We Still Didn’t Drink All The Vino: Mai Tai Tom’s 2018 Return To Italy
CHAPTER TEN – FEELING AT HOME IN THE VINEYARDS OF PIEMONTE
DAY TEN – Death Of A Rental Car (2018 Edition), Maybe We Shouldn’t Have Left Them Alone In The Garage, Mary & Tracy’s Wild Ride, Can’t Get Enough Of That Sage, Exploring Neive, Introducing Greg & Gloria, A View To Kill For, Wine Time, Mary Gets The Boot, My Love Affair With White Truffles and Now Greg Gets The Boot
We awoke early on this Tuesday morning filled with trepidation. For the first time since 2005, the four of us would rent a car in Italy. To quickly recap that rental nightmare, upon picking up the rental car in Rome on that trip, I realized I had no idea how to put the car in reverse, resulting in a rather embarrassing moment when Kim, Mary and Tracy had to push our car backward into a Spello parking space, much to the dismay of local citizens.
A few days later, however, we would top that fiasco. Stopping at a gas station between Gubbio and San Quirico d’Orcia, the American brain trust put Super gas into a Diesel car, causing our car to rapidly lose power, careen down a mountain road and eventually glide through an empty gas station into a meadow when its rather frazzled driver mistook the clutch for a brake. A day that will live in infamy. I was even yearning to return to the deathly “Bucket of Bolts” (below) in Gubbio at that moment. We did finally make it to our destination that day through a little bit of serendipity.
Fast forward to today. Our taxi deposited us at the Bologna Central Rail Office, which is not really located at the train station but on a street full of businesses. We got our keys and walked a few blocks to where our car was located downstairs in a dark parking garage. It was a little after 8 a.m.
This automobile must have had a tough life. Its significant dents made it look like it had just completed a rough Daytona 500, and it was missing a gas cap, not to mention its cover. Since our paperwork showed no damage, we took some photos and Kim and I trudged back to the Hertz office, leaving the ladies alone in a desolate parking garage (who said chivalry was dead?), which upon further review might not have been the right thing to do.
The Hertz representative said this was the only car, and he duly noted the damage. Back we walked to the car and loaded the luggage. It was time to leave.
Since we were going to be driving some large hills in Piemonte, we decided to rent an automatic at a price barely above the price of a manual transmission from AutoEurope. Of course, with the extra insurance fees you have to pay in Italy, I think it came out to a little less than what I paid for my first car purchase in 1975.
“3. 2. 1. Ignition. ” Unfortunately, no lift off. Try as I might, the car would not start. My always supportive crew said, “What the hell are you doing wrong?” As it turned out, nothing. Had Dr. McCoy from Star Trek been there, he would have said, “It’s dead, Tom.”
Once again we left Mary and Tracy behind and walked back to the Hertz office. I was trying my best to be “EuroTom,” who is the Tom without a temper. We told the Hertz rep about our problem, and in a kind way he said we were wrong, because the car was working earlier. He sent his garage mechanic over to “show” Mary and Tracy that they had married a couple of idiots (like they needed any further proof).
Guess what? The car didn’t start, so he had Mary and Tracy climb into his car for the short ride (“short” being the key word). Tracy and Mary said the guy drove like an Indianapolis 500 driver, but they did survive the journey.
As stated, our “dead” car was the only one here, so the rep said they’d get one from the airport and have it sent to our location. It would “only” be an hour to an hour and half … so much for my plan to have an early lunch in a Piemonte hill town and explore the area. “EuroTom” was being severely tested.
Mary and Kim walked down the street for a coffee, while Tracy and I stood on the sidewalk looking like a couple of drifters trying to panhandle for money. The only thing missing was a cigarette hanging out of my mouth.
Soon a small Jeep pulled up (really small). One by one, five impeccably dressed businessmen exited the vehicle. I hadn’t seen anything like this since the clown car at the circus.
They weren’t very happy. This group needed to drive to a business conference near Rome, and sadly the car they were given did not hold five guys very comfortably. As we now know, Hertz had no other cars, so they had to get back (carefully) into the car, packed like sardines. To their credit, although you could tell they were miffed, they all had a good sense of humor. I said, “I hope you guys like each other.” One guy replied, “Check back with us in a few hours.”
Finally, at a little before 11 a.m., another car showed up (a Kadjar, who I thought was a magician at a Las Vegas lounge show).
We were finally on our way. Since the car was smaller, the luggage barely fit, but by now we had no choice. To their credit, the Hertz people were incredibly apologetic, and the manager came out with a voucher for a discount on any car we rent with them in the future.
In about 2 1/2 hours (I’m waiting for the traffic tickets to be mailed from the Italian police), we arrived in Neive, a charming (they’re all charming, by the way) hill town in the hills of Piemonte. It was in Neive where the renowned French oenologist, Louis Oudart, fooled around with a Nebbiolo grape (in a good way) and eventually wound up with a gold medal at the London International Exhibition of 1862 for the creation of Barbaresco or Barolo (or neither), depending on which story you believe.
They don’t call these hill towns for nothing … so we started our climb in search of lunch.
At least as you walk uphill there are plenty of interesting buildings and sights along the way.
As it turned out, Neive was a piece of cake compared to some of the towns that would test my endurance and balance. So would the cobblestones (gotta love Kim’s camera).
In search of a restaurant we came upon a memorial to those who perished in the two World Wars.
The Giardini Dei Conti Di Castelborgo is guarded by an interesting looking gate, which also happened to be locked.
To the right is a palazzo, which now houses the Regional Bakery School. We were on a roll.
Surprisingly the main Piazza in Neive is not named Mike, but the Piazza Italia. On this piazza is the Palazzo Comunale, which was constructed in the latter half of the 18th century, which coincidentally felt like the last time we ate.
At the top of the hill we finally reached a restaurant.
It had a commanding view out over the vineyards and even the Alps. It also commanded us to have a full wallet, as the prices were, like the Alps in the distance, fairly steep.
We moved on until we reached a cute, little place called L’Aromatario …
…and were seated at 2 p.m. in cozy room with a brick vaulted ceiling in the back.
Now I know you will find this incredibly unusual, but I (and Kim) ordered a pasta pesto … with butter and sage. Mary tried the lentil soup with crab, and Tracy went for a salad and ravioli with sage butter. Lunch was quite good, and not only because we were famished.
Very near the restaurant were two (you guessed it) churches. By now, even God was getting sick of me. I’m surprised when we walked into Santi Pietro e Paolo I didn’t hear a booming voice going, “You again?!” However, I was greeted by my old buddy St. Michael, who helped me out back in 2010, so I always pay my respects when I run into him.
It was an impressive church.
For a small place of worship, it contained some beautiful artifacts.
The church’s bell tower dates from 1731.
Nearby is San Michele, which was built in the 18th century. Its doors were shut.
Walking back to our car, we stopped for a moment to admire the exterior of the small San Rocco Cappella, a 15th century chapel rebuilt in the mid 1700s.
Neive was definitely a good choice as our introduction to Piemonte.
We were back on the road, and sadly, thanks to our morning rental car ordeal, didn’t get to check out any more towns as we headed to our home in La Morra. However, as we drove though the Piemonte countryside, we realized this lush area was going to be fun to explore for the next few days.
We drove up a winding, steep road toward Rocche Costamagna Art Suites, where we would be spending four nights. Besides being a B&B, Rocche Costamagna is also a winery established in 1841. Included in the price of the room is a 90-minute tour of the winery. As we nearly reached the top of the hill to La Morra, we circumnavigated the streets of La Morra, and circled back to our B&B.
After dumping the luggage, I parked down the street at a nearby lot. I walked back to what I now call “B&B Heaven.” Walking inside there was a large reception area and a room (the enoteca) where wine tastings are conducted.
To the left is a breakfast room that leads out to a patio with tables for wine tastings and a billion dollar view of the rolling vineyards.
In the reception area, we met up with friends Greg and Gloria, who had begun their vacation in Barcelona, cruised up to Venice and were ending their journey here for their last four days. We booked a 5:30 wine tasting for six and headed to our room.
The four rooms were located up a short set of stairs. Our room (#4) became patio party headquarters for the next four nights, as it had the best panoramic view from the large terrace overlooking even more vineyards. We found out that the rooms were part of a renovation of an old farmhouse adjoining the winery,
We all met out on our balcony for the requisite group photo and the sweeping views out over Piemonte.
At 5:30, we all met downstairs and commenced on our journey through Nebbiolo, Barbaresco and Barolo history. The room is also a museum of sorts containing historic documents and “objects which testify to the winery’s history.”
The winery has been in the family for six generations. The ancient bottles on display are fascinating.
One dates back to 1866 (must have been a good year). It was found in the cellar of King Vittorio Emanuele II in Pollenzo.
There were also paintings (by the owner’s mom) and old winery tools.
After this interesting introduction, we descended down a spiral staircase, which I somehow navigated without falling on my noggin.’
Downstairs we walked through the wine cellars constructed in the 18th century.
Back upstairs, it was time to taste, always my favorite part.
Nebbiolo, Barbaresco and Barolo wines were swirled and sipped. It was a good representation of Rocche Costamagna’s selection, and I think my favorite was the Nebbiolo. Over the course of the next few days we would buy our fair share from them (at a guest discount).
After the wine tasting, we participated in a complimentary cheese and cracker and (of course) a little more vino-fest, served on the large terrace adjacent to the breakfast room. It was there we met the owner, Alessandro. It only took Mary about a minute to invite him and his family to their house in Northern California. We quickly confiscated her wine.
In the distance from our terrace were the snow-capped Alps, and Alessandro told us that this was the first day in nearly six months they had been visible from the terrace (the billion dollar view). Timing, baby!
Tracy was happy they also produce white wines.
Now we had to come up with a plan to get to dinner. I had made 8 p.m. reservations for six people at L’Osteria del Vignaiolo, a seven-minute drive down the hill. Since our car only held five people this presented a problem if we wanted to drink wine with dinner. Alessandro said a taxi would cost 30€, and we would need two taxis both to and from the restaurant.
In what could be considered a coincidence, since we were driving a hatchback, a plan was hatched. With no luggage, the car’s boot was empty. Mary volunteered to ride in the boot on the way to the restaurant. It reminded me of the days when someone would hide in the trunk to save money at the drive-in theater (you remember those). Kim also took one for the team and offered to serve as our designated driver. We looked at the view of the distant mountains as the sun set, except, of course, for Mary, who now resided in the trunk.
Down the hill we traveled to L’Osteria del Vignaiolo, and fortunately we were not rear-ended or we might have had to change the reservation to five. Before entering we looked up at the church on the hill.
Perusing the menu, one dish jumped off the page … gnocchi with white truffles. White truffle season had just started in Piemonte so there was no doubt in my mind what I would order.
After an amuse bouche …
… I began with the spinach ravioli (yes, I could live entirely on pasta and vino) …
…and afterward my gnocchi arrived. At the same moment a gentleman appeared and started to shave pieces of white truffle on my plate, each one carefully weighed. At some point I said “Stop,” (I think Tracy hit me beside the head so I didn’t spend all our money) and the cost of the truffles were calculated. Damn, it was incredible!!! Thankfully, they didn’t weigh me afterward.
All the dishes were good, including Tracy’s Quail in mashed potatoes in a parmesan basket …
… and Greg and Gloria’s Porcini Mushroom risotto and a lamb roast.
Mary again sprouted her gills with a sea bass.
No one had room for dessert, but it seems that’s not an option because we were brought two complimentary plates of cookies and truffles. Somehow we regained our collective appetites just in time to devour them all. All this and three bottles of wine set us back a mere €66 per couple (even with the white truffles).
As I relaxed with a final sip of wine, I glanced over to the adjacent table. Underneath it a little face peered out. It was a cute, well-behaved beagle. My late beagle would have been on top of the table.
That’s because tomorrow we would head to Alba where we’d meet up with a guide who would take us on a hunt for white truffles with his trusty (and nimble) dog.
We’d then have lunch in Alba and walk around the town gearing up for the International Alba White Truffle Fair that would start in two days.
Our caravan would then take us to Barbaresco, where we’d search for wine in an old church.
Since that was not enough (rest when you die), we toured a cool castle with stupendous views.
After a ten-minute nap back at Rocche Costamagna (sleep is so overrated), the six of us gathered with prosciutto, cheese and vino on the terrace before a dinner that only was a few hundred feet from our B&B.
CHAPTER ELEVEN – TRACKING TRUFFLES
Next – DAY ELEVEN – Get Me To The Station On Time, Going To The Dogs, “I’d Have To Kill You,” The “Ronaldo Of Truffle Dogs,” Wandering The “Capital Of White Truffles”, Crushed In Barbaresco, Praying For A Wine Choice, Castle Views, Stamp My UNESCO Card Again, Terrace Time Picnic & Dinner Amongst The Boxes