In the landlocked north of Italy sharing its borders with France and Switzerland and surrounded on three sides by the Alps is Piemonte, the second largest of the 20 Italian regions. Its name derives from Medieval Latin, ad pedem montium, which literally means ‘at the foot of the mountains’.
Piemonte provides visitors with the opportunity to explore its alpine habitats, unique countryside and its internationally renowned ski resorts. The region has 160,000 hectares of protected land, including two national parks: the Val Grande, Italy’s largest wilderness area, and the Gran Paradiso, named after the 4,061-metre mountain part of the Graian Alps that run through the park and include Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, or as the Piemontese call it, il bianco ‘the white one’.
Piemonte also boasts Italy’s largest river: the Po, at 652 km, flows through the region’s capital city, Turin, on its way across the country to its exit in the Gulf of Venice. The river Po has been instrumental in shaping and maintaining the great rice plains of Piemonte and its tributaries feed the vineyards of this vast region.
Getting out and about is easy in Piemonte, there’s a good rail and bus infrastructure, meaning a car is only required for the most inaccessible areas.
For exploring Le Langhe, Alba makes for a good base. With its cobbled streets, red-brick towers and Baroque palaces, Alba is one of Piemonte’s more beautiful towns. No trip to the town would be complete without a glass of Barolo, the King of Italian red wine, and a dish of pasta with a shaving of the acclaimed white truffle that’s unique to the area.
Saluzzo, in the province of Cuneo, makes a good place to stay for anyone interested in seeing the western valleys and for the dramatic alpine northern areas; Varallo, in the province of Vercelli features the sanctuary of Sacro Monte, the oldest and the most important place of worship of the alpine region.
With so many places of interest in Piemonte and so much to see, it’s hard to single out any one attraction worthy of a visit, but my three places not to be missed are:
Sacra di San Michele
Thirty minutes from Turin is the abbey that inspired Umberto Eco to write the groundbreaking novel, "Il Nome della Rosa" ("The Name of the Rose"), which later became a successful film starring Sean Connery.
Considered to be one of the most important examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe, the abbey is reached by 243 steps known as Scalone dei Morti (Stairs of the Dead), where corpses would be laid out for people to come to pay their respects. The climb that takes you to the famous entrance arch complete with carvings of the signs of the zodiac is worth it for the views alone.
Overnight stays in one of the many cells can be arranged for those wanting to soak up the eerie atmosphere of the Gothic-Romanesque abbey.
Museo dello Spazzacamino
For something completely different, why not visit the Chimney Sweep Museum at Santa Maria Maggiore, a 25-minute drive from the northern Piemontese town of Domodossola. Established in 1983, the museum reflects the traditional customs of the people from the Vigezzo Valley.
The chimney sweep trade used to be widespread, especially amongst small children who were recruited to climb into chimneys and sweep out the soot. The Museum houses tools, clothes and utensils as well as photographs and other chimney sweep related material.
For opening times and further information call +39.0324.905675+39.0324.905675. The museum has disabled access.
Santuario di Vicoforte
Forty minutes from Cuneo, the main town in southern Piemonte, is the town of Vicoforte with its imposing Baroque church that claims to have the world’s largest elliptical dome, the Santuario Regina Montis Regalis.
Legend says that a frescoed pillar at the church with a painting of the Madonna and Child bled after it was accidentally shot at by a hunter. To protect it from any further stray bullets, the pillar is now displayed behind the altar of the church beneath its 36-metre dome.
The church also houses a museum displaying all manner of ecclesiastical items spread out over a jumbled, hotchpotch of rooms, everything from ceremonial costumes to photographs of people whose alleged visit to the sanctuary cured them of various ailments.
Piemonte is served by Turin airport, with flights from the UK leaving Birmingham, Manchester and London daily; there are also flights from other European cities direct to Cuneo airport in the south. With over 2,000 km of railway lines, getting to most of Piemonte’s towns via any of the major Italian and European cities is also relatively easy.