June 7, 2012: Neive, Piemonte

It was great waking up in Neive this morning.  We were up nice and early after having slept in comfortable beds and air conditioning that really worked.  It is amazing how important a nice, cold room can be after weeks of being way too warm every night.  We are getting spoiled on the luxury here in the Langhe region of the Cuneo province in Piemonte, Italy.

We picked this particular region of Piemonte, that is the Langhe, because of research that I had done ahead of time back home for months attempting to determine the most likely place that we would want to live in Italy based on many factors.  The Langhe really seemed to be the ideal combination of factors for us.  It is up north so that we would have easy access to most of Europe and the rest of Italy is not far away either.  The Alps are about two hours away, as is France and Switzerland, the Lake District is easily accessibly, three major cities in Italy are nearby (Torino, Milano and Genova) and the Mediterranean coast is just over an hour away.  Hard to beat those numbers.  Real estate is reasonable, the scenery is incredible and the food is out of this world plus it is the heart of the wine district as well as famous for cheeses and truffles.

So today we are on foot and set to explore Neive.  Our hotel sits right at the base of the western entrance to the historic town on the hill so it is really easy for us to walk up to the old town and if we want to go to the new town we can walk straight over the hill to get there pretty quickly too.  That is the same walk that we did yesterday except without the luggage in tow today.

We hung out with the Norwegians at breakfast this morning.  Their son is the same age as Luciana – born on the very same day – so he and the girls have a good time playing.  We even moved from the breakfast room out to the terrace for the incredible views and the kids played on the terrace (the main hotel terrace, not the one for our room) and played going up and down the front driveway as it is slanted and has a long stairway beside it and the little ones like to climb up and down it.

After breakfast we came back to the room for just a little bit and Dominica took care of some laundry stuff as she is dropping it off today to have it done.  No one was at the desk so she just dropped it off and we took off on foot to go see Neive.  We did see the girl from Europacar this morning when she was dropping off a Fiat 500 and we discussed how much it would cost to get a car for us for the week. The price was pretty high and we had some questions about it so we are going to look into it this evening and get back with her tomorrow if we decide to get it.  We have learned that having a car here in Neive is pretty much a necessity which we had no idea of when we first decided on this location.  We were thinking that trains and buses would take care of us getting around the region but that was a gross misunderstanding of the local public transportation network.  There are no trains and the buses are pretty tough to use.

The walk up the hill really was about ten minutes and very easy.  We walked around the historic town center in Neive which was very cool.  This is a very small, traditional Piemonte hill town with the very cool little piazzas here and there in a very old village center.  There is a self-guided tour around town using a free guide that you can pick up at the municipal building.  There are numbered historic stops which are an easy walk around, each with a nice, simple historical marker in several languages, including English, making it very easy for nearly anyone to teach themselves about the history of Neive.  I really love how European towns do this.  Some American towns do but very few and almost none do it as well as the average town in Europe.  Every little, out of the way little town anywhere in Europe appears to have taken the time to have documented its history and made it accessible to any visitor.  You can safely stop just about anywhere and be sure that you will get an interesting history, art and cultural lesson.

We did the walking tour, a bit out of order, and took a number of pictures around town.  It was a bit hot today but not too bad.  The old historic town center is really cool and easily walkable.  We did it in about an hour.  Then we headed back to the side where we had come in to town so that Liesl and Luciana could spend some time on the playground there.

When we first arrived at the playground Liesl was the only one using it.  Dominica and I took turns checking out the little chapel there.  It was pretty interesting.  Then I took a walk behind town and got to check out the vineyards there.  When I got back the little playground was full of kids and ringed with adults eating their lunches.  Apparently this is a popular spot with the locals.

Since the playground was crowded we decided to talk a walk down to the “new” town to see what we could find there since we had some basic shopping that needed to be done.  So we started hiking back down the hill that we had so laboriously climbed yesterday.  Dominica and Liesl took the steps down – the way that we had climbed yesterday (the Via dei Tigli as Google Maps had called it acting as if it was a road) and Luciana and I took the long way around, since she was in the stroller, climbing around the side of town, going through two additional piazzas and then down the looping Via Roma on the far side of town to eventually meet up with Dominica and Liesl down near to the bottom of the hill.  Nothing like yesterday but still a serious walk.

We did some walking around in the new part of town but we hit that time of day when everything closes in Italy.  Having heard about this repeatedly in preparing to travel we were not totally surprised but being American it is pretty hard to actually internalize the fact that the entire country of Italy grinds to a complete and total halt in the middle of the afternoon – nothing happens.  Nothing.  Shops close up and everyone goes home.  So completely the opposite of the American mindset.  That they close at all is amazing.  That they close at the exact time when the majority of people could be patronizing their businesses is the really amazing thing.  The opportunity to serve the tourists at the exact moment that they need it most is missed and no one seems to care, which I have read, but it is hard to believe.

We couldn’t do the shopping that we had wanted to do so instead we went looking for some food.  We found a place called the Grillo (or something like that) which was a little cafe on the side of town so we stopped in and checked it out.  We went for salads and pasta.  Dominica got a normal, mixed greens salad.  I ended up with a really amazing rice salad, which was not at all what we were expecting.  Both salads had tuna in them which seems to be an obsession all over the parts of Europe that we have visited.  Tuna seems to be eaten much more here than it is back home.  This works out well as I really like tuna.  The rice salad was totally amazing.  I can’t believe how much I liked it.  The pastas were okay, nothing special.  We got one pasta with a pesto and one with cheese.  Both were too salty.  But lunch was pretty decent and the price was good.  I would have been a lot happier with two salads, though.

After lunch we walked through town and took the route around the hill, rather than over it, to get back to the hotel.  This took us along the Via XX Semtembre which showed us all new parts of town including an entire stretch that appears to have been abandoned, for the most part.  Very odd.  It was a long, hot stretch back to the hotel.  We were quite sweaty and worn out once we returned.

Upon returning to the hotel we learned that there had been a massive miscommunication over the laundry.  Without going into too many details, Dominica thought that she was dropping off laundry for a laundry service and the hotel manager thought that the laundry was being sent out (I’m not even sure of what everyone had thought) but the result was that all of our laundry (basically all of the clothes that we have in Europe) had gone to the cleaners who is closed today and they won’t be able to get them done until Saturday leaving us with nothing to wear except for the clothes that we just got really sweating for the next two additional days.

The miscommunications ended up in an argument of apologies being taken the wrong way and all kinds of confusion.  It was really bad and Dominica was incredibly upset.  We had a really rough afternoon and were not sure if we needed to leave the hotel.  One of the big risks of traveling in a foreign country where you have no grasp of the local language is that even the smallest of surprises can result in big miscommunications.  So much body language and facial expressions and tone are used to imply intent rather than actual words that surprise can dramatically interrupt the communications process and cause real problems.

So after writing a lengthy apology and explanation via Google Translate, Dominica left me to watch the kids while they napped in the afternoon and she hiked back up over the hill and down into town on the far side to do some shopping both for the things that we were not able to get earlier in the day and also to find flowers for the hotel owner.  The other thing about traveling in Europe is that hotel stays are often very personal things and nothing like the impersonal experience typical of an American hotel where there is effectively no interaction with the staff and you pretty much never meet, or knowingly meet, the owner(s).

Dominica got back and we spent some time trying to relax and get things done around the hotel.  She had dropped off her note and flower at the desk before getting back to the room, but no one had been around.  We were in the room for probably an hour before the hotel owner arrived with wine for us.  Dominica knew just what to do and had turned a bad situation around and everyone was happy.  Sometimes good friends are only made of good arguments.  So we got to sample the local white wine, Moscato d’Asti.  We have now tried two of the four local wines made in Neive.

Around eight we got the girls ready, and pretty soon we were heading off to dinner.  We decided that tonight we were just going to walk up to the top of town (the third time today for Dominica) and see what we could find.  We had heard from the Norwegians that there was some good food up there so we wanted to try it out especially as the ambiance up there would be far better than what there would be in the new town which is not all that nice.

There were plenty of restaurants to choose from up in historic Neive but most were pretty expensive and a bit fancy for us traveling with the girls.  We ended up finding DeGusto which, coincidentally, was where our proprietress has recommended last night before offering to deliver pizzas.  We had meant to look for this place but had been confused as to where it was located so were pleasantly surprised to find it here, where we wanted to eat, and finding it to be reasonably priced.  So in we went and we were able to score a table on the patio out back looking onto the small piazza on which it sat.  They were pretty slow with just two other tables occupied out on the patio and one inside.  It is a small place but everywhere in Italy appears to be small.  I am confused as to how the economics of restaurants in Italy works.

We explained to our waitress, whom I am pretty sure is a co-owner of the restaurant, that we were vegetarian and she worked through the menu with us and offered some options.  We ended up getting two of the same meal… insalata russa as a first course, tajarin pasta with butter and safe for the second course and panna cotte for dessert along with the chef’s recommendation for Barbaresco wine to go with the meal.  Everything was excellent!  We could not believe how good insalata russa is. This we could only compare to potato salad with tuna and peas.   Really tasty.  Our waitress explained that this was a traditional local dish and she grew up with her mother making it just like this.  Amazingly delicious.

We also discovered that tajarin, a local style pasta of thin egg noodles, with butter and sage, while simple, is simply delicious.  One of our favourite pastas and while unheard of back in the States is very common here with every local restaurant having some sort of pasta, often ravioli, with butter and sage as the sauce on its menu.

The panna cotte was especially good – covered in caramel.  I had not realized but Piemonte is the traditional home of panna cotte so you can get it everywhere here and it is really special.  We really enjoyed our entire dinners.  I have to note that the bread sticks were amazing too.  We just kept eating them.  Liesl pretty much ate nothing but bread sticks.

For the girls we got a type of pasta, whose name I forget, that was essentially smaller than usual gnocchi with a simple tomato sauce.  Liesl declined to try it but Luciana just gobbled it up.  What Liesl did not eat Dominica and I were happy to take care of.

Dinner tonight ranks as one of our lifetime culinary highlights.  Really amazing food in every course in a great setting.  The only downside, as with nearly all Italian eating, is the amount of time consumed.  We would not care so much but with little children it is really, really hard to have dinner take three hours.  From the time that we asked for the check until we were able to leave was nearly forty minutes alone!

It was about eleven in the evening when we got back to the hotel.  Maybe as much as a quarter after.  The hotel owner was waiting up for us to let us in.  We felt bad about that.  We had not intended to be out so late.  We went to dinner at eight, the normal time we have been lead to believe, for the area and we ate and returned as quickly as we could and this is how long it took going to one of the most nearby restaurants.  A bit of a problem, I guess.

It took a bit to get the girls calmed down and ready for bed.  We are really struggling with them at bed time.  Luciana really needs to have her own room, or at least a separate room, so that she can go to bed in the dark, in silence without having anything to distract her.  She is so good at going to bed back home.  On the road she is a total disaster ever since Nottingham where she had her own space.  She can share a room with Liesl without a problem since they do not go to bed at the same time.

We have decided that we have pretty much seen Neive and that tomorrow we should rent a car as has been recommended to us and I will attempt driving in Europe.  Without a car we are just not going to get a chance to see the local area to any degree and we will just miss out on way too much.  We checked with our credit card companies and found that American Express, while offering great coverage for insurance for rental cars, does not provide this coverage in Italy, rather a big surprise.  On the other hand, Visa does provide that coverage.  So it is just a matter of choosing the right card tomorrow.

Our first full day in Piemonte and, while full of “adventure”, we are really liking Piemonte.  The food is amazing, the scenery is amazing and if the weather is any indication that is pretty good too.  Piemonte has been, from the very beginning of our research, the place that we thought would be most likely to be right for us for the long term and so far it is proving to live up to expectations.  It has some steep competition from the German Rhine and Tuscany, not to mention western Austria in the lake country, but Piemonte has a lot to offer in price, culture, food, wine, accessibility and effectiveness for friends and family to come use.  So we are really looking forward to getting in the car and finding out more about what is around us tomorrow.

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