June 8, 2012: The Langhe by Car

I got up this morning and the shutters were closed on the windows in the hotel so I did not have a good idea of what was going on outside. I heard some people up and about and assumed that they were up early.  Everyone was still asleep in my room so I figured that it was pretty early since both Liesl and Luciana have a tendency to get up pretty early like clockwork.  I got in the shower and did my morning routine.  When I came out of the shower everyone was awake.

I had assumed that it was around seven thirty and pretty soon we should be heading to breakfast.  Then we fired up the laptop and realized that it wasn’t seven thirty but actually ten in the morning!  We had overslept our normal routine by several hours and were about to miss breakfast!

We got ready as quickly as we could and just took the girls down in pajamas and bare feet to eat breakfast.  I cannot believe that we overslept so much!  This is our first time doing this our entire vacation.  I think that eight in the morning has been our latest thus far.  We must have really needed the sleep to have slept in so dramatically.  There is no doubt that the vacation has been taking its toll on us and we are all tired and stressed out.  Liesl especially really wants to go home.  She misses her house, her toys and her Oreo.  Every day, as of late, she mentions Oreo at some point during the day and weeps softly for a bit about how much she misses him and cannot wait to get home so that she can see him again.  It is really touching.

We managed to get breakfast done and Dominica and the girls returned to the room and had plenty of time to get themselves settled and ready for the day while I took a ride out to the outskirts of Alba with the hotel owner as she dropped me off at Avis to rent a car for the week.  She had been kind enough to call around for us to see if she could get a better price than what we had been quoted yesterday and Avis came through with a really good deal and had a perfect car for us today.

Alba is only about five kilometers away from Neive and the Avis location was on the Neive side so very easy to deal with.  She dropped me off and then went on to Alba to do her own shopping.  Avis hooked me up with a Fiat Panda city car, two car seats for the girls and a GPS unit for the week for under three hundred Euros.  Sounded like a good deal to me.  They were very concerned that I was an American renting a stick shift car.  Apparently Europeans know us by reputation.  But I assured them that that was what I wanted.  Automatics are very rare in Europe and cost a premium if you can even find one.  I have paid attention and I feel that they are even more rare than people joke about.  You never seen one, anywhere, not even the SUVs have automatic transmissions here.

Avis got me all set up with the tiny – ridiculously tiny – Fiat Panda and one car seat.  The second car seat was at the Avis in Asti so I needed to drive from Alba to Asti to pick it up.  The Asti office, like every office in Italy, closed at twelve thirty so I was in a rush to get up there before it would be all afternoon before I would be able to get the car seat.  They programmed the GPS for me and sent me on my way with a full fifteen minutes of cushion – no sweat.

Now it is important to keep in mind that I have not driven a stick shift car in several years, not since my sweet Mazda 6 was traded in for Dominica’s BMW 330 back in New Jersey and I have not driven any car at all, whatsoever, for an entire month.  So getting behind the wheel of a five speed Fiat Panda was one thing – but doing so in Italy, the craziest place to drive in the developed world, was just plain silly.  Adding to that that I cannot read street signs and have no sense of where I need to go and this definitely takes on an air of epic adventure.

The drive to Asti actually went just fine.  Driving the Panda was surprisingly easy.  In fact, this is one of the easiest driving cars that I have ever been able to drive.  Even driving a new manual transmission car was as easy as could be.  No stalls, no hesitation – just get in and go.  It felt totally natural.

I got to Asti right on time and got the car seat, no problems.  Now leaving the Avis in Asti, I have to admit, caused a few minutes of alarm.  I could not, for the life of me, get the car to go into reverse!  This was driving me crazy.  Knowing that every business was going to close I swallowed my pride and went in and asked for help.  The guy at Avis did not speak English but we got the idea across… reverse, retro.  He knew what to do.  He came out and showed me a ring on the stick that, when pulled, would allow the car to go into reverse.  I’ve owned three stick shift cars myself, two of them decently recent, and have never seen nor heard of a feature like this.  Good to know.

The drive back to Neive went fine.  Again, no issues, not even when I got stuck on a toll road and had to pay a toll in Italien!  Italy handles this really logically and it was no issue at all.  So much better than what you would find in the United States.  Although, to be fair, the toll was pretty high.

I got back to the hotel and went in to get the girls.  Dominica went out and got the child safety seats installed in the car while I watched Liesl and Luciana and then, pretty quickly, we were off to go explore the area.  We had been talking a bit about where we should go today and we are really anxious to go see the lake country with Lago Maggiore in northern Piemonte and Lago Como in northern Piemonte and Lombardi so we thought that we would just go ahead and do these today and get them out of the way so that we could focus on the local Langhe travel tomorrow and the next day.  So we jumped in the car and took off.

While we were driving Dominica tried to put an address for Spesa, up on Lago Maggiore, into the GPS but it would not take.  Pretty quickly we realized that we did not have good enough plans to try to make it all of the way up there and back in one day without getting back ridiculously late.  Pretty much immediately we decided to postpone our lake trip until tomorrow when we can leave easy in the day rather than in early afternoon as it was today and get up to the lake district, see everything and get home at a good time.  So we decided to just start driving around today and see where the roads would take us.

We headed off towards the small, neighbouring village of Barbaresco but ended up missing that and ended up in Treiso instead and from there winding on to Alba.  We were really impressed with the options along the way.  So many adorable little Piemonte towns.  Each town was just adorable and the way that they connect to each other is so neat.  Treiso especially was really beautiful and we stopped there to take a few pictures.  Unfortunately because I was driving we were unable to take very many pictures all day so much of what we did is not recorded graphically in any way.

After Alba we decided to go see B’ra, the next biggest city in the local area.  Both Alba and B’ra were pretty nice cities as far as ~30K inhabitant support cities go.  Neither was crazy awesome but both had what one needed and were nice cities.

From B’ra we decided to get a broad overview of the province so we drove on to Cuneo, the regional capital, about sixty kilometers away.  This proved to be a bit of a drive.

From Br’a to Cuneo we were completely unimpressed with the area.  Almost entirely flat and uninteresting.  Not that any of it was bad but it lacked the look and feel that we were hoping for in moving to Italy.  So even though the drive was pretty boring we were glad that we did it because we now know, for sure, that this entire large stretch of countryside is not an area in which we are willing to look.

We arrived in Cuneo and right up until you actually arrive, the trip is boring, but the moment that you turn into Cuneo to cross the bridge you are welcomed to a charming city sitting at the base of the Alps with a river running along its frontage and magnificent bridges to cross to enter the city.

We drove into Cuneo, made a quick lap and quickly exited the city.  Cuneo is truly gorgeous in a really odd way.  I cannot put my finger on it but I am guessing that it is its odd position sitting on a river at the end of a plain with the Alps behind making it feel so strange.  Beautiful squares and fountains and a well laid out feel with really interesting twists and turns but we felt that the Cuneo region lacked what we were looking for so we are not going to consider it so we drove our pretty quickly.

Dominica was extremely impressed by my ability to get into a city, travel around and drive out again, without every using the GPS, and ended up exactly where I wanted to be and going right where I wanted on the first try.  I managed to navigate all day without having anything programmed into the GPS at all and without missing any turns.

We zipped back from Cuneo and pretty much went right back to Neive.  I was tired from a day of driving and navigating and the girls needed a break from the car.  We did not actually “see” very much today but we definitely got a good cross-section of the region into our minds and have determined large areas of which we are not interested and have determined that where I had originally picked is, in fact, remaining the right place for us based on what we have seen thus far. Cuneo is an awesome city but too far away and surrounded by very boring areas.

We got home and it was time to take the girls out to dinner.  We did not want a repeat of last night, coming in so late, so we worked hard to be up to the old town by a quarter after seven rather than an hour later than that like last night.

Dominica had suggested a few times that we return to DeGusta for the same meal that we had last night because we liked it so much.  We toyed with some other ideas but at the end of the day we did exactly that.  We just walked up the hill and went to the same place.  Tonight they had a party using the entire patio so we had to sit inside where it was too warm and the music was too loud but the food was just as good, no patio space for us..  Our food was excellent again tonight and tonight Liesl ate a ton of her gnocchi rather than just Luciana eating it.  We also opted for a dolchetto wine tonight instead of the Barbaresco like last night.  After tonight we have tried all four wines of Neive.  Dominica also tried some different dessert tonight while I stuck with the local favourite.

Our plan to get in and get out from dinner tonight mostly worked.  We were able to eat faster and managed to get back to the hotel before ten which was no problem at all.  The only issue tonight was getting the girls to settle down and get to bed.  That took a while.  Luciana likes to go crazy and run all over the room, often dangerously, until she is ready to collapse.  We always have to put her to bed at least twice before it works.

Tomorrow, we have decided, we are getting up early, getting ready and heading up to Lago Maggiore first thing so that we have all day for the extra driving and sight seeing.  We have been seeing the lakes so much on videos back home that even though they are pure touristy we have to go and see them.  And it will give us a north – south cross section of the region to help us determine, much like today, if we are looking in the right area.

After driving all over the Cuneo region, today, I must say that I am pretty comfortable with Italian driving and I totally love the Fiat Panda.  What a great car.  I love all of the roundabouts too.  They really make rural driving a lot easier.  I wish that they would adopt these back in the States.  No stopping when there is no traffic and there pretty much never is.

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