Saturday, November 27, 2010

Mount Blanc Tunnel

Last Chance Pasta
Mont Blanc Tunnel - Pasta
After our two nights in Pontboset, it was time to head out of Italy to Switzerland, specifically, Morges (outside of Geneva). Morges is the European operations of Wild Dingo and it was time to pay tug. When we looked at routes from Pontboset to Morges, the quickest route is through the Great St. Bernard Tunnel, but people advised that us to not go through that route for snow reasons and to take the Mont Blanc Tunnel. The St. Bernard Tunnel is about 1500-1600 feet higher in altitude. So we opted for Mont Blanc since we weren’t pressed for time. The difference between the two routes was 15 minutes and about 25 miles so not a hard decision.

Both tunnels are named for nearby geographical features, the St. Bernard Tunnel for the Great St. Bernard Pass (at 8100 feet) and Mont Blanc Tunnel for Mont Blanc (at 15,782 feet). One of my favorite memories was a large postcard I received from my grandparents from the St. Bernard Pass featuring a St Bernard dog in laying a meadow of alpine flowers. I can remember that card like it was yesterday. The pass is named for Saint Bernard of Menthon who founded a hospice for travellers and used dogs for rescue that came to be known as St. Bernard.

Before entering the Mont Blanc Tunnel we stopped and parked and went into the rest area where we were confronted with a large display of pasta. Last stop for pasta before you go to France where pasta just ain’t pasta! We passed up the deal. We didn’t think Wild Dingo would need that much pasta. Besides, we were carrying a booty of fruit we got from Cascina Bringin (details).

Drilling for the Mont Blanc Tunnel was started in 1946 and opened to traffic in 1965. The tunnel is a single gallery with a single lane going in each direction. The Italian side of the tunnel is in Courmayeur, Aosta Valley and the French side of the tunnel is in Chamonix, Haute-Savoie. As you enter the tunnel you are given a card that can be attached to the rearview mirror and explains what you need to know to drive in the tunnel including distances between you and the vehicle in front of you (150 meters or 492 feet), speed limit, and what to do in case of fire. After the terrible 1999 fire incident in the tunnel it makes sense for drivers to pay attention to the warnings and understand what to do. But honestly, the “red” side of the informational card takes some time to decipher. Is it to be read as a continuous sequence of events or separate triggers for actions? Probably the latter. If smoke is coming out of a car, stop. If you turn off your car, put on the car’s hazard lights. If you see smoke coming out of a vehicle, stop at least 100 meters (328 feet) from it and flee. Flee to the nearest emergency chamber. Look at the card and decide for yourself. Also check out this article on improvements made to the tunnel.

Thankfully, we passed through the 11,611 meter (7,215 mile) tunnel with no incident. We exited into a snowy Chamonix and made our way to Morges, but not before a surreal lunch in Annemasse France where all our French escaped us and we could only mutter in Italian.

Approaching Mont Blanc Tunnel on the Italian Side
Approaching Mont Blanc Tunnel - Italian Side
Mont Blanc Tunnel Entrance – Italian Side - 12:05pm
Mont Blanc Italian Side

View Back over Courmayeur, Italy
Courmayeur View from Mont Blanc Reststop
Inside the Mont Blanc Tunnel – Heading Toward France
Inside Mont Blanc Tunnel
Exiting in Chamonix, France
Chamonix France, Exiting Mont Blanc Tunnel
Mont Blanc Tunnel Information Card
Mont Blanc Information CardMont Blanc Information Card

Friday, November 26, 2010

Two Nights in Pontboset, Valle d’Aosta

Pontboset Bridge

Le Moulin des Aravis

We were staying in Mondovì, Piemonte and our next major stop was in Morges Switzerland (outside of Geneva) and we wanted to get one hike in the Valle d’Aosta region. What to do? So we poked around a bit and found the Le Moulin des Aravis in Pontboset (Fraz Savin) on the Torrent Ayasse. We arrive at Le Moulin after a little trial and error (okay, a lot, it was dark) and we get situated. It's cold outside – or maybe it isn’t and we are not used to it? The owners Piera and her husband Mauro are busy making sausages in the kitchen with their son and some friends. The air smells like mustard. We have a dinner reservation for 7:30 at the restaurant. It looks like we'll be the only folks here. Before dinner, we get on line - good connectivity here in the midst of the mountains. We could live here. 7:30 comes and there is our table set for two and the table set for the family and friends for six. Piera serves us and it is all wonderful. We start with hot, stewed castagna (chestnuts) served with pads of butter. Piera then sneaks us an ample taste of the raw filling (beef) for one of the sausages, with some pepper and other spices added – piccante and delicious. For the primo, we have risotto with wild mushrooms (called chiodini - nails) and parsley and blue berries and it tastes good. For a secondo, we have pork and roasted potatoes, followed by a sampling of cheeses – all local of course. A dessert of apple strudel that was staring at us all through dinner is next and then some after-dinner drinks and then to bed. Wow, what a great welcome. Simple food, well done.

Hike Overview

Our intended hike for the only full day in the area is to the Santuario di Retiempo. After breakfast at Le Moulin we set off for the hike that starts about 3 km down the road in Pontboset town. (The frazione or neighborhood of Savin where the B&B is located is part of the commune.) In Pontboset there are two public parking areas, one at each end of the town. We find parking easily – but then again we are very off season.

The hike from Pontboset is about 6 km (3.7 mi) round-trip. The elevation change was about 702 m (2,303 ft). We started at 784 m (2,572 ft) and ended up around 1486 m (4,875 ft). We leave the car at 10:30am. The hike in the beginning is steep but dry as we follow an old mule trail which then merges into a narrow road. In the middle of the hike as we gain some altitude and the sun shifts in the sky it becomes sunny and warm. Toward the end of the hike it becomes more difficult as we are hiking in snow up to our knees and we are not equipped. Jeans frozen and feet cold but we reach the sanctuary. We relax and eat lunch for about 30 minutes. For lunch we snack on many things we’ve accumulated in the last few weeks including some sweets from Cascina Bringin consisting of rice paper sandwiching caramelized nuts and honey – named after for a saint whose name escapes us.

The Santuario di Retempio was closed (it closes in late September). That is always the Travelmarx style: visiting on off hours and nobody around, but we prefer it that way usually. We head back and arrive in Pontboset (or Pont Bozet) at 3:30pm. The town is deserted on this weekday afternoon. Stone houses clustered together with those big flat stones for the roof, clinging to the hillside. In the steep mountain areas here the position of the sun is so critical to what you experience. We see on the north side of mountains that seem to get no or very little sun in the winter. Note to self: pick a village on the south side.

Le Moulin des Aravis Near the Torrent Ayasse

Bridge in Pontboset

Near the Start of the Hike Retempio Hike

View from the Hike – Near Crest

Looking Back and Down on Pontboset


Along the Hike

Steps Up to the Santuario

The Santuario

The Santuario Up Close

View form the Santuario

Description of the Mountain Ranges to the North

View Northwest into the Valley and Strada Regionale di Champorcher

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Savoy Castles (Casa Savoia)

Castello Racconigi
Castello Racconigi

The House of Savoy (Casa Savoia) grew from a small noble, family in the 11th century, with land holdings west and north of Torino (Savoy region), to rule the Kingdom of Italy from 1861 until the end of World War II. The dynasty relocated its residence in the late 15th century to Torino where it remained until the unification of Italy. It is around Torino that the Savoy refurbished old castelli and constructed new ones, described as “delizie e capricci”.

In 2002 on a previous trip, we were in Torino and were able to visit the Palazzo Reale and Palazzo Madama. During this trip we saw three more Savoy residences, two intimately and one from outside. The first we saw on this trip was Castello Racconigi. While we were staying in Mondovì, we took a trip to see Racconigi. We were the only ones on the last tour of the day. Unfortunately the gardens were closed which would have been wonderful to see. (The downside of off-season travel.) Inside there was a lot to see, historical features of the castle mixed with contemporary installations. A very nice guide, Nanni, answered all our questions as he showed us around and listened to our bad Italian!

As we made our way from Mondovì to Pontboset in the Valle d’Aosta, we stopped at the Palazzina di caccia di Stupinigi but it was closed for restoration. So, we saw it only from the outside. Luckily, we just had to go a few more minutes north to reach the Castello di Rivoli. Rivoli is fun because of the outstanding contemporary art museum that is located inside the old residence, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea del Castello di Rivoli, and the strange unfinished bits of the structures that make up the complex. Castello di Rivoli is a great place to spend a half a day or more.

We must also mention the Savoy residence, Castello di Govone, not because we visited it, but we drank an interesting 1971 Nebbiolo d’Alba, Castello di Govone recently that was given to us by relatives in Piemonte. It was delicious and as we made handy work of the bottle (back in Seattle) we were wishing we were back in Piemonte!

Palazzina di caccia di Stupinigi - In Restoration

Palazzina di caccia di Stupinigi - Details

Castello Rivoli - View Into Twilight

Castello Rivoli - Castle Structure

Castello Racconigi - Art Installation, Antlers
Installation in Castello Racconigi

Castello Govone Nebbiolo Wine
Wine - Castello Govone Nebbiolo

Cherasco – Good Chocolate and Good Food

Portici of Cherasco

Every time we come to Piemonte we stop in Cherasco for part of a day and always have a good time. (One of our great grandfathers was born here.) The center is quite square and compact (map) and easy to get around on foot. The layout of the town sure feels like it was once a Roman city, castra or colonia.

Food-wise, we have eaten twice at La Lumaca (The Snail) and it has been excellent. This time we tried Osteria La Torre which was very, very, very good. The owners, two brothers - one managing the front and the other the kitchen – spent some time with us chatting and sharing some secrets for their bonet. This was a Slow Food suggested osteria.

In the past, we’ve always made the mandatory stop to Pasticceria Ravera and this time as well it did not disappoint. The owner (the wife of a husband/wife team we believe) actually remembers us and who was with us the last year we were in. Amazing. And we can’t resist the baci di Cherasco (kisses of Cherasco). But, how could we have missed also Pasticceria Barbero nearby, established in 1881 and the creators of the baci di Cherasco? Now, there is just one more reason to come to Cherasco.

So what are baci di Cherasco? The Barbero web site say that the baci were developed by the namesake of the Pasticceria, Marco Barbero, who in the late 1800s and with a characteristic Piemontese ingeniousness and thriftiness was inspired to make use of the irregular hazelnut fragments left over from the making of torrone (nougat) by enrobing them chocolate. This is our liberal translation of "...fù un'ingeniosa parsimonia tutta piemontese a ispirare Marco Barbero, fondatore della pasticceria omonima, quando pensò di riutilizzare gli irregolari frammenti di nocciola rimasti sul tagliere dopo la composizione dei tronchetti di torrone. Presi questi frammenti di nocciola, pensò di amalgamarli con del finissimo cioccolato fondente..." The baci are 60% cacao and delicious. The hazelnuts are toasted in a wood oven before they take the chocolate plunge.

View from Cherasco

Santuario della Madonna del Popolo

Pasticceria Ravera

Pasticceria Barbero

Osteria La Torre Business Card

Start of Lunch at Osteria La Torre with Grissini

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mespilus germanica – Medlar Apple

Medlar Pomes Still on the Tree, Mondovì Italy
Nespola on the tree

One thing that stood out to us during our time in Piemonte this time were the nespola trees (English: medlar apple) – Mespilus germanica. We never really noticed them before but in this visit we saw them quite a bit. Some families we visited picked and stored them and served them as an after dinner treat. Likely they picked them after a hard frost to mellow the fruit, a process called bletting. From Wikipedia: “Once softening begins the skin rapidly takes a wrinkled texture and turns dark brown, and the inside reduces to the consistency and flavour reminiscent of apple sauce.” While sounding tasty, the medlar presents a confusing dilemma: it looks like it’s rotten when it’s best to eat! In fact, throughout history, the symbolism of the medlar has been associated with the tawdry side of life: rotten things or affairs, destitution, prostitution and wanton ways. Poor fruit.

One half of Travelmarx savored the taste of the fruit. The preferred method of eating them seems to be to grab them by one end (the sepal-end?) and squeeze the pulp into your mouth.

The Medlar apple was first described by Theophratus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC) in his Enquiry Into Plants (περι φυτων ιστορια). In Latin, Theophrastus’s book became known as Historia Plantarum. A version of Enquiry into Plants can be downloaded for free at the Internet Archive here. It is a translation published in 1916 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

According to the Universal Dictionary of the English Language, the genus name derives from the Greek mespile, the name of the medlar tree, which became mespilus in Latin? The Italian name, nespola, we would guess is a “corruption” of the Latin.

Nespola (Medlar Apple) as Served to Us After Dinner, Ceva Italy
Nespola, Medlar apple at Caterina's Dinner

A Nespola Tree, Mondovì Italy

Grotta di Bossea

Grotta di Bossea Ursus spelaeus

Grotta di Bossea (Cave of the Bear) is a cave located south of Mondovì about 25 km (0.5 hours). From Mondovì you follow winding roads and pass through small towns to end up in the commune of Frabosa Soprana and from there just follow the signs to the Grotta (map location). We arrived for the 3pm tour and were the only ones on the tour.

The Grotta di Bossea is a river cave and karst cave. The volume of water moving through the cave is incredible. The itinerary takes you through narrow passages and large open spaces until you get to La Cascata, the waterfall at the farthest reach of the cave you can visit.

The cave was first opened to the public in 1874. A scientific research station has been functioning in the cave since 1964. Just when we thought we were alone with the tour guide, we suddenly we came upon the research station and the researchers busy about their work. It’s a working cave.

An Ursus spelaeus (cave bear) skeleton is on display in the main gathering area in the cave called the Salone dell’Orso. The species name refers to the fact that the fossils of the bears are typically found in caves. The skeleton, if we heard the guide correctly, is a composite of many bones found in the cave. The first bones were discovered in 1865 and it is probable that the bones making up the skeleton are from bears that died during hibernation.

The tour of the Grotta di Bossea was more satisfying than the tour of the Grotte di Castellana a few weeks earlier in Puglia. At Bossea, there was just two on the tour with a guide. So it was a much more personalized experience. Beyond that, the guide at Bossea provided more hard information about the nature of the cave, how it was formed, how it’s changing, and what will likely happen in the future. At Castellana, by contrast, there was little hard information given on the tour about the cave. Another cool thing about Grotta di Bossea is that they have art work installed at various places in the cave. Most of the art work is as you walk into the cave.

Grotta di Bossea Salone dell'Orso
Grotta di Bossea, Salone dell'Orso

Grotta di Bossea Formations
Grotta di Bossea Formations

Grotto di Bossea Brochure
Grotta di Bossea Brochure 1
Grotta di Bossea Brochure 2

Grotta di Bossea La Cascata

Grotto di Bossea Concert Area