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 say).
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, grand buildings, picturesque small green piazzas and one huge paved piazza surrounded by palaces and museums.
Le Langhe
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.
The second Sacro Monte was a more rewarding experience as it overlooked the pleasant town of Varallo.
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!
Romanesque churches
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 tortured now..."
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 is France.
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 crusade.
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.
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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 medieval lady
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
In Saluzzo
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