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Walking to paradise in the Monferrato - Sacro Monte di Crea
Last Sunday we took some houseguests on a picnic to one of our favorite spots in the Basso Monferrato, the Sacred Mountain of Crea.
The Basso Monferrato
Not many foreign tourists venture into the Northern Monferrato hills, between Asti and the Po River. This is a country of gentle rolling hills blanketed by a tapestry of mixed forest, vineyards, orchards, crop-fields and pastures, studded with tiny hilltop villages, churches and small castles. It is quite calming and different from the better-known southern Monferrato and Langhe hills, which are in some parts wall-to-wall vines, although not too long ago they, too, would have had the same aspect.
This region shares the same traditions of wine, food and truffles and has other treasures, including some of Piedmont’s finest examples of Romanesque churches dating back to the 8th century (of which the Abbazia di Vezzolano is the most famous) and one of Italy’s “sacred mountains” at Crea, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The sacred mountains, or “calvaries” in Europe date back to the counter-reformation in the 16th & 17th centuries (although many were located on much older places of worship) and are found in many countries, notably Poland, Germany, Hungary, Spain and France. Usually they have a series of small chapels depicting biblical scenes winding up a hillside to a church on top, and were used as pilgrimage sites. Piedmont has 12 Sacri Monti, six of them under protection as cultural heritage sights and include Varallo, the oldest, and Orta next to the lake.
The Sacro Monte di Crea is about 30 minutes scenic drive north of Asti or west from Casale Monferrato. It is located on one of the highest hills at the edge of the Monferrato and the Vercelli rice plains. The views are quite stunning, looking in one direction at the hillsides with vineyards and woodlands, and the other at the flatland extending to the Po River. The drive is not too daunting - there is a good road running up to the church and convent complex, with adequate parking, although on Sundays and festivals you might have to park some distance and walk.
Its history started around 350 AD with the construction of a chapel by Saint Eusebio, who brought a Madonna statue back from the Holy Land - it now forms the oldest construction in Crea and became the focus of a “Marian” cult. It is supposed that the location would have previously been dedicated to pagan deities and this is also my own impression, since the hill carries a certain feeling as a power spot, not to mention the symbiosis between old earth mother worship and the Virgin Mary in the repressive period of the middle ages. In around 500 AD, a church was built on the site of the old oratory, later expanded and improved in 1600. A convent and cloisters adjoining the church date back to the 13th century.
The construction of the actual “Sacred mount chapels” commenced in 1586. Originally, 15 were built, sponsored by the Duke of Monferrato and other rich nobles, and later the number rose to 40, built with the aid of local communities. During the Napoleonic Period many were abandoned and destroyed. In the mid-19th century there was a period of restoration with several new chapels added. Today, there are 23 chapels and 5 hermitages in two distinct styles (both 16th and 19th Centuries).
These chapels wind their way up the hill from the church and inside each there are life-size dioramas with statues and paintings depicting scenes in the life of the Madonna and Jesus (as well as two of Saint Eusebius). The chapels are viewed though a grilled door and we were struck by the artwork on the walls and domed ceilings and the location in such a way to catch the sunlight at certain times of the day. Each chapel has a post with its them, date and restoration progress. Some of the interiors were restored 10 years ago; some have not been touched since the 19th century (and are in need of restoration). The paintings and statues are quite incredible and Crea is highly regarded for its artwork especially in the Chapel of Saint Margherita in the old church complex.
The paths up the hill are excellently maintained with good stone steps on the (medium) steep parts and the hill also forms a nature park with many native trees, plants and shrubs and bird life. We went on an early spring day with partially sunny skies, and had a picnic on one of the many outdoor tables on the path. It was very beautiful as all the spring flowers were out, the trees were just starting to leaf, so the hill wasn’t bare, but not yet in full summer cover, which enhanced the views. The birds were in full song.
We followed the original pilgrims path with stops to meditate on the chapels or the views, up to the spectacular Cappella del Paradiso, (Paradise) at the summit. This chapel, recently restored, features a domed ceiling with all the saints seated on three layered ledges; suspended in the middle, the Virgin Mary ascends to heaven in a cloud of angels. You can enter this chapel for a modest fee (1 euro) and browse a small museum in the crypt which houses older parts of statues found on the site. Hokey? Maybe, if you are not a believer, but after the walk, we found a lawn behind the chapel and took a nap on one of the benches, soaking up the spring sunshine and the peaceful well-being radiating from the chapel on top of the hill.
As well as the picnic tables mentioned, there is also a good restaurant in the complex (closed on Monday) serving typical Monferrato dishes and wines (try the Tenuta La Tenaglia, an estate on the Crea hillside; you can also visit the winery), and a good café-bar for light meals. There are also rooms for the night for serious pilgrims.
I have been to this Sacred Mountain twice and each time I find something new about the place. I think it's well worth adding to anyone’s agenda of things to do in Piedmont. Include it as part of a tour of the Northern Monferatto, or on the way to the Lakes or Malpensa, or even as a whole day trip, whether for devotional or recreational purpose.
© Tim Brewer, 2008
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