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road sage

The rolling hills of Langhe, in Italy's Piedmont region.Andrew clark/The Globe and Mail

Our self-perceptions are not always accurate. For instance, I once described myself as a measured, rational person, to which my wife replied in a tender, yet honest way, “You are the least rational person I’ve ever met.”

Likewise, I believe that I have a good sense of direction. In reality, it’s terrible. I get lost consistently. I’m not proud of this fact, but I’m not ashamed of it either – getting lost is a very underrated experience. The key? Make sure you get lost somewhere nice.

That’s why, for my annual summer solo road trip, I chose Italy’s Piedmont region – specifically Langhe, Roero and Monferatto, areas famous for three things: wine, cheese and truffles. Or, as I like to refer to them, the three food groups. Situated between Milan and Turin, the territory is the home to Barolo, Barbera and Moscato, and each autumn, white truffle season begins here. Piedmont is known for lush rolling hills, stunning vistas and centuries of culinary excellence. In other words, getting lost here is better than being on course anywhere else.

My journey began in Milan where I picked up my rental car, a Yaris Hybrid. I always ask for the smallest car I can get, and hybrids are a good choice as some Italian cities, in an effort to motivate people to buy more environmentally friendly vehicles, deny regular gas guzzlers access to the city centre. Forget “scared straight.” Law enforcement should hire Milanese car-rental people to get young offenders to forgo a life of crime. They terrify you. I was fully aware that I had ample coverage, but the woman at the rental counter frightened me with tales of how a single scratch could be €300, and then there would be tax. I had vowed not to take any extra coverage, but she painted a nightmare scenario, and haunted by my last experience in southern Italy, which had resulted in three scratches and a dent, I caved.

I got lost leaving the airport (a first even for me) and then set out on the autostrada from Milan to Asti. The road was a dream, in excellent condition with nice flat stretches of highway. I didn’t do under 140 km/h. I was routinely passed by drivers going 180 km/h. If you go under 120 km/h, you run the risk of causing an accident. If I had to characterize my fellow drivers, I would call them “skilled but aggressive.”

In Asti, I met with Gaia Barabino, who would be my guide for the next few days. I wanted to see Langhe from the passenger seat first, and then, once I had my bearings, I’d get behind the wheel. Gaia works for the Ente Turismo Langhe, Roero, Monferatto, a regional branch of Italy’s national tourism board. Born and raised in Asti, she escorted me to most of the area’s key destinations. It’s a mystical landscape. Towns perched on high hills, roads lined with lush orchards and fecund vineyards.

In the village of Roccoverano, we visited Aziende Agricola Amaltea, an artisinal cheese maker who produces Robiola, a soft, raw goat’s milk cheese that originated during the Roman period. In Barbaresco, we climbed the village’s tower, dined at the renowned Osteria Capamac and then sampled wines from Guiseppe Cortese, a premium wine maker, whose Barbaresco Rabaja Riserva is highly sought after by serious oenophiles.

Asti is sometimes neglected by tourists. That’s a pity. The city boasts an intriguing history. It was a centre of international medieval finance and the birthplace of playwright and political philosopher Vittorio Alfieri, who was one of the first to articulate a dream of a unified Italy. It’s perhaps most famous for the Palio di Asti, a horse race that dates back to the thirteenth century. Held each September, the race is run through the city’s old centro storico. Asti’s food scene is vibrant. L’Osteria del Diavolo offers high-end Piemontese cuisine in a lovely outdoor cobblestone setting. Some of the finest restaurants, such as Madonna della Neve, are tucked away in small villages.

The driving reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway – so beautiful that it can be dangerous. As on the PCH, the roads often border sheer drops. One small miscalculation and you’re a statistic. So it was a good choice to spend a few days in the passenger seat, where I could enjoy the view.

The next two days in Langhe I spent driving solo through Barolo, Bra (where the Slow Food movement was founded) and La Morra. I stayed in Antico Borgo Monchiero, a 17th century monastery that has been converted into a cozy hotel, picturesque and quiet with a pool. In August, a pool is a must. They’re rare but worth seeking out. In Asti, I found one at Golf Club Citta di Asti, which offers six rooms for rent. After a tour on foot and by car in the sun, a swim was the best way to cap off a day.

Most travel guides will tell you that mid-to-late August is not an ideal time to visit Italy (there’s no such thing as “not a good time to visit Italy”). The majority of Italians are on vacation, and it is extremely hot. For passionate drivers, however, this period offers exhilarating driving. The roads – which are normally congested – are empty. On the highways, you can open it up. On the idyllic side roads, you can enjoy a casual yet intriguing driving experience.

In Langhe, I spent a great deal of time touring aimlessly, letting the road take me wherever it would. That’s the essence of a good solo road trip. It’s all about the journey, especially in an area such as Piedmont where there is so much to enjoy. No need to spoil it with a destination.

Besides, I’d only get lost.

The writer was a guest of Turismo Langhe. Content was not subject to approval.

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