Traveller’s guide: Piedmont

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Steeped in local legend and fine food, this north Italian region is at its most evocative in autumn

There are many good reasons for visiting Piedmont, whose name translates as "at the foot of the mountain". The Alpine region that borders France and Switzerland in Italy's far north-west offers world-class museums and baroque architecture in Turin; an abundance of fine wine and food; superlative sport in the Alps. But there's one thing that sets the region apart, particularly at Halloween, and that's Turin's reputation for magic.

Even in a country such as Italy where each city has its own myths and mysteries, few places are as steeped in the supernatural as Turin. According to local legend, the city is divided into two halves: a white half that's linked to Lyon and Prague in a white magic triangle and a black half that connects with London and San Francisco to form a black magic triangle.

The white half is said to benefit from the positive energy that emanates from the Turin Shroud – in the Duomo di San Giovanni Battista – while dark forces gather around Piazza Statuto, the square that supposedly stands over the gates of hell. To learn more, Somewhere (00 39 011 668 7013; somewhere.it) runs magic-themed tours and the Museo della Sindone (00 39 011 431 9275; sindone.it; €6) at Via San Domenico 28 tells the story of the Shroud.

Magic apart, Turin is a dynamic and cultured city. Dating to Roman times, it owes much of its regal look to the Dukes of Savoy who ruled the city for 300 years and shaped it into their showpiece capital, complete with sumptuous palaces and elegant, porticoed piazzas. It was subsequently a centre of events during the Risorgimento and in 1861 became Italy's first post-unification capital.

Despite this distinguished history, Turin was largely shunned by visitors until relatively recently. It had a reputation as a dour industrial centre and few people knew much about it. But that began to change when it hosted the 2006 Winter Olympics and news started to spread that there was more to Turin than Fiat cars, Juventus football club and the Shroud. Some seven years on, tourism is thriving.

Of course, Piedmont's not all about Turin. The region is one of Italy's great gourmet destinations and its varied landscape provides fertile soil for an impressive array of local specialities: Castelmagno cheese, Giandujotti chocolates, Arborio risotto rice – almost two thirds of Italy's rice is grown on the wet plains around the communes of Vercelli and Novara – and, above all, Alba's white truffles. These pungent and eye-wateringly expensive tubers are sniffed out by dogs each autumn in the hills and woods of the Langhe and Roero, the region's culinary heartland where the Slow Food movement was founded and Italy's top wines are made.

At the other end of the region, near the Swiss border, lakes Maggiore and Orta have been charming visitors since the 18th century. The main resort on Lake Maggiore, the bigger and more dramatic of the two lakes, is Stresa. This is the elegant town where Ernest Hemingway set parts of A Farewell to Arms. Outside the tourist season (March to November) many of the area's principal attractions, such as Palazzo Borromeo (00 39 0323 30556; www.borromeoturismo.it), close for winter, but come on a cold, clear day and you'll be rewarded with memorable Alpine views.

Piedmont's mountains also provide wonderful sport. Many of the region's most popular resorts are in the Val Chisone and Val di Susa, two parallel valleys that run west from Turin up to the French border, but there's also excellent skiing and hiking in the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso (pngp.it) on the regional border with the Val d'Aosta.

Grand palaces

Lording it over Turin's Piazza Castello, Palazzo Reale (00 39 011 436 1455; ilpalazzorealedi torino.it; €12) was for centuries the seat of the Savoy court and the family's principal residence, with opulently decorated apartments and a royal armoury.

Nearby, Palazzo Carignano served as Italy's first parliament and today houses the Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento Italiano (00 39 011 562 1147; museorisorgimentotorino.it; €10), a fascinating museum that charts the epic story of Italian unification.

At the soaring Mole Antonelliana, you can immerse yourself in cinematic history at the Museo Nazionale del Cinema (00 39 011 813 8560; museocinema.it; €12). Another Turin must-see is the Museo Egizio (00 39 011 561 7776; museoegizio.it; €7.50), home to a renowned collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts.

Outside town in Venaria Reale, the Reggia Venaria Reale, (00 39 011 499 2333; lavenaria.it; €15), is the most spectacular of a series of Savoy palaces and hunting lodges, in the Turin hinterland.

Winter sports

Piedmont offers superb skiing. The region's premier resort is Sestriere, pictured. It's one of six resorts linked to the Via Lattea ("Milky Way"; vialattea.it) network. The others are: Sauze d'Oulx, Sansicario, Cesana, Claviere and, in France, Montgenèvre. A daily ski pass for the network costs €38. Other resorts include Bardonecchia and Limone Piemonte. Inghams (01483 371 206; inghams.co.uk) offers a week's half board at Hotel Roseo in Sestriere, from £1,014 including flights.

Pageants and parades

Celebrations are frequent features of Piedmont's cultural calendar, covering anything from food to medieval pageants and mass orange fights; the curtain goes up on the Turin Film Festival (torinofilmfest.org) on 22 November.

Alba's prized white truffle is currently starring at the Alba White Truffle Fair (www.fieradeltartufo. org) with events until 17 November and the global auction on 10 November; previous fairs have seen single tubers sell for over €100,000.

Other big foodie fests include CioccolaTo (cioccola-to.it), Turin's chocolate frenzy which kicks off on 22 November and the Salone del Gusto, pictured (salonedelgusto.it), Slow Food's biennial celebration of world food that's held in Turin every even-numbered year.

Lovers of pomp and pageantry will enjoy Asti's September palio (bareback horserace), while those with a taste for mayhem should head to Ivrea for the Battaglia delle Arance (Battle of Oranges). For three days in the run-up to Lent, traditional Piedmontese reserve goes out of the window as up to 3,500 citizens pelt each other with 400,000kg of oranges.

Regional tipples

Head to the hills of the Langhe region, pictured, for Piedmont's best wines. The best known are barbaresco and barolo, two big-bodied reds made from the nebbiolo grape, but aficionados will also enjoy dolcetto and barbera, both made in Alba and Asti. Asti is also known for its moscato d'Asti, a sweet bubbly white and Asti, the modern and superior incarnation of Asti spumante.

You can either book tastings at vineyards or visit a regional wine cellar such as Enoteca Regionale Cavour (00 39 0173 262 159; castellogrinzane.com) is housed in the castle at Grinzane Cavour where unification hero Count Camillo Benso di Cavour once lived.

For a different kind of drink, make for Turin's Caffè al Bicerin (00 39 011 436 9325; bicerin.it) for a bicerin, a concoction of coffee, chocolate and cream. Another 'Made in Turin' tipple is vermouth, which fuels the city's aperitif culture.

Where to stay

In Turin, the Hotel Residence Torino Centro (00 39 011 433 8223; www. hoteltorinocentro.it) offers great value-for-money and tasteful rooms in a renovated convent near Porta Susa train station. Doubles start at €102, including breakfast.

For touring Piedmont's foodie south, the Relais Sant'Uffizio, pictured (00 39 0141 916 292; relaissantuffizio.com) makes a good base. Set in the Monferrato hills near Asti, it is housed in a 16th-century monastery surrounded by vineyards and has classically attired double rooms that start at €110, including breakfast.

In the medieval village of Cannobio on Lake Maggiore's western shore, Hotel Pironi (00 39 0323 70624; pironihotel.it) is a small hotel that has lovely, antique-clad rooms in a converted 15th-century monastery. Double rooms start at €150, including breakfast.

Getting there

The obvious point of entry is Turin, which is served from Stansted by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com).

Alternatively, Genoa is served from Stansted by Ryanair and from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). Milan Malpensa is served from Edinburgh, Gatwick and Luton by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com); from Heathrow by BA; from Birmingham amd Manchester by Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com); from Bristol by BMI Regional (0844 4172 600; bmiregional.com); and from Cambridge on Darwin Airline (01223 851480; darwinairline.com). Milan Linate is served from Gatwick by easyJet, from Heathrow by BA and Alitalia (0871 424 1424; alitalia.com) and from London City by Alitalia.

By train, there's one change from the Gare du Nord (Eurostar) to the Gare de Lyon (TGV) in Paris for Turin.

Public transport is good but for touring the Langhe, you'll need a car. Try Maggiore (maggiore.it) at Turin airport.

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