The Piedmont wine region in Italy is spectacular! And the wine ain’t bad either.

I am asked from time to time, “what’s your favorite European country?”

There’s something to love about every country we’ve visited, but I never hesitate in responding: It’s Italy. Italy totally rules. It’s got everything: coastlines on two seas, magnificent architecture, the art, the fun-loving people… I could go on and on, so I will for a minute: the food, the historic cities both large and small, the wine, the scenery… So when you decide to visit Italy, there are lots of really good options.

If wine and scenery are your key criteria, I recommend visiting the Piedmont wine region in northwestern Italy. Just a hop, skip, and a jump from Geneva, we’ve visited the area around Alba four times so far. The name Piedmont, is constructed from the french words “pied” and “mont”, or “foot of the mountains” which in this case refers to the western Alps separating Italy and France.

The topography of the wine region is characterized by around a dozen “hills”, each with its own village with names like La Morra, Barolo, Novello, Barbaresco and Verduno. Between the villages, and as far as the eye can see, there are vineyards. Lots and lots of vineyards.

Here’s a photo of the landscape. I think if you click on it, it will automatically expand the photo.

 Slate tile roofs and vineyards

Slate tile roofs and vineyards

Here’s a video of the area from the Barbaresco Tower. The river is the Fiume Tanaro. The music was being piped in during our visit.

The Piedmont has become a destination we choose for some of our guests. When Robin and her family visited, we made the 5-hour trek over the Alps and under Mont Blanc to Italy and onward to Piedmont. We stayed in a B&B run by a super cool dude named Omar and his family. Like many of the B&Bs in the area, they are run by families that are also in the business of making wine. One afternoon, Omar had us all pile into his truck and tour the vineyard. Here he is showing Robin how to use a refractometer.

Robin

Robin checking the sugar content of Omar’s grapes.

I’ve written before about Cliff and Ellen, and how they are the most serious oenophiles that I know. Here we are at Omar’s B&B again. (We loved the place so much, we took two sets of guests there!)

Omar

That’s Omar sharing his wares at a pre-dinner wine tasting.

True in the Piedmont as all of Italy, you never have to venture far to see and visit some really cool old buildings. I can’t remember anymore which hilltop village this castle is located in. I do remember tasting some nice wine while we were there.

Piedmont chateau

Got too buzzed to remember where this was exactly…

The thing to do on a typical day in the Piedmont is to drive around to five or six of the villages and stop along the way at the vineyards for tastings! The best part is that every tasting experience is different. And I’m not referring to the wine. The experience of the wine tasting itself is always an entirely new adventure! The wine, the hosts, the scene and the setting are always unique.

Here is one place we sat and tasted wine. I actually do remember this one. We heard some commotion behind a closed door, so I knocked, opened it up, and saw a big family group all sitting together drinking wine. Afraid we might be intruding, I asked sheepishly “can we taste some of your wine?” Next thing I know, we’re sitting with everyone tasting great red wine, and later joining the whole family group on a tour of the wine making operation! They totally made us feel completely welcome! We thanked them by purchasing a substantial amount of their wine! Here’s where they keep it before they put it in a bottle.

Oak barrels

These are 500 litre oak barrels

The Piedmont region is home to 42 “controlled designation of origin”, a quality assurance label for Italian wines, like the French “Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC)” designations. With so many choices, it can be difficult to select just the right bottle of wine. But we’ve discovered that it usually turns out pretty well.

Wine

decisions… decisions….

Death or Glory! We hike 2,100 meters up to snowy Piz Gloria on Schilthorn!

Followers of this blog will recall my affinity for the Lauterbrunnen Valley and the mountains of the Bernese Oberland region, including the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau mountains. I’ve taken virtually every visitor we’ve had to Lauterbrunnen, usually incorporationg the hike between Grutschalp and Murren, then down to Stechelberg and back to Lauterbrunnen through the valley.

But every time I’ve been there, when the weather was clear, I’d glance up the valley to the highest peak, called Schilthorn and say to myself, “Some day I will hike all the way up there.” I mentioned this to one of my favorite hiking companions, Patrick, who was in town for a visit, and the two of us decided it would be a great adventure and a lot of fun to hike it together.

I took this photo of the map of the hike. Maybe if you click on it, it’ll get bigger. We started down on the valley floor in Stechelberg, on the left side of the map. Our destination: Piz Gloria atop Schilthorn, that peak at the top of the map. The hike is supposed to take 6 hours, and the vertical climb is 2,100 meters, or about a mile and a quarter.

Map

An artist’s rendering of the mountain we climbed

Because you are climbing over a mile from the valley floor up to a mountaintop, the hiker experiences several transitions – topographical, geological, and meteorological – along the way. I found that the hike might best be described by three distinct phases: Green, Black, and White.

Green
We arrived at the trailhead in Stechelberg at about 10:30 AM and started up the trail to a gentle sprinkle. We had been warned that we might encounter some snow at the higher altitudes but at the beginning, it was lush and green, as well as a little damp. This part of the hike was along a mostly forested trail that climbed the valley wall, from Stechelberg up to Murren. An hour or so into the hike, we passed the tree line and walked along a gravel road through grassy green pastures.

Here’s the video I took as we approached Murren.

Black
We stopped for water and a snack in Murren then made our way back to the trail, headed upward to a gondola station named Birg. This portion of the hike was mostly on a rocky roadway, although to call it a “roadway” is a little misleading. It’s incredibly steep, I don’t think any ordinary vehicle could make it up there, even under ideal conditions. We thought maybe its a skier’s trail, but not one I’d ever want to ski down.

We did encounter some slushy snow on our way up to Birg, but the feature that really stands out at this altitude is the blackness of the stones, those underfoot as well as the big rocks that make up the mountain. I took a photo of this giant rock along the road.

Black rock

All the rocks, including this big one, are pitch black.

Here’s another short video I shot. This one does feature some snow and some mostly white woolen friends we encountered, but note the blackness of the road we’re walking.

White
The final phase of the hike was white. At this point, there wasn’t just snowfall from the night before. The snow was actively falling. The good news was we were still on a very secure, wide road so we decided to push on beyond Birg.

Here is a photo I took from a brochure which shows our destination, Piz Gloria, which is the name of the building at the summit of Schilthorn. It’s claim to fame, and the way they aggressively market it, is that it was the setting of the Bad Guy’s lair in the otherwise forgettable James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starring Timothy Dalton as James Bond, Telly Savalas as the bad guy. In any event, as we would soon discover firsthand, the whole building is a shrine to the flick, including a James Bond gift shop, a James Bond “museum” featuring props from the movie, video screens everywhere that roll scenes from the movie, and images that appear on the bathroom mirror that recite dialogue from the film as you wash your hands. It’s all a little annoying, to be perfectly honest.

Piz Gloria

Piz Gloria stop Schilthorne. Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was shot here

So that’s where we were headed, and before long, we could see the gondola through the fog coming and going from Piz Gloria! Our destination was in sight, six hours and 2,100 vertical meters after heading out that morning. Here’s the final video I took as we approached the Schilthorn mountaintop. Yes, it’s snowy but we can see it!
We’re almost there!

As we made our way up through the snow toward the summit and the warmth of Piz Gloria, it wasn’t hard to imagine what real mountain climbers must experience. We could very easily imagine that we were carefully considering the best route, or that we were using ropes to secure ourselves along some of the steeper slopes, or crossing narrow land bridges on the final approach. It felt just like we were real mountaineers, climbing a snowy Swiss peak!

The last 45 minutes or so were a real challenge, but we made it! We entered the warmth of the Piz Gloria, and were heartily welcomed by this woman who manages the James Bond-themed restaurant. She said they were preparing to close and offered us free sandwiches that she was getting ready to toss out. Patrick and I sat and ate our sandwiches and reminisced about an adventure that we’ll both remember for a very long time.

Piz Gloria restaurant

This kind woman fed us for free!

I took an epic solo hike along the south coast of the Portofino peninsula in Italy

I’ve written before on hiking the Cinqua Terra trail along the Mediterranean coast in northern Italy, an adventure I’ve done twice – once with Patrick and again with my friends Ken and Jane. This time, on a trip to Italy with our most frequent visitors Cliff and Ellen, we had the opportunity to explore a new stretch of the Italian Mediterranean coastline, the Portofino peninsula. Continue reading

If you love mosaic stone paving, you will love Lisbon, Portugal.

One feature of many European cities that I especially enjoy and that distinguishes them from a typical American city is the craftsmanship that goes into paving the streets and walking surfaces. Wander around virtually any American city, and what do you see? Concrete and asphalt mostly. But wander around any European city, and the the streets, sidewalks, boulevards, plazas are very often characterized by beautiful stonework that is itself an art form.

We visited Lisbon a few months back and since we love to explore every city we visit by foot, we discovered that Lisbon is a city where virtually all of the sidewalks and plazas are themselves works of art. Continue reading

If you come for a visit, I will take you to Lauterbrunnen.

We were visiting friends in Paris a couple months ago, comparing notes about places we’d been in Switzerland, when my friend asked me, “Have you been to Lauterbrunnen?” When I replied in the negative, he responded, “Oh, you’ve got to go to Lauterbrunnen.” The very next weekend, we got in the car and traveled the 2 hour 15 minute drive (which is a lovely trip by the way, past Gruyère, Bern, and Interlaken) to go and see how beautiful this area is for ourselves. Continue reading

Pat and Chris came to visit and we hiked our rear ends off, both literally AND figuratively!

As followers of this blog are undoubtedly aware, one of my favorite things to do here in Geneva and elsewhere across Europe is hiking. So when our two sons expressed an interest in getting a lot of hiking in during their 2-week visit, I was happy to comply. The best part, of course, would be the time spent exploring the great outdoors with the boys, but as an added benefit, we’d achieve a common fitness goal: to be in better shape after the two week vacation than we were beforehand.

Here’s a day-by-day rundown (with photographic evidence) of our hiking regimen during their two week visit to Geneva and points beyond. Continue reading

I hiked all the way to the top of Le Salève. And unexpectedly, back down again.

One of the things that I’ve been meaning to do but hadn’t gotten around to yet is hiking up Le Salève, Geneva’s local mountain. One morning last week I got up with a whole Saturday to kill, so I decided to head over on the 8 bus to Veyrier, France, at the foot of the mountain, and do some serious hiking. Continue reading