Alba is pretty close to world-famous wine town Barolo. So when we decided upon Alba as a Grand Italian Sabbatical destination, we figured we should head out to Barolo. After all, Alba is pretty small and three days seemed like overkill. If we could rent a scooter, or something, we could probably have a nice wine enthusiast day trip.
I didn’t notice, when we talked about it, those many months ago, that the sky momentarily darkened.
We didn’t really make detailed plans for our trip; we knew where we would lay our heads at night, but not much beyond that. So when we got to Alba, we didn’t really think much of it. Maybe on the third day we could still rent a scooter, or something, and head out to Barolo.
I didn’t notice that, at that particular moment, all the birds in Italy cried out in anguish.
So it was that, on the second night in Alba, I wandered over to the tourist information center and asked about bicycles or scooters. “No problem,” the woman said, abandoning her eye of newt for a moment. She told me that we could rent a bicycle for about €15 (€30 for the two of us), or a scooter for about €60. Would I like to make a reservation that evening, or in the morning? I ran the options by Emily, and we decided upon a scooter. It would be, what, a ten kilometer bike ride through the foothills? Let’s make it easier on ourselves and go with the scooter. A wolf howled in the distance.
We returned to the woman, who was speaking backwards, with her eyes rolled up in her head. A two-seat scooter, with two helmets, for the day would indeed be about €60. Sign here, can I see your driver’s license there. Midway through the form, she left to help a woman buy some oven mitts. Seriously, that actually happened. I waited, and we eventually finished all the information. She faxed it to the rental place, and we were all set!
She smiled and bid us good evening.
“So… do I pick the scooter up here in the morning, then?”
“Oh no, the rental place is not in Alba.”
“Wait, what? Where is it?”
“Oh, it’s here,” she pointed to a seemingly-random location on a map of Italy. “It’s a couple kilometers away, not too far.”
Well, what a relief! Thank goodness I have such an abundance of transportation options already available to me, otherwise I might need to rent some sort of other option to- oh wait, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do!
I looked at Emily. “That’s going to be a bit of a walk.” Emily looked at me and blinked exactly once.
“Well, can we rent a bicycle to get us to the scooter?”
“Ok, let’s do that. Do you have two available?”
“You get them at the same place as the scooter, they are not here.”
I see. Well, I’ll just rent a bicycle to take me to the scooter rental shop. I’ll walk a couple kilometers to the shop, get on the bike, turn a slow circle in the parking lot, give the bike back, and pick up my scooter. That seems like a great plan.
“Ok, well how do we get to the rental shop? Is there a bus of some kind?”
“Public transportation is a good option.”
“Ok, where do I catch a bus? Here?” I gestured at a map of the milky way.
Not “yes.” “Sure.”
The conversation was clearly over, and we should just go away. Based on our train experiences, catching a bus shouldn’t be too bad. We went to dinner.
We got up early the next morning, so we could catch one of surely many buses that would be running. Emily had done a little Internetting the night before, but couldn’t find an online bus schedule. We hoofed it over to the bus station.
The bus station was as cheerfully built, and ebulliently-populated (not to mention staffed) as any bus station in the world. As every bus station in the world. Ignoring the stone golems feasting on rats and the shrieks of the recently-damned, we looked at the bus schedules.
“Hmm. Seems like there’s a only one bus that goes there. No wait, two!”
“Two whole bus lines? Wow, that’s-”
“No, two individual buses. Those are the only ones that run today.”
Yep. Buses run out there fairly regularly until 6 am. After that there are two: one at 13:00, and one running in the reverse direction at 18:00. Spectacular.
A bus to the rental shop only gets us part way — we would still have to get out to quaint wine town Barolo. Starting our journey at 13:00 was bonkers. We went back to the tourist office to just cancel this stupid thing.
“I was here last night, reserving a scooter. I’d like to cancel it, as there is no way to get it.”
“Just take a bus.”
“Yeah, that’s the thing. They only run at 13:00, and that wastes the day.”
She was perplexed, and shouted over at a colleague. Conversation ensued. The colleague printed all manner of documents off.
“You can catch the bus here, take this bus number, here is its schedule, an you can buy tickets on the bus but they will be more expensive. Go here, show them this, and buy tickets. They will be much cheaper. Ok?”
Whoa. Why couldn’t they have told us this last night?
We embarked on our adventure with hope renewed. We were early for the bus, so we had espressi and wandered an impromptu farmer’s market.
We caught the bus no problem. The tickets worked. So far so good. Now… where is our stop? We were vigilant as we eventually left the city. Here? No… here? No…
We jumped off the bus in the Italian equivalent of Three Hills, Alberta. I squinted. Yep. Probably the right place. I use a similar procedure when diagnosing engine troubles. Try it now.
Turns out, this was the right place! Woo! We walked down the street and found a tire shop that had the right address. I gathered my ability to order a bottle of wine, along with the rental form, and stalked into the tire shop.
I showed the form to a woman who spoke no English, and she took me to a guy who was tremendously helpful, despite not knowing much English himself. He brought over a scooter and showed me the basics. Looking back on it, it’s incredible that they let us have a scooter. Two people who can barely speak? Yep, here you go!
We got on, and I gently gunned the throttle. Then less gently. Yep, the kickstand was still down. Disembark. Disengage kickstand. Clumsily re-mount. Almost fall over, because the scooter is surprisingly heavy and wants nothing more than to be lying on its left side. And away!
We gunned it through the chicanes, feeling the exhilaration of speed as wind whipped around us. I looked down at the speedometer. We were going 30. Oh.
With more throttle applied, we roared off through wine country — no doubt annoying the locals with the the growl of our majestic engine.
Let me point out that I am fully aware that we were riding a scooter. This is essentially a toy. Babies in Italy earn their chops by drinking wine and riding scooters. In a completely unrelated vein, I am all that is man. I cage-fight bulls when I am not rescuing damsels in distress. I drink petrol and snort adrenaline.
Now that all that is out of the way, riding a scooter is a little scary. Stop laughing. Stop laughing now.
One, it goes faster than a bicycle. Two, it’s still open-air like a bicycle. Three, you are driving in Italian traffic (even though it was a mostly-deserted countryside). Four, the thing has a turning radius akin to lunar orbit. Five, it is important to not kill your Emilys. Six, it’s probably best to not even injure your Emilys.
Also the front wheel squeaks. But we made it! The rental shop was about halfway between Alba and Barolo, so we only had about 7 km of driving/scooting. It was a lovely little ride through the various hilltop vineyards en route to Barolo.
We had heard that Barolo was a pretty small town — that a person could walk all the roads in about a half hour — so we were looking forward to killing some time in the wine museum. Luckily that’s also where the tastings were being held.
We walked past a restaurant that was cooking up something that smelled wonderful. Beef and onions and garlic, mmm. It wasn’t due to open for a while, but that was ok — we had to hit the wine museum!
The museum is located in a huge castle in the middle of town, so it wasn’t hard to find. When we got there, though, the gates were closed. Odd. Perhaps it, like the restaurant, just opened up at 12:30. Nearby was a shop instructing how to buy tickets, but it too was closed. How weird! There was even a sign on the wall saying that it opened at 10:30, except for Thursdays. It was closed on Thursdays. IT WAS CLOSED ON THURSDAYS? IT WAS THURSDAY!
You know, had we done the slightest bit of research, this would have worked out a lot better.
We wandered the town, trying to find something open. We eventually found a little wine bar, so we settled in. It was too sunshine-y for a big Barolo just yet, so we tried some Arneis Cru. Outstanding! Perfect acidity and floral overtones — just right for a patio on a sunny day.
The waitress, Carrie Doll’s Italian doppelgänger, brought out a tray of breadsticks, meat, and cheese. Emily and I happily sat a while.
By the time we were done, it was time for lunch! We walked to the terrific-smelling restaurant and sat down. We shared a half-bottle of Rocche Costamagna Barolo — the funk on the nose of it! Wow! What a strange-smelling wine! I was driving, so I had to curtail my imbibing. Emily soon got over her disappointment in having to take down the majority of the bottle.
We had raw sausage for an appetizer, and it came with a beautiful pesto sauce and some fresh tomato. Emily followed it with a Barolo risotto (the funk on the wine pairing perfectly with the cheese in the risotto), and I had pappardelle with wild boar sauce. Both were tremendously good, though I give a slight edge to Emily’s risotto.
After lunch we continued to wander, but soon it was time to ride off into the hills once more. We went a little further south before heading back north to Alba — putt-putting our way through more winding vineyards. The view was spectacular, or so Emily claims.
We got back in one piece, despite my desire to sideswipe a parked Fiat during a particularly-daring left turn, and we bused back to Alba.
Despite the initial complications, it was a gorgeous day trip out amongst the vines. A scooter is about the perfect way to get around, and we’ll rent one for a couple days next time, so that we can head out to other surrounding towns like Asti or Barbaresco.