When in October this year, the eponymous travel guide, Lonely Planet, announced Piedmont to be the number one destination to visit in 2019, those of us already smitten by this region probably shrugged and said ‘what took you so long?”
The Italian region of Piedmont (or Piemonte if you want the Italian name) has hidden its light under a bushel for years, regarded well by only those who either ski, love food & wine, or are European history buffs. In the regional capital, Turin, external tourism is barely acknowledged, although it is a city beloved by the French and understandably so. For several centuries, Piedmont was controlled by the royal House of Savoy and indeed, the greatest legacy in Turin itself is arguably that of the Savoyards.
So, if you have been swayed by Lonely Planet to think about Piedmont (after probably having said “where?!” and then remembered either The Italian Job or the 2006 Winter Olympics), how should you start?
In very broad terms, you can look at three areas: the Alps and the foothills, Turin and its surrounds and then the southern hills - the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato all already Unesco World Heritage sites. The unifying aspects of these three areas are food and wine: it difficult to eat badly in Piedmont (assuming one is wise enough to avoid the ubiquitous food chains of which there are mercifully few) and I urge you to ignore the exterior of restaurants and bars, may of which are not that inviting and treat yourself to the best cheese, beef, veal and wine in the world. And then there is the chocolate and the vegetables and…oh, look just go and see for yourself.
Turin is, in my opinion, one of the most elegant, handsome and graceful cities in Italy, if not the world. If your concept of Italian cities is rooted in the Renaissance or Roman periods, Turin will come as something of a surprise. Although there are highly visible Roman remains and some medieval areas, the Renaissance largely passed it by, for which thank the Savoyards who at the time neglected the city. Move on to the Baroque era however, and you have an example par excellence of all that is best in that period.
It is also the cradle of the Risorgimento, which led to the unification of Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century. This was far from a bloodless revolution and I urge you to visit the Museum of the Risorgimento contained within the first Italian Parliament building. Turin was the first capital of the newly united Italy and this building is a superb example of the ornate red brick architecture that typifies many Piedmont buildings of the era.
Turin has so much to offer that I am having difficulty stopping; just let me say go to Porto Palazzo the biggest food market in Europe and go to the Cinema Museum in the Mole. Walk everywhere, stop for coffee or an aperitivo when ever you feel like it, people watch, stroll along the river, go to Superga and Stupinigi and Veneria Reale….see, I said I couldn’t stop.
After the buzz and baroque of Turin, hire a car and head south to the gentle landscapes of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato, all places where some of the best wine in the world is made. Visit stunning hilltop towns that are so photogenic you may wonder if Hollywood had a hand in them. Find local producers of cheese that you may never find again as this time next year, the climate may have been subtly different so it won’t taste quite the same. Observe how man and nature have created some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world and wonder why you haven’t been before. Slow down to the pace around you, then realise why, in the words of Unesco, this place is “an exceptional living testimony to the historical tradition of grape growing and winemaking processes, of a social context, and a rural economy based on the culture of wine.” The official reason for inclusion as a Unesco World Heritage site includes these words: ‘the vineyards of Langhe Roero and Monferrato are an outstanding example of man’s interaction with his natural environment”. So beautiful a place, not to be missed in a lifetime.
The third area of Piedmont to explore is the Alps and the foothills. These beautiful imposing mountains hold Piedmont in a cradle of peaks running from the north east of Turin, north of beautiful Lake Maggiore curving west and forming the border with France until they gently roll into the Mediterranean west of Ventimiglia.
If you love mountains, as I do (I’d rather be up a mountain than on a beach any day) this long, majestic arc of young mountains with their snow capped peaks will captivate and exercise a certain fascination. There is so much to see and do in these mountains, whether you are strolling the shores of a lake in the north, marvelling at how, from 983AD, builders created the stupefying Sacra di San Michele on a seemingly inaccessible peak, or simply gazing at their beauty from the splendid food market in Saluzzo in the south. I find these mountains particularly effective for reminding me to bring a sense of proportion to my life. Gazing at them is almost a meditative experience for me which I don’t find anywhere else. Oh and the skiing is pretty good, too!
I can imagine at this point my Piedmontese friends will be saying what about so and so, what about the rice growing, what about here, there and everywhere…yes, I have omitted many Piedmont jewels, but this is blog post, not a guide book and I suppose my main objective was to tempt you to Turin and her region. Yes, the economy needs tourism but no one wants our beautiful city to become a Venice or a Florence, cities which have all but sold their souls to tourism.
So, as Lonely Planet says, at first Piedmont and particularly Turin can seem more French than Italian. But to dismiss the region on that basis is to overlook the innate “Italian-ness” of the area; many of the commodities we think of quintessential Italian are Piedmontese. Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lavazza, the iconic Moka pot, Nutella, Ermenegildo Zegna…all Piedmontese. So this year, give Tuscany a miss and come to the north…you will be surprised and enchanted.
To get in touch with Jan you can find her on Twitter @TheWatchfulCook and her website.
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