Holiday in Piedmont
Nestling in the north-western corner of Italy, Piedmont has much in common with its neighbouring countries (France and Switzerland) as well as with its neighbouring Italian regions of Lombardy and Liguria. It has no coastline, though the southern reaches are just a few kilometres away from the Mediterranean, via the western reaches of Liguria and resorts such as Savona. A remarkably varied region, Piedmont has plenty to offer those on vacation in Italy.
In its northern reaches, Piedmont (or Piemonte) rises up to the Alps and thence over the border to France and Switzerland. The name 'pied monte' literally means 'at the foot of the mountains'. There is good skiing of course and this Alpine flavour is part of the reason Piedmont feels so un-Italian. The local dialects still bear strong inflections from the French that was the native language here until the turn of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the cuisine, with its rich sauces and use of butter instead of olive oil, evokes France just as much as it does Italy.
Vacations in Turin
Piedmont has one of Europe's most elegant old cities in the shape of Turin, a monument to cafe society. It has marvellous local wines, big reds such as Barolo and it has the pungent truffles so prized by gourmets. It has good sparkling white wines from around Alba and Asti (don't be put off by the rather unfair image of Asti Spumante). And it has a great outdoor culture, with climbing and hiking taking their place alongside winter sports. It is also quite beautiful.
The regional capital of Turin may not quite have the charm of old. Like any major city it sprawled during the 20th century and being the home of Fiat it has an abundance of people, money and cars. But its historic centre reminds you why German philosopher and writer Nietzsche rhapsodised about the town, 'a city after my own hear, a princely residence of the 17th century, aristocratic calm preserved in everything'. There is precious little aristocratic calm now, but the sumptuous baroque of the city centre still makes it a pleasant place to tour during your vacation in Piedmont.
Skiing, wine and truffles in Piedmont
To the west of Turin you'll find the Chisone and Susa valleys (you'll also find a host of good ski resorts). The most spectacular sight here is the fortified abbey of Sacra di San Michele, perched atop a rocky outcrop, and neighbouring is the Roman town of Susa. Head south to see Saluzzo. Lying in the Po Valley, the town had its own court during the Renaissance, and retains cobbled streets and a castle.
To the south and the border with Liguria and we enter wine and truffle country. The town of Alba sits among the Le Langhe hills. This is home to white truffles, more delicate and aromatic than the more common black version. Alba is also home to Barolo, the 'king of Italian reds' (it's a big wine), and the lighter Nebbiolo. Neighbouring Asti is another big wine town, famed for its sparkling whites of course, and also for its annual Palio festival.
Monte Rosa and Sacro Monte
Wind back to the north and we are into the mountains and the border with Switzerland. Pay a visit to the Valsesia valley, which leads up to Monte Rosa. Along the way you'll pay the sanctuaries of Sacro Monte and Santuario d'Oropa. Sacro Monte (sacred mountain) is an extraordinary collection of 45 chapels. Each houses a three-dimensional fresco with scenes from the life of Christ. This has been a place of pilgrimage since the 15th century, when the local prior decided something dramatic was required to scare the locals from heresy and back into the arms of the Catholic Church. With Roman soldiers wielding blood-soaked swords, the massacre of babies and Christ being brutally kicked on the road to Calvary, this is not a sight for the squeamish.
The valley itself is dramatically beautiful, covered with pine trees and topped with a jagged scar of rock. This is the home of the Walsers, emigres from Valais in Switzerland in the 13th century. Today you'll still here people speaking the old dialect, based on long-extinct Old German.
Piedmont winter sports resorts
Skiing is a predictably big business in Piedmont, and the region has dozens of very good resorts. Sauze D'Oulx, Limone Piemonte, Prato Nevoso and Sestriere are a haven for skiers and snowboarders. There are magnificent mountains such as Gran Paradiso and Monte Rosa, making a stunning area, even if you never strap on a pair of skis.
But it's an extraordinarily varied region. Check out Cuneo, the gateway to the Maritime Alps (with Alba at its heart). There is the area of Alessandria, home to the spa town of Acqui Terme, the paddy fields of Vercelli, and of course the western shores of Lake Maggiore.
Holidays in Piedmont - food and drink
We've touched on the excellent Piemontese wines, and this is a cuisine with flavours of France as much as Mediterranean Italy. Fondue features on the menu, especially bagna caoda, with its sauce of anchovies, garlic, butter and cream. And dishes are as likely to be larded with butter and cream as olive oil. Pastas and risottos are often flavoured with delicate shavings of truffle, and saffron is another popular risotto ingredient.
Must sees in Piedmont
Mont Blanc - travel toward the neighbouring region of Valle d'Aosta and enjoy stunning views of Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco). Cable cars will take you over the border into France. Not for those suffering from vertigo.
Turin - Nietzsche spoke of its 'aristocratic calm' and lack 'of nasty suburbs'. Things have changed a little in the past century of so, but this is still an elegant town beneath the traffic fug, with Baroque streets, elegant coffee shops and more than a whiff of Mittel Europa. Spend a day or so of your holiday in Turin.
Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso - Italy's first national park and an oasis of ibex, golden eagle and chamois. The three parks that make up the Parco Nazionale are also home to a number of species of rare Alpine flower. An astonishingly beautiful part of Italy and an essential visit during any holiday in Piedmont.
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A map of Piedmont:
FEATURED ACCOMMODATION IN PIEDMONT
Sleeps 2 to 5, map
Piedmont Bed and Breakfast - Holiday rooms for rent in the mountains between Italy and Switzerland
Sleeps 1 to 10+, map
Italian Bed and Breakfast, Piedmont, close to the town of Asti, Piemonte