GUARENE, ITALY — I swing open the large shuttered windows of my palatial Castello di Guarene suite and there, under a cobalt blue sky, Italy’s legendary Piedmont wine region spreads out in all directions.
The handsome sandstone castle’s elevated position allows me a bird’s eye view of the lush valley below and the patchwork quilt of vineyards that make this one of the world’s great wine producers.
The surrounding UNESCO-protected hills where the famed Piemonte wines are produced — Barolo and Barbaresco being the best known globally — are covered with a fine dusting of freshly fallen snow. The vines that only a few months ago were flush with fruit, have been stripped bare by the winter winds that constantly whip through the fertile valley. Off in the distance, the snow covered Alps — France and Switzerland lie just north of charming Guarene — billow up on the horizon like large mounds of meringue.
What a magical sight.
Above: The enchanting Piedmont wine region spreads out below the castle.
The valley is also dotted with lots of small red-roofed villages, each with its own ancient watch tower and castle. None, though, is quite as beautiful or prominent as the Castello di Guarene.
Built in 1726 by an aristocratic family from nearby Turin — the industrial hub of northern Italy and host of the 2006 Winter Olympics — Castello di Guarene flourishes today as an exquisite 5-star Relais & Châteaux hotel where guests come to enjoy the scenery, fine dining experiences — there are many Michelin star restaurants in the area — and sip the vintages produced from the Nebbiolo grape, which thrives in Piedmont’s rich soil.
The 30-room property — a miniature version of Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame — was bought by two local industrialists five years ago and then closed for three years during a massive renovation where it was brought up to 21st-century standards.
The results are nothing short of miraculous, especially when you consider none of the castle’s original stately charm was compromised in the modernization. In fact, 80 per cent of the original 18th-century furnishings remain in the rooms and public areas. However, each of the 15 guest rooms now features modern bathrooms that are wrapped in white Italian marble. Satellite TV and free WiFi keep guests connected to the modern world while enjoying ancient pleasures like canopied beds and walls draped in delicate fabric. The 18th-century silk wall coverings used throughout the castle were imported from China at the time and during renovation were removed, cleaned and replaced. The results have to be seen to be appreciated.
Above: The castle's former escape tunnel now leads to its amazing grotto swimming pool area.
For generations, the Roero family occupied the 30-room manner house. It was the life-long dream of Count Giacinto Reoro of Guaene, an industrialist and amateur architect, who sadly died before the castle was completed. His sons, Traiano and Teodoro, finished what their father started and the Italian gardens they laid out around the castle in the first half of the 18th century have bloomed into one of Europe’s most impressive. The house was later sold to another prominent Piedmont family before becoming one of Italy’s most sought-after accommodation.
To help guests appreciate the history connected to the castle, the current owners created a small museum filled with precious artifacts left behind by the original family.
I’m instantly impressed upon arrival at Castello di Guaene. A long sweeping driveway leads me to the main entrance, where high-end cars bearing licence plates from privileged places like Monaco are parked.
Once I push open the massive wooden door guarding the three-storey castle I’m awed by a stunning double staircase filled with a giant Bohemian crystal chandelier. It leads to the Salon of Honour on the first floor, where important guests were received. The salon is dominated by an enchanting chandelier made of fine coloured Murano glass. Off the Salon of Honour, hotel guests can explore the museum, a remarkable library filled with 300-year-old books and transcripts and a picture gallery featuring lots of original art — many are portraits of the kings, princes, ladies and knights who visited the family in ancient times.
There are over 200 crystal chandeliers hanging throughout the spacious castle hotel, along with countless paintings and frescoes.
Left: The rolling countryside drifts off into the Alps. Right: Hotel even has its own museum.
The main floor has a small reception area that flows into a large, cozy lobby filled with a giant fireplace, a unique red brick arched ceiling and lots of overstuffed furniture where guests gather for drinks and to socialize.
The Castello di Guarene’s gourmet restaurant, Vele, also resides on the main floor and features an escape route — it’s not for guests trying to duck out on the check, though. Fearing invaders, the count included a long escape tunnel in the original design. While it apparently was never used by the Reoros, it gets plenty of use today because it connects the hotel’s amazing grotto swimming pool that’s bathed in colourful recessed lighting with the property’s compact but impressive spa, staffed by highly-trained therapists.
The main floor also features a small billiards room, a lovely little bar and a cute bistro restaurant — the castle’s original kitchen —that’s used when the main dining room is closed.
While each of the 15 guest rooms is unique in its own right, there are several that stand out from the rest in grandeur and are always in high demand. A perfect example of that is the sublime Castle Luxury Room named after the count’s father, Andrea Traiano. Located on the third floor, the Traiano Room’s main feature is a white arch that runs from one side of the spacious suite to the other. Fine Chinese fabrics dating back to the 1700s and silk velvet draperies adorn the room’s impressive four poster bed.
Above: Each room at the castle is unique and many still feature their 17th-century furnishings.
Another highly sought-after room is the one named after Vittoria di Revello, whose family bought the castle from the Reoros. The room is wrapped in warm red fabric and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding hills, named after the Roero family, and the far-off Alps.
The Bishop’s Room, which was intended to be Count Roero’s bedroom, features a priceless Bandera fabric bed and the room’s furniture is covered in multicoloured wool embroidery, which was inherited by the count from his cousin, the Bishop of Alba, the nearest city to Guarene.
One of the main activities of guests staying at Castello di Guarene is to visit the area’s many wineries for tastings, or to pull up a chair at one of the area’s famed restaurants which have earned Michelin stars.
There’s even a wine route through the Langhe and Roero hills — separated by the Tanaro River — that takes you through the small villages, rolling vineyards and thick woods that make up this idyllic area of Italy. Oh, and the Alps are never out of sight.
Because this wine region gets less traffic than Tuscany, the winding roads are less travelled and accommodation is plentiful. Three wineries experts say you must visit to truly appreciate the products produced here are the Manzone vineyard, maker of the best Barolo in Italy; the Ca’ del Baio estate, where Barbaresco, considered the poor cousin of Barolo is produced — it’s actually velvety in taste and really quite good; and the large traditional wineries run by Adriana Marzi and Roberto Bruno, where the art of wine making has changed little over the centuries.
While exploring the area’s wine region, you’ll come across plenty of small restaurants and trattorias where nona (grandma) still rules the kitchen, but there are 39 — at last count — Michelin star restaurants within driving distance of Guaene and, unlike their big city cousins, these gourmet rooms are affordable.
One of the highlights of my trip was a table the Castillo di Guarene staff reserved for me at the one-star Michelin Massimocamia Restorante in nearby La Morra, on Alba Rd.
Chef Massimo Camia, a delightful man with a moonbeam face and an infectious smile, serves up classical dishes that are among the best this traveller has ever enjoyed. The taste of his veal cheek smothered in a Barolo reduction and the green ravioli pasta he infuses with pesto still linger on my tongue weeks after my visit.
Castillo di Guarene will treat you like royalty when you visit Piedmont.
• Guarne is in the Piedmont wine region and is a 90 minute drive from Turin.
• The best way to get to Turin from Toronto, Vancouver or Calgary is with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines via Amsterdam.
• There are over 30 Michelin star restaurants in the Piedmont area and each tries to outdo the other with fabulous dishes using local farm-to-table ingredients. Staff at the Castello di Guarene will be more than happy to recommend one that suits your palette.
• There are many wine tours available of the fabulous Piedmont vineyards. The best time to visit is late fall at harvest time but winter, when rates are low, is a great value.
• Rates at the Castello di Guarene start around $500 a night but the experience is priceless. For more information on Castello di Guarene and to see rates, go to https://www.castellodiguarene.com/