Piemonte is history and memory, art and culture, legend and traditions. A priceless heritage filled with fascination that meanders between cities, towns, abbeys, castles and fortifications embracing age-old charm, fairy-tale views and landscapes rich in evocative power.
WHAT TO SEE
An extraordinarily diffuse architectural heritage, ranging from Roman vestiges and Romanesque masterpieces, Liberty villas and art nouveau, together with contemporary languages expressed in futuristic buildings, palaces and basilicas. In Piemonte, romanesque and baroque styles express real marvels of harmony, simplicity and grandeur: like the regions’s symbol itself Sacra di San Michele or the prestigious Royal Residences, exclusive recreational places of the subalpine aristocracy proclaimed by Unesco as the “Heritage of Humanity” (including the Sacri Monti), among which the Reggia di Venaria shines. A rich and sumptuous residence and an example of the magnificence of the architecture of the XVII and XVIII centuries at the gates of Torino. The Mole Antonelliana in the region’s capital denotes an original sky line known throughout the world, while amongst the other Piedmontese cities Novara stands out with Antonelli’s Basilica of S.Gaudenzio and beautiful piazzas and Vercelli with the Basilica of S.Andrea.
For centuries the mountains of Piemonte have acted as a boundary to a little kingdom, also being the natural crossing for European pilgrims heading towards Rome on the Via Francigenae, reasons for which they are dotted with imposing fortifications and medieval abbeys.
Fenestrelle, the biggest fortress in the Alps, the Forte di Vinadio in Valle Stura, that of Exilles in Valsusa with the spectacular museum that recreates the life of the military garrison, and Bramafam near Bardonecchia are the stop-off points not to be missed on an itinerary through the wartime memories of the Piedmontese mountains. A completely different atmosphere is experienced in the abbeys among the hills, from the Staffarda Cistercian abbey in the Cuneese region, as far as the abbey of Novalesa under Moncenisio.
Historical vestiges, but above all unique landscapes with breathtaking panoramas, like those to be admired in the National Parks of Gran Paradiso and Val Grande.
Lago Maggiore, lago d’Orta, lago di Mergozzo and the lakes of Avigliana, represent a microcosm of emotions and a particularly seductive opportunity for those in search of unusual and fascinating places. From the magnificent Isola Bella, with the Palazzo barocco and the priceless heritage of works of art, to Isola Madre, to the Sacred Mountain of SS. Trinità at Ghiffa, UNESCO World Heritage of Humanity, there are numerous opportunities for those wishing to combine nature and relaxation with the beauties of art and culture. Poised between hills and mountains, these lands safeguard certain architectural jewels, such as the castles of Cannero Riviera and the Borromeo parks of Arona or Vogogna. Mirrors of water surrounded by splendid historical residences and gardens, Giardino Botanico Alpinia, which colour the banks, in addition to original ethnographic museums, including the Museo dell’Ombrello (Umbrella Museum) in Gignese and that of the art of the Hat in Ghiffa.
Wine, truffle, good food and lots more. The Piedmontese hills bear great witness to the history and identity of the region and can find expression in just a quick glance with the beauty of their landscape. The villages are symbols of it with Asti, Alba, Bra and Canelli at the top, resting on the soft hills and the ordered rows of vineyards and hazel trees, real declarations of love to the peasant culture. Rich in culture and artistic beauties that can be found in abbeys such as Vezzolano or in the castles of Mango, Guarene and Manta, with the latter not to be missed for the series of sixteenth-century frescos, while in the province of Alessandria the Forte di Gavi recalls the rule of the Republic of Genoa over Monferrato. An excellent wine and food tradition but also a place of wellbeing thanks to the thermal centres of Acqui, these lands were inspiring muses like few others for some of the greatest writers of the Italian ‘900s, and continue to safeguard the essence of Piemonte, a synthesis of nature, taste, history, art, culture and popular tradition.
With its 160,000 hectares of protected land, Piemonte provides the opportunity to discover unique countryside and habitats typical of alpine areas, and of hills and plains. 41% of the region is characterised by imposing mountain chains which are home to internationally-renowned ski resorts while the remaining 59% is divided between hillsand plains (which include the main rice fields in Europe). It borders with France on the west, Switzerland on the north, Valle d’Aosta on the north-west, Lombardy on the east, Emilia Romagna on the south-east and Liguria on the south. The protected land also boasts two national parks: the Gran Paradiso and the Val Grande, and particular importance is paid to the area of the river Po, which covers the entire stretch of the river in Piemonte as well as the area to the north-east, occupied by Lago Maggiore and Lago d’Orta.
Past and future, art and the culture of food, handicrafts and research are all established in a region with a powerful productive impulse: an area which is both at the avant-garde of innovation and new technology and characterised by extraordinary natural richness. Here, the cultural opportunities go hand in hand with the array of free-time activities.
WHAT TO DO
Rich in natural resources and landscapes, Piedmont offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy sport, to unwind and to be entertained, mixing leisure and culture.
Against the unique setting of the Alps, internationally renowned locations such as Sestriere, Val di Susa and others offer a wide range of slope categories suitable for all kinds of sporting activity: from steep downhill skiing to cross-country skiing and ice-skating to snowboarding. Meanwhile those who love the thrill of adventure can climb the rocky mountains or raft on rushing rivers.
In summer, the mountains and valleys offer trekking routes at different levels of difficulty, including some tracts on the Via Alpina with paths and well-equipped mountain shelters, from Monviso to the mountains around Verbania.
You can choose from many more outdoor activities: cycling along the River Po and around Vercelli; mountain biking along the banks of the River Sesia; playing golf on one of the area’s various courses; and sailing, windsurfing and canoeing on the shores of Lake Maggiore.
Nature also offers other paths for discovering the local culture and other of the region’s facets: in the Germanasca Valley, for example, visitors can take a guided tour through the talc mines that made the history of this valley, or take a spiritual trek through the magnificent protected areas of the Sacred Mountains.
Piedmont excels in its wine production, from Monferrato to the Langhe, from Astigiano to the Tortonesi Hills: the numerous wine trails lead to charming landscapes, with several stops at farms and wineries to taste wines and typical local produce, like the scented white truffle of Alba.
If you are looking for health and wellness on your holiday, you can choose one of the renowned spas of the region, such as Acqui Terme, surrounded by the striking remains of a Roman aqueduct.
Finally, hit up a few internationally-acclaimed cultural events and festivals, like the Book Fair and the famous chocolate fair, “Cioccolatò,” that take place every year in Turin – as well as food fairs and cultural events including the famous Ivrea Carnival, the Palio horse race of Asti and many more.
Green hills and vineyards that are easy on the eye, cities that are outdoor museums and historical meeting places are all distinguishing marks of the Italian landscape. The tradition of historical meeting places, particularly in Piemonte, is demonstrated by the presence of places that narrate – to this day – the very special understatement that portrays this region and its inhabitants. Those who visit Piemonte can indeed map out an itinerary of historical meeting places to see in various cities much like the way one would do when playing a board game. “Places from the Past”, for many years were centres of culture, historic meeting places that were also art salons and environments in which political ideas and civil passions took shape. Sitting in front of a cup of hot chocolate or a glass of vermouth, intellectuals and the most prominent characters of Italian and Piedmontese politics met. Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour, after having rejected Austria’s ultimatum and uttered the proud War Proclamation declared: “Today we have made history…now let’s go to dinner”. Every deputy and minister of the Kingdom of Italy, united at Palazzo Carignano, agreed to seal the important decision at the tables of Cambio, the famous restaurant in Piazza Carignano that celebrated its 250th birthday last year in Torino.
Besides Cambio, the city of the “Mole” boasts many shops with antique atmosphere such as the Caffè Baratti & Milano, whose history summarises the evolution of this city at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the Algostino de Michelis pharmacy in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, open since 1825, or the Stratta confectioner’s shop in Piazza San Carlo that Renzo Arbore, an enthusiastic collector of boxes stuffed with coloured sugar tablets, loves so much.
But authentic fragments of Italian history can be found pretty much anywhere. All one has to do is think of Caffè Converso at Bra, an ancient confectioner’s shop founded in 1838, frequented by Umberto di Savoia and – later on – by a camerata of writers that included Giovanni Arpino and Beppe Fenoglio. The Caffè Barbero in Cherasco, inaugurated in 1881 in pure Liberty Style; the Caffè Calissano, in the heart of Alba in the Piazza del Duomo that witnessed the arrival of artists from Cesare Pavese to painter-pharmacist Pinot Gallizio. Under the arcades of Cuneo, near the Teatro Toselli the Caffè Bruno can be seen. This cafè was founded by express desire of the Swiss family Raiter, one of the few meeting places attended by the poor. Here they could purchase crumbled “paste di meliga” (cornmeal cookies) at a reduced price.
If you want to understand the customs, tastes and desires of a people, you should get to know where they shop. Shopping in Piedmont means going to one of the 45 neighbourhood markets, rummaging around in search of curiosities and unique items in antique markets like the one in Cherasco or the historical Balon in Turin, which is written about in Fruttero and Lucentini’s novel, La donna della domenica or ”The Sunday Woman.” You should have a sharp eye out and a lot of time at hand to find the weird and often unique objects at the stands of the flea markets or to find original decorations at the little Christmas markets.
However, markets are but one part in the complex commercial system in Piedmont. There are numerous traditional workshops, such as those of the goldsmiths of in Valenza Po, of the master cabinet makers in Saluzzo, and of the ceramists in Mondovì and Castellamonte as well as of the masters of gastronomy all over the region. Piedmont Region has rewarded the activities of several workshops with its seal of handicraft excellence. Outlet villages, the current development of factory-direct distribution, make up another centre of attraction for avid shoppers in Piedmont. The first outlet in Italy opened in Serravalle in Alessandria Province and hundreds of others have followed. Finally, there are the shopping centres, where going shopping offers people a chance to walk around, drink a coffee, listen to music, and perhaps go to the movies.