Sunday in the Monferrato--Synagogue and Castello
On Saturday we drove from Bologna to our little rental in the village of Coconato above Asti. In the Fall I had contacted Toni, the owner of the house we rented last time between Asti and Alba. Unfortunately, her places were already booked. She referred me to her friend Karen who was renovating a place. After some e-mails, we decided to go with this little rental--it was in what I'd heard was a great village, it was in an area I'd wanted to explore, and it was extremely reasonable. This being Italy, the renovation took far longer than expected, but Karen kept me informed of the progress with e-mails and photos. The house is just on the edge of the village, and from the main room there's a gorgeous view down the valley and across to other hills. Cute, simple, comfortable. The village has some wonderful food shops and several restaurants, and is vibrant and charming. http://caginotaholidayrental.jimdo.com/
On Sunday, we drove up to Casale Monferrato. There is a Baroque synagogue there that is only open on Sundays. We arrived in town at about 10, and parked in a large lot near the Castello.Many of the shops on via Roma (there's always a via Roma, isn't there?) were open, and lots of people were strolling, and sitting in cafes. We easily found the synagogue. There has been a Jewish community in Casale since the expulsion from Spain in 1492. They were walled into Ghettos for long periods of time, and it wasn't till 1848 that the Jews in the Savoy were given civil rights. In 1931 there were 112 Jews, most were arrested during the War, and today just two Jewish families live in Casale. The synagogue was originally built on the site in the 16th century, expanded and was decorated in the Baroque style in the 18th century. Only on Yom Kippur are services held, when a Minyan can be held as far-flung members of the community gather with a Rabbi. The synagogue is also used for weddings by couples from the US and Israel.
We were given a wonderful tour by a member of the community named Ariel, who made pains to inform an Italian couple from Puglia about the traditions and significance of the Synagogue and the upstairs museum. I was struck by how little this couple knew, and it brought home how such a small proportion of the world is exposed to Judaism. After this couple left, Ariel continued the tour just for us. Upstairs in the Museum are beautiful artifacts--Torahs, textiles, silver Torah crowns, many household and holiday articles. There is also a little museum of contemporary menorahs from around the world in the basement. The Synagogues hours do change often, so check the website before going. http://www.casalebraica.info/?lang=en
Wandered over to the Castello, where the regional enoteca had just opened. Tasted some wines, and bought one bottle to drink, one to bring home. So much wine, so little time.
We had an excellent lunch in Casale, in a restaurant which looked fancy but was very welcoming. We shared an antipasto of a delicious red pepper flan with anchovy sauce. I had wonderful ravioli stuffed with asparagus, and Larry had chicken rolled around an herb stuffing. Local wine, and fun to observe the tables of elderly friends and local families having Sunday pranzo. Osteria Amarotto, http://www.osteriaamarottocasale.it/
On weekends, an outfit called Castelli Aperti organizes open houses or tours of privately-owned castles in the region. On our last trip we were lucky enough to bump into these openings. The website is a bit clunky to use, but the Calendar gives listings by date, usually no more than a week or two in advance. http://www.castelliaperti.it/index_eng.lasso
We'd seen that the Castello di Piovera would be open at 3:30. We raced over, and found parking just outside the gates at 3:30. This area near the Po is much flatter, and the fields are planted in wheat and rice. The elderly Count and his wife gave the tour through the unlived-in castle. About a million rooms filled with an astonishing array of family junk, complete with moldy walls and crumbling faux fresco. Room after room, filled with tools, cameras, rocks and mineral collections, hats, torn furniture, antique weapons, oddball taxidermy (Some ancestor had a thing for alligators) --punctuated by glass-eyed dummies wearing torn costumes and ratty wigs. The best part was climbing four stories up to the shaky-looking tower, then down to the scary basement kitchens. No photos allowed inside, sadly. The outbuildings house artist studios and teaching space for programs for children, and the present owners live in a smaller, more modern house on the grounds. You can certainly see how difficult it is to maintain, restore or sell such an enormous place.
Headed back home, made eggplant and salad for dinner. Good vegetables and fresh cheese, it's hard to go wrong.