Touring Small Town Piedmont

Let's see what small town Piedmont has to offer tourists...

Doorway in a Piedmont Village

Doorway in a Piedmont village

If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area might be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. There are even some parts of Piedmont that haven’t yet been discovered by tourists. This article presents “the rest of Piedmont”, Piedmont outside Turin, the region’s capital and largest city. A companion article presents Turin.

Piedmont means foot of the mountains, and that describes the area perfectly. A large part of the region is surrounded by hills and by mountains such as the Alps. While the setting is beautiful, don’t expect a Mediterranean climate such as found in most of Italy. The Piedmont climate is continental, with hot summers and cold winters, especially in the plains.

We’ll start our tour of the Piedmont at Stupinigi just west of Turin and go west to the Bardonecchia near the French border. Then we will head south and east to Alba and finally northeast to the city of Casale Monferrato near the Lombardy border.

Stupinigi, a village of about two hundred inhabitants a few miles southwest of Turin in central Piedmont is our first stop. The Palazzina di Caccia (Caccia Hunting Lodge) was built early in the Eighteenth Century. With its 137 rooms and 17 galleries, it is really something to see. It houses the Museo d’Arte e Ammobiliamento (Museum of Art and Decoration). The lodge is surrounded by the Parco Naturale di Stupinigi (Stupinigi Nature Preserve) with its collection of rare plants and animals.

The nearby city of Rivoli was once the court of the House of Savoy. It is home to the Fifteenth Century Casa del Conte Verde (House of the Green Count). Rivoli also hosts the Museo d’Arte Contemporaneo (Museum of Contemporary Art) in a castle that was started in the Eighteenth Century but only completed in the past century. Its permanent Italian art collection focuses on Minimalist art, Conceptual art, Land art, and the Arte Povera Movement.

The Abbazia di Sant'antonio di Ranverso abbey founded in the Twelfth Century by the Hospitaliers of St. Anthony is said to be the site of phenomenal cures for a multitude of ailments. The buildings, the frescoes on the walls, and the landscape itself give the impression of being in the Middle Ages. Charlemagne may have visited the area.

The Sacra di San Michele (Abbey of St. Michael) was built during the late Tenth Century for the Benedictine order about one thousand years ago on Monte Pirchiriano. This site overlooks a three thousand foot bluff and its view is spectacular. The abbey was once the control point for almost two hundred European churches including the famous Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France. The Abbey of St. Michael was subject to numerous assaults over the centuries and abandoned in 1622. It was restored more than one hundred years ago. The site also contains three small chapels built during the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries.

The ski resort of Bardonecchia near the French border is located in a sunny Alpine valley surrounded by mountains. It hosted some events during the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics including the snowboarding giant slalom. There are about 140 kilometers (90 miles) of snowboarding and ski trails for all skill levels. The nearby village of Sestriere was a main venue during the 2006 Winter Olympic Games and the 2006 Winter Paralympics. It hosted all the men's alpine skiing competitions and was the site of an Olympic Village. The resort offers night skiing and, during the summer, Europe’s highest altitude eighteen hole golf course.

Times change. During the Middle Ages the town of Pinerolo was a major crossroads in Italy and so a key fortress of the dukes of Savoy. Now it’s a quiet town with about 35,000 residents, a Ninth Century Cathedral, and the Gothic church San Maurizo (St. Maurice). It also has two recent claims to fame. In the days of Louis XIV Pinerolo held a French prisoner whose face was never seen. They called him The Man in the Iron Mask. More recently Pinerolo was the site of the Curling competition during the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.

Saluzzo, population approximately sixteen thousand, boasts a Lombard-Gothic Cathedral built at the end of the Fifteenth Century and several churches of interest. The town itself is well preserved. It was the site of Chaucher’s The Clerk’s Tale in his Canterbury Tales.

The city of Alba was once known as the “City with a hundred towers.” A few remain. There is a cathedral and several churches worth seeing in addition to the F. Eusebio Municipal Museum of Archaeology and Natural Science. But if you go to Alba, it’s probably because of the wine and the white truffles. Both Barolo and Barbaresco wines are produced within a few kilometers of the city. And its nickname is “The City of the White Truffle”. If you want to try any of these great local products bring your wallet.

Alba won a Gold Medal for Military Valor to honor its citizens and their participation in the Italian resistance movement during World War II. The partisans liberated Alba in October 1944 and established the Republic of Alba, which survived only a few weeks. It was named after Piedmont’s Napoleonic Republic of Alba which survived much longer, namely between 1796 and 1801.

Asti has often competed with its neighbor, Alba, lying about 18 miles (30 kilometers) to the northeast. They both were known as the City with a hundred towers. They both produce white truffles. And they are both important wine producers. Asti Spumante, now called Asti, was probably the best-known Italian sparkling wine. Please note that we did not say the best Italian sparking wine. The Asti area produces still wines that compete nicely with many of the Alba wines. On the third Sunday of September Asti celebrates its victory in a Middle Ages battle against Alba with the Palio d’Asti, a bareback horse race preceded by a medieval pageant. You’ll also want to see the city’s remaining towers, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta (Saint Mary of Assunte Cathedral), and the Gothic San Secondo Church.

We finish our Piedmont tour in the city of Casale Monferrato. Its Cathedral of Sant’Evasio was first built in 742, and rebuilt in the beginning of the Twelfth Century. There are other churches and a castle to visit. You should also see the Jewish Synagogue built in 1595 and considered one of the most beautiful synagogues in Europe.

What about food? The Piedmont region is well known for all kinds of food, often with a French style. Don’t forget that the French House of Savoy ruled the region for more than five hundred years. In 1986 in the Piedmont city of Barolo Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food association to protest against the opening of a MacDonald’s in Rome. Within twenty years Slow Food has grown to 80,000 members in 100 countries. Slow Food fights to defend classic agriculture in order to protect the environment and ensure that local, artisanal products are economically viable and widely available. Every second October they hold an international exhibition and conference.

Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Bagna Cauda (Vegetable Dip with Anchovies, Garlic, and Olive Oil). Then try Carbonada (Veal Stew). For dessert indulge yourself with Zabaione (Zabaglione – Egg Yolks, Marsala Wine, Cinnamon and Sugar). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.

We’ll conclude this article with a quick look at Piedmont wine. More than half of Piedmont’s wine production is either DOC or DOCG wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. Piedmont is home to least 44 DOC wines. There are seven DOCG wines where the letter G stands for Guarantita. Among the DOCG wines are Barolo, arguably Italy’s finest red wine, and Barbaresco. But you can find many other fine DOC or unclassified wines in the Piedmont.

About the Author

Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.

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