The heart of Italy still seduces her visitors

Every little corner, village and town in this beautiful country has a gem or two to be discovered if you are willing to slow down, ask around and look out for it. Most people visiting Italy head for the well known tourist traps. Though these places are stunningly beautiful in their own right, you are cheating yourself and missing out on the real Italy if you dont take the time to explore at least some of its lesser know villages and towns. Every region has an abundance of special places where the heart of Italy can be heard and felt to the core.

A case in point: I live in a little village in Piemonte called Montalto Dora. The crowning glory of this little village of around three thousand inhabitants, surrounded by the splendid green foothills of the alps, is its castle. It’s one of a few privately owned castles in the area and has been faithfully and lovingly restored by the owners.

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Castle view from the hill closest to the village.

Not many people know that in the last year or two, the castle has been open to the public on the last Sunday of the month from May until September. The local historical society goes all out to provide a fitting ambience by dressing up as characters from the past and playing ancient instruments as well. Entrance is free, so last Sunday I decided to put on my walking shoes and allow myself to be transported back into the middle ages.

It’s a good walk from the village, so if you want to visit, wear comfortable walking shoes. Some parts of the road are pretty steep, but taken at a reasonable pace, it’s quite manageable, even for young children. A cobbled road winds out of the village past Villa Cassanna. Look out for the ancient atlantic cedar in the villa grounds. It’s thought to be about two hundred years old. Sadly, on most days, you can only view this magnificent tree through the wrought iron gates. If you’re lucky, however , and there is a special celebration going on, the gates may be open, and you can sit under its shady branches or link hands around its trunk. Who knows what historic personage sat in the same place long ago?

The winding road snakes up the hill past St Rocco’s cathedral, another little gem not to be missed. Further on, you pass private vineyards and orchards proudly tended by their owners. Quite a few people still make their own wine in this area and if anyone offers you a taste, you shouldn’t hesitate. Just after the little picnic area on the left, you’ll see the road to the castle on your left. On open days there are “alpini” (members of the alpine regiments) waiting to show you the way. Follow the road up to the castle. Don’t forget to admire the splendid view of the valley on your way up.

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Stop to take a breather and admire the view.

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As you near the fortress it looms over you imposingly.

The path is shady and as I walk, I’m surrounded by the sound of birds chirping and the wind rustling the trees. I turn the final corner to find myself facing the castle walls and the arched entrance. I almost expect to hear someone call out, “Halt! Who goes there? Show thy face and declare thy liege!” But I only hear faint voices and medieval music. I quicken my step. Through the arched entrance and I’m in the courtyard, a tiny chapel on my right and a street musician playing a wailing early accordion.

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Arched entrances draw the visitor on.

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A street musician fills our ears with wailing music and the jingle of bells as he walks.

The castle is beautifully restored. I slip into the tiny chapel. Since I’ve come up quite early, I’ve missed the crowds. I’m alone with the worn frescoes and the simple wooden altar.
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Hand made wrought iron lamps light the castle courtyard at night.
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Medieval characters add flavour to the visit.
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This splendid couple are friends who belong to the historical society.

I join a group of people on a guided tour and learn that the first known mention of a castle in this position was in the 1300s. Over the years the castle, which was more of a fortress and less of a residence, was changed and added on to, then destroyed and rebuilt. The castle we visit today is a faithful restoration based on drawings and documents about the castle, as well as excavation of the site.

If you would like to see more photos, please visit my album here.

If you are in Northern Piemonte in the next two months, this little gem will be open to the public on the last Sunday of August and September. Why not come and see it yourself? The September open day will be extra special as it’s the last one for the year.

Are there any special places you love visiting? Tell us about it.

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