Langhe, Italy’s Hidden Gem

This little area nestled in the Northwest corner of Italy is decidedly my favorite area in Europe – coming from me, the girl who’s generally in love with Europe as a whole. If paradise exists, then this is it. Everywhere you look, rolling hills covered with world class vineyards grace your eyes. Picturesque towns spot the landscape as you wind through the hills. This region is generally known for its wine and truffles, and with good reason. But as a travel destination, Langhe, I believe, is highly underrated. Unlike Rome or Florence, you won’t find Da Vinci’s or never ending ruins to feast your eyes upon. You won’t go running from the Vatican to the Coliseum, lugging around your camera trying to beat the crowds. Instead, you’ll stop and literally and figuratively smell the roses. Life runs on a different pace here.

langhe vineyards

wine langhe italy vineyards

We headed down to Langhe as a stop between Turin and the Cote d’Azur in France. To be honest, I was a little disappointed by Turin. I knew that Turin was a large center of the slow food movement considering its proximity to Bra, and I went with grandiose ideas that I would have some glorious gastronomic experience there. While I certainly enjoyed the food, it didn’t particularly stand out and I felt no different afterwards. The city itself was a little rough on the edges, and the areas around Turin were run down, and seemed to be economically suffering. Despite how industrial Turin is, the areas around Turin were agrarian. I started getting a little concerned about what Langhe would be like. The towns we drove through on the way were quite run-down and amidst the flat fields we only saw run down shacks.

castle in langhe piedmont

These fears were quickly dispelled after driving up the crest of a hill, the scenery dramatically shifted. The flat landscape was no longer, as we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of rolling hills covered from head to toe in vineyards. It immediately turned from run down to picturesque. On our drive, we spotted many castles sitting atop the hills. Most of these castles are actually privately owned and not open to the public, which was a shame as we would have loved to check them out.

vineyard of our b&b

grapes in langhe piedmont

As we got to our B&B, Agriturismo Il Cortile, we realized that the owners, and their entire family, did not speak English. And we didn’t speak a single world of Italian. But that didn’t stop them from being incredibly kind and hospitable. The owner’s mother spoke to us animatedly in Italian, though I didn’t understand a single word that came out of her mouth, I felt like I got the gist of some of it. After giving us some water and treats upon our arrival, they took us down to their backyard where their young children showed me their chickens, baby ducks, and puppies. We didn’t need to speak because cooing at baby animals is clearly a universal language.

That night, we had dinner at the restaurant connected to the B&B and that was certainly an experience. The language barrier was as formidable as ever as our waiter tried to explain to us the items on the menu. Good thing it was a fixed menu and we didn’t have to choose any of the items. I applaud his efforts, even though we both gave up after the third dish. The food was absolutely delicious, as we ate Italian classics like risotto and prosciutto with melon. I couldn’t quite discern what a few of the dishes were but they were certainly all delightful.

view from Barolo church langhe

After dinner, we took the opportunity to drive around Langhe, and we ended up in Alba, the heart of Langhe. Alba itself is famous for its truffles and wine, but what many don’t know is that Nutella’s (and Ferrero) home is here. I was in Alba during the weekend, but during the week, supposedly, the entire town smells like Nutella due to the nearby factory. Now, if that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. As a plus, I found that the Nutella here tastes better than the ones we get here in the United States due to the superior quality hazelnuts and chocolate. I might have lugged back three 850 gram jars home. It was that good.

center of alba piedmont

DSC_8834

The town itself is absolutely charming. The streets were filled with various food shops, specializing in items like truffles, wine, coffee, chocolate etc. Right outside the old town walls sat this wonderful gelateria – Gelateria La Romana. The gelato sat safely enclosed inside shiny metal canisters to maintain their temperature and consistency. This allowed the people to spin the gelato onto the cones for you. As we were struggling to figure out the menu (surprise surprise), we were saved by a lady who studied abroad in the United States and spoke fluent English. The gelato was perfectly creamy, and I was tempted to go get myself a second cone had I not already filled myself up with other goodies earlier.

Langhe was filled with Italian vacationers. Vacationers, and not tourists. I was a tourist posing as a vacationer, and while I certainly enjoyed myself, I still aspire to someday rise up to vacationer. There was little to no english being spoke anywhere, apart from the TI offices. One of my biggest regrets was the language barrier that existed between us. I had remarkable opportunities to speak and connect with the people there, and was unable to take advantage of it. I imagine this is what Tuscany used to be – before the waves of tourists began to flock there.

barolo

A final note about transportation – a car really is the best way to get around here. There are no extensive public transportation systems that exist as far as I can tell, which might have contributed to the lack of traffic here. But the gorgeous windy roads that I was talking about previously? They great as a passenger, but it’s not easy to drive. People drive fast, the roads are skinny, and you can never see around the corners. But don’t let that deter you! What I’m saying is more along the lines of, say, perhaps try playing some Mario Kart prior for some practice?

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Roadtrippin’ Through Europe (Part 2)

Upon entering Austria, the most discernible difference was the road quality. The roads were wider, better marked, better paved and it was just glorious to drive on. The Austrian landscape consisted of rolling hills, dotted with churches, towns, and quite a few cows. And because the driver was semi-fluent in deutsch, knowing what the road signs meant helped just a tad as well.


Our first stop was at a little town called Melk. The town was quite nice, but what we came for was the abbey. It is a famous Benedictine abbey that sits majestically upon a hill, overlooking the surrounding town. Inside, there’s a brilliant cathedral and a library that housed very very old books. I had a very strong urge to touch one, but I don’t think the monks there would have appreciated that.

Photography is prohibited in the library, but I took one unknowingly and a Korean tour guide kindly reminded (more like yelled at) me that photography was not allowed. In fact, that lady sort of gasped and looked at me like I stepped on her puppy or something.

Entrance to abbey.

Library in the abbey. I had to suffer the wrath of an angry Korean lady to get this…

Vienna was next and, like in Prague, we ditched the car for the U-bahn and S-bahn. The park and ride is a great option if your hotel is a little outside town. Oddly enough, the the U-bahn always seemed to run above while the S-bahn always seemed to go under. The Austrian people, like the Czech, were also very friendly, offering their assistance to us. The weather, unfortunately, doesn’t take after the people; it was cold and raining in the morning and blisteringly hot in the afternoon.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

Schönbrunn Palace is very similar to Versailles (a tad smaller) and is a definite must see in Vienna. The gardens are beautiful and it somewhat reminded me of a merge between the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris and Versailles. You can’t go wrong with either of the two. The complimentary audio guide is also nice as all the wallpapered and gold lined rooms start to look the same. We unfortunately did not go inside Hofburg Palace, but we did go visit the gardens of Belvedere palace.

Schonbrunn Palace

Belvedere Palace.

For lunch, we ate at a biergarten near Schönbrunn Palace, and being the first beer garden I’ve ever been to, it was a terrific experience. Sitting on the wooden benches with the looming chestnut trees strung with lanterns overhead is incredibly comforting, and it only gets better when the food and beer arrives. My wiener schnitzel and Austrian kartoffelsalat (potato salad) marathon began there. Don’t you know? It’s the best type of marathon out there.


The best meal I had on the trip was at Pürstner. Everything we ordered was absolutely delicious. The portions were pretty generous and all the meats came with wonderful sauces and seasonings while also being incredibly tender. A drink that’s exclusive to Austria is Almdudler, an apple grape soda that is really quite good so make sure to give it a try.

Viennese beef soup.

Now, of course I couldn’t leave Vienna without giving the famed Figlmüller a try, especially with the wiener schnitzel obsession I had going on. There are actually two Figlmüller locations very close to each other. The one inside the alley was always full and they kept on sending all the tourists to their other location on a perpendicular street. Recently, some people had been complaining about Figlmüller’s quality… Could it be because the two locations are different? I may be imagining this conspiracy theory but I thought it a little sketchy that all the tourists were being sent away. I refused to be deterred so I made reservations for the alley location. Let me tell you, that piece of pork was two times the size of my face and it was pure heaven. The meat was tender and crispy in all the right places. I’m not claiming Figlmüller to be the best wiener schnitzel ever, but it was definitely not your average ol’ schnitzel.

Entrance to alley.

I sadly did not get pictures of the schnitzel because we had to hurry to get to the opera house where we got tickets to see Lucia di Lammermoor. The opera house was amazing and it was even better that I was there to see an opera, instead of just looking around as a tourist.

Lucia di Lammermoor

And the opera itself… no words can describe it. The acoustics are like nothing I’ve heard before, and even though I only had a partial view and was practically hanging off the balcony, I enjoyed every minute of it. Note that the opera house is closed during July and August so we had to make sure we got to Vienna before July.


Demel Café also warranted a visit. The place reminded me of Angelina’s, without the hot chocolate. While you can sit outside on the patio, we decided to head to the back where you can actually see them making the cakes. Although the cakes were quite good, I wasn’t floored by them.

We then drove to Hallstatt and the views that accompanied that road were breathtaking. The radio played some traditional Austrian folk music which really was the perfect soundtrack. Hallstatt is a quaint little town on the foot of a mountain while also on the edge of a tranquil lake. While it is quite touristy and there are throngs of tour groups passing through, the setting makes everything ok in the world again. Instead of staying inside Hallstatt, we stayed at a town across the lake in Obertraun, which is also a very pleasant place.

On a whim, we decided to go climb the Dachstein mountain in Salzkammergut to go see the Five Fingers viewing platform. And because this was not planned, we never realized that it would be positively freezing up there. Now, I live in a place where it’s warm all year round, and we were on vacation during the summer, so you could approximate what we were wearing. The sun came and went, and so did the slight warmth that came with it.

Unfortunately, I never made it past midway. Shivering, I headed back to the station so that maybe I could start to feel my ears again. However, our fearless driver braved the cold and made it! Looking at the pictures that he brought back, it may have been a good thing I didn’t go (I am deathly afraid of heights. I repeat, deathly afraid.)

Courtesy of our fearless driver (who has asked for photo credits)

20 minutes away there is the beautiful spa town of Bad Ischl, which is also the home to Zauner Café. If the café itself isn’t enough to blow your socks off, the desserts will surely do it. Their well known for their cakes and I can see why; the chestnut swiss roll is particularly to die for. The cakes there aren’t particularly sweet, but they perfectly hit that spot.

Next, we paid a little visit to Mozart and the Von Trapps in Salzburg. The entire city now revolves around everything Mozart related which is a little ironic, considering the fact that Mozart actually hated Salzburg. The best part of Salzburg is Hellbrunn Palace. Yes, the Sound of Music pavilion is here. Yes, the best tour in the world is here. And yes, prepare to get soaked. There are hidden water spouts everywhere in the gardens, and as you walk through them, you have absolutely which ones will be the next to spray you.

The tour guide, however, does. That is because he controls which spouts are turned on and he will make sure you get soaked when you least expect it. Umm, can I have his job please? In my group, there was a group of elderly folk and they only got a sprinkle here and there. On the other, I (along with the children) got soaked over and over again. Of all the tours I’ve been on, this was by far the funnest and most engaging.

First stop of the tour.

The rest of Salzburg was quite touristy, but it was beautiful. Mozart’s Geburtshaus was informative, but I don’t really think it was worth it. The Mirabell Gardens are also very pleasant, especially on a sunny day. Don’t miss the unicorns at the end – it’s a great photo op, trust me.

Mozart’s place

Part 3 is coming!

Roadtrippin’ Through Europe (Part 1)

Roadtrips are great. They’re even better when in Europe. Instead of driving between states, you’re driving between countries. Instead of munching on fast food on the road, you nibble on some local delicacies. Which is why we decided to drive through Germany, Czech Republic, and Austria. Here is the route we took. It took a while to develop an itinerary and despite it being a little tight, I thought we did pretty well.

There are a couple things I would first like to mention about driving in Europe:

1. Yellow lines are nonexistent. All you will ever see are white lines (except for in construction zones). Therefore, you have no idea if you have two lanes or if the lane to the left of you is for incoming traffic. This is a huge nightmare in cities, as sometimes there are one way streets where you get multiple lanes but sometimes, the other lanes are for incoming traffic. We asked a couple locals about this; apparently, the advice was to stick to the right side when in doubt. Hmm. Sounds safe. Safe to say, I’ve never been more happy to see yellow road markings back in America.

2. Don’t forget to purchase a vignette before entering a country. When you know you’re getting close to the border, stop by a gas station and go purchase that vignette. There were a couple times I noticed where after you passed the border, there are no gas stations for miles. So, save yourself some grey hairs, and buy that vignette when possible.

3. Traffic jams and road closures are very very common. Too common. Invest in a GPS with live traffic updates (or rent a car with one) and even that sometimes fails. A very large, and unprecedented, highway closure in the Czech Republic led to us driving hours on winding “highways” without any lane markings where I almost had a heart attack, true story.

St. Vitus Cathedral

We flew into Berlin quite early in the morning where we picked up our rental car from Sixt. The car was larger than expected which was good and bad. Good because you won’t see me complaining about extra legroom and bad because our designated driver for the trip really isn’t very good at parallel parking, especially in tiny European spaces. But, as it turned out, parking wasn’t a huge problem so the large car was an absolute plus.

Dresden

The drive to Dresden was unremarkable, and despite being impressed by Dresden, I’m not itching to go back. The fact that everything has been rebuilt from scratch is very impressive and the old town is quite nice, but that’s typical of Europe. There wasn’t much that was particularly memorable.

On the other hand, Prague was one of my favorite stops on the trip. The public transportation system is very sophisticated (with metros, buses, and trams); the metro stations were one of the nicest I’ve ever seen, unlike New York. The people, especially for a city so packed with tourists, were exceptionally nice and helpful; many went out of their way to help the utterly lost tourists (which would be us). The architecture is also gorgeous and the colors just pop at you.

First thing in the morning, we went to Prague Castle. You don’t really see much of the castle, as it is more like a castle complex surrounded by defensive walls. St. Vitus’s Cathedral was impressive with its arches and statues. The first part of the cathedral is free to enter, but you need to at least purchase the short visit ticket to enter the back. We got the short ticket, and thought it was a good idea.

After leaving the castle, we took a tram to head to Old Town where we grabbed some lunch at U Parlamentu. Everything was meat and sauce heavy but all the meats were well cooked. We had no idea what to get and our server was more than helpful. They have English menus, for those who aren’t fluent in Czech (I’m sorry, but all those dashes and whatnot just aren’t doing it for me). The Pilsner anywhere in the Czech Republic is phenomenal (not from personal experience) and that applies to U Parlamentu as well.

Cabbage Salad

There are two beautiful cathedrals located on the square and when you’re hot and sweaty with achy feet, those things are a blessing (no, really). They are always cool, quiet, and give your aching feet a well deserved rest. Yes, I’m a girl who stops at every single church she passes just to sit on their benches and I’ve actually found quite a few hidden treasures along the way. It’s a tried and true method, that’s what it is.

For dinner, we wanted to eat at Mlejnice, but they were all full so we had to resort to a Rick Steves suggestion. Desperate times call for desperate measures, right? And let me tell you, I think I would have been better off going into a random restaurant. The goulash was… not good. There were a couple chunks of bad quality sausage drowned in a mystery sauce. The pork knuckle was mostly dried out (and rock hard at some places) with minimal flavoring. The salad was normal, but how badly can you mess up a mixed salad?

It was, however, a good idea to stay near the old town square because that night, Czech Republic was in the semifinals for the Euro Cup and half the city was packed into the square to watch the game. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, and you can’t help but get excited as well. Unfortunately, Czech Republic lost to Portugal. And when Spain went on to win the Euro Cup, beating Germany, I was in Germany when that happened. I’m starting to think maybe I’m bad luck…

Charles Bridge at 5 AM

To avoid the crowds and vendors, we woke up at 5 am the next day and headed out to Charles Bridge. While it was very serene and peaceful, it seemed like many of the local people were already going to work. Do the Czech people sleep? They stay out way late, and then get right back up at an ungodly hour. But because most tourists generally like sleep (jet lag, anyone?), there were only a few lone people with large cameras in hand, yawning. I was most definitely in good company.

Handcrafted toys in Prague

Our next stop was the incredibly charming medieval town of Cesky Krumlov. It’s an UNESCO site and I can see why – everything is so perfectly preserved. On top of that, the town happened to be celebrating the Five-Petalled Rose Festival the day we were there, which was the best surprise for us.

Entryway to Cesky Krumlov

All the locals donned their medieval clothing, selling local items in a medieval market, and doing whatever medieval people do. This kind of an event in that kind of a setting is just phenomenal. It’s not just some backdrop of a Shakespearean play; it’s so real (that is, if you can get over souvenir stores and the throngs of pushy tourists).

Freshly fried potato chips.

Street food.

The street food is wonderful and incredibly cheap so it’s safe to say I pigged out. A lot. Oh and apparently, you have to buy a ticket to get into the town once it gets to late afternoon. So if you got in, stay in!

Part 2 coming soon!