From Piemonte to Milan on rails

You don’t have to travel to experience great things, but sometimes it helps. Especially if you travel to Italy. Our travels took us to Milan, Torino, Alba, Asti, Barolo, Bra, Neive and Lake Como.

Alba, the capital of the hilly Langhe area in Piemonte, stole our hearts. If I had to summarise why with one word, it would be “family”. Alba has the feel of family at its best; of togetherness, of responsibility for each other, of warmth and acceptance.

In Alba only tourists sit with their eyes glued to their smart phones. The locals are out in groups of several generations enjoying person to person encounters instead of Facebook ones.

Luckily the locals still outnumbered the tourists in June.

Tourism is a big thing in Alba as well as in nearby towns such as Asti and Bra. Somehow Alba does it better. There is a natural feel to the helpfulness of the locals. They are not “in the service industry”, they are just very helpful – and proud of Alba and its surroundings.

The Alba Tourist Office can’t be praised enough. We visited the tourist offices of all the towns we traveled to. Alba was in a class of its own by far.

IMG_3933Alba, Piazza Risorgimento, Alba Tourist Office

Trips to wineries were arranged and reliable (and affordable) taxi services to nearby towns were procured with speed and efficiency. All this assistance was free of charge.

IMG_3833Neive, home of the Castello di Neive winery (among others).

In addition to the great wines and the many interesting wineries to be found nearby, the food in Alba is to die for. You can enjoy typical Italian fare in a cosy restaurant like Trattoria del Bollito or several Michelin stars worth of gourmet dining in Piazza Duomo.

IMG_3935Cosy dining in Trattoria del Bollito

IMG_3794Fine dining in Piazza Duomo

Suddenly the big bad world is far away.

All the things I have grumbled about, from Donald ‘Tweeting Twerp’ Trump to the downsides of air travel, amusement parks and the welfare state (to name a few), were forgotten.

Climate change could not be forgotten that easily, as the weather was uncommonly hot. The streets and piazzas in some of the photos above are empty due to the fact that the photos were taken in the afternoon. All sane people were inside having lunch and taking a nap.

If our 12 points (to coin the Eurovision song contest) go to Alba, our 10 points go to Milan.

We went to Milan in search of good architecture, first and foremost. We found it, despite the fact that none of our travel guides bothered to mention these sights even though they are well worth seeing.

If you are into architecture, don’t miss the CityLife and Porta Nuova developments. The former is best viewed by approaching it from the Amendola metro station, for Porta Nuova use the Garibaldi station.

IMG_4048CityLife. Residential buildings and business tower, both by architect Zaha Hadid.

CityLife is a project that revolves around three world-famous architects. In addition to Zaha Hadid, architects Arata Isozaki and Daniel Libeskind have both designed a residential area and a business tower each.

The project is a work in progress with the business tower designed by Daniel Libeskind and the residential area designed by Arata Isozaki still to come.  In addition, an underground shopping mall adjacent to the Tre Torri metro station (near the towers) will open in November.

It is already obvious that the works of the three architects will complement each other in a way that can best be described as inspiring and exciting.

Sadly my favourite architect, Zaha Hadid, just passed away at the top of her career. The world could use more residential buildings with the soft flowing lines that have become her trademark. I would love to live in one of them.

IMG_4394The UniCredit building at Porta Nuova, designed by Cesar Pelli.

Porta Nuova is a lively place, with many shops, restaurants and cafes to choose from, and the UniCredit building is majestic to behold. The renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto has scored his own Alvar Aalto plaza nearby.

All too often developments like these start off with big dreams and plans, only to be decimated into something uninteresting once the cost cutters get hold of the project. This has not happened (yet?) with these projects.

To continue with the points. We can’t give less than 9 points to the train and metro network in northern Italy.

The Trenitalia and Trenord trains we used to get from Turin to Alba, from Alba to Asti, from Asti to Milan and from Milan both to lake Como and Malpensa airport were always on time, very clean, and comfortable even in second class. The train stations in smaller towns can be run-down, but the trains arrive and depart on time without hassle.

The Milan metro proved to be the best way to move around Milan. Our two-day tickets allowed unlimited travel – and travel we did. If you decide to rent a car instead of trusting public transport, get rid of it before Milan.

Last but not least: The Lakes. The Lakes take a shared third place with 9 points too.

There are several to choose from, including Como, Garda and Maggiore. We chose Lake Como. We took the train to Como and the funicular up to Brunate and back to Como for great views. Then we jumped on the ferry to Bellagio, enjoyed the lake at its best, had lunch in Bellagio on a terrace facing the lake, took the ferry to Varenna, enjoyed the views, and the lovely cafe at the railway station. Finally we headed back to Milan by train again. All in one day, and at minimal cost thanks to the efficient public transport system.

As you can see from the pictures of Bellagio and Lake Como below, the weather can be quite changeable in the Como area. Despite this, Lake Como in all its splendour is a “don’t miss” sight.

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We had fun, we had sun, we had good food and great wines. What did we learn?

The difference between life in the smaller towns and in Milan is glaring. Big is not always better. In Milan the metro is full of people staring at their smart phones and rushing from one place to another.

The Como area is filled with tourists with smart phones held high, documenting the lake from all angles rather than just enjoying the scenery.

The trains and buses to and from Alba have a totally different feel. No one is in a hurry, there are no smart phones in sight (except mine). Life slows down.

In Alba there is still time for the really important things: family and friends.

While developments like CityLife and Porta Nuova are exciting and inspiring, and the small towns of Lake Como are as picturesque as they can be, one can’t help but wonder at the direction we are taking.

The phones may be smart, but are we?

In Alba there is still time and space to breathe –  together.