“Why is there a mime directing traffic?” asked my wife, looking up from the map on her iPad.
Traffic had snaked to a standstill in the warren of minuscule streets that make up Fossano’s medieval town center. The mime blew his imaginary whistle and stepped in front of our Fiat. Suddenly, we were part of the show.
Our arrival in Fossano coincided with Mirabilia, an international circus and performing arts festival. There’s hardly a street wider than an alleyway in the old center of Fossano. Add crowds, clowns and street performers, and you have a recipe for festive chaos. Navigating to our midtown hotel was like driving through a streetside Cirque du Soleil performance.
Chaos is not the norm in Fossano. Ancient and atmospheric, this town in the heart of Italy’s Piedmont region spends most of the year in slumber. “It deserves to be better known,” said hometown entrepreneur Enrico Castellano. That’s true, but Fossano’s relative anonymity might be the biggest draw for connoisseur travelers exploring this region of slow food and stellar wines.
Piedmont is a far cry from the tourist stops of Rome, Venice or Tuscany. Despite its location just a few miles from the Langhe wine region, the city of Fossano remains unknown to many travelers to Piedmont. But it rewards by being one of the least touristy larger towns in the area. We used it as an authentic, comfortable and quiet base. (Quiet except for the lively street festival.)
Our home was Castellano’s Palazzo Righini. Castellano is a former management consultant who traded in his suit-and-tie life in the big city and returned to Fossano looking for a retirement “hobby.” Which turned out to be converting an ancient monastery into Fossano’s top restaurant and sole luxury boutique hotel. Castellano threw out an old joke that works well in either English or Italian: “How do you become a millionaire in the hotel business? Start out as a billionaire.”
Palazzo Righini’s renaissance as a modern luxury hotel is an unlikely story. The monastery and adjoining church catered to 16th-century pilgrims traveling from France to Rome. It was later converted into a noble’s mansion, and then occupied by French troops during Napoleon’s Italian invasion. Church and mansion were in sorry shape when Castellano purchased the property in 2000. Transform the site into a high-end hotel? “Madness!” said his wife. Madness perhaps, but the result is a thoughtfully designed, beautiful hotel run by a pleasant and capable staff.
Fossano is the perfect hub for a visit to Piedmont. Fifteen miles north, and you’re in Bra, the home of the slow food movement. Head east to wine heaven: Barolo, Barbera and Barbaresco. An hour south and you’re at the Alpine border with France. And just to the west is a most remarkable example of Gothic artwork, on the road to a city of music.
Piedmont — Piemonte in Italian — translates literally as “foot of the mountains,” and on a clear day, a nearly 360-degree view of the Alps is always lurking. Driving rural roads, you make a simple change in direction or the clouds part, and suddenly the mountains appear.
On our first post-mime day in Fossano, we drove south, eventually ascending several thousand feet of winding Alpine roadway to the minute mountain village of Valcasotto, just 10 miles from the French border. This cheese hamlet is owned and operated by Beppino Occelli, one of Europe’s premier cheesemakers.
As we arrived in a drizzling mountain mist, the hillside village seemed nearly deserted. A middle-aged couple working in the village shop knew as little English as we did Italian, but they were expecting us — the Americans here for the cheese tour. A telephone call was made, and in walked Umberto Milano, a bilingual 20-something marketing representative who took us on a cheese-tasting odyssey through the Beppino Occelli product line. “We have the best butter in Europe!” Umberto proclaimed. And he could be right, but our senses were on dairy overload after tasting a half-dozen deliciously rich cheeses served with sides of history and cheesemaking science.
Just when we were ready to swear off cheese forever, it was time to try some pasta — served, of course, in a creamy cheese sauce. Finally, with our arteries reeling, Umberto walked us through the village’s cheese production rooms and dark, cavernous cheese nurseries. Each wheel of cheese is carefully tended by a small staff of affineurs (cheesologists) who assess, turn and test the product until it’s perfectly aged.
The ideal post-cheese activity might be mountain hiking or biking, both of which are popular in the Valle Pesio region surrounding Valcasotto. We marveled at the mountain bikers struggling up the steep slopes as we pointed our Fiat downhill for the hour-long drive back to Fossano.
Our antidote to cheese? Wine! On our next day trip, we drove 40 minutes east to reach some of the world’s best wine-producing areas. We parked our car in Alba and turned ourselves over to Silvia Aprato, manager of Tasting Tours and our guide for a day-long wine tour in the Langhe.
The Langhe is a hill-strewn terrain straddling Cuneo and Asti provinces. Those fertile hills are alive with some of the most valuable vines in Italy, producing arguably the country’s premier wines. We came expecting to sample quality wine, which we found in select abundance. Our bonus was meeting and interviewing a new generation of winemakers, the children and grandchildren of grape growers who have taken the reins at multi-generational wineries.
“Our grandparents grew grapes, but they did not make wine. Now we do both,” explained Luisa Rocca as she poured us tastes of deep red Barbaresco Rabajà from her family’s estate. Her brother, Francesco, hesitantly practiced his English with us, preparing for a marketing trip to the United States. We glimpsed the promising future of winemaking in the region through the eyes of these millennial winemakers.
Our private wine-tasting tour was a sublimely relaxed experience. We conversed with wine producers who opened and let us savor select wines while they shared regional history and occasional local gossip. In Piedmont, many winery visits are by appointment — fine vineyards have locked gates and intercoms. No crowded winery parking lots here filled with buses and limousines emptying partygoers competing to see just how much “free” wine can be consumed via one-ounce pours. And exit through the gift shop.
Private wine tours are not the only way to experience the region. There are also enotecas and winery cooperatives in nearly every Langhe hill town where anyone can sample local wines. Midweek crowds were sparse in June, but at times, free-roaming oenophiles and tourists overrun some of Piedmont’s picturesque hill towns. The hill town of Barolo is so popular that visitors even line up to shoehorn into a minuscule corkscrew museum that also doubles as a wine store and gift shop.
Bra, just 15 miles northeast of Fossano, is the acknowledged birthplace of the slow food movement. But slow food permeates much of Piedmont, and it isn’t hard to find a stellar meal almost anywhere in the region. This is a land of fresh ingredients and gently prepared food. In even the most modest bar or restaurant, order a late afternoon aperitivo and you get a bonus — a plate of olives, fresh or marinated baby vegetables, perhaps a bit of meat or fish pâté.
We found a piece of gastronomic heaven on the windswept terrace of Trattoria Cascina Schiavenza in the village of Serralunga d’Alba. Tajarin pasta with butter and sage? Yes! A bottle of the local red Dolcetto d’Alba? Of course. Add a 50-mile view of rolling vineyards and red-brick-fortified hill towns? Perfect. Throw in great breadsticks, olives and a bit of arugula salad? It can’t get much better. Top off the meal with panna cotta? Mmmmm. An espresso? Absolutely!
After three days of driving to experience Piedmont’s cheese, wine and slow food, we decided to leave the rental Fiat in the hotel garage and spend a day exploring our home base.
About 25,000 Piedmontese call Fossano home. Many live in the new (lower) town, but most visitors head for the old (upper) town. Parts of medieval-era Fossano are a maze of narrow one-way streets. Stone arcades line the Via Roma, old Fossano’s main thoroughfare. The ancient archways contrast with the modern designer goods displayed in the shop windows below. It’s hardly a surprise to find trendy boutiques in Fossano. Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, is only 120 miles away.
“Sometimes Fossano doesn’t get tourism,” lamented Enrico Castellano. And it’s true; the city’s prime historic site, the Castle of Acaja, is open only Sunday afternoons. There’s not much to entice tourists inside even if it were more accessible. But the castle’s distinctive silhouette high atop the city walls serves as a dramatic backdrop for another of Fossano’s festivals, the annual Palio dei Borghi. The traditional horse race through the old streets and around the castle might seem ancient but dates back to only 1961. (By contrast, Siena’s more famous Palio traces its “modern” history to 1656.)
The Palio coincides with a goose-jousting tournament, which can be traced to medieval times. In goose jousting, unfortunate caged birds had their heads chopped off by galloping swordsmen (the modern version employs artificial geese). Parades, flag throwing, tug-of-war and no small amount of drinking make this summertime event one of the liveliest in Fossano.
Fossano’s youth complain that the city is often “dead.” And at times the dead do reign in Fossano. The annual Feast of Saint Juvenal is held each spring, with a parade through the historic old town. Details are sketchy on Fossano’s patron saint: He may have been born in Africa, he may have been a martyr, his relics may lie in Fossano (or the bones may belong to another similarly named saint).
Before leaving, we had time for one last field trip, lured by a hidden gem just a few miles northwest. Inside Castello della Manta lies one of the most remarkable medieval art masterpieces in northern Italy.
Touring Castello della Manta is like opening a plainly wrapped box and finding a fine jewel inside. In the heart of this onetime castle, visitors discover rare secular Gothic frescoes adorning the baronial hall. An anonymous 15th-century artist covered the walls of the hall with nearly life-size, full-figure portraits of the Nine Worthies — historic heroes such as King David, Alexander the Great and King Arthur. Every male depicted has a “worthy” female counterpart immortalized in these breathtaking frescoes. On the opposite wall, dozens of characters visit the fountain of youth in a highly detailed fresco portraying this age-old dream. The castle church is also decorated with remarkable religious frescoes from the same time period.
Castello della Manta is just three miles south of Saluzzo, another historic Piedmont hill town and once a separate principality. We arrived late on the afternoon of June 21. In Saluzzo, summer solstice means Festa della Musica, with marching bands, choirs, guitar orchestras, rock bands and stray solo street musicians on every corner. We listened, strolled and listened again, until darkness finally fell on the longest day of the year.
Back in our Fossano base, the moon broke through the clouds to bathe the tiled rooftops of the town in a milky glow. Our view from the top floor of the Palazzo Righini hotel was one to wrap up and take home, if only moonlight views could be purchased as souvenirs or transported like carefully packed bottles of Italian wine.
White is the author of the travel guidebooks “Let’s Take the Kids to London,” “Travels Beyond Downton Abbey” and “Portugal—A Tale of Small Cities.”