Lift your eyes toward the horizon and you'll see cloud-covered mountaintops. Warm your blood from the chilly mountain air by dipping bread in hot cheese fondue and spend the rest of the afternoon skiing. It's not what springs to mind when most of us think of Italy, but this landscape is typical in the northwest corner of the country-more specifically, in the region of Piedmont. This prosperous area climbs from the lowlands near the Ligurian coast up into the southern band of the Alps, and is closer to Zurich and Paris than to Rome and Naples (not just geographically).
Despite a high concentration of industry-including the headquarters of international auto giant, Fiat-much of Piedmont still feels rural. Over 30 nature reserves protect its green spaces. Lakes pop up on the region's eastern border, including the villa-lined western shore of Lago Maggiore and the pristine Lago d'Orta. The northern fringe offer top-notch downhill skiing, including the deluxe resorts of Val di Susa and Sestriere. At some ski resorts, the trails begin in Italy and end in France. Piemonte, the region's Italian name, describes its sweeping landscape: the word comes from ai piedi del monte, "at the foot of the mountain." One of Europe's most famous (and highest) mountains straddles Piedmont's Alpine border: The French called it Mont Blanc, the Italians Monte Bianco. The Winter Olympics will be held in this region in 2006, with the base of operations Piedmont's elegant capital city, Turin.
Even before the 1950s' boom in the car industry catapulted Fiat to soaring success, Piedmont had already proven its sharp business sense. In the 19th century, a local politician introduced French irrigation techniques to boost the rice crop in the Po River valley. Now, two-thirds of Italy's starchy, short-grain rice comes from the region, and it remains a solid source of income and one of Piedmont's staple foods. In Vercelli, the region's rice capital, growers have insisted on hand-picking the crop in order to counteract unemployment. Piedmontese efficiency is also behind the stunning quality boost (and high price tags) of Piedmont's hearty red wines. Decades ago, Barolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto seesawed between fantastic and forgettable, and rarely made it out of the local wine bars. Today, a good Barbera can hold its ground at the top of any international wine list. Careful, cutting-edge vinification techniques and an eye to the market contributed to this boost.