Knife, Fork and Skis: Scouting Italy's Piedmont

Special to The Washington Post

What was supposed to be our first day skiing in the Italian Alps began with a corkscrew.

Our ultimate destination was the mountains west of Turin in northwest Italy's Piedmont district, site of the 2006 Olympic Winter Games. We could not resist making a detour, however, through another area of the Piedmont, the Langhe hills near Alba, which produce what are arguably Italy's best wines and most refined cuisine.

Driving on the way up from the French border near Nice, we had taken the wine pilgrims' trail through the vineyards and village that share the name of Italy's most robust, operatic wine, Barolo. We spent that night in Alba, an animated little city with a long medieval pedestrian street on which shop window after window display the city's most prized product: its famous white truffles. (The going rate, about $860 a pound, makes them many times pricier than France's black truffles.) That evening, we dined on pasta and risotto perfumed with shavings of those little balls of fungus, followed by tender lamb with ribs so small I felt a little guilty.

The following morning, a warm bright Sunday, we headed for the mountains. But first, another detour -- through the hills north of Alba in villages that form the Barbaresco wine area. Our 8-year-old son was getting restless, pulling his head out of his Game Boy every few minutes to ask from the back seat when we were going to get to the snow.

One last stop, I promised.

The stop was the farmhouse and cellar of Giuseppe Nada, whose family has been in the wine business for more than a century. We rang the bell outside the gates and were warmly welcomed by Signora Nada, who led us to a long wooden farm table and began slicing prosciutto, salamis and cheeses, which she set out with baked hazelnuts for our brunchtime wine tasting.

The hills of the Langhe are some of the most charted and scrutinized in the world by both winegrowers and devotees of the nebbiolo grape. Wine lovers who shell out $25 to $50 and upward for the area's best wines would surely be appalled by my nonscientific method for selecting the Nadas' cantina: A guy who worked at our hotel said this is where his father buys wine.

As we stood at the Nadas' front door, we took in a dramatic view that will surely draw us back to that spot again: rolling vine-covered hills dotted with small villages and stands of hazelnut trees, ringed by an imposing wall of jagged white Alps in the distance.

In little time, we were up in those Alps, flying along the autostrada west of Turin, being passed by impatient Italians. Young couples, we noticed at a cafe rest stop, were dressed as if headed for a Milan fashion show and not a ski resort -- the men all in black, the women in boots with impossibly pointy toes. Apparently, there would be just enough time for them to park in Sestriere (in a no parking zone or on a sidewalk if necessary), make a quick outfit change, belt down a last espresso and race through a few quick runs before heading to another cafe.

Ripe for Picking

The Piedmont has too much to offer to be ignored by anyone with a love for Italy, fine cuisine or wine. The region starts about 30 miles inland from the Italian Riviera near France and stretches up along the French border to Mont Blanc and Switzerland in the north. On its eastern flank, it climbs just west of Milan to Lake Maggiore in the Lakes District.

Its cuisine and wines can match or beat those of Tuscany, which is a few hours to the southeast. Though it lacks Tuscany's temples of Renaissance art and Florentine sophistication, it has an impressive collection of medieval castles, forts and abbeys, and Baroque churches, all set amid some of northern Italy's most dramatic scenery.

The most photographed and imposing relic is the 10th-century Benedictine abbey, the Sacra di San Michele, perched on a cliff at the entrance of Susa Valley. (The Sacra complex, with its famous zodiac door and collection of five centuries of art, is open to the public every day but Monday.) And while the Piedmont's ski stations are not as well organized, chic or charming as Cortina D'Ampezzo (site of Italy's last Winter Olympics in 1956) and its neighbors in the Dolomites to the northeast near Austria, they offer fantastic terrain and more consistent snow at a fraction of the price.

Everywhere these days is the sense that this is Piedmont's big moment. The region's modern economy -- shaped by Turin's automotive industry and its biggest enterprise, Fiat -- is changing by necessity. With Fiat in decline, the focus is on tourism. The Piedmont is sprouting cultural festivals to court the world -- jazz and blues festivals, a puppet festival and a women's film festival, to name a few. Bed-and-breakfast inns are popping up in the vineyards, and wine producers are adding guest rooms for agriturismo (wine, food and bed).

Then there are the 2006 Olympics, the region's big shot to showcase itself -- if, locals add, their countrymen can get it together.

Whereas the Olympic ice sports will be held in Turin, the snow events will cover the ski stations of the Susa and Chisone valleys, most of which are lift-linked to the principal station, Sestriere. Developed in the 1930s by the Agnelli family of Fiat, Sestriere is one of the world's oldest resorts and a regular stop on the World Cup tour.

It is not a place for those seeking charm. The architecture, including a set of columnar towers now owned by Club Med, exudes an eerie Mussolini-era Utopian feel. But the natural setting, in the middle of an amphitheater of top-of-the-world peaks, is awe-inspiring. Sestriere takes on an even more dramatic feel on nights when the front of the mountain is illuminated for night skiing -- the rage after Alberto Tomba's 1990s victories in the first nighttime slalom competitions.

Tomba, of course, is the icon of Italian skiing -- the first person to medal in three successive Olympics, while projecting an irreverent playboy image that made it all seem part of la dolce vita.

A sign in the main square at the base of Sestriere bears an image of Tomba in full flight with the two words that best define Italian ski culture: "Grazie Alberto."

Along the Rustic Trail

For our stay during New Year's week, we wanted to avoid the crowds and industrial feeling of Sestriere, so we reserved a room in another Olympic station: Claviere, the area's oldest and smallest ski village.

Claviere is in a no-frills rustic setting, with a strip of small hotels and businesses laid out along the road Napoleon built to cross from Italy to France. Unlike Sestriere, there are no movie theaters, no discos, no chic boutiques selling Prada après-skiwear and Gucci glasses. There are fewer Tomba wannabes and more families. Everything is a short walk to the lifts, where we seldom found a wait.

By buying a pass for the entire network of lift-linked mountains known as the Vialattea (Milky Way), we could ski in Sestriere and throughout the region's hundreds of miles of trails.

There was a price to pay for choosing the rustic route. For one thing, the lodging is, by American standards, about as basic as it gets. My wife likes nothing better than a hot soak in the tub after a day of skiing. Almost every hotel room in Claviere is equipped with only a shower much narrower than a phone booth. Our hotel, one of the only "three-star" hotels in town, turned out to be a disaster of bad food (the only truly bad food I've ever eaten in Italy), noisy plumbin g, creaky floors, phones that didn't work and an ambient room smell of sweatsocks.

"Three stars?" complained our son, the family star counter. "Who gives out the stars in Italy anyway?"

It was a good question. The local tourist office sympathized. Our hotel, they told us, earned three stars because it has an elevator. Locals later advised us that the best hotel in Claviere is the family-run Piccolo Chalet, which has only one star but has a reputation for cozy, clean (shower-only) rooms and good food.

Because it was the busiest week of the year, there was no possibility of switching hotels -- everything was booked by Italian families on holiday and tour groups from England. We told the owner of our hotel we would take our dinners outside.

This turned out to be for the best. Although it added to the cost of our trip, the mountains between Claviere and Sestriere have some very good restaurants worth the extra expense. At La Locanda, located in an old stable in the tiny mountain hamlet of Champlas Seguin, we dined on risotto and mountain trout and wild game. We spent New Year's Eve in Claviere at the Kilt (named by owner Roberto Bottan for the Scottish officers who stayed in town during World War II). For his New Year's Eve party, Bottan hired a magician/clown named Blabo who had our son laughing until it hurt. The nine-course meal included lamb, ostrich sausage, seafood dishes, risottos and cannelloni, and concluded at midnight with toasts of spumante and pannetone and with most everybody in the place kissing most everybody else before we went into the outside courtyard to watch Blabo spit fire.

Two nights later, we took a snowmobile ride up the mountain to a refuge where we continued the carnivorous circuit with smoked meats, spiced lard and polenta with sausage. One option for the return to the base was to ski by torchlight, which we declined because of icy conditions. Our decision was confirmed after the chef came out from the kitchen to pour us double shots of Genepi, the fire-breathing liquor made from the mountain plant of the same name. Flying down the mountain wasn't on our itinerary.

Ski, Then Feast

To ski in Italy, you have to enjoy being in Italy and appreciate the randomness and drama of Italian life.

Italians park their skis like they park their cars -- wherever they can find space. This often means that people simply step out of their skis and keep going. In a week of skiing we saw two ski racks in the entire region -- both went unused.

Order is of little importance. Priorities have more to do with the right look, and lunch.

Young Italian men seem to be the Western world's last holdout against grunge. (For the role model, see www.albertotomba.it.) Italian women have the most remarkable knack for getting out of ski clothes and into stylish pants and furs -- seemingly as easily as they shed their skis. Everyone from the age of 14 appears to have received the latest color screen cell phone for Christmas and uses it as a fashion accessory.

For pranzo (lunch), we ate in small mountain refuges: hot bowls of pasta or sandwiches stuffed with prosciutto followed by the supercharged cups of espresso that only the Italians can make. Wine seemed to be flowing all around us, occasionally followed by the bombardino, a mix of espresso, vov (egg-based liquor) and whisky.

As for the actual sport, the Vialattea offers hundreds of miles of trails for every level of skiing. Sestriere has the highest peak (9,186 feet) and offers the most difficult runs, mostly on wide, open mountain face s.

In Claviere we found far more trees fewer people and the opportunity for international ski touring. One afternoon, after buying lift-ticket extensions, we crossed the French border on skis and headed to Montgenevre, where our son dove into a French café lunch of burger and fries with ketchup.

For our return, we took a pair of lifts to the top of Mount Gimont, which straddles the border. It was a truly heady experience as we looked in every direction, out over white peaks, with one trail pointing back to France and the other to Italy. What followed was the ski highlight of the trip: returning through miles of silent pine and larch forests with a view of Claviere's looming terrain, appropriately named Monti della Luna (Mountains of the Moon.)

Toilets: An Olympic Feat

Although Vialattea promotes its stations as one seamless network, everyone warned us against trying to get to Sestriere on skis: "Better to take the car."

The problem is that the journey through the center of Vialattea still requires an impractical journey on too many ski lifts -- including the bane of the region, outdated drag lifts. While this type of lift went out years ago in most of the world's major resorts, it seems to persist in the Piedmont area.

Being pulled up a mountain by a disk between your thighs is a charming anachronism, but if the area is serious about becoming a world-class destination, this must change. In fact, improving lifts, especially the connections in and around Sestriere, is a top priority of the Olympic Committee. At the main tourist office in Sestriere, I was told that work would start on the lifts this year.

"So," I asked a tourism official, "the problems with the lifts will be fixed by 2006?"

"It depends," she answered, holding up her hand and twisting it side to side.

"Depends on what?"

"The problem," she said, "is that no one knows exactly how the Olympic Committee will invest the money."

The Turin Olympic Committee expects that the 2006 Games will attract 1 million spectators to the region (about five times the number of people who travel to the area's mountains in an entire ski season). Private businesses have plans to construct 10 new hotels in the area. And then there is the potty problem.

Now, toilets on the mountain are few and far between (we counted an average of two per cafe in the mountain restuarants) and are exclusively Turkish toilets -- ceramic basins imbedded in the floor with a drain hole. The waits for toilets were usually longer than the waits for lifts. The Olympic Committee press officer in Turin said this presented a "big problem" but that the committee was going to invest in adequate modern toilets that met "international standards."

Throughout the ski valleys, restaurateurs and business owners were openly dubious about what improvements would be made, though we were unsure how much this had to do with fact and how much was Italian fatalism.

"They are not ready," griped one restaurateur. He then went off on a diatribe about the impossible tangles of politics involving Turin, the local governments and the region's powerful Agnelli family. "Maybe they will be ready two weeks before [the Olympics]. Remember, this is Italy."

Bravo, Piedmont

Although there can be hassles in traveling to a place that perpetually teeters on the brink of dysfunction, Italy remains one of the easiest places in the world to travel with children. While the country's birthrate has plummeted to one of the lowest on the planet, Italians adore or, at a minimum, tolerate children.

Wait staff seemed to be trained to effortlessly dodge kids running in their paths when carrying platters of hot food. Children, who get lots of kisses and pats on the head, are not expected to be little adults. When there are a number of kids in a public place, the adults seem to just talk louder.

The biggest skeptic about our Italian ski adventure was our son, an experienced skier who was wary of being enrolled in ski school for two hours a day where, he feared, no one would speak either of his two languages, English and French.

We called the Claviere ski school in advance and were told "no problem," our son would be placed with an instructor who spoke one of those languages. On our arrival, we were told "no problem" again.

However, our son ended up with a class of Italian children and an instructor who spoke only Italian. Yet the language barrier turned out to be "no problem" indeed. After the first day, I asked my son how his class went. "Good," he responded, "I didn't understand anything the instructor said."

From what I could tell, and this was confirmed by our son, half of children's ski instruction in Italy involves the maestro shouting three words of encouragement: forza (power), bravo (bravo) and bravissimo (bravissimo).

Early afternoon, when the kids returned from the mountain, they were met with more bravos by their parents, who followed that up with calls of "Andiamo mangare" ("Let's go eat").

Robert V. Camuto is a writer based in the South of France.

Details: Italy's Piedmont

GETTING THERE: Turin is the principal city of Italy's Piedmont region and a good starting point for exploring. The Turin airport, about an hour from the Langhe hills, Alba and the ski stations of Susa Valley, can be reached by direct flights from European capitals. Air France and KLM, for example, offer round-trip flights from D.C. via Amsterdam or Paris for about $650.

Turin's two train stations connect to Milan and the European rail network. Italy's train system and its legendary strikes have been the butt of many a joke, but it can be an economical way to travel. First-class one-way fare from Milan is about $20 for the 1 hour 40 minute trip. A train line also connects Turin to the ski stations of Susa Valley; first class one-way fare from Turin to Cesana (near Sestriere) is about $10 for the 50-minute ride. For schedules and online booking, consult the Italian state rail network, Trenitalia, at www.fs-on-line.com.

GETTING AROUND: Serious touring requires a car. For a four-door manual Volkswagen Golf in Turin, Europcar (877-940-6900, www.europcar.com) recently quoted a standard rate of about $550 per week.

WHERE TO STAY: In Alba, the Hotel Savona (Via Roma, 011-39-173-440-440, www.hotelsavona.com) has clean rooms and an onsite restaurant in the city's historic center. Doubles are $65 to $100 per night.

In Claviere, the Piccolo Chalet (Via Torino 7, 011-39-0122-878806) is a tidy, family-run hotel with good food and the best ski location in town. Rooms are $52 to $65 per person per night, including breakfast.

In Sestriere, the Principi di Piemonte Grand Hotel (Via Sauze, 011-39-0122 -7941, www.framonhotels.com) is a deluxe property with a swimming pool, sauna, mountain views and ski-in/ski-out. Standard doubles run about $185 a night. The Miramonti (Via Cesana 3, 011-39-0122- 755333) is a new three-star hotel in neo-chalet style, with rooms at about $50 to $75 per person, including breakfast. For apartment rentals, check out Studio Immobilare, Sestrieres (011-39-0122- 755-157, www.sestrieres.it), which offers four-person apartments from about $500 to $1,600 per week, depending on season.

WHERE TO EAT: In Alba, Osteria dell' Arco (Piazza Savona 5), a favorite among wine lovers, is a wine bar that serves regional specialties. Prix-fixe menus are about $30. Locanda del Pilon (34 Frazione Madonna di Como) is in a farmhouse in the hills above town, with dinner for about $40 per person, plus wine. (It also offers guest rooms for about $125 to $190.)

In Barolo, Locanda nel Borgo Antico (Piazza del Municipo 2) offers regional gastronomy in the heart of wine country. Prix-fixe menus are $50. In Claviere, Kilt (Via della Fontana 1) serves regional and Italian specialties, including pizza, in a 19th-century cellar. Dinners are $12 to $20.

In and around Sestriere, the well-regarded Du Grande Pere (Champlas Janvier 14) prepares wild game and traditional cuisine in a 17th-century house. Prix-fixe menus are $30 to $50. La Locanda di Colomb (Champlas Seguin 27), in the tiny hilltop village of Champlas Seguin, is a must for food lovers in ski country, with regional wines and gastronomy served in a converted old stable. Dinner runs about $20 to $27. Despite the cheesy name, Last Tango (Via La Gleisa 5) is a comfortable osteria offering regional specialties in the center of Sestriere. Dinner runs about $27.

INFORMATION: The following sources and Web sites provide tourist information in different degrees of English:

• Piedmont information, museums and itineraries: www.regione.piemonte.it.

• Information, maps and products of Alba and the Langhe, as well as information about regional wine and truffle festivals (traditionally held in September): 011-39-0173-35833, www.langheroero.it.

• Details on the 2006 Winter Olympics: www.montagnedoc.it.

For general information on Italy: Italian Government Tourist Board, 212-245- 5618, www.italiantourism.com.

-- Robert V. Camuto