Great Escapes: The Lesser-Known Side of Northern Italy
Living an intentional life is paramount to long term personal fulfillment and it’s why JGP is engaged in Intentional Life Planning with those we serve. Travel is often an important component of one’s life plan and this summer we’ve had clients soaking up experiences all over the globe. Often the planning around where, when, and what is as much fun as the trip itself. Where are you headed next? For me no country offers more - corner to corner - than Italy. As I struggle along learning Italian I am always looking for the next hidden gem. I hope you enjoy this article from Barron’s on Northern Italy.
Despite Italy’s splendor of variety, travelers seem to focus on the same big-name destinations, rarely venturing beyond Rome, Florence, and Venice.
Within northern Italy specifically, there is more—much more—to discover in two of its secondary regions: Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont. Both regions are a quick train ride from their more popular counterparts, but a world away from the landmarks that draw millions of visitors every year.
The more central Emilia-Romagna is self-proclaimed as Italy’s culinary region with its capital of Bologna being one of the world’s foremost food cities. Emilia-Romagna is home to an impressive array of world-class meats, cheeses, oils, and other goods that are made with strict standards dating back generations.
Piedmont (meaning “at the foot of the mountains”) has flown largely under the radar since Turin hosted the Winter Olympics in 2006, but the capital is seeing an unsung renaissance in the arts and food in its own right. A largely undiscovered museum and historical scene await eager travelers as well.
Bologna is the easiest place to begin a visit to Emilia-Romagna, and while there are not many luxury options, the Grand Hotel Majestic in the city center is a high-level choice. The 106-room hotel is best known for several frescoes that adorn its dining room and common areas along with classic Italian accommodations.
In Turin, the NH Collection Torino Piazza Carlina is set within a 17 th -century building, situated in one of the more interesting quarters of the city. While the hotel has all of the necessary modern amenities you’d be looking for in a large European city, the array of cafes, shops, and bars just steps from the front door makes it a great place to start an exploration of Piedmont and local everyday life.
The best and hardest part about Bologna is that there is at least “good” food at every turn. In most cases, the effort and pride put into everyday dishes is above and beyond what you’ll find in most other cities and makes for exceptional dining, even at the most casual eateries.
Trattoria Fantoni on Via Del Pratello is churning out some of the city’s best pasta (in a crowded pasta market). Come for the tagliatelle al ragu, stay for the people-watching along this bar-laden street.
After dinner (or in the middle of a warm afternoon), Stefino Organic Gelato is a highlight on the other side of the city center, near the university (the world’s oldest still in operation). The shop makes a conscious effort to use organic and ethically-sourced ingredients while offering updates on traditional flavors that happen to be vegan and gluten-free.
The Italian Apertivo tradition is alive and well in Bologna. Avoid the tourist traps in the very center of the city and venture to areas just outside of it. You’ll find bars like Marsalino keeping the spirit of the practice alive with snacks served alongside very local Sangiovese.
For a unique day trip, head north to Parma, home of the namesake cheese and prosciutto. In 2015, the ancient city was named Italy’s first “Creative City of Gastronomy” by UNESCO for a combination of historical landmarks and contributions to the culinary arts. Food is steeped in tradition here and immense culinary craftwork is on display regularly.
In Turin, Mercato Centrale’s multi-floor food hall/shopping concept is an interesting up-close look at what some of the city’s top culinary talent is up to. Everything from roasted chicken to fresh seafood is available with an expansive beer and wine list available right from whichever table you land at.
Turin also happens to be the home of modern chocolate making, with some records of the practice going back to the 1600s. Cioccolatos orCioccolaterias are dotted across the city and those like Guido Gobino are worth a visit for exquisite sweets.
Winery visits here can last two hours or more, so scheduling no more than two per day in one general area is best. (The region is small, but it’s easy to wander through villages along the way and most wineries are only open by appointment.)
The more modern L’Astemia Pentita is a great place to start. Nestled right in the heart of the Cannubi growing area (specifically where Barolo grapes are grown), the design-focused vineyard and tasting room is vibrant and offers exemplary introductions to the varietal. For something more traditional, head over to Poderi Roset—a small vintner producing more robust, straightforward wines with 25-plus years of experience.
With so much to discover underneath each city’s surface, the best way to enjoy either region is through the eyes of a local. For a more modern choice, Airbnb has food and drink tour offerings that take you to a number of local institutions while bypassing more touristy destinations. They’re peer reviewed and often offer a similar, if not better experience compared to more traditional high-end endeavors.
Turin’s distinctive lack of tourism means English isn’t widely spoken and is something to prepare for. You’ll also find that many restaurants and shops observe tradition by closing in the afternoon or maintaining irregular hours. Calling ahead before dinner is highly advised.
About 70 minutes by train from Turin is the charming town of Alba. This is the epicenter of Italian hazelnut harvesting and processing being the rather discreet home to Nutella parent company Ferrero. You’ll find hazelnut-everything in several shops around town including organic options at Alta Langa Laboratory, which offers tours of its smaller on-site processing center.
Bologna is as much of a great walking city as it is an eating one. The city center has more than 40 kilometers of Medieval-era porticos that have stood the test of time, offering shade from the sun and cover from the rain for centuries. These beautiful archways are a signature of Bologna and change character alongside the neighborhoods.
The writer was a guest of NH Hotel Collection Torino Piazza Carlina, Airbnb, L’Astemia Pentita, Poderi Roset, and the City of Alba