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Touring Italy: Ciao to chocolate!

Photo by Elizabeth Hey

Turin-inspired bicerin drink

“First, you have the bitter of the coffee, and then, the sweet of the chocolate,” said guide Laura Sgarlazzetta. “The lips are protected by the fresh milk.”

And, with one taste, I knew that she was right.

Turin, Italy, considered by many to be the world’s chocolate capital, invented hot chocolate and the chocolate bar. And based on this experience, I’d say it’s a must to try the bicerin. This Turin-inspired hot drink layers coffee, hot chocolate and fresh mild cream. Travelers and locals sipped this concoction with me at Caffe al Bicerin’s sidewalk tables, where it has been served since the 18th century.

I was in Italy as a guest of Central Holidays, an American tour operator that specializes in introducing groups to this region’s iconic cities and towns.

I would encourage anyone who hasn’t already brought a bank group to venture into northwestern Italy’s Piedmont region, to do so. It’s a culturally amazing part of the world where you are surrounded on three sides by magnificent Alps.

And it’s not just the chocolate! As a matter of fact, wine and bottled water — some of the best in Italy — also originate there.

Chocolate-tasting remains serious business in Turin. The Chocolate Pass includes a map and directs visitors to 22 different chocolatiers, cafes and patisseries where 10 tasting vouchers are honored. It’s an excellent way to tour the city and indulge.

At Gobino, a renowned chocolatier, the front room’s cases tempt visitors with fragrant chocolates. Serious aficionados will find a chocolate-smelling area in another section of the shop, and the tasting room’s low leather couches and soft lighting create an inviting environment for indulgence.

A ninth-century castle, Enoteca Regionale della Serra, hosts tours and wine tastings. Located on the Hill of Sarah overlooking Verona Lake, the castle was occupied until the 1960s and remains intact in its original condition.

In the ancient courtyard, tasting local cheeses, wine and crisp cookies topped with sugar called torcetti introduces groups to local fare. The restaurant accommodates up to 150 people, and a lovely, walled terrace for groups and receptions overlooks the lake.

Near Biella, the Lauretana factory educates visitors about one of Italy’s premier waters. The factory produces sparkling and nonsparkling offerings that boast an extremely low mineral content and are touted as Europe’s lightest water.

Who would guess that water could be such a native specialty?

Water flowing from the surrounding mountain springs travels through stainless steel pipes here. Visitors watch bottles being filled and labeled. Pallets are enveloped in plastic and readied for distribution.

Approximately 75 million bottles of water ship annually to Piedmont restaurants and are disseminated to Europe, Russia, Australia and California.

“Our trademark cobalt blue bottles protect the water from sunlight so that its properties aren’t damaged,” said Leandro Mondino, co-owner and general manager, as we toured the facility.

Biella and its sanctuary
With under 10,000 residents and few tourists, the town of Biella remains relatively untouched and truly Italian. Much of Biella’s charm lies in its walled, medieval village, which sits atop a hill and is accessible to visitors by way of a funicular railroad.

Piazza Duomo, the city’s nucleus, dates to Roman times. The fountain of Moses, sculpted in 1885, stands at its center. Beyond town, a 20-minute ascent up a winding road leads to a 1,600-year-old spiritual retreat, the Santuario di Oropa (Oropa Sanctuary).

Known as the “sanctuary under the sky,” this lovely spiritual retreat sits high in the foothills above Biella. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Center in 2003, and many make the pilgrimage to view its famous  “Black Madonna.” The statue, sculpted in the late 13th century, remains on display in the sanctuary’s baroque-style church.

Thousands of years ago, this mountainside location offered a place of refuge and protection. Today, the solitude is tangible except on weekends when the townspeople go for the revered polenta and hot chocolate. Locals go there to think and leave their problems behind. Visitors feel the peace, too.

“It’s a place where the human and divine meet, not only in the churches here but in the accommodations where people can stay,” said Don Michele Berchi, priest and rector of Oropa. “For many centuries, that’s why people came — to find a religious dimension for daily life.”

Exploring the Piedmont
In nearby Graglia, the sanctuary of Graglia dates to 1616. Dedicated to the Madonna of Loreto, it ranks second only to Oropa in importance and size.

A replica of the “Black Madonna of Loreto,” which is located in southern Italy, stands in the chapel. The complex’s hillside Chapel of the Nativity is currently restoring its 16th-century, life-size statues. From the balcony, lovely views stretch from Graglia’s rooftops to Turin’s distant mountains.

The medieval Ricetto of Candelo (roughly translated “storage area of Candelo”) stands as one of the most well-preserved ricettos in Italy, dating to the 13th century. Built of river stones and brick, the pentagonal walls intersect with five towers at each of the fort’s corners.

Historically, grain was stored on the top floors and wine in the cellars. The fortress also provided shelter in times of danger or war. In peacetime, local residents gathered to press grapes at the ricetto, sharing the resultant wine with the entire community.

Buildings sit several feet apart on cobblestone streets, allowing just enough airflow to preserve the wine. Today, many cellars have been converted into shops where local artisans work and sell their wares.

The ricetto hosts a May flower festival and an October wine festival.

Turin, in and of itself, might just be worth trip this trip.

Hub of the Piedmont region, this beautiful city was settled in the third century B.C. when Celtic tribes traveled to the River Po looking for agricultural opportunities. The city reigned as Italy’s first capital and became home to the Savoy dynasty, whose royal residences still stand.

Today, the country’s fourth-largest city will host many of Italy’s 150th-anniversary festivities, set to take place in 2011. With more than 80 museums, numerous royal palaces and a significant spiritual dimension, it has much to offer a bank group.

A wide range of architectural masterpieces include such gorgeous baroque buildings as the Piazza San Carlo and the elaborate Church of San Lorenzo and the Gothic Pinerolo Cathedral and Piazza Castrello, a first-century Roman gate and towers.

Before visiting the Cathedral of San Giovanni and its Chapel of the Holy Shroud, where the relic is kept behind glass in a coffinlike box protected from light, groups should visit the Holy Shroud Museum.

Because the shroud is not on display, the museum is crucial to understanding this sacred cloth and allows an opportunity to see photos and an exact replica. Fascinating research primarily conducted by NASA, recounted through images and exhibits, points to its authenticity.

Another highlight, the prolific Cinema Museum, is housed in a former Jewish synagogue, whose spire towers nearly 550 feet above the city. Against a dramatic interior of red, black and white, collections span several levels and trace cinematic origins from the first experiments with movement to modern films — classics to Westerns, “Jaws” to “Star Wars.”

Themed areas show movie clips and house memorabilia. Under the soaring atrium, contemporary red loungers allowed museumgoers like us to put their feet up and watch movies on gargantuan screens.

I’d also recommend seeing Turin’s Medieval Hamlet on the banks of the Po, a historical reconstruction of a typical Piedmont medieval hamlet. Built for the Universal Exhibition in 1884 and slated for demolition afterward, its popularity led city leaders to keep it as a permanent fixture. The picturesque compound houses workshops, a chapel and prisons.

In its enviable resting place near the Alps, Italy’s Piedmont region doesn’t have to work hard to extend an authentic invitation. Whether the draw is culinary, spiritual or cultural, this corner of Italy deserves to be on any bank’s bucket list. Those groups that make this journey will find the destination rich in rewards for the body and the spirit.

Central Holidays

For more on Italy:

Touring Italy
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WEB EXCLUSIVE! Italy Travel Snapshots

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.