We left first thing in the morning and set the Tom Tom for Borgo d’Ale, home of asparagus. At 130 km an hour and hardly any traffic, we arrived in 35 minutes via the autostrada. The 5-euro toll was a bargain Toronto should consider.
We passed perfect rows of fruit trees and grapes, perhaps table grapes since the vines were high and each parcel had rolled-up mesh ready to deploy to keep out birds. A few grassy rows might have held asparagus, but there were no stalks in sight, and no buds visible on the vines.
Driving into the centro, the green was replaced by asphalt and grey two-storey houses built to meet the street. I suppose when you’re surrounded by agriculture there’s no need to have a front yard of useless grass. No sign of people – perhaps they all work in Torino and had left for the day.
When you want to know what’s happening, there are two places to look. A communal wall or billboard, where death and government notices appear, or the nearest caffe. As the barista prepared our first cappuccino of the day, we asked about asparagus. Two young guys, probably farmers, said there was none — the season was late. No asparagus lunch for us.
Plan B, lunch in Vercelli, capital of rice. You really can’t escape rice in this flat valley of the Po River. There was no need to rush – the whole country closes tight at noon and doesn’t re-open til 3 or 4 p.m. After parking on a side street for free, we walked to the tourist office as a joke. The sign on the door of the darkened office said it closed at 1 p.m; it was 1:02. Though they are treasure troves of information, it’s getting harder and harder to find an office actually open. Last year we arrived in Acqui Terme (we probably picked it out on the map) about two minutes after the tourist office had closed for the night. A janitor took pity on us and brought out a map with a list of hotels, so we were able to find a room at least.
Vercelli is another elegant town, perfect for walking. We had two choices – a stuffy old dark restaurant with a formal menu or a bright modern little cantina with a short menu for the young office workers who breezed in and out. Perfect. A sign on the window advertised homemade gnocchi, which didn’t disappoint — pasta pillows glazed with a light tomato sauce and nubbly bits of ground veal.
I chose the insalatone – the “one” ending a warning that it was a substantial insalata, crammed with chunks of canned tuna, grated carrot, green beans and romaine. The so-chic server with a mass of dirty blonde hair and dangling earrings brought a bottle of olive oil and a bottle of balsamic, both with atomizer tops, so I could spritz on my own dressing.
Our table was perfect for people-watching. Everyone’s still in winter jackets with scarves wound jauntily around their necks in ways I will never master. The biggest shock, though, was their shoes. While I wouldn’t think of bringing sneakers to Italy in years past, now everyone of every age is wearing them! Could it spell the end of Italy’s famous leather shoe industry?
My disbelief continued when we arrived at one of our favourite cities, Casale Monferrato. I’d been so looking forward to finding the perfect summer sandal at the shoe store where I’d bought svelte little boots last time. Alas, the window was filled with mustard or taupe sneakers covered in studs and rhinestones, a few with raised rubber heels – definitely not for the gym.
There was no way I was spending 100 to 200 euros to bring home a pair of sneakers, no matter how haute. I later found a wall of sandals, all with four-inch heels. The most outrageous was Gucci’s Lipstick Heel, featuring an upside-down case with the red “lipstick” meeting the ground.
At least some things haven’t changed. Lucca at the Principe hotel, a few doors from the shoe shop, even remembered us. I have a feeling he doesn’t get many Canadian guests.