Northern Italy

On our most recent trip, we decided to take the road less traveled in Italy, skip all of the major cities, and head to Parma, Alba, and Cogne. Italy is hard to visit on a budget, but it can be done. What we found while doing research was that hotels and apartment rentals for September were about the same price in the towns we visited, around 80-100€ a night. This is above our regular budget, but we would not have saved much money staying in private rooms in hostels. Also, for budget reasons, we did not rent a car which added to the convenience pricing of staying right in town.

The first thing I need to explain/share is the idea of aperitivo in Italy. I googled this before we went and the information I found was not as accurate as I would have liked. Aperitivo or aperitivi (plural) is when bars and some restaurants give you a small plate of snacks with every drink you order. Generally, this takes place between 5pm and 9pm. Sometimes, the drink is more expensive because it comes with food, but others charge the same price, about 3-5€ per drink. With each drink ordered, another small plate of snacks (potato chips, small sandwiches, etc.) come to the table. But, unlike what I read before we went, we saw no “buffet” from which we could eat. Aperitivo is a great way to have a few drinks and snacks and therefore be able to eat a smaller dinner or no dinner at all. Watch the drink prices because it could become more expensive than just going out to dinner.

On to the trip itself. In Parma, we rented an apartment on the west side of the river. Nothing special but the kitchen came in handy for breakfasts and snacking. We were lucky enough to be in Parma for the Prosciutto Festival. We toured the Fontana Ham factory which was very informative and interesting. The town itself was beautiful and full of great restaurants (a foodie’s dream). The prices were not out of control and we never felt pressured to order both a first and second course as is sometimes the case.

Fontana Ham Factory tour.
Alba was a lovely little town with a wonderfully preserved city center. It is also in the heart of the Piedmont wine country. Surrounding Alba in every direction are towns that must be explored and visited for their sites as well as their wines. We went to Barolo, Novello, Barbaresco, Guarene, Roddi, Bra, and Grinzane Cavour.
Here are my warnings about the wine region of Piedmont. Attractions (castles, museums, enoteche) are closed on odd days and at odd times of the year that are not always predictable. Also, while I was very excited to visit the enoteche (wine tasting centers) around the region, I was disappointed in what I found. I read that the enoteche were great places to try different wines from the region without having to make reservations at the actual wineries. (click here for website I referenced). While the enoteche regionale were nice and usually housed in historic buildings, they only offered a few wines for anywhere between 1-4€ per tasting. Knowing this, I recommend looking around town for the privately run enoteche, as well as visiting the enoteche regionale. Also, look for the sign “gratis degustazione.” We found shops that offered free tastings in hope that you would buy wine from them.
In Cogne, we were able to rent a small apartment for about 60€ per night right in town. While we waited for the bus in Aosta (the only public transportation to Cogne), we made a quick trip to Billa (grocery store) and picked up meat, cheese, bread, etc. for breakfasts to come. This was cheaper than buying food in Cogne. We took full advantage of the Gran Paradiso National Park while visiting. Entrance is free and, while the trail distances are a bit misleading, the scenery is beautiful. We took sandwiches and some fruit with us and had a picnic at the waterfall near Lillaz.
We also took a journey (two buses and a one mile walk) to see the castle in Fenis. While we had heard it was one of the better castles in the area, I would recommend seeing other castles closer to where you are staying. The castle in Fenis was fine but it was a hassle to get to without a car and the guided tour that you must take is only offered in Italian. Valle d’Aosta has a great tourism site with a list of all the castles in the region.
Finally, here are my last two recommendations on visiting Italy and trying to save some money while doing it. When wine tasting in northern Italy, drink everything. But if you are on a budget, check out the Nebbiolos, the local Pinot Noirs, and the Torrettes. They are, in my opinion, delicious bold, red wines but are cheaper than Barolo. Also, in our experience, the public transportation system through smaller towns and cities is not great if you are (a) on a tight schedule (b) are not comfortable with Italian, or (c) have little patience. Most trains don’t run into the mountainous areas. For this, you must rely on buses and most inter-city buses don’t run during lunchtime (approximately noon – 3pm). Buses also don’t seem to run very often, on average less than once an hour. Meaning, if you want to go somewhere, do so early with the understanding that you might be there until the afternoon. If you are one with little patience (as I sometimes am), I would recommend looking into renting a car especially if you want to set your own schedule and move from town to town freely. That being said, the buses were extremely affordable, on average 2-3€ per hour on short bus trips. While we got lost, almost stuck, and accidentally rode the school bus to the wrong town, the views were amazing and well worth the money saved and the time “wasted.”
Northern Italy