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So, Ok, But, Well, Why Acqui Terme?

Diana Strinati Baur

If I have been asked one question, over and over, it would be this one. My answer is, of course, subjective and completely biased. I think Acqui Terme is the nicest city in Italy.

Let me tell you what I think feels so right, so precious and so unforgettable about this small jewel of a city. It starts with some very deep roots in history.

Piemonte always gets the rap that there is no Renaissance art here. And that’s very true. If you want Renaissance Art, go to Florence. Don’t come here.

But history is something Acqui Terme is steeped in. The hot, thermal waters of this area were discovered over two thousand one hundred and fifty years ago by the Romans and their marauding partners in crime, the Ligurian Statielli, who crossed over the Maritime Alps and thought, okay, this is hot water. That’s a good thing. They set up camp and proceeded to make Acqui Statielli (the name at the time) a center for trade, which was of strategic importance, since it protected those mountains from tribes coming down from the northern plains.

Between the second century BC and the third century AD, many important structures were completed in Acqui Statielli – an amphitheater (no longer existing), ancient baths (still can be visited as a historical ruin), and the most important aqueduct in Piemonte, a portion of which can still be seen on the outskirts of the city.

Arches

Arches

After the fall of the Empire, the city was abandoned, but was revived in the fourth century as an economically and politically strategic post. In the sixth century, it became a part of the kingdom of Lombardia and became an independent commune in the twelfth century. In 1278, the city was annexed by the Marchese of Monferrat (the region would be permanently named after the Marchese – hence it is called the Monferrato) until it was taken over by the Savoy in the 17th century.

From that time until the period shortly before the Second World War, Acqui Terme was a destination thermal spa city for residents of the area and beyond. In Mussolini’s time, the thermal facility was declared the Property of the People and fell into complete financial ruin and utter disrepair, from which it did not fully recover until the 1980’s. Over 120 million Euros have been invested in the city over the last twenty years, rebuilding and renewing every aspect of its infrastructure – from the facades, to the thermal spa facilities, to the Pavilion housing the springs themselves. It is perhaps one of the most authentically restored cities in this part of Italy – with a great deal of attention paid to original plans and intentions. One small historic amphitheater has been completely dug out and restored, and the Amphitheater G. Verdi, located on the city’s upper Piazza, houses local, national and international performances during the summer.

***

When we first came to Piemonte and decided to look for property, we set up house on a regular basis at the Relais dell’Osso in the historic center of town. It is a small, plain yet eclectic, strange yet comforting bed and breakfast. There, after a day of seeing every imaginable kind of nightmarish house scenario, we would be fed by Lele and Carla in their adjacent restaurant, whose service and food is a bit inconsistent, but always worth the risk. With only four tables in the winter, it can be pretty personal experience. A winter evening at La Loggia Ristorante can go something like this:

Lele comes out, and presents something in a basket. This can be anything from a cut of veal to huge porcini to some tomatoes. He proceeds to tell you what is going to happen to this product and retreats to the kitchen. You know at this moment this is NOT the night to order from the menu. That would be a mistake and would make the very audible discussion in the kitchen get worse.

Something completely unrelated yet totally delicious comes out of the kitchen. Everyone is confused and by this time all the guests are talking to each other.

Someone starts to play the piano. Singing can now be heard in the kitchen.

You pay at the end much less than you had feared and Lele has trouble adding up the bill correctly.

Using this quirky place in Acqui as our base, we struck out and saw most of Piemonte. The thing was, we really had no desire, none at all, to stay in any other town in Piemonte. WHY in the world were we looking in the far flung corners of Cuneo Province and Biella? Acqui had become home before we even found a home.

***

So, here, in a nutshell, is the Acqui Terme Top Ten List:

  1. It’s kind of hip. Which is weird. We have lots of designers and artists, architects and restorers who have taken up residence here. Why should we have four home design shops, ten cool boutiques, seven fabulous restaurants and even more great cafés AND a very hip bar where the “young people” go to show off their D&G and Napajiri? It makes no sense, considering this is the heart of agricultural wine country but yes, it is so. Acqui is, by the Monferrato definition, the coolest place to be.
  2. Balalah

    Balalah is our most stylish shop, our hippest cafe and our main internet stop

  3. It’s very thermal. We have two major spa facilities, and you can get every imaginable kind of treatment here. I mean, people come from all over Northwestern Italy to take the waters of Acqui Terme. That’s a big deal, in Piemontese terms. My tip: stay in town for spa facilities. There is a whole section of town dedicated to thermal services, but the nicest are right in town at the Nuovo Terme Hotel, Piazza Italia. You can get a day pass and make appointments for special treatments. English is spoken.

    Where the water comes to the surface, in the middle of the city, there is the Piazza Bollente, where people gather daily, drink and wash their hands and face in the sulfuric scented, 75° Centigrade fountain. They say the water helps cleanse the liver. I suppose after all of the wine that is consumed here, it makes them feel better to actually drink something healthy—but sulfur water? Must it really be so? I don’t know.
  4. Piazza Bollente

    Piazza Bollente

  5. It’s beautiful. Our guests are always astounded how aesthetically pleasing Acqui Terme is. Often they will go into town, come back, and say “Was that all there is to see?” I say, no, if you got through the town in five minutes, you missed most of it. You must take your time and wander through the small passage ways, the cobblestone streets. By the third visit, 99% of our guests are enchanted. That is a statistical fact.
  6. They like tourists here. Mostly because there are so few of them. The Piemontese speak very little English, but do their best to make travelers feel welcome. The locals are so happy when travelers like the area. It makes them feel proud, even though they don’t necessarily see why anyone would want to come here voluntarily. One of my friends said, “But why do people come here at all? All you can do here is eat and drink.” Well, ok, that’s a great place to start.
  7. The wine. Oh just forget it. I could do an entire book about this subject (note to self: write best seller about Piemontese wine). Three minutes out of the town and you are in Moscato, Brachetto, Dolcetto and Barbera country. It is breathtaking to drive out of the city ... in any direction. We have what is probably the most awesome enoteca in Italy here. It is called LaCuria and offers a full buffet of stunning foods when you buy a glass from their selection of open wines. Oh, and they will open any bottle you want – just be careful what the glass price is if you happen to ask for an ´89 Gaja.
  8. Lacuria

    Lacuria

  9. The food. Ok, well, of course everyone knows Piemonte has the best food in Italy. (stop yelling at your computer screens, you residents of other regions, it’s my turn here). La Curia, the enoteca listed in point 5, is also one of the best restaurants in town, as has been documented by our many pleased guests – it receives the “your top button on your trousers is open” award almost every year, as does I Caffi, perhaps the finest restaurant in Piemonte. But just to be fair, we have just as many simple, mom-and-pop restaurants where the portions are generous, the prices are fair (almost frighteningly so for our guests who have only experienced Tuscany before coming here) and the food quality is amazing. Ravioli Plin. Vitello Tonnato. Bagna Cauda. Carne Cruda. Risotto con Funghi. Farinata. It goes on. And on.
  10. Wine and Cheese

    Wine and Cheese

  11. The infrastructure. Acqui is reachable from five major airports – Malpensa, Linate, Nice, Genoa and Torino. You can be in the city of Torino within an hour and fifteen minutes and in Genoa within an hour. You can also be walking on the French Riviera within two hours, or be skiing in the Alps within the same time frame. The Swiss border at Maggiore and Como are each an hour and a half away.

    Acqui is in the Trenitalia line coming from Alessandria. The cities of Alessandria and Asti are each reachable within 45 minutes, and Alba is about an hour away. The road systems in this part of Piemonte are excellent and being improved constantly.
  12. The proximity to the Med. Acqui is an hour from Genoa, as mentioned above. An additional 20 minutes will get you to Portofino and to Camogli, two of the most popular outposts in Liguria. But a quick 45 minutes away is the local beach community of Albisole, which is really an Italian holiday destination and ceramics village. For a quick day at the beach, we often head there – it’s quick and easy, and the town has a lovely promenade.
  13. The lifestyle. It’s small town life coupled with the advantages of living in a small city. We have enough choice in terms of restaurants and shopping to be able to keep from being bored and looking elsewhere, but everyone knows you when you walk through town. People in Acqui are very sociable and always ready to stop for a chat or a quick cup of coffee. Since the city is stylish, you never feel far away from civilization here, which was important to us, since we both were used to urban environments before coming here.
  14. The neighbors. I often have said we would be dead in the water if it were not for the kindness of our neighbors. Living in the country can be a daunting experience, even with the city only five minutes away. But from the first moment, we were surrounded by kindness and a sense that we are not alone, which has helped us through a number of calamities.

But then again, don’t take my word for it. Come and visit Acqui Terme yourself and see what you think.

Just don’t expect any Renaissance Art!!

Interesting Links:

The Terme at Acqui Terme

Acqui Terme and Alto Monferrato

The Monferrato

Additional resources:

Piemonte Vacation Rentals

Piemonte Restaurant Reviews

Piemonte hotel, B&B and Restaurants

Discuss this article in our forums


Diana Strinati Baur is a potter and innkeeper at the Baur B&B in Acqui Terme, Italy.

© Diana Strinati Bar, 2009. Do not republish without permission.

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