Charming B&B with delightful hosts draws Omahans to Italy's Piedmont Region.
Story by Michael Kelly
From our villa balcony in a small town in northwest Italy, we watched the sun set – and light the sky in glorious purple and orange.
Such moments are fleeting. This was truly a time to relax, to feast our eyes and recharge. And enjoy being off the beaten path.
With our children grown, we've traveled more in recent years, visiting Ireland first, then England, Germany and France (with a stop at Omaha Beach). In 2008, we took a riverboat ride from Amsterdam down the Rhine, with a left turn across Germany to Vienna. On each of those adventures we traveled in the security of a tour group, sure to see the famous sights.
Last September for our 40th wedding anniversary, it was time to be a bit more adventuresome. We weren't exactly thinking of backpacking across Europe like our daughter and countless other young people have done, but we wanted to explore more or less on our own.
We got a lot of help because we chose an area an hour west of Milan where a former Omaha couple owns and operates a bed-and-breakfast called 5 Chimneys. So named because the two adjacent buildings feature five guest rooms, each with a hearth.
The villa lies in the Piedmont region of Italy also known as “Piemonte.'' The inn's owners are Giorgio and Patrizia Romansckyi, natives of Italy who enjoy dual citizenship and raised their three children in America.
The couple spent 13 years in the Big O, where Giorgio worked for First Data Corporation. (Patrizia still shows off a Nebraska license plate in the back window of her car.)
The local connection continues, with the majority of 5 Chimneys' guests coming from Omaha. Patrizia also displays her cooking talent upon special invitation from Metropolitan Community College's Institute for the Culinary Arts.
Patrizia is the author of two cookbooks, with “Cooking With Patrizia: A Culinary Journey in Monferrato” due out in August. Guests at 5 Chimneys enjoy her wonderful meals, including rabbit, risotto, veal, sage zucchini lasagna and more. They are always served with wine made from grapes from a nearby vineyard, of which Giorgio is a part-owner.
We joined their friends and others in their village of Pozzengo at a town hall for an informal multicourse dinner where everyone sang “Happy Anniversary” to us.
It's said that Italians appreciate visitors who at least try to speak a few words of Italian, so I stood and thanked the villagers: “Signore e signori, grazie!” I held up a bottle of Barbera vino and noted that “mia moglia” (my wife, Barbara) is similarly named. Perhaps because we all had enjoyed a bit of wine by then, they laughed and kindly applauded my meager efforts to speak their language.
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Rice Fields, Vineyards and Harbors
Pozzengo in the Po River valley, with its many rice fields, vineyards and occasional castles on hilltops, became the base for our six-night stay.
Giorgio and Patrizia offer their guests a broad menu of escorted day trips. Culinary-oriented tours are their specialty. After all, this is the “breadbasket of Italy.”
We visited the outdoor market and walked along the winding cobblestone streets of the town of Casale Monferrato. We hiked the steep, wooded hills of Sacro Monte di Crea, a centuries-old Roman Catholic sanctuary with a series of chapels dedicated to the mysteries of the rosary. We took part in a wine-tasting party at the vineyard. And we enjoyed classical musicians who came from La Scala in Milan and performed for a well-dressed crowd of 400 on a Sunday afternoon.
Giorgio drove us to the lake region – not to the glitzy Como, but to Lake Maggiore and its trio of Borromean Islands. They are named for the family of St. Charles Borromeo, which took ownership in the 16th and 17th centuries and created luxurious, art-filled residences and elaborate gardens.
We joked that the “Garden of Love” would make a great spot for our daughter's summer wedding. One of the islands features a 20-acre park and a botanical garden with exotic flowers and rare plants from every continent. Peacocks, parrots and pheasants populate the grounds, too.
We went to the Ligurian Sea. This is as blue a sea as you'll ever see, with the Maritime Alps in the distance. We enjoyed lunch overlooking the water in the town of Camogli, southeast of Genoa. Later in the day we took a ferry to Portofino, which is touristy but very pretty.
After a car ride back to Pozzengo, exhausted from all of our walking but refreshed by all the beauty, we prepared to say “ciao” for now to this lovely and friendly corner of the world. We had to pack for a totally different experience in a place that, having come to Italy, we had to see: the Eternal City.
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Heed Those Guidebook Tips
All the guidebooks say that while traveling, pay close attention to your money and possessions. In spite of trying to do so, we nearly fell victim.
We carried our wallets not in our pockets, but strapped inside our shirts. We took heed of warnings that upon arriving by train in Rome, watch out for people, including children, who try to distract you. And don't try to hail a cab – go instead to a registered taxi stand and wait your turn.
We gave the driver the address of our hotel and gawked along the way. As we neared our destination, I pulled a 50-euro bill from my wallet. When we arrived, the driver got out and stood by the vehicle. As I turned to grab our suitcases, I handed him the 50 and heard him announce the fare: “Thirty euros.” I waited for change, but he repeated, “Thirty euros.” I said, “I gave you a 50.” In his hand by then, though, was a 10-euro bill.
Wait a minute: Did I really give him a 10? No! I checked the backseat twice for the 50 and found nothing. Dumbfounded, I pulled out two 10s to pay the rest of the fare and the driver got back in his cab. I had just been had.
In dismay, I just stared at his cab. But then he got out, opened the right rear door and – voila! – there was the 50 on the floor. We could only figure that he must have thought I was memorizing his car number to call the polizia, causing him to think better of his ploy.
Another couple who stayed at 5 Chimneys with us was cleverly robbed while riding in a crowded train. Two men came through begging, one leaning across the man in the aisle seat – while his partner picked the man's pocket.
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Rome to Your Heart's Content
From Milan, a swift and comfortable three-hour train ride took us 300 miles to Rome.
You go to Rome to see the sights. But on the recommendation of a friend, we booked a hotel in Trastevere, a part of the city considered unique and out of the way.
Pronounced “Tras-TEH-ve-ray,” the name means “beyond the Tiber.” With narrow, winding cobblestone streets and lots of pubs, restaurants, nightlife and street performers, Trastevere sits west of the river and a mile-and-a-half south of the Vatican. A main thoroughfare provides access to trams and buses.
The San Francesco, once a seminary, is a boutique hotel. It has a rooftop terrace, where we enjoyed late-night glasses of wine while bells chimed from a medieval church next door.
The open square known as Piazza Santa Maria draws crowds every night – not just on the weekends – with many people sitting around a large octagonal fountain. The piazza's name comes from the Basilica di Santa Maria, the floor plan and wall structure of which date to the fourth century, and is one of the oldest churches in a city of churches.
If you're healthy, game and willing and wear sturdy and comfortable footwear, you can see almost everything you want to see in Rome on foot. We walked miles and miles every day.
We hoofed it to St. Peter's Square, the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, Borghese Gardens, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Forum, the Spanish Gardens, Trevi Fountain and all the famous places – but not in one circuit. Rome wasn't built in a day, and you can't see it in a day. But we saw lots, including great art and architecture. We enjoyed many piazzas and a couple of pizzas.
A special treat was a rooftop tour of Rome from atop the Pontifical Gregorian University, courtesy of Vice-Rector the Rev. Dan McDonald, a Jesuit priest who graduated from Omaha's Creighton Prep in 1966.
We later climbed to one more rooftop, making our way up the narrow, winding stairway inside the dome of St. Peter's. We finally emerged at the top of the greatest basilica in Christendom. In more ways than one, it took our breath away.
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IF YOU GO
5 Chimneys Bed & Breakfast
Getting there: One hour west of Milan in the Piedmont region of Italy
Innkeepers: Giorgio and Patrizia Romansckyi
Lodging: Three guest rooms with a private bath in the main villa; family quarters in adjacent villa.
Amenities: Transportation to and from airport (Milan/Turin), breakfast, dinner and three day-tour options included with six-night stay.
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