Southern & Eastern Piedmont
Gourmets get ready to indulge: the rolling hills, valleys and townships of southern and eastern Piedmont are northern Italy's specialist pantry, weighed down with sweet hazelnuts, rare white truffles, Arborio rice, delicate veal, precious cheeses and Nebbiolo grapes that metamorphose into the magical Barolo and Barbaresco wines.
A once-powerful city-state – its centre sported over 100 towers – Alba is considered the capital of the Langhe and has a big city confidence and energy while retaining all the grace and warmth of a small rural town. Alba's considerable gastronomic reputation comes courtesy of its white truffles, dark chocolate and wine.
Enveloped by thick, dark-green woodlands, tranquil Lake Orta (aka Lake Cusio) could make a perfect elopers’ getaway. Measuring 13.4km long by 2.5km wide, it’s separated from its bigger and better-known eastern neighbour, Lake Maggiore, by Monte Mottarone. The focal point of the lake is the captivating medieval village of Orta San Giulio, often referred to simply as Orta.
Just 30km apart, Asti and Alba were fierce rivals in medieval times, when they faced off against each other as feisty, independent strongholds ruled over by feuding royal families. These days the two towns maintain a friendly rivalry – workaday Asti sniffs at Alba's bourgeoning glamour – but are united by viticulture.
The Milky Way
Neither a chocolate bar nor a galaxy of stars, Piedmont's Milky Way (Via Lattea) consists of two parallel valleys just west of Turin that offer top-notch skiing facilities. The more northern of the two, Valle di Susa, meanders past a moody abbey, the old Celtic town of Susa and pretty mountain villages.
Bra & Pollenzo
Bra seems like a small, unassuming Piedmontese town, but as the place the Slow Food Movement first took root in 1986, it's also something of a gastronomic pilgrimage site. There are no supermarkets in the historic centre, where small, family-run shops are replete with organic sausages, handcrafted chocolates and fresh local farm produce.
This tiny, 1800-hectare parcel of undulating land immediately southwest of Alba knocks out what is arguably the finest vino in Italy. Yes, it's Barolo (after the eponymous village where it is produced), long hailed as the 'wine of kings' and currently the next big thing with Anglophone collectors.
A viticulturally inclinced village for at least four centuries, Barolo is far too deeply rooted in the soil and the seasons to have wine-snob attitude. The hilltop village is delightful enough itself to warrant a stroll; being able to taste its precious, aromatic wines in a relaxed and welcoming tasting room make visiting a sublime experience indeed.
Verbania, the biggest town on the lake, makes a good base for exploring the west bank. The town is strung out along the lakeshore and consists of three districts. Verbania Pallanza, the middle chunk, is the most interesting of the three, with a pretty waterfront and a ferry stop.
Orta San Giulio
There's a very northern Italian magic about Orta San Giulio, one of the prettiest old lakeside towns you'll find anywhere. Aside from its lovely architecture and tangle of narrow lanes – it's the kind of place that rewards aimless wandering – it also serves as the gateway to the lovely Isola San Giulio and is watched over by a forested hillside strewn with chapels.