The Smaller Cities
To be honest, while country-side is nice, and beautiful and all around fantastic, I’m a city guy, and a secondary city guy. Like the Krakow’s of the world, Italy has a bunch of smaller cities that are smaller, more intimate and more colorful than the usual Giants (Rome, Milan, Florence, Venice, Naples). On this trip, we spent quite a bit of time in Parma, Alba, Cherasco and Turin. Two are at least secondary cities, in Parma and Turin. Alba is a tertiary city, somewhat the size of Queretaro, the city I worked in when I was in Mexico. Cherasco is basically a rural outpost, a true rural town. All were differing levels of special.
Parma was the first, and the place where the vacation really started in earnest. It’s a nice little see, easily walkable, with enticing alleyways with various levels of debauchery and decorative stores. Our hotel was actually a set of apartments built close to the main square, and main church (the Duomo – every town in Italy has a Duomo). From there is a small lane leading to the real main square, Piazza Garibaldi, where another small lane leads off that, Str. Farini. It was Str. Farini that became my pre-dinner and after-dinner home. It was a winding lane that mixed mid-scale to above-mid-scale stores with a slew of bars with indoor and outdoor seating. My Dad and I shared a beer at one place before dinner while my Mom and Sister shopped, and afterwards, my sister and I returned for a night on the town.
The first place we went was one of the first locations on the alley. It was a small bar that served wine and a really interesting beer selection – somewhat of a rarity in Italy – and had outdoor tables that were actually just barrels. It was a perfect little setting, something that may be either lost in anonymity or overcrowded and painful in a large city. Instead, it was a perfect place to drink while the calm wind blew through. After, we went to a bar further down the street and settled in for the night. A few hours later, we had retreated inside, where the Indian bartender/waiter gave us a free pizza and a free round of drinks because we were Indian. I’m not saying that is the reason I like small Italian towns – but that’s a pretty darn good reason.
Alba was a city that had all the elements of normal small-to-medium-town Europe. It had a few picturesque squares and lanes, indoor/outdoor cafes, a lot of green, and a giant center-city market where local vendors sold everything from (a lot of) salumi y formaggi, to fruit, to honey, to raw fish. The market was our first stop, right before we headed out of Alba to the wineries. We got our lunch from there (salumi y formaggi on fresh bread – simple, but tasty), and all the while going from vendor to vendor, tasting a little bit of their offering. We returned to Alba after the wineries, looking to see a different part of the city before heading to our hotel.
When we returned to Alba we parked in one of Italy’s many underground city-center garages, and walk around looking for Aperitivo, an afternoon tradition in Northern Italy, where one goes to one of the many, many cafes or bars, orders a drink and then gets pilloried with appetizers. These appetizers vary by place (and by price, the standard set comes free with the drink, the more expanse – some are basically buffets – come with a small charge above the drink), but are generally the normal Italian meal starters, bruschetta, salumi and other cured meats and formaggi. I have no idea the name of the place we went to, but on a reasonably warm, calm day, we sat outside, drank a drink each and then dug in to their plate of food.
The rest of Alba was a walk down lanes with shops of all kind, including a massive two-story shop that sold truffles, and a store that sold everything from chocolate confectionary, to pasta, to wine. These little charming stores are always more authentic, more price-sensitive and more quaint in the smaller cities than, say, Rome. We spent way too much time at these stores, making us get late enough that we decided to go to our resting spot for the night, and easily the smallest place we went to, Cherasco for dinner.
Cherasco is a small town, a town smaller than the one where I live in New Jersey. But unlike my town which is rows upon rows of suburban neighborhoods, Cherasco finds time to mix in some charm between the 8,000 people that live there. The main city is essentially a 10x10 block of streets, with ornate gates on either side. The city is up on a hill, but is isolated up high. We were there on a Saturday night, and despite the fact that there were cars everywhere, lining every street, it was hard to find anyone actually there. The stores were closed, the restaurants empty. We were searching for a place to have dinner among the common-folk, but that presented a challenge. After a while, we just stopped someone who looked like they spoke English and asked where we could get some good pizza. He ended up leading us to a pizzeria, a small mom-and-pop joint, but a packed one.
It really seemed like all the people in those cars were in the two room pizzeria. We were given a table in the back, near the pizza oven. The menu was roughly 10 pages of pizza, fifteen to a page, all between 6-10 Euros. We chose three pizzas, a pretty impossible choice given the amount of options, and all three were varying degrees of good. One was a seafood pizza which was essentially just seafood on a pizza (not a bad thing), and the others were a normal meat and cheese, and a white pizza with parma prosciutto. The pizzas were all good, but the real highlight was the familial feel of the place. The chef was speaking to two patrons near us in Italian, but mentioned Brooklyn. That led my Dad to talk to him, and then it all kind of rolled from there.
First he explained on how his girlfriend (our waitress) studied in the US for a couple years, and that he hasn’t gone to New York, but goes to Munich for Octoberfest instead. Soon we let slip it was my Dad’s birthday the next day, and before we knew it, we had a dessert on the house, a cake on the house, and the gregarious pizza chef, with the restaurant close to shutting down, serving us all (including the two other patrons next to us) a limon liqueur to drink in my Dad’s honor. It was a great evening, something that fit a small, tiny town in Italy so well. Cherasco has some tourism presence in the relative sense, but they all seemed so interested in what we were about. Little did they know I was fascinated on what they were all about as well.
The final small(er) city was Turin, a city that is not really all that small. It is one of the five largest cities in Italy, the home of the Italian car industry, and home of Juventus FC. We didn’t do anything regarding Juventus FC, but had a fascinating day walking (and walking and walking) around Turin. It was Easter Sunday, so we weren’t sure if anything would be open. When we drove up to right below the city center, almost everything was. Luckily, the first place we wanted to visit, a Gelato place, was very open and very good. While we walked closer to the true city center, the two main plazas, more and more things became open and the weather got better, revealing a really nice city.