Discovering Piedmont, Italy

“Tuscany, watch out.” That’s the message coming out of Piedmont this fall, akin to a gentle slap on the cheek with a velvet glove. Or so we like to see it, anyway. High up on the boot in northwest Italy and snuggled by alpine shapeliness on three sides, Piedmont is innately graceful, an unadulterated realm of varied countryside and monumental parks, an opulent history and a generosity of some of our favorite (edible) things.

“Piedmont is a wealthy region in Italy and one of those that has not promoted its tourist attractions actively until recently. It is not only wealthy by way of its economy but also for its wealth of history, culture, gastronomy, wines, castles, golf courses, and great shopping opportunities,” says Fabio Sembiante, executive vice president of sales & marketing for Central Holidays.

A short drive along the roads of Piedmont leads to a wealth of regional treasures. There’s the Castle of Roppolo, whose surroundings have long borne assorted wine grapes. Today, only a limited production of these is available. In the town of Candelo, there’s a medieval village built between the 13th and 14th centuries that is one of the country’s best-preserved fortifications, whose cellars were once used to house grains and wine. Today, it is home to artists’ studios, wine shops and restaurants.

Piedmont is also a culinary destination of phenomenal possibilities, with cheese, truffles, wines and chocolate playing center stage in daily life. A carpaccio of Piedmontese veal with castelmagno cream and a glass of the local Barolo, is one of many moments of abandon to lust for here. Handcrafted pastries, artisan dairy products and a love of all things yummy are part of the region’s gastronomic foundation.

And given that more than 43 percent of Piedmont is made up of mountains, expect hilly diversions, including much hiking and mountaineering. The region has 53 ski resorts and every winter sport is practiced here—ice climbing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and more.

an escape to biella But that’s just a tiny taste of the region’s choices. Biella is one of its many jewels, a town of roughly 50,000 that’s prosperous and sprightly. It’s “a real Italian experience—a hidden corner of the world,” says Stefano Mosca, director of ATL Biella, the local hospitality and tourism promotion agency. Whether it’s shopping along Via Italia (perhaps for delicious chocolate wafers made locally or award-winning Menabrea beer), admiring the frescoes in the Church of St. Mary of Oropa, visiting the baptistery from the 11th century—still used today—or hopping on the funicular for a 4-minute ride to the medieval part of town for less than one euro, Biella and its eponymous province is quiet on the surface, but with a polished foundation. This is a major learning center for textile engineering and is renowned for its wool and cashmere garments. Internationally renowned fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna was founded 100 years ago in the province of Biella, although the name is known in these parts as much for its apparel as for the Zegna Panoramic Road and commitment to the environment.

Then there’s the historic Oropa Sanctuary, just a 20-minute drive from the town of Biella and home to one of roughly 700 black Madonnas found throughout Europe. The place, says its rector, is where “human and the Divine meet,” and regardless of one’s religious preference, spending time here is indeed a spiritual journey, if only for its calm demeanor and exuberance of its natural surroundings—cowbells clanging, hundreds of floral species, hikers and bikers stopping by daily.

Although it’s said to have its beginnings in the fourth century, the sanctuary’s documented history doesn’t start until 1207. It welcomes tens of thousands of guests each year—some spending the night and many others just spending a few hours enjoying the Alpine setting—although visitors have increased since the sanctuary and its Sacro Monte were declared a UNESCO Patrimony of Humanity in 2003. The Holy Mount consists of 12 chapels with life-sized statues showing different scenes of the life of the Virgin Mary and is one of nine throughout the Piedmont and Lombardy regions, created during the 16th and 17th centuries. Another stop in the sanctuary: the Oropa Museum of Treasures, which houses Savoy family apartments and paintings, as well as the jewels that adorned the statue of the Black Madonna in 1920.