Piemonte wraps around Val d'Aosta to form the north west corner of Italy. It
is the second largest region and with a strong industrial base it quickly
became economically prosperous. The House of Savoy ruled from Turin.
The Po river picks up all the mountain streams running out of the alps and
continues through Turin and eastwards through to the Adriatic. The
combination of industry and atmospheric conditions mean that the valley is
frequently enveloped in dense smog.
They grow a lot of rice in the northern plains which seems odd till you
remember the popularity of risotto. South of the Po is the area known as le
Langhe where much celebrated wine is produced and where the fêted white
truffles of Alba are found. The Slow Food movement began in the
Piedmontese town of Bra.
A curiosity of religious fervour, the sacri monti, or sacred
mounts, are groups of chapels perched on hilltops at
dispersed locations through the foothills of the Piedmontese
alps. They are a unique artistic and religious manifestation,
located in mountain or forest environments and evoking a
blend of nature, architecture, and spirituality (or so they
The Sacri Monti of Piedmont
Here we were able to do some walking in the forests surrounding the monument.
This place derives from the ambitious idea of a Franciscan friar to reproduce the holy
places of the Holy Land for those unfortunate enough not to have visited it. As the
experience has emerged over the years, it is a meander round the mountain side,
peering into dark chapels where scenes from the life of Christ are depicted in
paintings and plaster models. There is a basilica and 45 chapels and the whole
place is decidedly tacky.
The town of Varallo on the other hand is delightful and we enjoyed a sunny Autumn
Sunday there. Old residences and hotels basking in a comfortable patina of faded
pastel colours are built right over the banks of the clear and stony Sesia River.
Viewed from above, which is where you go to see the Sacro Monte, the slate
rooftops of the town formed agreeable geometrical patterns. There were few tourists,
just local people strolling in the narrow pedestrian streets after Sunday lunch.
Piemonte - le Langhe
To reach Torino from
our agriturismo we
drove to Bra, which
seemed a fast, busy
place with no slow
cooking in evidence. It
was then a short train
trip to Torino which we
found to be a lovely
city with wide streets,
green piazzas and one
huge paved piazza
surrounded by palaces
As lovers of robust red wine, we decided to make a base in the le Langhe
area and found a small agriturismo in a vineyard just outside the town of La
Morra. There were a number of reasons to attract us here.
After the wine there was the opportunity to sample the
famous truffles as our visit fortunately coincided with Alba's
truffle festival. We could use the train service to make an
expedition to Turin. There was a treasure trove of painted
Romanesque churches in the area. And there were as many
walking trails as we could absorb through the countryside
and the vineyards. Would a week be enough?
Our agriturismo was a century old family winery where
wine is produced organically, concentrating on Barolo,
Barbera, Nebbiolo and Dolcetto. It sits in the midst of the
la Morra and Barolo vineyards where small villages contain
more cantinas and restaurants than it is possible to visit in
a brief stay. We did our best, shopping and eating in la
Morra, tasting wine in some of the surrounding villages and
trying restaurants in Barolo itself and the quaintly named
Annunciata. The picture on our HomePage was taken in a
cantina in La Morra.
An internet search will produce many interesting walking
possibilities including walks with companies who combine
gastronomy with walking. We found some local walks
which were some haphazardly way marked but never
strayed far from our base so there was little likelihood of
getting lost. On the best of these walks we started early,
wound our way through row after row of luscious vines, and
finished up in la Morra for a late lunch with a bottle of
Arneis. Fortunately it was all downhill home.
There were wonderful vistas everywhere, looking over of the
rolling hills and the chequer board of vineyards. Our only
regret was that we never had a day that was clear of the
polluted haze that hung in the air. Even on one day when the
sky magically filled with colourful hot air balloons we were
disappointed to not see them clearly.
It was a city full of surprises - going through an archway you would come upon
a piazza which led to yet another. There were Roman ruins, a riverside walk,
smart shops and stylish restaurants. A day did not do the city justice but we
walked ourselves to exhaustion and flopped onto the train to return to la Morra.
There are nine of them, built from the 15th century. They are dedicated to various
aspects of Christian faith and, as a group, have been included as an item of world
heritage significance. Our curiosity was fired by the idea of these places and we
thought it worth visiting a couple. There are nine in all. We visited Oropa and
Varallo and found them very odd.
Oropa was constructed in the between 1617 and 1620 and comprises 12 chapels
dedicated to different episodes in the life of the Virgin, including a very large church
where three black virgins were on show. To get there we had to follow a maze of
little stradas through the busy town of Biella and then drive through heavy fog up a
narrow road surrounded by deep forest. The complex of buildings was quite
impressive and the fog added atmosphere but we were regrettably underwhelmed
by the experience.
Sacro Monte was
a more rewarding
experience as it
pleasant town of
Alba and the truffle market
Alba is famous as the capital of le Langhe, for the wine that
is produced in the region, for its local confectionery, Roman
ruins, a fine cathedral and some very photogenic towers.
But most of all it is famous for the white truffle and the
annual fair that celebrates the truffle.
The day we visited it was also the regular market day and
colourful stalls spilled through the streets of the town.
Brilliantly colourful capsicums from Cuneo seemed to be
the specialty but there was much else.
The truffle market itself is held in a huge pavilion where the earthy truffle aroma is overwhelming and
individual specimens are displayed like jewels in glass cases. If you are buying, your choice will be
extracted from the case and you are invited to smell it. How healthy is that?
The price per kilo for an average sample was €5000. We decided to spend a niggardly €15, went
through the purchasing ritual and walked away with our very own truffle, about the size of a 5 cent
piece. But it was fun and we took our truffle home and grated it over some special handmade pasta.
Regrettably it tasted of nothing much at all!
The southern part of le Lange is dotted with Romanesque churches in tiny villages or standing
alone in country fields. We spent a day chasing down some of these, not always successfully as
many were well hidden or locked. However, a real gem that made the whole search worthwhile
was the chapel of San Martino in the hamlet of Lignera.
Locked doors initially prepared us for more disappointment but an elderly couple tending their garden came
to our assistance and sent for the man who had the key. This little church, dating probably from about
1500, is just lovely with brightly coloured frescoes all over its presbytery walls and ceiling. Most of the
frescos depict scenes from the life of San Martino, for whom the chapel is named. Others show saints
protecting the faithful from pestilence and sickness, evangelists and worthy people and an Annunciation.
This is said to be one of the most stunning examples of Piedmontese pictorial art.
To complete our circuit of these northern regions
and return to France via the Tende Pass we had one
more stop in the town of Saluzzo where there is an
abbey that got three stars in all our guidebooks. We
had also become entranced by a poster we kept
seeing, depicting a gorgeous mediaeval lady. She
was, we were advised, part of the fresco decoration
in a castle in Manta, close to Saluzzo. A couple of
nights here seemed appropriate.
Saluzzo is a beautiful city with a castle, more old
buildings, more narrow streets, laneways and
stairways and more churches with frescos. It was
ceded to France for a while but came back under
the house of Savoy in 1601.
We were somewhat surprised to find many of the
streets barricaded with sandbags and barbed wire
and very officious German posters on the walls. The
town, we discovered, was temporarily a film set for a
story centred on the German occupation of the
area. We chatted for a while to one of the actors till
he said cheerfully "..Well I've got to go off and be
Saluzzo and surroundings
Seen from the town and from
afar is il Monviso, a pyramid
shaped mountain of 3841m,
standing on the French border
and said, because of its shape,
to have been the inspiration for
the Paramount Pictures logo.
The continuing blanket of haze
and smog did not allow for the
best views but we drove up
towards it and did a little walk
to begin to see it more clearly.
These are lovely spiky
mountains, and the other side
The 12th century Staffada Abbey was all we had hoped
for - a fine gothic portico, beautiful cloister with
intriguing capitals, a refectory with graceful bricked
vaults, frescos and skilful wooden carving and overall a
quiet and peaceful ambience.
In the nearby town of Revello there were said to be
some splendid frescos in an ancient chapel that was
now part of the municipal offices. To see these we had
to first line up with people doing their business with the
council, then seek out the librarian who let us into the
chapel and left us to our own devices. Remarkably
trustworthy as these were valuable images, perhaps
more intriguing as they hadn't been fully restored and
some even seemed to be only partly finished. One
depicted the French Saint Louis on his way to a
The best treat of all came last with a visit to il
Castello della Manta. The pièce de resistance was
a room of colourful frescos and here we found the
beautiful lady who had brought us to Saluzzo. On
three of the walls is a 15th century cycle of
frescos depicting eighteen of the worthiest heroes
and heroines from antiquity. Nine are male,
including Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Alexander
the Great and King Arthur. The names of their nine
female counterparts are not known for certain but
some think they may be heroines such as
Penthesilea or Semiramis. Whoever, they are
magnificent, feisty ladies and clearly well equal to
the heroics of the males.
On another wall is the remarkable Fountain of Youth where, astonishingly, we see old people dipping into an ornate fountain
and emerging youthfully on the other side. All sorts of naughty activity is going on in the background.
A fitting finale to our tour of this corner of Italy.
Vinyard leading up to la Morra
Advertising the produce - Barolo
Sacro Monte at Oropa
Last Supper tableau in plaster
Three views in Varallo
On the old road towards Monviso
Above left and across:
Three views in Staffada Abbey
Detail from the picture
above of our beautiful
Above: two worthy queens
Right: five worthy kings
He: ‘Dedans cest boys vous faut venir
pour nostres amours mius acomplir’
She: ‘Si d’aucun fusiens trovés
nous serions deshonorés’
Above: altar in chapel San Martino
Right: S Martin slays an enemy
Top right: an angel
At right: the winner and loser
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