Rob and Yvette met us at Ovada train station in their leased Peugeot. After all the planning and travelling it was a bit of a “pinch yourself moment” to actually catch up with the Piscicellis in Italy. Rob drove us along the twisting road to the tiny village of Trisobbio, our home for the next three weeks. Trisobbio is in the Province of Alessandria in the region of Piedmont, very close to the border with Liguria, and is one of a number of similar hilltop villages in the area. Each one seems to have a church and a castle at the summit, with a collection of houses clinging to the sides of the hill.. The hills were covered with fruit trees, most in glorious springtime flowering mode, and grape vines. Houses were numerous though well spaced. In places the road reached a switchback, presenting a wonderful vista across the farmlands to the distant mountains.
The first sight of the cluster of buildings on the hill with the battlements of the small castle poking out on top was a scene from a fairy tale movie. As Rob manoeuvred the car through the narrow roads and alleys of the village to our apartment I was glad that he was the one driving, especially with the left hand drive. I find that the fine judgement is not there when I get in a left hand drive car but Rob seems to have the gift.
We unloaded our gear and familiarised ourselves with the apartment. Ours is on the second storey, the bottom floor being used by the owners and the top one being another apartment for rent. Our apartment is wonderful, with comfortable facilities, two bedrooms and a good kitchen. Best of all are the views. I found myself spending quite a bit of time just standing at a window and looking out at the complex roof lines and jumble of courtyards of the neighbouring houses or beyond to the rolling hills and patches of forest. The owners, a very welcoming and friendly family, retain the downstairs apartment for times when family members return to Trissobio for a visit (they live in Genoa now).
Rob and Yvette had had a few weeks to get to know their surrounds so were able to point out the various features around and take us on drives to the nearby villages. It is easy to become blasé about the magnificent scenery, the opulence of the church interiors and the magic of the many medieval castles that adorn the landscape. The area is very hilly, with the northern end of the Apennines rising in the distance. Some years, we would be graced with the sight of snow in the distance but the snow did not come this year, which is a shame but at the same time we have been blessed with some much warmer than normal spring weather. Most days are a pleasant 20 degrees with the occasional cooler rainy day. It is only ever a couple of kilometres between villages and each one seems to have its own unique features and charm.
A hiking trail of sorts connects the five closest castles, although it looks like it could do with a bit of maintenance to counter the rapid spring growth. On one occasion, Christine and I set out to walk the 3.5 kilometres to nearby Cremolino. It proved to be a hard slog because we had to climb a hill that proved to be higher than all the others around. The views were staggering but the thighs were sore for a few days.
The main industries around the area are all agricultural in nature, with grape growing being the most obvious, along with apples, pears, strawberries and other fruit and vegetables. The region has long been renown for the quality of its produce and it show through in the vegetables, all of which seem to have much more flavour than back home. Livestock still remains absent from the scene, with the exception of horses, which is quite strange because there are a few meat processing places around. Meat and fish is generally expensive, while fruit and vegetables are cheap by Australian standards. The real work these days is in the cities, with Ovada having a scattering of light industry and small businesses. Both Genoa and Turin are large manufacturing centres and the drift to these cities for work has led to the rural population decline over the years.
Rob and Yvette drove us to many nearby villages and town, all of which were a delight to explore. We also love to visit the Tre Castelli Winery at Montaldo Bormida, only a couple of kilometres down the road. Here you could taste a variety of local wines and purchase them for ridiculous prices, between 3.10€ and 5.50€ a bottle. We loved the Rose, the Chardonnay and a dry red made from Dolcetto grapes. Actually, we liked everything and became good customers, doing our best to consume enough to keep us going back.
Shopping in Trisobbio itself is limited, with a “Bar” that sells coffee and a few drinks, a small bakery and general store that is really only good for a few emergencies, a pharmacy (every village seems to have one), an excellent restaurant and pizzeria, a post office and a hairdresser. All our real supplies come from Ovada, where a number of different supermarkets provide most things we want. We made occasional trips to the local bar for delicious coffees, where a great cappuccino costs a whole $A2.
Trisobbio has one amazing restaurant called Antio Torchio Trisobbio that serves a variety of Italian dishes and a great selection of wood fired pizzas. It is set in a 8th Century Palace that just drips with ambience. Cipriani is a very amiable host and the food is excellent. Even better is the price, with us paying 66€ for four people, which included a bottle of red and a bottle of wine.
Another real bonus is the ready availability of excellent wine at crazy prices. Nearby is the Tre Castelli Cantina that sells an amazingly good selection of wines ranging between 2.5€ and 5€. We did not taste a bad one and we sampled many. The owner is very accommodating and spent a lot of time with us even though we were very small customers in the scheme of things. The Piedmont Region is famous for its wines and locally Dolcetta and Barbarossa grapes are mostly grown for reds with the. Chardonnays also feature, although they are often bottled as “Frizzante” with a light carbonation. It makes for a very pleasant drink. At another winery in Revolta Bormida, we saw a local come in with his 10 litre plastic jerry can and fill it up from a fuel type bowser. It cost him 1.60€ a litre, only slightly dearer than the fuel he used to drive to the winery.
A couple of days after we arrived, Christine began to experience some very painful and debilitating spasms in her lower back. She had been feeling some soreness since all the physical work in Vietnam but this was much worse. I am the one who usually causes a problem with back pain so we were carrying four tablets with enough power to get me by in case of an attack so we started using these for Christine to get her through a night. Rob drove us in to Ovada where she was seen by the emergency department, X-rayed and pronounced free of any skeletal damage. We sort of knew that anyway and just wanted a script for decent pain killers. The best we managed was some Tramadol, which did little to help. On the plus side, we did not have to pay due to a reciprocal health agreement between Italy and Australia. The spasms persisted so we tried the local visiting doctor, who comes to the village once a week. He pronounced the Tramadol useless, gave a script for what we wanted, took our 50€ and waved us on our way. Given a couple of pain free days, Christine’s back soon came good (or at least better). It needed to come good because there was no way I was going to carry both backpacks.
Football days were a source of some frustration. With no telecast we were reliant on the Internet. Rob has a subscription for live feeds but the Internet in Trissobio is very intermittent and so the picture kept freezing or failing altogether, usually just at the crucial moment. We tried running from the wireless router, using the phones and a combination of the above. Somehow, we managed to scrape by but it was always an effort.
We explored the nearby towns and villages with Rob and Yvette. A car is essential in this part of the World and without it one would be reliant on the infrequent local bus. A motorbike would be useful in the warmer weather, giving good access to the narrow streets of the villages and making finding parking in the towns easier. Although we saw quite a few cyclists, the very hilly nature of the region rules a bicycle out for me.
The villages perched on a hilltop were the most interesting, because all the houses were forced to crush together in an interesting jumble of stone walls, archways and cobbled laneways. Most had a castle of sorts to add to the interest and all had had a prominent church spire. From Trisobbio, it was possible to look out and see the neighbouring castles of Carpeneto and Morsasco. One can picture the local Lord standing on a balcony in times past glaring across the divide and hurling insults at the Lord across the way.
The population of these villages has fallen steadily, peaking in 1901 at 1200 people in the case of our village but it does appear that the decline has slow or begun to reverse. Morsasco has a number of modern apartment blocks attached to it, built at a discreet distance so as to not disrupt the charm of the castled centre. In my biased opinion, Trisobbio was the prettiest of the surrounding villages, resembling a fairytale Camelot when viewed from some angles.
Ovada was our “go to” location for shopping and train connections. Also, it was a convenient entrance location to the Autostrada so we seemd to head for Ovada at least every second day. As the driver, Rob got to know his way around Ovada very well whereas I just sat in the back and watch the shops go by. In itself, it was an interesting enough town with its bevy of beautiful churches, two rivers, some gorgeous cobbled streets and vibrant markets. It is easy to become blasé and we did, tending to ignore just how pretty Ovada was.
Gavi, a fortress town a little further away, was quite a bit bigger and was overlooked by a huge fort dating back to the 14th Century. A narrow winding road took us up to near the summit where a small door gave access to the castle itself. Unfortunately, the tour times did not suit so we decided to come back on another occasion. Besides, we had seen a restaurant in the town offering a two course meal with wine and coffee for 10€ so a second trip was definitely indicated. On this occasion we contented ourselves with a beautiful gelato in the town square.
On our return, we paid our 5€ for the tour of the fortress and joined a small group. Unfortunately, the guide only spoke Italian but there was sufficient signage in French and English to keep us foreigners happy and informed. The fort had origins dating back to 900AD but the main structures were built in the 1600s and strengthened throughout the 1700s. I have no real understanding of how anyone could attack such an impenetrable bastion an hope to succeed but history shows that it changed hands many times between French, Austrian, Genovese and Sardinian control. In each case, surrender on the order of a nearby load seemed to be the case rather than actual invasion. The fort was used as an internment camp for prisoners of war during both World Wars. In WWII, it housed allied prisoners who had tried unsuccessfully to escape from other camps. One guy, Jack Pringle, managed a famous escape only to be caught again within sight of the border with Switzerland. You can’t help bad luck.
The restaurant with the 10€ (A$14) meal proved a real gem. We had a good choice of dishes and enjoyed some very good local Gavi white wine. Given that we were supplied with lashings of excellent bread and good salads as side dishes it went down a real treat and we left with very full stomachs. Where in Australia could you manage that?
Acqui Terme is a larger town about 15 kilometres from Trisobbio. Its main claim to fame (and the a marbled edifice. During the Winter, the spring produces clouds of steam that drift throughout the town. The locals come with plastic bottles to take the water, believing it to be good for their health. We visited Acqui Terme on a Tuesday, when street markets occupied several of the main thoroughfares. These markets sported an amazing array of clothing and shoe stalls, all selling quality Italian made goods at crazy prices. Whole racks of coats, shirts and pants were just priced at 5€ each. A beautiful pair of all leather hiking boots caught my attention at 60€ (A$84) a real bargain for Italian made boots. I could have spent some serious money here but the big problem is space. We simply do not have the room to carry any more stuff with us and shipping goods back to Perth is both time consuming and expensive.
We went into one of the many churches in Acqui Terme, a rather plain affair on the outside, but amazingly rich and opulent on the inside. The many supporting columns were made from a gorgeous apricot coloured marble and gold leaf adorned the ornamentation on the pulpit. The sheer magnificence of all the churches we have been into is beyond belief. Centuries of work and collected artistry are on display, the value of which probably can’t be assessed in pure dollar terms.
Alessandria is the capital city of Piedmont and is around 40km north of our village. With a population of just under 100,000, it is not a big city by most standards. A high speed “Autostrada” makes the trip from Ovada north a quick one. We visited on a Monday to take advantage of the markets in the Piazza de Garibaldi, a town square surrounded by colonnaded buildings dating back about a Century or so. The market sold mostly clothes and many cheap buys were on offer. We browsed for a while before wandering through the older parts of the town. Perhaps we are becoming immune to the sight of narrow streets lines with old buildings because we found the city interesting but unspectacular. We stopped off for a 10€ meal at a restaurant, again rather unspectacular by our demanding standards, and headed out of town. Along the way, we saw and followed a series of signs to a citadel, which proved to be worth a visit. It was a large 18th Century fort with an expansive internal courtyard and it was easy to picture the cavalry troops parading and drilling within its walls. During the turbulent times of the 17th and 18th Centuries, it was of supreme importance and changed hands frequently, being attacked by the French, Spanish, Austrians, Russians and almost everyone else.
Another place we explored was Sezzadio, about 20km north of Trisobbio, to check out a large church Rob and Yvette had seen on a previous drive. The church itself proved to be a bit of a disappointment, very imposing from the outside but quite plain by Italian standards inside. A smaller chapel at the rear was packed with families attending a Palm Sunday service. Everyone carried an olive branch and I wondered if this was because there is a distinct lack of palms in the area. I “confess” to being rather ignorant of church ceremonials.
On the outskirts of Sezzadio, Yvette spied a turn-in to an abbey so we investigated. It turned out to be an old abbey turned into a reception centre. One part of it was an ancient vestibule and crypt dating back to the 8th Century. The mosaic floor in the crypt was beautiful considering its age and the frescoes covering the walls were fantastic. At some point, all the frescoes were plastered over and the removal of this is only partly completed.
The rest of the abbey is in various states of repair, from crumbling to fully restored. The property was purchased by a family back in about 1980 and the main building was restored to a beautiful condition. We were lucky enough to be allowed to look through the interior and the owner seemed to welcome us as either long lost friends or prospective clients because he speared no effort at explaining things, rather surprising really given that he was awaiting the arrival of 100 guests for a conference. Outside, the grounds were a picture, with beautiful lawns, numerous marquees, shady trees, a pond, swimming pool (rather empty at this time of year) and lashings of ambience.
Trisobbio is off the beaten path for most foreign tourists, although the immediate region enjoys the patronage of Italians in the know. It is a superb food and wine region with wonderful views. We have dearly loved our time here and despite our almost complete lack of language skills have enjoyed the welcoming attitude of the locals. A highlight for us was going down to the local shop and communicating with the lovely woman who runs it via a series of hand signals and gestures, with a smattering of Italian and English words thrown in. Life in the more remote small villages obviously has its down sides for the locals but we found the experience here to be everything we had hoped for.