Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,
Thursday, 9/28, was a driving day. We were heading across Northern Italy, from Modena to the small town of Asti, a bit south of Turin. Starting out, Marianne was the lucky driver who got to enjoy the truck-laden Autostrada. Most of the time, there is room for them and us, but it is unsettling. And we hit a half-dozen construction zones, where the solid barrier to the other direction was traded for a bunch of small cones - all that separated us from Italian drivers. Believe me, it was tense.
Not too long after starting, we got off the highway at Parma to get some juice for the Tesla. The station itself was fine, but the Italian Superchargers we've reached so far are not really near the highway and take considerable navigation. Once again, GPS in Italy was less than accurate, so we were very happy to see a familiar array of red Tesla stations.
Since we were in the land of ham and prosciutto, we decided to go off the Autostrada in search of a small, artisenal, meat producer who would give us the inside story of this famous Parma product. We had one location recommended by some random website, and the drive was nice, but all we got to see was a small, charming, butcher who said "no tours today". In our best Italian and his best English, at about equal levels, he communicated that he did not know of any places open on this day for tourists. The search continued.
We went back to the big highway, drove a few hours, ate road-stop sandwiches, and got off at the Asti-West exit. Here again, Italian GPS played with us. Just after leaving Asti, bound for our rural residence, we were sent onto several miles of tiny road. Marianne took this picture from the part of the road we considered "big". By the time we reached our destination, the two-way road was barely wide enough for our one Model Y. We could not imagine driving this path to and from the tourist sights we wanted to visit. Was this place a mistake?
We managed to find the Cascina Ghitin Relais parking lot, all five places of it, and walked up to a big iron gate to ring the bell. A voice answered, saying something in Italian, and the gate opened. OK so far.
Up at the restored old building, we were met by Valeria, who's friendly English was very welcome. She showed us to our second floor room and explained all the necessary details, such as how the four keys work, where to get meals, what sights to visit, and most importantly, how to avoid that treacherous narrow path the GPS put us on. (She said all the GPS choose the longer, smaller, dangerous road. There is a better one - not huge, but doable.)
After a quick run to the grocery store, under eight minutes as promised, and on the adequate road, we settled into our space for the next week. There was even a charger for the car to get refilled overnight. Maybe this will work out.
Now we need to explore.
I was up early, writing, checking on the car, and exploring the grounds of the Cascina. The overnight charge was enough for the next several days, so I returned the Tesla to the little parking lot. I probably did not need a photo to find the car. The pool looked inviting, for a warmer time.
We had opted for room service breakfast and it was delivered promptly at 8:30, the earliest available time. There were two trays of drinks, croissants, muesli, meat, cheese, and bread, more than enough for a day-starter.
Marianne's heart was acting up, so we hung around the room until mid-day, hoping it would slow down. It didn't, but we tried an excursion nonetheless. Just down the (small) road from our place is a cemetery and we stopped to see what local internment practices are. Apparently, the common practice here is family mausoleums and there were several in this small facility. The only in-ground burials looked temporary, maybe waiting for a space in the family parking garage. Parking is tricky in Italian villages.
There was also a set of plaques honoring the dead of the two World Wars of the last century.
As I saw in Moena, twice as many young men died in World War I as in World War II. I'm curious.
From the cemetery, we drove ten minutes into the center of Asti, where we used the giant central "parcheggio" to deposit the car and avoid fines for driving where cars are not allowed. We learned in Modena. Then, Marianne asked folks at a sidewalk cafe where the historical central city was and they were most helpful - in a mish mash of languages.
Asti is much smaller than Modena and with a more manageable old center. We only had stamina for a couple squares, one church, and a peek inside a fortified villa. ("Church, castle, and square" is our criteria for a successful visit to any old European town.)
Flags in the church-vestibule, their resting spot between the annual parades
that accompany a famous horse race around the walls of Asti.
A fortified villa, decked with flags from the annual race. Sposers?
Tired, we returned home to our peaceful valley for a rest and a simple homemade dinner. Afterwards, we managed a short walk to say hi to the neighboring sheep and generally enjoy the quiet evening.
Hopefully, the heart difficulty will resolve itself overnight. We would see.
It did. Marianne's heart returned back to a normal pace overnight and she woke feeling much better. Great, I can stop looking for the nearest hospital Emergency Room. (It would have been in Turin, since Asti is too small.) These episodes happen from time to time and, on the one hand, might be considered as reason to not travel far from our normal Kaiser medical facilities. But no, these are precisely the reasons we SHOULD travel, or do whatever else we want to do. The last three years have brought plenty of reminders that one needs to live in the moment. So we are.
OK, on Saturday morning we began our in-the-moment lives with room service breakfast, while we came up with a plan for the day. Marianne has a list of things we MUST see in Asti, but we tend to decide just one day at a time. I suppose this limits the number of activities we could squeeze into a day, but it works for us, especially on these longer trips.
I think the plan was just to drive into Asti, park, and look around. As it turned out, the main parking lot was crowded with the weekly Saturday market, scores of stalls with everything from fresh produce to recycled clothing. No antiques or arts and crafts, signifying that this really is NOT a tourist destination. Still, we enjoyed it. (I'll let Marianne explain the last picture.)
From the market, we wandered into the old city center, looking at churches and ornate old buildings with streets populated with ordinary people. For the most part, cars are forbidden and we saw few, if any, tour guides with signs. Here are church and street pictures, since that's what was in front of us.
We had made lunch reservations at Il Podestra, a recommendation from the folks at our B&B. It was excellent in both food and service and, throughout, we enjoyed the scenes from our sidewalk table. Almost a month in to our trip, we have yet to have bad weather and sidewalk dining is the only way to go, although the restaurant's basement dining room looked great too.
Properly fed, we explored options. There did not seem to be enough time left to give the many Asti museums proper time, so we decided to go get the car and drive through the countryside. This countryside drive ended in Alba, another must-see place from Marianne's list.
An old-car rally arrived in Alba at the same time as we did, so I was forced to take a bunch of pictures. Like our friends the Weikerts up in Pommersfelden, the owners of these old machines clearly take pride in their hobby. as they should. Since the car carrier was empty, I'd guess this was a successful rally so far.
Marianne's main goal in Alba seemed to be white truffles. We found one street vendor with pieces for sale for 4 to 4.5 euros per gram. That's about $100 per ounce, in case you are interested. Pricey.
Instead of the pure drug, we opted for black-truffle-flavored risotto, two bags for 15 euros. Reasonable.
We wandered around Alba while it filled with locals getting ready to celebrate Saturday evening. We passed on the underground tours, where the old Roman foundations of the ancient city were available for exploring. Not enough time. Instead, I climbed the 123 steps of a church bell tower, going up instead of down. That was all the exercise I needed.
A little more wandering, including churches, and we were ready to drive back to Cascina Ghitin Relais. Both towns today were nice, Asti a bit less touristy perhaps and I wondered what we would see in our remaining four days.
Locally, and with a train trip to Turin, I think we have more than four days worth of "plans", but we'll see.
Sunday was planned to be our Asti museum day. For ten euros each, we could buy entrance to a half-dozen historical sites, a bargain since the Palazzo Mazzetti by itself was five.
As it turned out, that palazzo was in fact the biggest attraction. It was characterized by big, ornate rooms, mostly-old artwork, and an excellent photo exhibition.
I learned that the main floor (1st, in European counting,
2nd in American) was called the "noble floor".
The noble-floor rooms were indeed noble: huge, with
decorations covering every surface.
This was our favorite grand room,
with the elaborate chandelier and the large painting.
A bit of "not-ancient", if not modern.
This old map of Asti illustrated why it was called "the city with 100 towers".
The photographer Enzo Isaia was famous for pictures of local celebrations
as well as Ferrari shots done with a classic 8-inch by 10-inch film camera.
From the Mazzetti, we went down, down into the Crypt and Museum of Sant'Anastasio. These lower levels contain parts of an 11th Century church, built on the foundation of early Roman fortifications. Asti is a city layered in history.
This crypt was followed by the Palazzo Alfieri, the birthplace of Vittorio Alfieri, an 18th Century poet and playwright, who's home became his museum. Maybe only in Italy could a writer gain such an elaborate fame in his own time and long after.
The last of our history tour was an old (obviously) Roman home, or at least the foundation and floor of the place. We've seen bigger and better ruins and mosaics, but we had the place to ourselves and the quiet was more respectful.
Walking away from our last ruin, we could hear the drums and bugles of a street parade, one seemingly straight out of the Middle Ages.
The parade ended at the palazzo in front of city hall and a contest between
colorful teams ("bandas ") displaying remarkable skill with flying flags.
We finished our afternoon with ice cream, gelato actually. We sat in a park and enjoyed our best meal of the day, the earlier lunch having been mediocre at best.
Monday is not yet planned, of course, but we hope to do something.
A slow start. Room breakfast. Short walk. A flower. Then it was time to see neighboring villages on our way to lunch.
We opted to avoid the big roads and were treated to wonderful hill-crest views of vineyards.
From our small road, we turned off toward an even smaller road, uphill to the castle in the village of Gavone. Parking, always a concern, was easy, as long as one could squeeze in the old gate.
We walked up to see the castle, outside-only, because this seemed to be a working castle, for city offices not tour guides. Nice enough outside views and the guard dogs did not bite. The view of the old village was classic hill-town.
Walking down to the parking lot, the pattern of the old castle wall and the cobblestone street caught the eye of my camera. Marianne's camera found a much more modern villa. There's probably a message in here somewhere.
Our next stop was lunch. We had struggled a bit to find a place that was both recommended by our guest house folks and that was open for lunch on Monday. About our only option was Larosablu in San Martino Alfieri and it was a hit. When we entered and saw only a local family and some workers, we knew this must have good food. And it did. My pizza had real wood flavor, Marianne's pasta was well-presented, with subtle flavoring. I'll admit my polo (octopus) was intimidating, but tender and flavorful once I dove in, suckers and all.
From there, it was more quaint villages with old buildings. I don't even remember what town this small church and turreted villa were in. These sort of scenes were everywhere.
Next up on the self-guided village tour was Costigliole and yet another castle. This too was a working castle, a culinary school in this case. Imagine learning Italian and cooking at the same time.
The end of the line for us was Canelli, one of the largest towns in the area. We walked around, looking for charm, but came up empty. Maybe we were saturated. It might have been different if we were still into wine, because there were a few fancy old wine dealers, but we just walked by. A bit sad.
On the way back home, we still stuck to the small roads, but more in valleys than along scenic hill tops. Down low, things were more prosaic; industrial sites and apartment blocks. I was not sure what tomorrow would bring, but I might have been reaching my limit of Piedmont life. Two more days left, though, before we hit France and the big city of Lyon.
Only one destination today, but Marianne and I managed to take over 200 photos. Why? No good reason, it's just that some days we click far too often. Less than 10% make it to this diary and, even that may be too many. Oh well.
Our destination was Barolo, south, in one of the more famous wine areas of Italy, not that we care any more. Here's our pictures and story.
Parking was easy, since I avoided trying for a place inside the old part of town.
A vineyard with a view was good enough.
Inside the town, there were all kids of tourist-friendly establishments and quaint details.
Almost all these pictures were discarded. How much "quaint" does one need?
The corkscrew museum was fun and, fortunately, no photos were allowed.
Ask us for details when we meet.
Rossobarolo served us a decent mid-day meal in a quiet patio.
The bread was good, the pastas were good, but the highlight was dessert.
Our second museum was a small collection of Dali, Miro, and Picasso. A twenty-minute art gallery visit. Nice.
These Picassos were from his younger days, before he learned "what lines to leave out"
A nice reminder of our visit to his Spanish home town museum years ago.
Miro scribbles and fingerprints.
No, you can not do this as well as he did.
Our third and final museum was the Wine Museum,
housed in the ancient Barolo castle.
The view from on top was wonderful, with vineyards stretching to the horizon.
Many of the displays were just a little weird, or "imaginative" I suppose.
Overall, however, it was a far cry from "pots and shards", the bane of small town museums.
The Wine Museum also had well-done displays of the history of wine (left)
and Mama Mia's kitchen. Fun.
With that, we headed back to Cascina Ghitin. The flat valley-bottom had fruit orchards, more raggedy than the trees back home in Fresno county, but much of what we see here is raggedy - but charming.
Not so charming was traffic, especially after I missed a turn on the way north and ended up in Asti rush hour. At one point I was going the wrong way on a one-way section of the road in front of the train station. Yikes!
Tomorrow, we go back into Asti, but not at rush hour.
On our last day in Asti, our destination was the Scassa Tapestry Museum for a guided visit. Marianne had found mention of the museum and Sara at our B&B made arrangements with the museum. The museum in turn arranged for an English-speaking guide. Tourism is more complex than one imagines sometimes.
We met Roberta outside the museum, where she showed us the map of the original Certosa di Valmanera monastery. After conquering Europe and becoming king of Italy, Napoleon confiscated all church facilities and sold off the property. Most of the building was torn apart, but a small section remains for a kindergarten and the tapestry museum.
The Scassa weaving mill has been converting famous contemporary art pieces into tapestries since the early 1960s, using looms and techniques unchanged since the middle ages. The business got its major start with a commission to make 16 large tapestries for the 1960 launching of the Atlantic cruise ship "Leonardo da Vinci". Hugo Scassa and his team of over a dozen young women was given 6 months to fill the order.
Franca was one of those young women, 14 years old at the time, accompanied by her even-younger sister. Sixty-three years later, the sisters are still the masters of the craft, although only Franca was able to give us our demonstration.
The 1960s Scassa work force, including Franca and her friends
touring the Colosseum in Rome.
The half-dozen looms in the workshop ranged from the 17th to 20th centuries. The one Franca was working on was the oldest. Threads are modern, but each weaver needs to mix five threads into multi-color skeins, which in turn produce the color of the original art work.
The end result is almost magical.
It's no wonder each square meter requires an estimated 500 hours of labor.
We left our tour with a far greater understanding of the remarkable process of weaving, both the ancient process and the ability to use new ideas with the old techniques. There are a few young women apprentices starting the decades-long learning, and we hope they end up with the skills of Franca, and share her joy in a very creative process.
From the workshop, we headed to lunch. We had reservations at Ibugianen, in the hills north of the museum. The view was, once again, spectacular. Marianne was able to sample white truffles on her pasta and it didn't cost hundreds of dollars.
And that was it.
Then, we headed for France.
John and Marianne.