Piedmont in October had been on the cards for a while because truffles. Not the chocolate shit, the real deal: mushrooms unearthed by gnarled old contadini with pigs on the leash and more addictive – and expensive – than purest heroin. The best truffles in the world come from a town in Piedmont called Alba and are in season during October and November.
Alba is surrounded by villages like Barolo and Barbaresco which will mean a lot to you if you like wine. James and I like wine a lot so we loaded up the bikes, drove to Turin, parked the car, ate a delicious lunch on a beautiful piazza and set off on a 260 km loop via Alba.
For a big city Turin is easy to leave on a bike, if you’re heading south at any rate. Within a few minutes we were on a cycle path along the river Po, neatly avoiding most of the bicycle-unfriendly crap you usually have to navigate on the outskirts of a city.
The path, as you can see, is extremely narrow and now and then vicious dogs would unexpectedly hurl themselves at a gate or fence right next to you, causing you to swerve (and swear) violently. Someone might have ended up in the river, but luckily it was soon after lunch and nerves were blunted by booze. In any case savage hounds aggressively expressing their primordial desire to kill and eat you is a thing that happens a lot in Italy so you might as well get used to it.
A flat, uneventful 40 km ride brought us to Racconigi, a small town with an enormous castle.
Apparently it dates back to the 16th century and was one of the Residences of the Royal House of Savoy. One of. Clearly the whole 1% thing has been going on for while.
Anyhow Racconigi is a friendly, funky little town with narrow back-streets and an abundance of bars. We picked the loudest and ordered aperitivi. You can’t order a drink in Italy without being served a huge plate of delicious bits of cheese and dried meat and shit which is great, the only downside being that it soaks up the booze and you are forced to drink more.
According to the Internet, Da Mose is best restaurant in town. It was a Thursday and they didn’t take bookings so we fretted about getting a table. Then we showed up to find it completely empty and fretted that the proprietors had written all 59 reviews on TripAdvisor and the place was in fact crap. Of course we fretted needlessly, it was ridiculously delicious, ridiculously friendly and (for a Londoner) ridiculously cheap.
We stumbled out into the autumnal October night expecting it to be chilly. Wrong. It was so warm that we went for some nightcaps on the terrace of a very groovy (in an old school stylee) bar.
Faced with an abundant choice of excellent wine James came over all Scottish and ordered some nasty blended Scotch.
We camped in a little wood next to a river on the edge of town, perfect in every way apart from the 10 trillion mosquitoes who ambushed us as we were putting up the tents.
James is now in a stable relationship with a very nice lady from Texas and prefers his own tent – no doubt so he can send dick pics to his paramour in privacy – thus I slept alone in mine. Turns out that sleeping alone in a nice roomy tent is one of those things, like expensive leather shoes and business class travel, that you get used to very quickly and it’s very hard to go back from.
We got up late the next morning to find the mosquitoes still partying hard. I guess when you’ve only got 3 days on this planet you want to make them all count.
Breakfast was standard Italian, which is to say apricot brioche and fantastic coffee. Brioche look like croissants but they’re heavier and stuffed with custard or apricot jam. As long as you don’t order one expecting a light fluffy croissant you will find them to be delicious.
We set off, James leading the way and navigating. I followed along behind lost in my thoughts; the scenery was flat, dull and very stinky. The stench of fertilizer from the fields was almost overwhelming. At least I assume it was fertilizer and not James’ arse.
Things livened up a bit when we rode through the town of Bra.
LOOK!!! It says Bra! Hilarious. How does anyone live there and not die of laughter?
From Bra we headed, still chortling, to the charming historic hilltop village of Cherasco. Charming and right at the top of a very fucking steep hill. Sweating and gasping like perverts in a playground we took in the sights then hit the local Osteria for beer and lunch.
There was a beer festival going on in Cherasco so the restaurant had a “beer menu”. Not a menu of beers, but a menu whose every dish included beer. It was, um, interesting. That’s beer risotto you see in the picture. It was by far the most disappointing thing I ate during the entire trip, and it was OK. James had Beeramisu for desert and again it was OK. But not great.
The wine – an Arneis – was however very cheap and very very drinkable.
On the way out of town, feeling fed, fresh and fruity (or drunk, depending on how judgemental you’re feeling) we spotted a car park full of beautiful souped-up little Italian cars and stopped to admire them
Thus far plenty of wine had been guzzled but not a single vineyard had been gazed at lovingly. All that changed halfway up a fairly endless hill on the way to Barolo, when after an hour’s climb we finally arrived at the top and were confronted with this:
Everything about this picture is perfect. Vines as far as the eye can see, a little town with a famous name nestled amongst them promising great things in abundance, and most importantly the whole shebang is downhill, below us. Free-wheeling at speed into Barolo is something you should stick onto your bucket list right now, if you’re daft enough to actually have one.
Within minutes we were comfortably ensconced on the terrace of a pretty little bar where we ordered a bottle of Rioja and…. no of course we didn’t.
James disappeared somewhere (probably to take more dick pics), so I took a short stroll and came across a vantage point from which to survey the surrounding hills, all of them covered with vines. Ancient tractors hauled trailers full of grapes down tiny winding roads, their old engines echoing across the valley. The whole scene had a timeless autumnal glow that, combined with the the harvest time aromas and wine flowing around my system induced a comforting reverie during which I whimsically pondered the notion that transience is permanence, a fleeting thought that fractured when I realised just how I badly needed a piss.
Then we had to get moving, a shame because Barolo is a definitely a place to linger, but we had to make Alba before dark. Next time we’re going to linger longer.
The road to Alba was downhill then flat, and jacked up on red wine, cheese and various cured pig products, we made easy work of it. Pretty much the first building we encountered on entering the town was an enormous municipal swimming pool with very hot showers. Sometimes it’s just too fucking easy.
I sort-of-knew-but-had-forgotten that Alba, apart from being the world capital of truffles, is also home to Ferrero, manufacturers of Nutella, Kinder Eggs and Ferrero Rocher, those nutty little chocolates the ambassador likes to spoil you with.
The smell outside the factory is like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I don’t even like Nutella that much (having binged on it as a kid), but the roasting hazelnuts (they use 25% of the entire global hazelnut production. Yes, global!) and melting chocolate together produce a smell that you want to take a bath in. We both went from zero to starving in about 15 seconds.
Finding somewhere to camp was quick and easy. Feeling like a couple of old pros we headed to the town piazza, picked a front row seat, ordered apero and set about interrogating the internet for the best place to eat truffles. After phoning half a dozen or so restaurants and finding them fully booked it dawned on us that the internationally famous annual truffle festival officially kicked off the next day. Not quite such old pros then.
We tarried on our terrace for long enough to watch a very cool procession of the local gentry dressed up in costumes hundreds of years old, flinging batons about, banging drums and blowing trumpets after which it was time to go meet Giles and his wife Noemie who had kindly driven him all the way down from Geneva to join us. No doubt truffles had something to do with her magnanimity. The restaurant we had finally found delivered. There were truffles galore. See for yourself.
To top off a great evening, the restaurant owner was fantastically and hilariously passionate. Every dish (there were many) and every bottle of wine (there were more) he brought to our table was accompanied by a 5 minute monologue accompanied by energetic gesticulation. He spoke no English (and why should he?) so we had only the faintest idea what the fuck he was on about, but it sounded great and it was good to know he cared so deeply. At the end of the evening the chef came by and spoke at us as well, beaming as we gave him the thumbs up.
We ended the evening on the terrace of a bar, about which no one really remembers anything and these photos don’t help, but we made it back to our camp site in the pitch dark AND put the tents up without anyone injuring themselves, before Giles and James set off to find the river and drink one last beer. Five minutes later I was having a piss watching bemused as they crashed about in the undergrowth waving a torch around, half a metre away from where I was standing.
The following morning when I asked James what the fuck they were playing at he replied: “We were trying to communicate with you”.
Morning dawned grey and murky and I showed up to breakfast to find Giles sitting outside a café staring glumly at his phone, seriously considering going home in the car with his wife because he was hungover and the weather forecast was predicting constant heavy rain. I explained to him that I am the luckiest man alive when it comes to not getting rained on whilst cycling and as long as he stuck with me he’d be OK but it didn’t seem to help.
On the other hand the look of withering contempt on his wife’s face when he mentioned riding home in the car with her did the trick and he decided to come along after all.
About two hours later, having ridden – mainly uphill – through endless beautiful rolling hills covered in grapes with not a drop of rain in sight, we rode into Barbaresco. Less than a minute after we’d sat down on a beautiful terrace under an awning it started to rain and it continued to rain as we consumed a bottle of Barbaresco and a large plate of meat and cheese, chatted, rested our weary limbs, admired the view and laughed at the tall and outrageous surgically reconstructed blonde at the next table.
Then, as we were preparing to leave, it stopped raining.
The remaining hills were dealt with easily enough, enveloped as we were in a comfortable haze of booze, salt and fat, and then it was the flatlands and a 35 km tear into a little town called Motta for a simple but unsurprisingly delicious lunch. This is the best thing about Italy: no matter where you wash up at meal time, in no matter what tip or shit-hole you find yourself, no matter what distressing run down clapped out dump is the only place to eat for miles around, the food is always delicious.
Not the best thing about Italy is that you will be cruising down some strada provinciale in the middle of day, miles from human habitation, and without fail you will pass one or many hookers in garish costumes shaking their booty at you or sitting on cheap plastic chairs chewing gum and playing with smartphones depending on how high they are. Soon after lunch we rode past one and I was pissed enough to think it would be perfectly OK to whip out my…
… camera and photograph her. It wasn’t OK. I was rewarded with a fuck you gesture and a mouthful of abuse. Fair enough. Dressing up in silly costumes and blowing smelly old truckers is bad enough without twats in hats on bikes pointing cameras at you. In any case the photo didn’t come out properly (or I wouldn’t post it).
Soon after lunch, still pretty pissed, we rode into Asti, home of the infamous (to the English) Asti Spumante, a cheap disgusting fizzy wine. Curious as to whether all Asti fizz is filthy or whether they just export the nasty stuff to the UK we stopped to try some. It was delicious. Yep.
We kept ordering more, and bearing in mind that we hadn’t really sobered up after lunch, got pissed and over-excited and made a series of bad decisions that three hours later would culminate in us cycling up the steepest hill in the world in the dark, exhausted, hungry and bonking furiously.
We left after trying to pay a pharmacy receipt (“Wow! 9 glasses of fizzy wine for €6, what amazing value!”) and being yelled at in the street by a confused angry barmaid, and by now were drunk enough to think that smoking cigarettes whilst cycling uphill would somehow be a good idea. Something to do with re-creating this fantastic old photo:
It did make for some amusing photos, but clearly those olden-time dudes were way harder than us modern day pansy-assed wimps because we immediately felt sick and had to throw them away.
We were headed to Castelnuovo Don Bosco, named after a Roman Catholic priest who died in 1888. Apparently he was quite a guy, as evidenced by the biggest, most pompous modern cathedral I have ever seen, built in his honour. I’m not sure he would have approved of it; by all accounts he was a down to earth guy who advocated against beating the bajeezus out of children at school because apparently they learn better when they’re not scared shitless. It took a hundred or so years for his ideas to catch on but we got there in the end.
On arriving in the New Castle of Father Wood the three of us were totally knackered and in the middle of full blown meltdowns. James checked straight into the nearest hotel, Giles and I went to find a beer and a shower. A kind lady at the local sports centre gave us a beer and told us she’d have happily let us use the showers but the guy with the key had left 10 minutes ago and wasn’t coming back. Bollocks.
It was cold and damp and the last thing either of us wanted was a cold shower but it was that or nothing and we were disgustingly sweaty. So Giles rigged up his portable shower, filled it with freezing cold water and was about to take the plunge when it dawned on me that James was 50 metres down the road in a hotel room. With a hot shower. Duh.
I have fantastic but non-specific memories of the evening that followed. I have no idea what we ate and drank but I know it was a hell of a feast, and we must have left an enormous tip because it ended with a friendly waiter giving us glass after glass of delicious hazelnut liquor and Giles tried to buttrape James while he was distracted.
And for some reason there was a very cool motorbike outside the men’s toilets.
Giles and I camped on the edge of a field and awoke from the sleep of the dead (woken by the sound of not one, not two, but three church bells all ringing simultaneously) to find that we were camped on a football field surrounded by houses. Luckily it was Sunday morning in Italy and everyone was (presumably) in church.
Breakfast was delicious and included a large tub of home-made ice cream, or gelato as the Italians, and now for some reason the Americans, call it. The road was flat, it was sunny, and a pleasant and uneventful morning’s ride got us into Turin in time for lunch. Pausing to piss in a public park and get shouted at by some racist old Italian crone we found ourselves a promising looking restaurant in the centre of town, sat down under an awning, and it started to rain.
The route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/6273598