When traveling abroad, my wife, Nina, and I prefer to explore new terrain on foot. On a visit to the wine country in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy last summer, we left our rented car behind, strapped on light knapsacks, and set off into the vineyards.
By Sol Hurwitz
When traveling abroad, my wife, Nina, and I prefer to explore new terrain on foot. On a visit to the wine country in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy last summer, we left our rented car behind, strapped on light knapsacks, and set off into the vineyards. We were an hour’s drive southeast of Turin in an area known as Langhe, which abounds in rolling hills, stunning landscapes, and grapes that produce Italy’s legendary Barolo and Barbaresco wines.
Our base was Serralunga d’Alba, a tiny hilltop village in Langhe’s fertile center, where the vineyards appear as vast amphitheaters carved by roads and paths into a variety of geometric shapes. Before the age of asphalt, these old service roads and ancient forest pathways were the only route to nearby villages for shopping, attending Mass, or visiting family and friends. Today, thanks to a newly charted 75-mile network of trails, hikers can ramble from vineyard to vineyard and village to village, viewing the land from a wine grower’s perspective.
Our hotel was Serralunga’s Antica Podere Tota Virginia, which offers rapturous views of vineyards in all directions and, on a clear day, the Alps and Mont Blanc. The hotel was conveniently located in Baudana, a frazione or settlement of the Serralunga commune, and only a quarter of a mile north of a trail through the vineyards to Serralunga’s town center.
The next morning we headed to Serralunga, some two miles away. A short distance beyond the Giovanni Rosso winery, a red and white trail marker pointed to a path of chalky, clay-like soil. Surrounded by rows of neatly trimmed vines with clusters of red and green grapes, we began an uphill climb that leveled off at a bed and breakfast amid the vineyards of Germano Ettore, one of Serralunga’s largest wine producers. After about 20 minutes the trail merged with the main road at the Germano Ettore winery in the frazione of Cerrata.
We stopped at the winery and were greeted by Sergio Germano, a fourth generation owner, who gave us a tour of his cellars and an explanation of the winemaking process. “The quality of Langhe’s soil largely determines the character of its wines,” Sergio explained. Noticing we were hikers, he observed that, “your boots are touching the source of Langhe’s proud winemaking tradition.” On view were fermentation tanks, barrels for aging, bottling machines, and countless bottles of wine. “Serralunga’s soil contains limestone and clay and is the oldest soil in the area,” Sergio said, “so the red wines—Barolo, Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo—are strong and tannic, with a spicy balsamic flavor.” A tasting fully confirmed Sergio’s description.
Continuing past a cemetery with tombs engraved with names of Serralunga’s leading wine producing families, we turned off at Parafada, a frazione a few hundred yards downhill on the right. A marker signaled a trail to Serralunga, but it was blocked by a rope barrier. Our only choice was to continue uphill on the main road, which soon offered striking views of Serralunga’s distinctive 14th century castle and the steeple of St. Sebastian church. We meandered through the narrow streets of this charming town, poking into stores for drinks and snacks, and relaxed on the castle grounds with a picnic lunch before hiking back to our hotel.
For day-trekkers who want an easy-to-moderate hike of several hours or more, the trails of Langhe are ideal, and the vistas are magnificent. But trail markings appear to be a work in progress. There were signs at the beginning and end of trails but few in between, so we sometimes found ourselves caught in a seemingly endless vineyard maze. Still, there were always paved roads or landmarks visible from the vineyards to guide us to our destination. In fact, navigating through the vineyards became a game for us, part of the charm and challenge of exploring on foot.
Every evening from the terrace of our hotel we watched the setting sun with the picturesque hilltop town of Castiglione Falletto aglow in the distance. We decided that Castiglione, about two miles away, would be our destination for the next day’s hike. We entered the trail at Parafada and this time continued straight downhill on a dirt road into the valley lush with apricot and pear trees. Window boxes with clusters of red and white petunias adorned the houses and an old wine press overflowed with red poppies.
As we descended, we were relieved to find a blue and white marker pointing in the direction of Castiglione. A narrow, rocky path, shaded by overhanging trees, curved and sloped steeply downward. After a half hour, we emerged into the open sun and had our first glimpse of Castiglione. There were no trail signs, but we spotted a paved road and headed in that direction. After hacking through a field of maize and crossing a tiny stream, we reached the road. Castiglione was clearly visible on the right. A vineyard worker, stopping to rest, asked where we had hiked from. When we told him Parafada, he said in disbelief, “A piedi da Parafada? E’complicato!”
We soon arrived at a trail sign pointing toward a steep dirt road to the town. On either side were vineyards in profusion. Looking back, we had a breathtaking view of the valley and the ridge where we had started, with Baudana, Parafada, and Serralunga on the horizon. Wandering through the stone arcades of Castiglione, we approached the castle, where a Roman stone embedded in its walls indicates the presence of a settlement as early as the 1st century A.D.
We ate lunch on the terrace of Il Torri restaurant overlooking the Monprivato. Scarrone, and Cavallotto vineyards and sipped a heavenly Monprivato Barolo, while we savored the splendid views of the vineyards and the Langhe towns of Roddi, Verduno, and La Morra.
It was our last day in Langhe, and we were eager to return to Serralunga for the 2 p.m. castle tour. Luckily we met hikers who were driving there, so we arrived just in time. Built in the style of a French donjon, the castle dates from the 14th century, and its great hall has mid-15th century frescoes depicting the Martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria. The tour ended at the top of the tower with sweeping views of the vineyards. We left this remarkable area pleased that we had traveled its pathways, as wine growers had for centuries, on foot.
If you go. . .
Major airlines fly nonstop from JFK to European destinations with connecting flights to Turin. High season economy fare: about $1,350. It’s a one-hour drive from Turin to Serralunga d’Alba.
Where to stay
Antico Podere Tota Virginia, Località Baudana, 69. Serralunga d’Alba, 39. 0173 61 3026, www.totavirginia.com. The hotel, named for Virginia Ferrero, a 19th c. wine producer and feminist, has a restaurant and garden pool and vineyard vistas. Doubles from about $170.
Where to eat
La Rei, Strada Roddino, 21, Serralunga d’Alba. 011-39- 0173-61-3042,
www.ilboscaretoresort.it. Located in the Il Boscareto Resort & Spa with an exquisite setting for outdoor dining. Entrees from about $35.
Al Castello, Via Castello, 5, Grinzane Cavour. 011-39-0173-262172, www.castellogrinzane.it. Located in the town’s massive 14th c. castle, which also offers wine tastings. Entrees from about $30.
Le Torri, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, Castiglione Falletto,10. 011-39-0173-62849. www.ristoranteletorri.it. Entrees from about $20.
What to see
Barolo Wine Museum, Castello Communale Falletti, Barolo. 011-39-0173-38-66-97. www.wimubarolo.it Worth a detour. Offers a self-guided tour of the history, culture and traditions of wine making. Trail map on sale at the bookstore next door ($8.00). Open daily except Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Serralunga d’Alba Castle, Open for tours Monday, Thursday, and Friday, 2-6 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday, and holidays, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. 011-39-0173-35833, www.castellodiserralunga.it
Alba Bra Langhe & Roero Tourist Board, Piazza Risorgimento, 2, Alba. O11-39-0173-35833, www.langheroero.it
Trekking in Langhe, Fraz. San Rocco Seno d’Elvio, 2. Alba. 011-39-0173-366734. www.trekkinginlanga.com.