Perched in the vineyards and forested Langhe hills of Italy's Piedmont -- about 40 miles southeast of Turin -- Monforte d'Alba is a quiet town of about 2,000 with steep, winding stone streets, overgrown vegetable patches and several crumbling, now-abandoned villas. It also happens to have a handful of fantastic restaurants and a couple of small romantic inns.
My wife and I spent a couple of days in Monforte d'Alba as part of an anniversary getaway in October and came away wishing that nothing would change.
During those two days -- in which we took walks in the woods, visited castles and vineyards in neighboring villages and spent a lot of time eating and drinking -- we saw not a single tourist bus or souvenir stand. Still, with the Olympic Winter games coming to Turin and the nearby Alps in 2006, some hope that this area will get a permanent boost in tourism.
We hope it doesn't last.
This is not the sunny Italy of olive trees, Mediterranean scents and boisterous tarantellas, but a more subtle northern retreat of mysterious morning fog, stands of enormous oaks, cedars and poplars, and a patchwork of hills that produce Italy's noblest wine, Barolo.
In October through December, the Langhe region and its main city of Alba focuses on the hunt and feasting on one of the world's most prized culinary commodities: white truffles that smell and taste like a perfect fall morning. In season these fragrant little devils are typically shaved as a seasoning over plates of pasta tossed in butter right at your table.
In Monforte d'Alba, the Villa Beccaris is the hotel of standing that accomplishes what few luxury-class hotels can -- being comfortable in its own skin and surroundings.
Deluxe hotels can be stuffy, charmless enclaves. Certainly it was odd driving through the modest agricultural countryside of the Langhe and arriving to see a guest's Bentley parked in front of the hotel. But despite an Old Europe clientele -- I counted two ascots worn by men -- the Villa Beccaris seems to strike a balance of upscale and relaxed.
The villa is a late-18th-century farmhouse once inhabited by the 19th-century royalist general Fiorenzo Bava Beccaris, a man of wealth, bloody controversy and taste. Built around a central courtyard and gardens with views over the village, vines and woods, the 23 rooms preserve classic charms: uneven terra-cotta floors, baroque-era painted ceilings and palatial wood-framed windows you can fling open in the morning.
Today the hotel is owned partly by the Barolo-based winery Marchesi di Barolo, which seems intent on making its clientele feel like privileged friends of the marquis. It's hard not to be surprised by the little touches, such as the pillow card left after the evening turn-down that announces the next day's forecast. In a closet bigger than some rooms we've stayed in awaited thick monogrammed Frette bathrobes. At breakfast in the vaulted brick cellar, our espressos came with lids to keep them warm. Even the yogurt on the generous buffet -- none of those tacky supermarket containers -- was homemade.
What's more, the staff seemed ready to do more to please.
At breakfast, when a young man in a blazer and an Hermes belt buckle the size of a Mercedes hood ornament asked for a plate of fried eggs with ham, the server showed no signs of being put out and responded by asking how many of slices of ham he wanted. She returned minutes later with a dish cooked to order.
The price for all this starts at about $212 for a double with breakfast -- something we hope doesn't change either.
-- Robert V. Camuto
Hotel Villa Beccaris, Via Bava Beccaris 1, Monforte d'Alba, 011-39- 0173-78158, www.villabeccaris.it.