be taking the Bullet Train from Beijing. It’s about 1216 km or 755 miles away and the train trip will take a little over 6 hours. The Bullet trains travel between 250 and 300 km/h, so we’ll be able to relax and watch the scenery zip by.

Xi’an (pronounced Shee-an) has a population of about 8 million, and has always been a significant city. It was originally known as Chang’an, and was China’s ancient capital during 13 different Dynasties. It is also the starting point of the Silk Road – the overland trade route that connected the east and the west for 1,500 years.

We’ll be staying for three nights at the Sofitel Legend Peoples Grand Hotel Xi’an. It’s centrally located and looks fairly close to many of the other sites around the city that we’ll visit.

We are most excited to visit Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site – home to the Terracotta Warriors. I have wanted to visit Xi’an and see them since I first learned about them. They date back to the Qin Dynasty or about 200 BC. It’s thought that they were created to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife.

The story behind their discovery is fascinating. Back in 1974, a farmer was digging a new water well and was having problems, so they dug down and found pieces of the warriors. Digging around further they discovered that there were many more of these ‘statues’ underground. So far excavations have unearthed over 7,000 – including warriors and horses; with each one having been created with different facial features, so they weren’t just mass produced. I can’t wait to see them in person.

Besides visiting the Terracotta Warriors, there are other places such as the Shaanxi History Museum, the old city walls, the Muslim Quarter, the Big Goose Pagoda, and the Xi’an Drum Tower that we hope to visit.

The food in the region is made with many different spices, usually a combination of Asian and Middle Eastern flavors. Since the Arab traders would come through the city, they contributed to the spices found and used here. With peppercorns, cumin and chili being prominent spices, we will definitely be packing the Tums!

And we will be packing them for sure, as we booked our airfare this weekend: a direct flight from Toronto to Beijing, with a direct flight home from Shanghai to Toronto.

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China 2020 – Itinerary – Beijing

Our first destination will be Beijing, the capital city of the People’s Republic of China.

Our current plan has us flying directly from Toronto to Beijing. The flight will be about thirteen and a half hours and we’re hoping to get business class seats so we’ll be able to stretch out and sleep a bit on the way over.

We will be spending a total of five days in Beijing. Our first two nights will be at the Aman Summer Palace Hotel near the Summer Palace. The hotel provides easy access to the summer palace and is a perfect location for us to start our journey. The Summer Palace dates back to about 1750 when the royal garden was first started. It is recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After two nights, we’ll move on to the center of the city of Beijing where we’ll be staying at the Park Plaza Beijing Wangfujing . While in the city, we’ll be visiting the Forbidden City, Tianamen Square, the Temple of Heaven and the Olympic Park. In addition, we’ll be traveling to visit the Great Wall at a spot that is not so heavily congested with tourists.

There are so many places to visit. As I’ve always been interested in the history of the various Chinese Dynasties, the museums will definitely be on our agenda.

The Wangfujing district, besides being centrally located, is the shopping district in Beijing. As you all know how much we both enjoy shopping, I’m guessing that during our walks we’ll be dodging people on the streets and scoping out restaurants.

Speaking of restaurants, since we enjoy Chinese cuisine, you know we’ll be seeking out a place for a delicious Peking Duck dinner. There are restaurants for just about any kind of food you would like including French, Italian, Indian and American. We’ve also been told that the markets have some great street food that we’ll need to try, though even the Herkeys will probably avoid the scorpions and other insects.

After our five days in Beijing, we’ll board the bullet train and head to Xian.

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China 2020 – Itinerary Planning

Ok, just for the record.. No, we’re not crazy. We are excited though and looking forward to what should be an incredible adventure.

As I mentioned in the last post, we are working with Audley Travel to plan out the details. We are working with their China Specialist, Virginia, and she has been great to work with. In fact, we have already come up with an itinerary that we are super excited about.

Backing up a little, after some discussion about where we would like to go, Sue and I decided that this would be the right time to visit China. We tossed around some ideas about places and things that we were interested in seeing and made a list.

Our list looked like this:

  • Beijing
  • Forbidden City
  • Great Wall
  • Terra Cotta Warriors
  • Giant Pandas
  • Heaven Temple
  • Tiananmen Square
  • Olympic Sites
  • Shanghai
  • Yangtze River

Our next step was to take a look at available options. I love planning out vacations and finding cool hotels and places to go, but there are so many extras with going to China that I thought it would be better if we worked with someone. We knew that we didn’t want to be part of a big structured tour. So, we looked around the web, contacted a couple people who we knew went to China and looked through some tour guides.

I was interested in the offerings from Audley Travel, so I sent an email to request a brochure and call-back. I had included a little info about us, where we wanted to go, the types of things we were interested in and the amount we were thinking of spending. I received a call the next day from Virginia and we talked a little bit about what they could provide. Since we were in the middle of planning for Italy, I asked for a little time to decide what we would do.

We liked Virginia right from the start. Very professional, but also very laid-back. I never felt any pressure to rush our decision. Though I told her we’d decide within the next few weeks, I called back a few days later and said we decided we wanted to work with her and couldn’t wait to start the process.

Armed with a plan to proceed, we started to look more closely at some of the places we wanted to visit and things we’d like to see. We looked at the hotel list that they provided and found most of the hotels that I had looked at were on the list. Documenting our proposed itinerary, we called Virginia back and over the phone in about two hours time, we laid out a preliminary itinerary.

At this point Virginia took over and tossed in some extras to fill in our days based on what we had talked about. A few days later, she sent over a proposed itinerary for us to look at. We were both excited to see things taking shape, but there were a few tweaks that needed to be addressed.

Another telephone conference to discuss the changes was arranged. As some of you know, my back is a problem and I keep looking for bottled water from Lourdes to make it a problem no longer. However, for now we needed to adjust things so hikes became walks or rides. Virginia also suggested a hotel change, since one that we had chosen required a bit of an uphill climb. When we finished, Virginia had an updated itinerary back to us in just a couple of days.

We perused the itinerary and then got back to Virginia with the good news – “Looks great, let’s book it!”

I had been saving my lunch money for a while, so we sent off the deposit and Virginia went to work on her end. Just before we left for Italy, we received an email saying that the hotels were all booked.

With that said, here is the itinerary. Our tour will be for twenty-one days and will take us to Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Guilin, Yangshuo, Longji and Shanghai. Everything on our list above is included, plus so much more.

We will have some adventure time on our own, but for the major visits, we will have a driver and an english speaking guide. We will travel from place to place by trains (including the bullet train), planes, boats and car. We’ve included a few fancy dinners, a couple of group dinners at restaurants, and some street food tours.

There will be museums, temples, palaces, monuments, a rice plantation, a tea plantation, a wall – a great one at that, and a visit to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Next steps will be to book flights, get our travel visas, check for any needed vaccinations and read, watch and research.

Leading up to the trip, I’ll add some info about each of the locations we will be visiting to peak your interest.

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China – October 2020

Welcome – 欢迎 – Terra Cotta Warriors

One year from today, we will be traveling to China. There are so many wonderful things that we want to see and experience.

Over the next year, I’ll tell you about the process and our itinerary. We are working with Audley Travel to create a personal itinerary for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It will be a self-directed trip with drivers and guides to help us along the way.

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Piedmont – Day 12 – Heading home

Hurry up and wait is the usual pattern on a long travel day and this day would be no different.

Blah, blah, blah……

Arrivederci Italia!

And with that we were off on our way to Toronto.

The flight was a good one, just a little turbulence and the cabin crew were all very nice. The meal was also very good, as were the wines.

While others in the cabin slept, I watched the two Avenger movies – Avengers: Infinity Wars and Avengers: Endgame. Both were good and the ending of Endgame was a big surprise to me.

When we arrived in Toronto, the process of getting through passport control was an easy one. They have kiosks that let you check through quickly and electronically, with just a review by an agent.

We headed off to get our luggage, which was starting to come down the carousel as we arrived. We watched as all the bags finished coming out of the chute except ours. Since we were tagged priority and had a direct flight we were a little annoyed that our luggage didn’t get there.

However, we walked down towards the end of the belt and there, sitting on the floor, were our bags. Some nitwits had taken it off the carousel and never bothered to put it back on when they discovered the bags weren’t theirs. Since foul language is not appropriate, I just wished a plague upon their home and bedbugs in their underwear as we called to get directions to our shuttle.

The shuttle was right where they told us it would be and our driver, Mark, was waiting to whisk us home. We had a nice conversation along the way as he maneuvered us through the Friday afternoon rush hour traffic. It was nice having someone else drive and the time actually passed by quickly. Soon enough we were crossing the Lewiston – Queenston Bridge and then before you knew it he was pulling into our driveway.

I can definitely recommend the Buffalo Airport Shuttle service if you need a ride up to Pearson Airport or to bring you back home. The price was fair, the van was roomy enough and the driver and others we dealt with were all pleasant.

And now the coupe de grace, walking up to our front door, we spotted a package hiding behind the post. It was the first case of wine that we had shipped home. I can’t always get a regular package delivered in four days and here was a case of wine from Piedmont, Italy.

It felt good to get home. We were gone just the right amount of time to appreciate Italy and to keep from having to go through detox.

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Prologue: We had a great time in Italy. The Piedmont region is beautiful and for wine lovers, it’s hard to beat. We enjoyed all the wine, ate some fabulous meals, took in the beautiful scenery and met so many wonderful people along the way.

The people we interacted with were kind and reassured us that they appreciated our efforts to speak a little Italian. Sometimes the reassurance came in the form of a smile or a little grammar lesson, but never did we feel we were being laughed at for trying.

We had lots of help in making the trip such a great experience. We worked with Valerie Quintanilla from Girl’s Gotta Drink, who put together the winery visits, cooking class and tours for us. If you’re thinking about going to the Piedmont region, I would highly recommend you contact her.

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Piedmont – Day 11 – Moving on

It’s hard to believe that our time in Alba is over. We had a such a good time and enjoyed sharing that time with Jan and Dave. The mathematical equation is: Good friends + good food + good wine = good times!

While Jan and Dave continue on for a few days in Turin and then Brussels, Sue and I are heading home. Today we traveled to Casorate Sempione, where we will stay overnight before catching our flight home tomorrow.

Our train arriving to the Alba Station

We’re staying at the Osteria della Pista. We have stayed here before; it’s very close to the airport, so it will be easy to get to our flight. The rooms are nice – very clean and comfortable. We’re on the top floor, so we also have nice high ceilings to make the room feel even roomier. There is a balcony, but it’s a little chilly and buggy to sit outside.

Night approaching
Sunset in Casorate Sempione

When we checked into the hotel, we had made reservations for dinner at 7:30 pm at the Osteria and also at 10:00 am for the airport shuttle. When 7:30 arrived, we were both hungry and looking forward to dinner.

We started with a glass of prosecco to go along with their homemade potato chips. We ordered a pizza to share as an appetizer and then Sue ordered sea bass and I ordered veal scallopini and a bottle of Arneis. While we were enjoying our prosecco, people were literally pouring in. By 8:00, the restaurant was packed.

We enjoyed our meal and since neither of us had room left for dessert, we offered to finish our wine in the lobby to free up a table since people were waiting in line. I guess that surprised them, but who would have thought it would be so busy on a Thursday evening. Besides, I would have felt rushed watching people waiting while relaxing with a glass of wine.

Once we did finish our wine, we headed up to the room to rest up for tomorrow’s day of travel.

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Piedmont – Day 10 – Final day in Alba

Both couples needed a chill day. David and I both talked about being tuckered out and Jan and Dave still have another eight days to go.

In the early afternoon we met up with Valerie and Martina to pass on the wine that we had purchased. Valerie is going to help us ship the wine back home.

On the way back to the apartment, we decided to stop in the piazza and grab a quick bite to eat. Most of the places were nearing the close of the kitchen for lunch, so we were lucky to snare a quick dish of tajarin with white truffles, a bottle of Barbera D’Alba and a piece of Hazelnut cake. Not bad for a quickie lunch.

We walked back to the apartment and just relaxed for the afternoon. It felt good to just rest my back, while downloading pictures and working on the blog.

Dinner tonight was going to be at the Ape Wine Bar, however they were closed on Wednesdays. Instead, we went to Caffe Umberto, which is the sister restaurant to Enoclub where we ate on Sunday. Caffe Umberto is more casual than Enoclub, but the kitchen is the same.

Jan and Dave were already there and enjoying a glass of wine when we arrived. We walked back to the table admiring the wall of wine with each step.

Caffe Umberto’s Wall of Wine

Our server took our order and our buddy the sommelier came over to check out our wine order. We started with a nice glass of Arneis and then we moved on to a nice Domenico Clerico Nebbiolo for our final meal.

It was a very enjoyable final meal together. We had a chance to talk about the things was did and the wines we tasted, along with just being friends enjoying each other’s company.

Tomorrow we’ll all move on, but we’ll have the memories.

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Piedmont – Day 9 – A day in Turin

Ok, right off the bat, I promise – no cheap jokes about how our tour was ‘shrouded’ in mystery.

We woke up early to catch the train to Turin, which is known as Torino in Italy. We met Luca at the train station and at 9:07 am we were on our way. Luca lived in Torino for a few years, so he’ll be with us for the day and Valerie will be meeting up with us when we arrive and will be with us through lunch.

The train from Alba to Torino takes about an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s a pleasant journey with nice scenery along the way. The train isn’t as crowded as I expected it to be; people going to work or school must be on an earlier train.

We arrived at the Porta Susa rail station, which is a newer station and easy to maneuver through. The canopied roof is embedded with small solar tiles so they can generate their own electricity – and it looks good too!

Torino Porta Susa train station – the little squares on the roof glass are solar panels.

We caught up with Valerie and then we set off to visit the daily market. Walking through the streets, the architecture looks very French to us. Luca explained that since the ruling family of the region was the Savoy family, they did bring a French influence.

Our first stop today would be at the market. It’s like a giant outdoor supermarket, clothing outlet and household goods store. Though we enjoyed the market in Alba, this one was a little more intimidating as it was large and tightly packed together. That said, the fresh produce, flowers, cheese and meats all looked great. Across the tramway, there were loads of weather-sheltered shops or stalls with just about anything you could want or need.

After walking through the market, we headed over to the Mercato Building. From there we could get a bird’s eye view of the market, plus they also have a bunker from the World War that was used to hold ice. It really is different and interesting to see the way people go through their daily lives compared to what we have at home.

Located in the central court of the building is the old war bunker. It seems strange seeing it, let alone seeing it in the center of a market building.

After exiting the market area, it was time for a little coffee break, except three out of four of us don’t drink coffee – so it was wine time!

We took a little walk through the streets, checking out the architecture that was definitely in the French style. The marriage of French and Italian architecture and Italian piazzas makes for some very welcoming spaces.

It was nearly lunch time and we were ready to eat and to sit for a little bit. It was really interesting to get to sit and chat with Valerie and Luca. Besides both having helped make our vacation so great, they’re both just nice people to talk with.

Valerie had to leave after lunch, so Luca, Sue and I walked around for a little while before meeting up with our guide. We walked through some of the main piazzas and had a chance to see the palace, the duomo, the Mole Antenelli, the university and the shopping streets of via Roma and via Garibaldi. We even had a chance to stop for a gelato before our tour.

Our guide for the city walk was Savanna. She showed us a few additional things that we hadn’t seen with Luca and provided lots of good information. It was fascinating to see the interiors of magnificent galleries and historical shops still popular today. Savanna pointed out details that really made the history of Torino come alive. Luca’s comments about individual locations also were insightful and very interesting.

As the walk continued, my back was telling me it needed to rest. All the walking and standing on the stones the last couple days had taken its toll. We were nearing the end of our time and needed to catch our train. While it wasn’t too long of a walk, we decided that a taxi would be the preferred method to get to the train station.

The train ride back went pretty quick. This would be the last time we would see Luca before leaving. We really enjoyed traveling around with him and getting the benefit of his wine and regional knowledge. Just in case he happens to read this – Go Juventus!!!

We met up with Jan and Dave for dinner at La Libera Ristorante. We had a nice time sharing details about our day. While I was grumbling a bit about my back, they had climbed the 126 steps to the top of the bell tower and walked through the Science Museum. I decided to have a little wine instead of whining.

Our meal was very good. While they didn’t speak much English, we were able to speak enough Italian to order up a nice meal, good wine and dessert. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

It was a nice night, so the walk home was pleasant and it sure felt good to wash up, change and relax for the rest of the evening.

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Piedmont – Day 8 – A Day in Barolo

On Thursday we visited and praised the Queen of Nebbiolo wine – Barbaresco. Today, we will visit the King – Barolo.

Nebbiolo – the grape of Piedmont

Per usual, we met up with Luca at the Piazza Michele Ferrero to start our journey. Our day’s itinerary includes visits to two wineries and lunch up in the hills of Barolo. It’s just a short, but beautiful drive to our “breakfast” tasting at the Aurelio Settimo Winery.

The Settimo Family settled and began farming the land in 1943. In the beginning they grew grapes, hazelnuts and other fruits – selling their grapes to big nearby producers. In 1962, the first Aurelio Settimo wines were labeled and by 1974, they stopped selling their grapes to others. Though Aurelio has passed away, they family continues the tradition of making wonderful wines in the Annunziata area.

Arriving, we met Francesca, who would be leading our tour. Francesca is the grand-daughter of Aurelio Settimo. We started with a nice walk into the vineyards to learn a little bit about their property and vineyards. As we were walking, we could see the ripe nebbiolo grapes hanging from the vines waiting to be harvested and the fragrance of the grapes was in the air.

Next we took a little tour through the winery to learn a little bit about their production methods. They have an annual production of about 40,000 bottles and about 60% of the production is exported.

To wrap up our visit to the winery, we headed into the beautiful tasting room and tasted some of their wines. All of the wines were either nebbiolo or dolcetto based, with the Rosato being a 50/50 blend. You’ll have to take my word on this one – they were all very good. In fact, I even gave them a new advertising slogan – ‘Molto Yum!’

Just to prove how much we enjoyed the wines, a case of them will be winging their way to the USA upon our return.

We had a little time before our lunch, so Luca suggested we stop in La Morra for a little look around. La Morra is located on a hilltop overlooking the many vineyards of Barolo. The ride up the twisting road was full of incredible scenery – vineyards as far as the eye could see.

The town of La Morra is full of charm. We walked UP to the town square to look around and enjoy the views. The square was a combination of classic Italian buildings along with some modern art works sprinkled in.

We took a few more pictures before the sun would become a nuisance, though nobody was complaining about another perfect weather day.

The church bells were chiming and my tummy was rumbling, so it must be lunch time. We headed back to the car and then drove up to the town of Perno. Our lunch would be at a small place called Repubblica di Perno Ristorante. Very quaint, with gorgeous views and delicious food.

After lunch, we drove to the town of Barolo. We would be making our last wine tasting stop at the Brezza Winery. Since we arrived a little early, we took a short walk. These small towns that we have visited are all nice to take a little stroll through. Even though they cater to many tourists, they haven’t lost their identity and culture.

There always seems to be that last uphill climb before arriving at our destination – jeesh! It was time, so we made our way to the Brezza Winery. Brezza is another historical winery in Barola that makes delightful wines. Little did we know this would be like the finale of a fireworks show.

We entered and met our guide, Nioni (sp) and she told us a little bit about the winery while we walked through the production and cellaring areas. We then made our way to the tasting area -where the fun began.

Luca begins the lesson while we drink some water
You are here… And so are seven bottles of wine
Abracadabra…. now there are ten

I know what you’re thinking, ten tastes of wine? Yes, ten tastes and they were all pretty good, especially the Nebbiolo and Barolos. They were big wines with lots of tannins and well structured; these wines packed a punch and can easily age for years to come. Even the folks at the winery like them with about 5 years of age, but say twenty years would be possible.

Did we enjoy ourselves? You tell me…

David looks like he enjoyed himself
Luca, Nioni and Me

Once again, there would be wine winging its way back to the US. These were too good to pass up, especially since they are not easily found in the US. Remember the earlier posts where it was just a couple bottles for back in the apartment?

After a heartfelt ‘Thank You’ and a stop at the rest rooms, we were finished with our tastings and heading back to Alba. The tastings we’ve done over the last week have been incredible. Valerie did a great job of selecting wineries with wonderful wines and very nice people, and Luca brought his Somm experience and knowledge to make our journey educational and interesting.

No dinner reservations were made for this evening – we’re just going to grab some goodies and sample some of our purchases at Jan and Dave’s apartment. They met a couple from the US staying in their building and they’ll be joining us.

Tomorrow, Sue and I will be heading to Turin for a day tour. Since Jan and Dave will be visiting Turin for a few days after we leave, they will be hanging back in Alba and exploring.

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Piedmont – Day 7 – A Peek Below Alba

Another day to rest up a little bit as we’ll be staying around town.

It felt good to sleep in a little bit again. When the alarm went off, it was the snooze button instead of the off button that was pushed. When we did manage to climb out of bed, we were feeling a little lazy. I’m guessing all the walking and standing and drinking might be catching up a little bit.

Today there was a wine festival taking place in Alba. For €14, you get a glass and glass holder that allows you to sample wines from all of the participating wineries – and there were many! We saw many serving red, white, rosé and sparkling wines.

Alba Wine Festival
Crowded streets – tent structures are the wineries
Piazza Duomo festivities

That was the plus side. They were serving those wines to throngs of people. For my personal liking, there were too many people. The narrow streets of Alba were overflowing with people. That was the minus side.

For the four of us, we decided to head underground. We were booked to take a tour of the old Roman ruins that have been unearthed below Alba. It was an interesting historical tour led by members of the archeological society.

Alba Underground

There were three sites that we were taken to see: a section of walls and towers, plus masonry pieces including caps from old columns, a section of sewer system and rooms from a house that were found beneath a private home, including some mosaic tile work and then lastly an archaeological site located beneath a school that included an intact vaulted storeroom.

Old stone walls and column base
Column base and depiction of the forum
Bricks, then stones, then more brick form the base
The 87 day term Emperor.
Our Archaeologist guide
Mosaic floor from a home
Close up tiles – they should have invented linoleum
Ancient Roman sewer system section

The tour then finished up at the Archaeological Museum, where they had fossilized remains of a whale and a mastodon that had been discovered by the river.

Mastodon parts – I was going to borrow a vertebrae
Mastodon
Whale jawbone

It was an interesting tour and the tour leader was very knowledgeable.

After the tour, we all headed back home to relax for a while before dinner. All the walking on the stone walkways and uneven surfaces is causing a little discomfort in my back, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Tonight’s dinner is at a restaurant called ‘Enoclub’. It’s located in the Piazza Michele Ferraro where we’ve been meeting our guide, Luca, each morning. More specifically, it is a vaulted wine cellar beneath it’s sister restaurant and is considered one of the most romantic in Alba.

Dining room at Enoclub
Dave and Jan
Sue and Tom
‘Plin’ ravioli
Tiramisu

Besides being romantic, the food and wines were a delight. We all enjoyed our meals, and the wait staff were also a delight- which made for a very nice evening.

Though our evening came to an end, tomorrow we’re off to Barolo.

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Piedmont – Day 6 – Market day & Birthday

Saturday in Alba is the big market day; for us, it is the day we celebrate David’s birthday. Settante? Si! More on that later.

We did sleep in a little bit today – I guess we either needed the rest or our livers were protesting. Once we were cleaned up, we headed outside. It’s another beautiful day with temperatures in the mid 70’s and just a few clouds passing through.

From our apartment, we walked about 30 meters to the Piazza. Turning the corner, we immediately entered the Alba Market. If there is something that you can not find here, then you probably don’t need it. Clothing, purses, belts, underwear, perfumes, cosmetics, linens, fabrics, small electronics, household gadgets, tablecloths, (deep breath) and then we came to the food – fruits, vegetables, cheeses, salami, nuts, breads, pastries, fish, meat, honey, jam and pastas. Quite a spectacle.

People heading to the market
Just a few people at this point
Getting a little more crowded
Everyone is in the Piazza Duomo
Fresh fruit
Sausage and a little wine

Tucked away in certain areas were also some street musicians that were excellent and entertaining. All that was missing was a ventriloquist singing ‘Volare’ while drinking water.

A violin duo
Give a listen
Couldn’t pass up ‘Hallelujah’

Turning a corner, we found a ventriloquist – oh, never mind!

After walking around for a while, we stopped in a little shop and bought two slices of pizza to take back to the apartment for lunch. The shop had about twenty different kinds of pizza in rectangular pans and you just asked them to cut you a piece in the size that you wanted. The best part was that for two fairly ginormous slices, we only paid 8.10 Euros. On the way back to the apartment we ran into Jan and Dave, who were also out marketing.

Dinner tonight was special. This was the night we celebrated David’s 70th birthday and we wanted to make it memorable. Our dinner was at Ristorante Marc Lanteri at Castello di Grinzane Cavour. It’s a one star Michelin restaurant located inside of the historic castle.

We arrived just before sunset and had a beautiful view of the surrounding area as the sun dipped below the horizon.

Let’s make this easy – it was fabulous! Everything about the restaurant was exceptional. We had high expectations and it blew right through them. First off, the staff was outstanding. Everyone was very professional, yet very friendly. They truly made us feel special.

Next was the food. Every bite was heavenly. The flavors made your taste buds dance with pleasure. I know it sounds corny, but think of your favorite flavor then multiply it by ten. The starting pre-appetizers and amuse-bouche left you wanting more, which is what they are intended to do. Our first course choices were split: Jan and Dave both chose the risotto with cuttlefish and broccoli raab, while Sue and I both had the gnocchi with white truffles. For secondi, we had two braised beef cheeks, one Fassone rump steak and I had the roasted quail with white truffles.

And for the desserts this evening, Sue actually passed on dessert as she was too full, Jan had the molten chocolate cake, I had the Zabaglione and David had the poached pears complete with birthday candle.

Poached pears with a candle

Along with the meal, we started with a glass of Spumante, followed by a bottle of Bruno Giacosa Roero Arneis 2017 and then two bottles of Punset Barbaresco 2010. All of the wines were outstanding and very reasonably priced. They all were perfect matches for our meals.

The restaurant staff was nice enough to help in letting our driver know that we would be a little behind our scheduled pick-up time as none of us wanted to rush through this meal. When we exited, he was actually happy that we had the chance to experience such a fine meal. The ride back only took a few minutes and then we all had the chance to walk off about 10 calories on the way to our apartments.

It was an excellent meal and a memorable way to celebrate a big birthday. Buon Compleano, David!!!

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Piedmont – Day 5 – Chefs in training

We are looking forward to the day ahead. We will be participating in a cooking class at a farmhouse in the town of Cervere, which is just a short drive from Alba.

We started out by meeting Martina and Valerie at Piazza Michele Ferraro. Valerie is the travel planner that we have worked with to put this holiday together and this was our first face to face meeting. Valerie and Martina will be taking the class along with us.

We rode along with Martina to the farmhouse; Valerie would be meeting us there. Though we did hit a little bit of traffic, it didn’t slow us down too much. When the GPS said we arrived at our destination, the house number game started again. It took us a loop around the neighborhood, even passing by a faux-farm, before we located our farmhouse.

When we arrived, it was really a classic farmhouse, with a horse, a pony, two pot belly pigs, one pink pig (we nicknamed him “Bay-Con”, a big dog and four puppies. I was worried that we would have to pull Sue and Martina away from the animals, but they relented with a promise of a visit after the class.

Our master chef was Raffaella, and for the day we would be her students. It was a fun, hands-on experience preparing three dishes and a dessert and then eating them.

The menu was: Capunet stuffed with pork sausage in a béchamel sauce, Pumpkin cream soup, Taglioni ai Funghi and then fresh peaches with a zabaglione sauce and amaretti. Of course, there was wine!

Our classroom for the day
Sue at her happiest in the kitchen

We started out by each having a task of peeling, chopping, dicing or blanching the various ingredients. Next we were given a new assignment to blend, whisk or combine ingredients. Practically fainting from the excruciating work, we took a wine and cheese break.

The gang, with Raffaella explaining the wine and Valerie taking a photo of me taking a photo of her.

The wine and cheese revived us all, so back to the kitchen we went. Next on the agenda was stuffing the cabbage leaves with the fresh pork sausage, lining them up in the pan and then covering them with the béchamel sauce before sending them to the oven. With our mushrooms, garlic, tomatoes and leeks simmering, it was pasta time. Bowls of flour, egg, olive oil and a pinch of salt had been expertly prepared for each participant, now it was time to work that dough!

We all created our dough and then merged them together to create a super dough ball. We let it set for a few minutes before breaking out the pasta machines and cranking out sheets of pasta dough. Once those were ready to go, we made our taglioni. Thin, delicate strands of pasta were created with each turn of the handle, then laid out to dry before heading to the boiling pot of water.

Golden strands of freshly made taglioni

In the meantime, the sauces were simmering nicely and we were nearing the time to eat our creations.

Smiles from two of the chefs.

First came the Zuppa di Zucca. It was rich and creamy and tasted delicious. Some pancetta and amaretti crumble were a perfect offset to the flavor of the pumpkin.

Zuppa di Zucca

Next were the Capunet or cabbage rolls with the béchamel sauce. These also came out great. They may not have been the prettiest rolls, but they would challenge for the tastiest. Delicious with the blend of the sausage and tender cabbage leaves, then made perfect by the béchamel sauce.

Note: They were so good we ate them before I remembered the picture. So picture in your mind delicate little rolls of cabbage with a creamy white sauce and lots of melted cheese.

Our third and most controversial dish was the taglioni. It was delicious, tender with just the right amount of sauce. The controversy arose when the others didn’t believe that I could pick out MY pasta and it was the best. Ha – what do you expect ?!? Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, eat your heart out.

The taglioni – can you see the ones I made?

And our final course was the freshes peaches with the zabaglione sauce, a little dark chocolate and some amaretti crumbles. The flavors burst in your mouth and cried out for a Nebbiolo wine, which we just so happened to have.

Yes, I started to eat before snapping the picture.

Everyone had a great time and we say a special thanks to Raffaella for a wonderful experience and to Valerie for setting things up and to Martina for joining us.

Next was the dangerous part: getting to meet the animals. We were already pretty cozy in the car and Martina had her eye on the pony. I thought for sure one of us would be asked to give up their spot in the car. Luckily, she relented…but I think it was only because it wasn’t her car.

The ride back to town seemed to go quick. We actually drove through Martina’s home town of Bra and she was a little too shy to show us where the Piazza Martina was located. I’ll just google map it back at the apartment.

This would be our last planned encounter with Martina, so it was sad when she dropped us off. Lots of hugs and a big ‘Thank You’.

We all enjoyed getting to meet her and wish her well. I’ll let her know if the vinegar works any better when I get back home.

We all needed a little time to relax. Sue and I went for a little walk later on to try and find the elusive black sweater. We stopped at the Ape Wine Bar, where we had met Martina earlier in the week but no luck there.

However, we did decide to stay for a drink and then upped the ante to include a plate of tajarin with white truffles. It was a beautiful night to sit out, plus the music they were playing was really great and our waitress was extra friendly and nice.

The ‘Specials’ board
Tajarin with white truffles

It was a nice stroll back to the apartment and I’d have to say that it was a perfect way to end a perfect day!

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Piedmont – Day 4 – A Day in Barbaresco

After yesterday’s fun-filled day in the Roero, today it was a visit to Barbaresco. We once again had beautiful weather – a little chilly in the morning and then warm with sunny skies the remainder of the day.

Once again, we gathered in Piazza Michele Ferrero to meet up with Luca. They are building carnival rides around town with a nice looking carousel being built near us. When Luca arrived at 9:30, we were ready to head off.

Though we did sneak in a glass or two previously, today we will really focus on the grape of Piemonte – Nebbiolo. For our tasting pleasure, it would be the Queen – Barbaresco that would tempt our palates.

Nebbiolo Grapes waiting to be harvested.

We started the day at Ca’ del Baio, which roughly translates to ‘House of the Bay Horse’. It is a family-run winery led by their winemaker father, and daughters who have studied oneology at home and abroad.

We were taken through the winery and actually had a chance to meet the family as we viewed the facilities. As with the other wineries we have visited, the production area is spotlessly clean. The family was busy working on labels, while waiting for the grapes to be harvested.

They have a very nice portfolio of wines and the fun part is getting to taste some of them. We chose to go through a flight of five of their Nebbiolo wines – two plain Nebbiolo and three barbaresco. All of the wines were excellent; even though they were young, they exhibited great structure and fruit. Yes, we bought a couple bottles to drink back at the apartment.

The line-up – both reds and a couple whites
Ceramic casks
Someone is ready to taste!
Our un-named guide with Luca

After our delightful breakfast tasting, we made a stop in the town of Barbaresco. It’s a quaint little town with old world charm and some more modern facades to hide some of the commercial areas.

We made one stop for a little wine tasting at the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco. It was formerly a small church that has been converted into a place of devotion for Barbaresco wines. We chose a flight of four wines and shared the tasting, each of us enjoying the wines.

Enjoying our wine under watchful eyes.
Barbaresco, Barbaresco… No white Zinfandel to be found.

Next we would eat. For lunch we met up with Martina and we all visited a local pasta maker for lunch. He makes his pasta from ancient grains, which, in case you think like me – does not just mean old wheat.

He talked to us about the process he goes through to make and dry the pasta. Since he only spoke Italian, we were glad to have Luca and Martina with us to translate.

Then came the meal. We gathered on his terrace and took our seats. With his mother in the kitchen, we started with a frittata with spinach, next came some tagliatelle with a butter sauce and crumbled hazelnuts and we finished with a zabaglione over crumbled biscuits. We drank two Swiss wines – one red, one white and a dessert wine called Arpu.

After thanking our host and momma, we departed for our afternoon tour.

Arriving at the pasta maker’s house.
Luca, Martina, Jan, Dave & Sue
David showing his disdain for the wine.

On the way to the winery, we took a beautiful ride through the hills of Barbaresco. Vineyards with ripe grapes waiting to be harvested and down below – hazel nut trees. We wanted to pull over and grab a handful.

We arrived at our destination – Pelissero Winery. The building is new, but the winemaking is traditional. Nebbiolo showcased in the best way possible – structure, fruit and TLC.

Mateo was our guide through the winery and the tastings. He was fun, knowledgeable and passionate about the wines they make. Yes, we bought three bottles of wine to drink at the apartment.

Our new Nebbiolo friends
Bottles waiting for labeling
Mateo the Mighty!
Rows of vines with their precious fruit

We returned to the apartment to celebrate David’s birthday with a little wine and cheese get-together. We opened the bottle of Gianni Doghla Bosco Donne Barbera D’Asti and enjoyed it immensely – just as good as when we tasted it at the winery. See, it’s a good thing we bought wine!

It was a nice relaxing evening with good friends.

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Piedmont – Day 3 – Our Day in Monferrato and the Roero

Up and ready to go early today; we met our guide Luca and headed out for some wine tasting and winery visits. It was a full day of “Grape” fun, plus an awesome dinner to finish it off.

We met Luca at the Piazza Michele Ferraro to start the day. Luca will be with us to guide, inform, transport and translate as we make our way through the Piemonte wine region. Today we will start by going to Monferrato and the Roero area.

There is some old saying about drinking in the morning, but since no one among our group could remember it, we decided to just ignore it and enjoy our wine. So off to the first stop…

Our first visit was at the Braida Winery. At Braida, we were taken on a short tour of the winery to learn about their history and production methods. The tour was led by Carolina, who did a nice job of promoting the winery.

It’s just.. a little crush..
On the left: Luca, our guide. On the right: Carolina, our winery guide
Spotless tanks waiting for the grapes to be crushed.
Be careful in the bottling room.

After the tour, we were led to a very nice tasting room where we tasted five different wines. All of them were excellent and it would be hard to pick an overall favorite.

Yes, some needed a spit bucket – such sacrilege.

We wrapped up our visit with the purchase of three bottles of wine to drink back at the apartment. This would become a repetitive phrase.

After that perfect breakfast tasting, we were off to Monferrato for a picnic lunch and tasting at the winery of Gianni Doglia. The winery is located high up in the hills of Monferrato. The ride over provided some beautiful views in every direction. Since this is also harvest time, the fresh air also contained the sweet bouquet of grapes.

The hills of Monferrato

Gianni Doglia, besides being the name of the winery, is also the name of the winemaker. For our visit, we would be interacting with his sister – Paola, and she was a delight. Friendly, bubbly and knowing all about the family winery. So much fun to visit.

Sue and Paola

Our tasting was held along with our picnic lunch. Since the vineyard was a little wet in spots, we had our picnic under the pergola. Such a sacrifice!

We first heard a little bit about the winery and the wines that they produce, while looking over the spectacular views of the vineyards below. Being in Monferrato, their primary wines are Moscato, Grignolino and Barbera. Interestingly, they have also planted a small plot of Riesling in one of their vineyards.

Afterwards, we settled in for lunch and some wine. We had a wonderful picnic-style lunch with bread, cheese, sausage, agnolotti, melanzane and hazelnuts. We also tasted the winery’s Moscato D’Asti, Grignolino, Ruche’ Di Castagnole Monferrato, Barbera D’Asti and Nebbiolo. All were very good, with the Barbera D’Asti – Bosco Donne being my favorite. While we were eating and tasting, Gianni arrived and gave a wave as he hurried into the winery.

Luca and David
Smiles in the Monferrato hills

After we finished up our picnic, we had a few minutes to enjoy the views, buy a couple bottles of wine for back at the apartment and we were able to sneak a quick peek as they were bringing in grapes to be crushed.

Moscato grapes ready to crush

After we finished up at the winery, we piled back into the car to head to our final wine destination of the day, the Demarie Winery. While some might be thinking three winery visits in one day is insanity, I say “Nay”!

Luckily, the tasting pours are just that – a taste, probably just an ounce. All of the wines have been so good, and we have a driver guide, so Carpe Diem!

We arrived at the winery after a beautiful ride through the hills of the Roero. The weather is gorgeous and the landscapes are like something you only dream about. This is the essence of La Dolce Vita.

Demarie is another family owned winery located in the Roero. They make some very good wines, especially their red wines and do so in an environmentally friendly manner. While they are not organic, they are close. They are also very conscious of their footprint and use solar energy to generate electricity, and they recycle their water.

So much to choose from…
Our hostess – Monica
The finale for today

So once again, we bought three bottles to drink back at the apartment before heading back to Alba for the evening.

It was truly a great day of touring and wine tasting. The wineries that we went to were all high quality, small producers that really care about the wines they produce. Additionally, the people we met were fantastic. All went out of their way to make us feel welcome and we were most appreciative of their efforts to tell us their story in English.

We are very happy to have Luca with us. Besides being very personable, he has also studied to be a Sommelier and really adds so much to our tastings. He also provides much background about the wine regions and vineyards. And he plays good music!

Luca dropped us off back in Alba and we are very much looking forward to tomorrow’s tours.

We only had a short turn around time before dinner this evening. Unfortunately, Jan was a bit under the weather and decided to skip dinner and rest up for tomorrow. Like the last battalion of brave soldiers, David, Sue and I were steadfast in our desire for good food.

Our dinner tonight was at Ristorante Il Centro in Priocca. It came highly recommended by Valerie, as well as being one of my top picks. We just hoped it would live up to its reputation.

We had a bit of a shaky start. There was some confusion over where our driver would pick us up, which caused us to be about twenty minutes late. When we arrived, we were very apologetic, but they reassured us that it was not a problem and welcomed us warmly.

As for the restaurant itself, it would probably be called upscale casual. There were people in suits and dresses and there were also people there in T-shirts and sneakers. Luckily, we were somewhere in between.

The food would probably be called upscale fantastic! Everything was homemade, exceptionally delicious and served by an extremely conscientious waitstaff. Other than that, it was ok…

They started by bringing us what we thought was an amuse-bouche, but really was a small appetizer platter and all Items were amazingly tasty. They also brought us warm, homemade breads that were awesome.

I don’t want to run out of superlatives because we haven’t even received our first course. For our primi, David chose the risotto, which was creamy and cheesy; Sue and I both had the Tajarin with white truffles. I don’t remember the Italian word, so I’ll go with Molto yummy!

For our secondi or main course, we all had the veal cheek with a fig reduction. It was served over a small bed of mashed potatoes and was so tender it fell apart just seeing your fork come near. All three of us were savoring each bite.

Unfortunately, our driver was returning, so we had to skip out on dessert. However, while they were preparing the check, they brought us out a dessert sampler – a taste of four different dessert selections. Needless to say, we were impressed.

We paid the bill and the Maitre’D, who is also the owner’s son, walked us out to the door, thanking us for coming. Our ride was waiting so we hopped in and headed back to town.

I think the driver thought we were angry for the earlier mistake, but we tried to reassure him that it was not his fault, just a little confusion. He seemed glad that we shook his hand and acknowledged the issue. We’ll see if he is our driver again on Saturday when we once again go out of town for dinner.

For our first day of touring, we were all happy and content as we headed home to rest for tomorrow.

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