In the north-west of Italy, bordering France to the west and Switzerland to the north, is the mountainous region of Piemonte (Piedmont in English). Actually, to say Piemonte is mountainous is tautological, since its name derives from piede dei monti (foot of the mountains); the Alps are certainly a prominent feature of this region.
A strong French influence is noticeable in many aspects of Piemonte, including the local dialect, the architecture and the cooking.
Piemonte is the second largest of Italy's regions, after Sicily, and has played an important part in the country's development. Turin, in fact, was (briefly) the first capital of the united Italy.
Alongside areas of outstanding natural beauty, Piemonte hosts much of Italy's heavy industry - the FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino or Italian Automobile Factory of Turin) company, founded in 1899, being an obvious example. The region is also renowned for its gastronomy and is a favourite with foodies and wine lovers from all over the world.
The Po, Italy's longest river at 405 miles, crosses Piemonte, creating the Val Padana, a fertile plain that is some of the most heavily cultivated land in Europe.
What to see and do in Piemonte
Enjoy the mountains
The skiing is fabulous in Piemonte. Monte Rosa offers some gentle slopes for the less experienced skier and, for the more advanced and adventurous, the Via Lattea (Milky Way) holds some exciting challenges.
The Piedmontese Alps are also great for walking and hiking. The Gran Paradiso National Park, surrounding the highest mountain entirely in Italy, is a wonderful place to walk, cross-country ski (in the winter) or have a picnic (in the summer). The park gives protection to all sorts of flora and fauna, notably the ibex (stambecco in Italian, a species of wild goat).
The Sacri Monti (Sacred Mountains) of Piemonte and Lombardia are a UNESCO world heritage site. On these mountains were built, in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, groups of chapels, churches and sanctuaries for travellers and those on retreat. These sites are of religious and spiritual significance, of course, but they are also of interest to anyone who likes art, architecture and the beauty of nature. There are nine sacred mountains in Italy - seven in Piemonte (Belmonte, Crea, Domodossola, Ghiffa, Oropa, Orta and Varallo) and two in Lombardia (Ossuccio and Varese).
Enjoy the lakes
The principal lake in Piemonte is Lago Maggiore, which stretches across into Lombardia and up into Switzerland. This is the second largest lake in Italy, after Lake Garda, and it has eleven islands in it, the most famous of which are the Borromean Islands, in the gulf between Stresa and Verbania.
The tiny (approx 8 miles long) lake Orta is stunning and well worth a visit. If you go to the little town of Orta San Giulio (wonderful in itself), from there you can explore both the sacro monte of Orta and the island of San Giulio.
Explore the cities and towns
Torino (Turin) is the biggest and main city of Piemonte, an elegant metropolis with a distinguished history. During the twentieth century, it became heavily industrialised but it retains a great deal of its original beauty and interest. There are lots of nice cafés, some excellent museums and a wide variety of open-air markets. Apart from car-manufacture, Turin is probably most famous for being home to the shroud reputed to have the imprint of Christ on it. I have seen this and, I must say, I found it very powerful.
On a totally different note, Torino's industrial periphery is the setting for the musical version of The Full Monty, adapted to the Italian situation and touring the country's theatres in early 2013.
If you've got longer, other towns and cities in Piemonte that you might like to visit include:
- Alba, famous for its white truffles
- Acqui Terme, a beautiful spa city where you can sample the health-giving waters and treat yourself to some pampering and wellbeing
- Bra, birthplace and headquarters of the Slow Food movement, famous for its cheese production and biennial cheese festival
If you're around in February, check out the historic and extraordinary carnival at Ivrea.
Eating and drinking in Piemonte
If you're interested in consuming some fantastic food and wine, Piemonte is the place for you!
Among the gastronomic delights awaiting you in Piedmont are:
- local cheeses
*The Italian word for truffle is tartufo - not to be confused with the ice-cream dessert of the same name.
A lot of rice is also grown in Piemonte, in the Po Valley paddy fields around Vercelli and Novara.
The grissini (bread sticks) you find everywhere in Italy originated in Piemonte.
While you're in the region, be sure to try the local speciality, bagna cauda. This is similar to fondue, in that it is a hot sauce into which one dips chunks of vegetables. It's made with garlic, anchovies, butter and olive oil - luxurious and delicious!
Food festivals in Piemonte:
- In Alba, there is a truffle festival every October (at weekends)
- In Bra, there is a cheese festival every other year
- In Torino, there is a chocolate festival in March every year, called CioccolaTo (this being the Italian word for chocolate and TO being the abbreviation for Torino)
There are lots of wonderful wines from Piedmont. In fact, this is the region of Italy that produces the largest number of well known wines, enjoyed all over the world. Among them are Barbera, Barolo, Dolcetto and Asti Spumante.
Recommended reading from Piemonte
The marvellous and inspiring Jewish writer Primo Levi (1919-1987) came from Torino. He survived Auschwitz and was plagued by guilt and depression for the rest of his life but, despite this, his writing is filled with warmth, compassion and humanity. His experiences in the camp are vividly recounted in his book Se Questo è un Uomo (If This is a Man), an absolutely seminal text for anyone interested in the Holocaust - or, indeed, human suffering in general.
Another excellent book is Pavese's La Luna e i Falò (The Moon and the Bonfires), in which the protagonist comes home to his village in Piemonte following the end of World War Two, after twenty years living in America.
For more information about Piemonte...
Buy a guide book for travelling around Piemonte.
Check out this website:
Piemonte Italia - tourist info, in English