The Italy You Might Not Know

Calissano-1

SAVONA, Italy — One of the Costa Diadema’s regular stops as it circles the Mediterranean week after week is this northern Italian port. It may be a part of the country that you wouldn’t choose to visit…until you’ve been.

Then you’d be back.

To be fair, it’s mostly European vacationers who would choose to visit Savona, to lounge on its beaches and bask in its warmth. Cruise visitors are more inclined to go inland from Piedmont-1Liguria (where Savona is) to Piedmont (or Piemonte), especially at this time of year, which is what we do on a Diadema shore excursion.

First stop: La Morra.

This is where the Famiglia Marrone winery is, and it’s still early in the day — “Second breakfast,” says Giorgio Nigra, our guide. This is barolo country and, according to Italians Marrone-1who call it the king of wines and the wine of kings, it’s among the most expensive reds in the world. What makes this “famiglia” unique is that it’s now operated by three women (Denise, Serena and Valentina), great-granddaughters of the winery’s patriarch, Pietro Marrone. And they’re not just administrators…they make the wine, too.

Also unique is that the wines for tasting include some of their best, at no charge, and are accompanied by truffles, one of the  more expensive accoutrements you’ll find in a winery. If it weren’t for the weight of wine in suitcases they’d sell more than they do to these North Marrone-2American tourists. Ninety per cent of Marrone wines are exported throughout the world. A visitor would have to stumble on this outstanding winery in its picturesque setting without the benefit of a cruise shore excursion.

Second stop: Barolo.

While it bears the name of the king of wines, this is but a map dot in Piedmont. Population: 739, on a normal day. It’s a quiet place then, with a corkscrew museum (who knew there were 700 kinds?) and a few shops and patisseries. Abnormal days are usually the weekends, as this pretty village is a retreat from the big cities that are within reach, such as Turin. Bizarre days are when the annual Collisiono Festival comes to town in the summer. The roads are closed. Buses bring concert goers from Alba. Residents of Barolo rent out every space they can find because space is limited.

The Festival is held in a natural amphitheater, colorful hillsides of grapes on all sides. Admission is about 80 euros and sitting is optional…wherever you can find a place. Tickets go on sale a year in advance and sell out in minutes to people near and far. Artists who have performed here include Elton John and this year’s line-up includes Mark Knopfler and Sting.

Nutella-1Last stop: Alba.

This is the home of Nutella, and has been for almost 70 years and those who have tasted the hazelnut chocolate agree: There is Nutella, and there is Nutella. The Italian version is different from the German one, which is different from the American one, which is much sweeter than them all. This is a sad time in Nutellaland, not many days after the man who created the multi-national business that includes Kinder Eggs and Tic Tacs, Michelle Ferrero, died at the age of 89.

We find a great spot to have cappuccino — in Italy aren’t all cappuccino spots great? — Antico Caffe Calissano, while walking through “downtown” Alba. Of the churches that we pass, the 900-year-old Cathedral of San Lorenzo is the most intriguing, with a facade that features carvings of an angel, a lion, a bull and and eagle. You don’t need to be a student of architecture to figure out the significance: Angel, Lion, Bull, Aquila (Italian)…spells ALBA. The entire cathedral isn’t nine centuries old, of course. It was restored most recently just a couple of hundred years ago.

The trip from Savona to Alba takes you from sea level to the sights of the mountains that attracted the Olympics to Turin in 2006, from summer landscapes to snow, fromPiedmont-2flatlands to hillsides that yield different colors every day. And when Costa’s cruise people tell you it’s a “day” trip it is just that, a full day.

And worth every minute.

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Holland America Amsterdam
7 nights
May 31, 2015
Seattle (return): Puget Sound, Tracy Arm, Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, Victoria
Inside: $545
Cost per day: $77
www.hollandamerica.com

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