Many travelers to Piemonte are there for the truffles and wine - understandably - but sitting south in the shadow of the popular kids is the comune of Cuneo. The town itself is a mere mile wide and just over two miles long, and shaped like the meaning of its name: a wedge. Cuneo reclines on a plain at the foot of the mountains, and is a wonderful base for hiking, exploring nearby towns, and taking time to relax and enjoy a delightful blend of breathtaking nature and charming small town life.
Poppies heralding summer near Cuneo courtesy BORGHY52 on Flickr
The town of Cuneo is somewhat aesthetically akin to a miniature Turin, with a grid layout and similar architectural style. There is a generous sprinkling of flourished Baroque buildings and long porticoes, especially in the older part of town. Thoroughly enjoyable on its own merits, Cuneo is also a perfect base for exploring the surrounding bounty, with daily markets to visit and assemble an afternoon picnic of local foodstuffs. Depending on when you choose to visit, you can enjoy a summer music festival, September's patron saint celebration, or fall chestnut and cheese fairs.
|Cuneo street courtesy axelandra on Flickr||Cuneo cafe courtesy Giancarlo Gallo on Flickr|
|Roccolo interior courtesy Andrea Mucelli|
The countryside around Cuneo and Saluzzo is littered with palaces and castles. A dozen or so miles northwest of Cuneo is the hamlet of Busca. A mile north from there you'll find the 19th century Castello del Roccolo di Busca, a delightful mashup of Neo-Gothic and Moorish styles. The property is verdant and wooded, and in some ways it feels like it has one foot in Palermo and another in Como. Details on this and other castles, forts, and villas throughout Piemonte are found on the terrific website Castelli Aperti.
Continuing north to Saluzzo, you'll find the splendid 12th century Castello di Racconigi. Like so many properties, this one too eventually landed in the portfolio of the Savoys before ultimately being gifted to Umberto II by none other than Vittorio Emmanuele III. There is also a stunning greenhouse and elegant park area, which is open in Spring and Summer, though you can visit the castle other times too.
While in Saluzzo, you could easily combine a visit to Racconigi with one to the Abbazia di Staffarda which lies north by about fifteen minutes. It is not a grand place, but quiet and simple, providing a distinct change of pace from the opulence of the castles and palaces.
Head the opposite direction, towards France, and you'll find the fort of Albertino di Vinadio nestled in a little valley. The fort was built in the 19th century by (of course) a Savoy to block potential French incursions. Oddly enough, while castles, museums, and churches tend to have pretty solid information out there, the fort sites are either down or outdated, requiring a bit of sleuthing to nail down current details. I wouldn't recommend an off-the-cuff trek unless you're willing to risk the sight not being available upon arrival.
View atop Saluzzo courtesy Eric Walter
Art installation at Racconigi courtesy Francesco Meschia
Abbazia di Staffarda courtesy Marco Nicola
|Mondovi courtesy Marta Favro|
Cruise eastward less than an hour to visit Vicoforte, where you'll find the Santuario di Vicoforte, AKA Santuario della Nativita di Maria. Combine a few hours at Vicoforte with a visit to the charming town of Mondovi nearby, a lovely spot for lunch and a stroll. There's nothing grand here, a ceramics museum and the usual churches, but that makes it a distraction free locale to sample relaxation Italian style. The flatter regions eastward of Cuneo are popular with bicyclists, both serious and casual. Inquire with your hotel or host about rentals, or you could join a tour if you prefer guidance. Many agriturismos and B&B's will provide free or nearly free bikes for your use.
|Santuario courtesy Alessandro on Flickr|
Sharing borders with France and Liguria, just a ways south of Cuneo, is the grand Parco delle Alpi Marittime. Discover and revel in a mountain paradise filled with valleys, glaciers, and lakes that is actually the largest park in Piemonte. The website for the park is refreshingly thorough and helpful, with a number of listed walking and hiking itineraries ranging from about an hour to upwards of six. Spring and summer offer ample opportunities to take in the local flora and fauna, with winter well suited to those who like a hardier challenge. Expansive views abound any time of year, all conspiring to take your breath away. In winter, there are excellent skiing options throughout the park, including lessons. While it is somewhat possible to explore the Cuneo region via trains and buses, renting a car for even a day or two allows you to really dig in without being hampered by time tables or limitations of public transport.
|Photo courtesy Pierluigi Bianchi||Photo courtesy Antonella|
Have you been to the Cuneo region? Feel free to share your experience in the comments below, and stay tuned for a food and wine extravaganza in the next post on Piemonte!