Piedmont Italy Travel Guide
Why We Love Piedmont
Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian) is a region rich in contrasts bound together by a taste for tradition and prestigious wines. From the flat plains of the Po Valley and the mountain peaks of Monviso and Monte Rosa to the north, to the gently rolling Apennines in the south. In Piedmont you can visit dramatic medieval abbeys, castles and forts, magnificent baroque towns and pretty Alpine villages.
You can be skiing along the zigzag of pistes, fondly referred to as the Via Lattea (Milky Way) one day, and take in the calm easy serenity of Lake Orta and Isola San Giulio the next. Plus you will always having the opportunity to sample some of Italy’s most unique flavours in the locally produced wines of Le Langhe and Asti Monferrato and the gastronomic fare that punctuates every local festival, event and restaurant.
Piedmont is divided into eight provinces:
Turin, Asti, Cuneo, Biella, Vercelli, Novara, Alessandria and Verbano-Cusio-Ossola. It borders with France and Switzerland and within Italy itself, it rubs shoulders with the regions of Lombardy, Liguria, Aosta Valley and Emilia Romagna.
Despite the beauty of Piedmont’s natural landscapes and mouth-watering culinary crown of delights, tourists still haven’t completely discovered this charming corner of Italy. What makes this region so appealing though is the high quality experience it offers the discerning traveller. Quality is king, attention to detail never compromised. Piedmont focuses on sustaining and promoting local culture and traditions, preserving and celebrating its precious resources that it is happy to share from its doorstep at the foot of the Alps.
Asti and Il Monferrato
A breathtakingly beautiful area of Piedmont, Asti and Monferrato have become inextricably linked with fine wines and gastronomy. The landscape is dotted with historic castles, churches, towns and villages, is lush with flora and fauna in spring and boasts an assortment of festivals during the autumn months. The historic town centre of Asti is not to be missed as it is distinctive for its medieval streets and fortified houses built by local nobles in the 12th century. However, the province of Asti is most famous for its wine, with Asti town at the centre of this district. It produces some of Italy’s finest classic reds including Barbera, Freisa, Grignolino and Dolcetto. Nevertheless, their fame is surpassed internationally, by Martini & Rossi’s Asti Spumante and Moscato.
Asti’s wines can be sampled at the Sagre di Asti, a food and wine festival that starts on the second Sunday in September and includes the Douja d’Or wine festival.
The world famous Palio di Asti also takes place in this period on the third Sunday of September. This celebrated bareback horse race has its origins in a medieval battle between Asti and Alba, which was won by Asti. After the victory, a race took place around Alba’s city walls and thereafter around the city of Asti. It is the oldest recorded Palio in Italy.
The province of Asti is also rival to Alba from October to December during the white truffle season. However, despite the fact that Alba is more internationally renowned for its truffle fair some of the best examples of the pricey fungus are to be found in the surrounding soils of Asti. After all that food and drink a bit of rest and relaxation can be had at the nearby Roman spa town of Acqui Terme. The curative waters of the Bollente spring pour forth over the scalloped marble fountain in Piazza della Bollente. In the second half of the 20th century, people with ill health flocked to the town, which meant that its attraction as a tourist destination dwindled. However, a resurgence of interest in spas led to restoration work being done on many of the town’s existing thermal baths.
Alba and the Langhe
The hilly area to the south and east of the river Tanaro boasts a veritable treasure trove of picturesque villages, towns and agricultural landscapes. From the gently rolling vineyards of the Langa Bassa in the south some of Italy’s finest and famous wines are produced, including Barolo, Barbaresco, and Dolcetto.
Alba, the capital of Le Langhe and at the heart of the wine country, is also home to the pricey and pungent delicacy, the white truffle. What’s more, the soft, round hazelnut of Ferrero chocolate and Gianduja fame are to be found in the Langa Alta forests in the north and east of the region. Situated 62 kilometres south of Turin, Alba is also host to an annual truffle festival during October. Once known as the town of 100 towers, 20 of these remain dotted around the city centre. In close proximity to the main street, via Vittorio Emanuele and Piazza Risorgimento you will also find the city’s main cultural attractions, hotels, bars and restaurants.
Val di Susa
A place of chivalry, myths, legends and folklore, Val di Susa is the Alpine corridor down which Carthagian General Hannibal made his way to Rome. An ideal location for day trips and short breaks, the first sizeable town you come across 25 kilometres from Turin, with its town centre dating from medieval times, is Avigliana. Famous with the locals for its lakes, Lago Grande and Lago Piccolo don’t disappoint. Here you can enjoy swimming and sunbathing, relaxing walks, lakeside lunches, bird watching, barbecues and boating. Just a couple of kilometres out of Avigliana, perched on the craggy peak of Monte Pirchiriano is Sacra di San Michele, one of Piedmont’s most famous historical sites.
The oldest part of the abbey dates back to the 10th century. It was originally built for the Benedictine monks but from 1836 has been in the hands of the Rosminian Fathers. You can either drive or walk up to the top. The walk is a steep climb up Monte Pirchiriano to the Abbey and takes you past the fourteen stations of the cross. However, on clear days you will be rewarded with glorious views of the surrounding valley and snow-capped mountains. Making your way up the valley, you come to Susa itself. Susa boasts a number of Roman sites: the Roman Porta Savoia gate, the 11th century cathedral of San Giusto and Parco di Augusto once the site of the roman forum, which winds its way up to the Arco di Augusto and symbolises the peace pact between the Romans and the Val di Susa Celts.
Further on you can spot the ruins of the Terme Graziane which is thought to have been either an aqueduct or part of the town’s defence system. There is also a medieval castle, which has sat high above the town since the 10th century. As you approach the Alps, and just 12 kilometres from Susa, one other town not to be missed is Exilles. Guarded by its own stone fort, which is now a museum, Forte di Exilles gives the impression of being hewn out of the mountains themselves. This dramatic Celtic stronghold is a maze of narrow cobbled streets, networks of tunnels and medieval atmosphere, which remains untouched by mass tourism.
The upper Susa and Chisone valleys comprise part of the Via Lattea (Milky Way) a constellation of ski pistes. The 400 kilometres (250 miles) of ski runs (140 ski slopes) that zigzag over the Alps are popular with locals and International lovers of winter sports. Officially, the winter ski season starts on 8th December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and officially closes at the end of the Easter holidays although there is always something to see and do no matter what the season. Non-skiers can also enjoy white water rafting at Fenils near Cesana Torinese, hiking in three of the nature reserves in Val Chisone and Val di Susa and biking around Sauze D’Oulx.
This exclusive resort was the original idea of Giovanni Agnelli, founder of Fiat and was first built in the 1930s. It provides the most challenging pistes of the Via Lattea ski area. It boasts the area’s only Club Med and Europe’s highest golf course at over 2,000 metres, the latter which can be used after the snow thaws.
A series of hamlets along the valley floor, it is famous for cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing and has the longest series of trails in the area which are linked to the via Lattea. It is also famous for its Pomaretto wine and Genepi liqueurs, made from a mountain herb. Places to see are the Museo del Costume e delle Tradizioni delle Genti Alpine which exhibits everyday objects in recreations of a stable, kitchen, bedroom and breadroom. A particular feature of the valley are the sundials (Meridiane). About 140 of them exist in the valley and you can learn about their history (the oldest dates back to the 17th century) in Pragelato’s L’Ombra del tempo Centro di Documentazione sulla Meridian.
Near Pragelato is the largest fortification in Europe and the longest wall construction after the Great Wall of China: Forte di Fenestrelle. Building started in 1708 by Savoy Duke Vittorio Amedeo II. It comprises three forts: San Carlo, Tre Denti and delle Valli are joined together by a staircase of around 4,000 steps. The entire structure is about 5 kilometres long and climbs 700 metres up the mountainside. An exhibition of military uniforms reconstructs some battle scenes from the Risorgimento up to the Second World War. In summer there are also music concerts and performances.
Famous for its 17th century old stone houses, series of fountains in the town centre and stomach-churning hairpin bends that wind their way up from Oulx to Sauze D’Oulx, it is locally known as Balcone degli Alpi (The Balcony of the Alps). Popular for skiing with a young crowd and also with Brits it is as renowned for its apres ski partying as much as for its winter sports.
One of the first Alpine towns to develop as a ski resort and one that retains much of its original charm and traditional character. Part of the via Lattea it also has lots of cross-country ski runs too and in the summer you can hike from here to Forte Caberton. At 3,124 metres it is the highest fort in the Alps. Construction began in 1898 and completed in 1906.
Cesana Torinese and the hamlet of San Sicario
This is a series of 14 hamlets and one of the more isolated mountain resorts. Only seven of these hamlets are inhabited all year round with the local economy based on producing local liqueurs made with mountain herbs. Cheeses, deer sausage and honey are also local specialities. Five kilometres away and 350 metres above Cesana proper, skiers flock to the hamlet of San Sicario in the winter season. A small resort, it is popular with families on the via Lattea and linked to Sauze D’Oulx and Sestriere.
Located on the banks of the river Dora and not linked to the via Lattea, this is popular for downhill skiing and snowboarding. From the majestic Mount Jafferau, which takes you 2,750 metres up you have an extensive choice of runs for all levels. As a ski resort it is popular with families but it is also good for spotting deer, foxes and chamois so be careful when driving! The main skiing area is at Campo Smith and beyond this is a tiny hamlet called Melezet which has a ski station and a museum exhibiting ancient frescos and art from local churches. The old town in Bardonecchia is a maze of narrow medieval streets and the street names are written in both Italian and the local dialect of Occitan. Famous for local wood carving art you can buy souvenirs from workshops on the main street in Bardonecchia, via Medail.
Lake Maggiore, Lake Orta and Biella
North-west of Turin, Piedmont is proud geographical host to two of the most beautiful lakes in Italy: Lake Maggiore and Lake Orta. The former stretches for 62 kilometres from Piedmont, through Lombardy to Ticino in Switzerland but the Piedmont section of lake is world famous for its pretty towns, villages and islands including Stresa, Arona, and the Borromean islands. However, one of the less known jewels of Piedmont has to be Lake Orta. With its enchanting setting, surrounded by lush, green hills and with the pretty as a picture Isola San Giulio just a short boat ride from the shore, you couldn’t go wrong. Isola San Giulio is home to the cloistered Benedictine nuns of San Giulio whose dedication to the preservation of local traditional crafts, and specialisation in printed linens, means that you are not short of pretty and practical ideas for souvenirs.
Piedmont is, of course, famous for its wines, but did you know that it also produces award-winning beers? Menabrea is arguably the most famous of the artisan beers, produced in Biella since 1846. The Menabrea brewery and museum can be visited and the beer can also be sampled along with local food specialities in Menabrea’s own restaurant which is located in the former factory stables.
Eleven kilometres north of Biella is the UNESCO World Heritage site the Santuario di Oropa. Dating from the 11th century it was also once a Savoy residence, being added to in the 16th and 17th centuries by Guarino Guarini and Filippo Juvarra, two of the House of Savoy’s favourite Italian architects. The Santuario di Oropa rests majestically atop the sacred mountain of Oropa and is a peaceful retreat offering beautiful views. It’s definitely a place to simply relax and absorb the tranquillity and beauty of the surroundings.