Piemonte-2013 Archives

July 11, 2013

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.




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.


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,


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.

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.


July 12, 2013

Monday in Monferrato--Market, Santuario, Hilltop Drive


We woke to the beginnings of the cloud cover starting to lift off the Apinnenes that we can just see from our window. We were starting to run low on food and food shops are generally closed on Mondays in Italy, except for large supermarkets. We decided to head over to the nearby village of Murisengo for their weekly market. Most Italian markets are almost more about the dry goods than the food. Large vans open up to display clothing, shoes, hardware, gardening supplies, toys; and the food is usually clustered at one end. We parked and walked up to the market, peering down a side street to see an older woman tending her stoop against the backdrop of the Alps.




There's always the "Old Guy's Bench" somewhere. Amusingly, the gentleman in the blue vest is one of Toni's neighbors.


We bought picnic supplies,and drove up to the Santuario di Crea, above Serralunga, an attractive stone town perched on the hill. The Sanctuary was built in the 17th century on the site of an earlier church, and over the years small chapels were added on the hillside. You can follow a path past the chapels, peering through little windows to see the frescoes and terra-cotta statues inside. Not great art, a few chapels had slightly odd images, but it was an interesting walk. There are many picnic tables along the route, and lots of people were eating lunch.




After our picnic lunch we went inside the Sanctuary. In a dark hall to the right were hung many 19th and 20th century ex-votos, representations of thanks to Mary for sparing a loved one's life after illness or accident. They usually have a primitive painting of the incident, ranging from a difficult birth, to being trampled by a horse, or a car accident in more recent times. I appreciate them for the reminders of the fragility of life in times past, and for the emotion you can sense behind the events.


We drove down to Moncalvo, but as the town was firmly shut down for the afternoon rest, continued on. We thought we'd drive out to the regional enoteca in Vignale Monferrato. This turned out to be an extraordinary drive, skirting ridges between hilltop towns, vineyards, wheat fields, nut trees, and the mountains in the background.


We saw a sign advertising hazelnut products for sale, and found a lovely agriturismo where we shown around by a charming young man--who turned out to be Matteo, who hosted Joe from Israel a few years ago. This looks like quite the nice place to stay, just outside Moncalvo. We bought delicious hazelnuts, and a bottle of wine.

Arriving in Vignale, we learned that the castello where the enoteca was housed was undergoing restoration. Ah well, it was a wonderful drive.


For dinner, we went to the agriturismo just down the road, Cascina Rosengana. Organic produce, you can pick how many courses from the verbal menu and split courses. "One for two" was still too much food. A parade of four antipasti (prosciutto and lardo; local robbiola with condiment; veal crudo with local gorgonzola; zucchini and almond flan). Then agnolotti so perfect it doesn't need sauce, then beef with wonderful vegetables. No room for dessert, but of course bring on the grappa with coffee.




July 13, 2013

Tuesday--Vezzolano and Views


Woke to a bright clear day--so clear in fact that we could see snow on the mountains. We drove the short distance over to Albugnano, where the 12th century Abbey of Vezzolano is just outside the town. As we entered the parking area we wondered if the Abbey was open--there were no cars, and a backhoe and crew were busily digging up the walkway. We walked down, and found the doors of the church locked. Chiuso, (closed), the bane of Italy tourism.


Larry found a doorbell at a side gate, and after a few minutes a woman came to unlock the door. Just inside is a marvelous carving of scenes from the life of Mary, and underneath are portraits of her ancestors. In the cloister to the side of the church are remains of frescos, including a rather macabre one of visions of death. On the other side was an exhibit of other Romanesque churches in the area, which made us eager to find some of them. I love how small they generally are, enclosing a community and built with simple artistry.



Your choice of bathrooms in a little outbuilding outside. The ladies room had a seat, yay.

Back up the road to Albugnano, where we found tiny 11nth century St. Pietro just inside the town cemetery.


We continued up the road into the Centro, following the sign for a" vista panoramica." We parked in a small lot, and enjoyed the view down and across to where the Alps were clearly visible. We walked uphill, and found a pretty little park with benches and a few picnic tables, and the view was even better. Lovely spot, and with the help of my camera lens we could even see to the Superga above Torino.


We had arranged to meet Toni and some friends for lunch, so drove over to Murisengo. We had an excellent lunch at Cafe della Fontana (via Umberto I , 97) where Michela the owner served me some damn fine gnocchi, in a sauce of local gorgonzola. Nice people, good cooking. We had fun meeting Jenny and Kim, Australians who retired, sold everything, and have been traveling the world ever since.

After lunch, we walked with Toni through Villadeati, the village where another of her rentals is located. A Fascist-era wall slogan, and just below a memorial to the village men who were killed in a German reprisal were sobering reminders of the more recent past in Italy.


Drove some pretty roads in the area, and then headed back to Cocconato. Nice evening of a simple dinner, good wine, and a book.

July 29, 2013

Wednesday in Piemonte--Alba and Around


We decided this morning to take a little trip south to revisit two elegant towns we enjoyed on our last Piemonte trip, Alba and Cerasco. Amusingly, we found parking in the same lot we used last time, on the edge of the Centro. We first stopped in the Tourist office for a good map, and then wandered the pretty streets. The last time we were here it was market day, so it was nice to experience Alba on a quieter morning. There were very few others clutching maps or guidebooks, and we enjoyed just walking around, eyeing the rather expensive truffle items displayed in shop windows, stopping for coffee, poking into a church or two. I was amused to see a class of preschoolers being led in fingerplays by their teacher as the other passed out little gelato treats. And seeing that some things are universal, as some children immediately burst into tears when they did not get their first choice of flavors.


I wanted to go to Cherasco, as the last time we were there was on a Monday morning, and the town was firmly shuttered. We spent far too long on the awful truck route south of Alba (where there were several of the roadside prostitutes, I sincerely hope not the same unfortunate women we saw in 2007). We finally arrived in Cherasco, and easily found street parking. Cherasco isn't mentioned much in guidebooks, but it's an interesting Renaissance town to walk around for an hour. Lovely old buildings, a main street bracketed by huge arches, and in cooler weather, several chocolate shops.We didn't think to call ahead to see if we could get into the old Synagogue, which we'll do the next time we're in Piemonte.



By now it was approaching lunchtime. We sat in a shady corner to pull out our phones and look at restaurant reviews. I'm always tugged by places with positive reviews all in Italian, so we called a place just outside Cherasco named Locanda del Prof. It's on an unassuming local road , via Bra 33, in the back of a pink house perched between a seedy-looking motel and an auto parts store. We pulled in, and an elegantly-dressed woman popped out the door to welcome us. They have a tiny patio in the back, where we decided to sit. The owners are a charming older couple, and the food was spectacular.

We began by talking wine. We told the owner that we just wanted a glass apiece instead of a full bottle, what did he have that would be interesting? He brought out an unlabeled bottle from "a friend" for us to taste--a delicious barolo. Yes, please. We ordered carne crudo to share, and a minute later there began a furious pounding sound from inside. We were then served amazing plates of freshly pounded meat, to dress as we pleased. Melt-in-your-mouth. Remembering my marvelous pasta from yesterday, Larry ordered gnocchi with gorgonzola, which was so heavenly he had to guard it from my fork. I had tajarin with an aromatic rago. We split a hazlenut dessert, and ended with espresso. A group of young men accompanied by a large dog shared the patio, and the dog was treated to a dish of meat. If it was the same carne crudo I was eating, that dog had quite the treat. Lunch was 54 euros, a bargain for the quality.



We rolled out and on to Barolo. We parked and walked over to the regional enoteca. Closed on Wednesday! We got a lot of shrugs at the neighboring wine museum when we asked why, as the sign said it should have been open. Ah well, Barolo had plenty of open shops happy to let us taste and purchase. Because of the complexities of packing for Switzerland and Italy, we did not have nearly the baggage room to buy as many bottles as we would have liked, and Larry was not about to pay a premium to have wine shipped. Ah well, another reason to return.


We stopped in La Morra to admire the views, and then attempted to find the Capella della Brunate, the deconsecrated tiny church painted by Sol LeWitt. A sign pointed ambiguously between two roads. We tried both, eventually headed down a steep unpaved road through a vineyard, but didn't see it. We're probably the only tourists in La Morra who blinked and missed it. Ah well, yet one more reason to return.


Drove home, salad and wine for dinner.

August 2, 2013

Friday in Monferrato--Morning in Vercelli


For a change of pace, today we headed north to the small city of Vercelli, as I'd heard it had an interesting old centro. Vercelli is in the rice producing region, and as we got closer the landscape turned flat, with rice fields stretching off from the road. We maneuvered through the outskirts, and found parking off viale Garibaldi, a street with a tree-shaded pedestrian strip down the middle. We walked over to the Basilica di St. Andrea, a lovely church with elements of Romanesque and Gothic.



As we were slowly walking around, we were greeted by a priest who had been quietly sitting in a pew. He began pointing out parts of the interior, and before we knew it he was unlocking doors, telling us the history of the building, of Vercelli, and the amazing wood carvings, inlaid marble, paintings,and rooms in the Basilica. He had no English, but Larry was pretty much able to keep up with most of the Italian and French. This was such a treat, to be shown around by someone with so much passion and warmth.





From the Basilica, we walked over to the 16th century Cathedral. There was a funeral taking place inside, so we didn't go in. We continued our walk further into the centro, where we found a lively market taking place. This part of Vercelli is quite old, with some interesting and quite elgant architecture. There are a few small museums in the city, but we were happy to just sit with a coffee. We spent some time relaxing, watching Vercelli go about its business.



For lunch, we took a chance on Ristorante Vecchia Brenta, on via Morsone. An old-fashioned looking place decorated in pink and green.The other diners ranged from large family groups to business people to little old ladies. Amusingly, donkey was on the menu several times. We began with a plate of mixed salumi, which included a few very dark, rich slices of salami that may have been from one of those little guys. We then had an excellent vegetable risotto for two, with artichoke and asparagus. This, plus two glasses of good wine, and coffee, was 42 euros.



Back "home" we spent some time beginning to pack up and then just lazed around with some wine and books. Threw together sauteed zucchini, tomatoes and pasta for dinner from the little market under the porticos in Cocconato.

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