Borgosesia, the largest town in the Valsesia, is an important centre for wool and textile production. The town is crossed by the Sesia River, a vital element in the development of industry in the area, as water was needed to operate the spinning mills.
Curiosity: the particular water from the area is a valuable element for finishing fabrics due to the minerals that it picks up as it erodes the rock on its way down from the high Alps.
Wool yarn was produced from local sheep already in the middle ages but the availability of modern machinery and techniques in the second half of the 19th century made industrial expansion possible.
Production on a larger scale started on 30 January 1850 with the creation of the historical Filatura Fratelli Antongini & C. Today the company, now called Zegna Baruffa Lane Borgosesia, is one of the world's leaders in the production of fine worsted-spun yarns for top-quality knitwear.
Other top end producers in the area with a long history include Loro Piana SpA, a luxury cashmere and wool producer and Ragno SpA, a popular brand for wool underwear and today a major textile industrial group thanks to the acquisition of other companies.
Smaller companies, faced with growing competition worldwide and higher production costs, did not survive and sadly closed down over the years. Also, changes in fashion and the introduction of synthetic yarns made wool less popular with the wider public.
Some of the old mills are now abandoned while others have been turned into museums or cultural centres.
The Strada della Lana - the "wool route” - connects Biella and Borgosesia, passing once thriving wool producing villages like Crevacuore or Pray. It is an interesting drive along fifty kilometres of nature, industry, woods and workshops. Looking at some of the abandoned plants one can picture the stories of generations of men and women who worked and lived in the area - and understand how wool production is deeply part of the region's heritage.
It is a fascinating journey along one of the most amazing routes of industrial archaeology and should not be missed. As for the many still existing producers, most of them have factory outlets selling top quality products at reduced prices: not a bad reason to tour the area!
Born in Valduggia in 1470, Gaudenzio Ferrari was one of the greatest masters of the Piedmontese School of painters. His work was inspired by more famous artists like Leonardo and, more importantly, Bramante and Mantegna.
Although he was strongly influenced by German Gothic masters, he rarely left his native Piedmont and the neighbouring Lombardy: this is one of the reasons why his work has remained comparatively little known.
Much of it is in fairly remote locations such as Varallo, Vercelli, Casale, Cannobio or Saronno, away from the typical Italian tourist routes.
Gaudenzio Ferrari was a Christian artist, the only truly religious master of the Italian Renaissance, and worked exclusively for churches or convents, producing lengthy sacred dramas and legends from the lives of Jesus and the saints.
He was not aiming at art, but at edificationand remained the “people’s painter” despite the more aristocratic tendencies of his fellow artists.
Strongly influenced by the movement of the friars headed by Fra Caimi, who had established an important Franciscan centre on the Sacro Monte di Varallo at the end of the 15th century, Ferrari spent several years in this retreat.
It was here that his genius came to full maturity and he createdhis greatest works, the Stories of Life and Passion of Christ, consisting of twenty-one frescoes at Santa Maria delle Grazie, and other pieces like The Magi arriving to Bethlehem and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on the Sacro Monte (Sacred Mount).
His art combines the use of painting and sculpture, producing a most curious result where figures in terra-cotta stand out from a frescoed background.
Later works include the wonderful Glory of Angels, in the cupola in Saronno and The Flight into Egypt, in the cathedral of Como. His latest paintings were executed in Milan, where he moved in 1536 and spent his last years, until his death in 1546.
To admire the most notable creations of this eclectic artist, head to the Sacro Monte di Varallo: whether you decide to walk up to the complex or take the cable car, the imposing copper statue of Ferrari, erected at the end of the 19th century and recently restored, will welcome you in front of the first chapel.Any suggestions?
One of the world’s leading manufacturers of fine fabrics and a renowned luxury brand, Loro Piana was established in 1924 and has been supplying the world with its fine products for over six generations.
Originally from Trivero, a textile district in northern Italy close to the town of Biella, the members of the Loro Piana family started their business as merchants of wool fabrics.
In the post-war period, Pietro’s nephew, Franco, took over the company and moved it into the international high fashion markets. In the second half of the century, the family moved its activity to Valsesia and founded the Lanificio Fratelli Lora e Compagnia, followed by Lanificio di Quarona di Zignone & C. at the beginning of the 20th century.
From the middle of the 1980s, Loro Piana began sponsoring famous horsemen in partnership with the Italian Equestrian Sports Federation, thus gaining both national and international visibility.
Known for its super-fine fabrics of cashmere and merino wool, today Loro Piana is a synonym of timeless Italian elegance. In 2013, LVMH purchased 80% of Loro Piana, the rest of shareholding remaining in the Loro Piana family’s hands.
Nevertheless, making quality without compromise has continued to be Loro Piana’s mission, along with that of supplying the most sophisticated and demanding clients with prestigious fabrics.Any suggestions?
“If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad then Muhammad must go to the mountain” – something of the sort must have entered the mind of friar Bernardino Caimi, when he decided to recreate the Holy Land on a rocky foundation, on the descents of Monte Tre Croci.
Created to represent an authentic alternative for pilgrims who were not able to travel to Palestine, the complex was founded in 1491, making it the oldest of its kind in the world.
Just above the town of Varallo, the Sacro Monte (Sacred Mount) consists of a basilica and around 50 minor chapels, divided into two separate zones.
The first consists of chapels set at deliberate spots around the trail, narrating the life of Christ from the Annunciation to his arrival in Bethlehem. The second, located at the summit, represents the city of Jerusalem and reports the events of the life of Christ inside the city walls.
More than 800 life-size, multi-coloured statues, in wood and terracotta, help personify the life, passion, death and resurrection of Christ.
Already in the early 16th century, thanks to the work of the local painter, sculptor and architect Gaudenzio Ferrari, the scenes inside the chapels were presented in a genial and innovative combination of painting and sculptures. A strong realism, so that the devout could feel directly involved, almost part of the spectacle presented.
It is during the Counter-Reformation period that the Sacred Mount of Varallo took on the nature of a route. A mystical path that pilgrims could follow, a homage to the story of the life of Christ.
Curiosity: Gaudenzio Ferrari’s work would be taken as a model for the construction of many other Sacred Mounts.
Over the years, numerous important Piedmontese artists contributed to the decoration and completion of this extraordinary complex; among these, besides Gaudenzio Ferrari, there were Bernardino Lanino, Tanzio da Varallo, the d’Enrico brothers, il Morazzone, Dionigi Bussola and Benedetto Alfieri.
The Sacro Monte di Varallo has been a part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 2003.
A visit to the Sacred Mount is highly advised if you're in the area and the site is well-worth a detour. Entrance is free but tips are always welcome as they help the upkeep of the imposing structure, frescoes and statues. Audioguides are available at the entrance and are probably the best way to enjoy your tour of this religious masterpiece.
Credits / source: sacrimonti.netAny suggestions?
Defined as ossa da mordere (bones to bite) and brutti ma buoni (ugly but good), the famous hard biscuits from Borgomanero – a town south of lakes Orta and Maggiore – really encounter a lot of prejudice from those who don’t know how great these sweet local specialties taste.
Although you can find different versions of these cookies, what makes the small biscuits of the Novarese area unique is that ossa da mordere are made exclusively with almonds, while the more generic brutti ma buoni, a name with which these, along with other popular, similar-looking biscuits are called, are usually made with hazelnuts.
Ossa da mordere date back to the end of the 19th century and the cookies were so popular then that notable customers like Giuseppe Verdi or Queen Elena of Savoy made sure they always had some to offer to their guests. In more recent times, they were even voted cookie of the week by Martha Stewart!
But what exactly are these biscuits, and what has earned them such an array of unjust names? Ossa da mordere are similar to a meringue with a wonderfully crisp exterior and a texture that is soft and chewy. However, when cold, they tend to become much harder… hence their being known to be as hard as bones! Their proclaimed “ugliness”, instead, comes from the roughly chopped almonds that are part of the mixture; this is also what gives them their traditional irregular shape.
As they don’t contain flour, they make a perfect treat for those intolerant to gluten. If you’d like to have a go with them, try Pasticceria Gioria in Borgomanero or Biscottificio Camporelli and Pasticceria Trovati in Novara.Any suggestions?
The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, situated below the Sacro Monte di Varallo, was built between 1486 and 1493, at more or less the same time as the Sacro Monte itself, and to which it almost constitutes an overture.
From the outside, this seemingly insignificant gothic church reveals little knowledge of the beauty entrapped beyond the entrance doors, a characteristic of Franciscan churches and convents.
On the inside, we find a typical segregation of spaces; an area reserved to churchgoers, and another to the friars.
What separates the two areas is a grand partition wall that goes all the way up to the ceiling; a so-called tramezzo, supported by three semi-circular arches.
Onto this wall, 21 incredible frescoes have been painted in 1513 by local artist, Gaudenzio Ferrari. They represent scenes from the life of Christ; from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion. In fact, the Crucifixion of Christ is the immediate eye-catcher, being the centre of the setting, surrounded by the other 20 frescoes, each portraying a different event from the life of Christ.
This work of art is of great national importance and is considered to be Ferrari’s masterpiece.
Curiosity: a statue of the artist can be seen in the piazza that bears his name, in front of the church.Any suggestions?
Set amid the small hamlet of Rovasenda, surrounded by rice fields in northeast Piedmont, the castle of Rovasenda is a fascinating medieval edifice, whose presence dominates the area. Initially erected as a military building, it later acted as the focus of commercial and agricultural activities, subsequently becoming a stately home between the XV and the XVI century.
Documents attest the existence of a fortification in the area ever since 882 AD, while works on the castle itself began in 1170 AD thanks to Alberto di Rovasenda, whose Signoria can be traced back to 965 AD.
The building is imposing, complete of moat and all that jazz, including a 48 metre-high tower dominating the complex, erected in 1459: resting on a single arch, it features a square plan and an astonishing seven floors.
Between the end of the XIV and the beginning of the XV century, the House of Savoy wanted to submit the Signoria, who eventually had to surrender after many years of war, and became their vassals. During the wars between Savoy and the Spanish, the castle was heavily damaged; furthermore, a lightning strike damaged the west side of the tower in 1721, causing a 15-metre chasm in the south-west corner, only repaired in 1927.
On the north wing of the castle, a painting hall was erected in the XVII century: though inaccessible these days, after the marvellous coffered ceiling partially collapsed in 1692, it contains exquisite biblical scenes, still kept in a good state of conservation.
The building is in great need of conservation and repair works, nonetheless some rooms can be visited upon agreement with the owners: step back in time and experience life as it was back in the Middle Ages, discovering a jewel hidden in this charming and appealing corner of Piedmont.
Ph. Credits: Jean Pierre Rien, Stefano Barattini.Any suggestions?
Surrounded by the hills of Novara and once immersed in vineyards, the majestic Santuario del Crocifisso di Boca is a stunning, imposing religious edifice built in neoclassical style.
The project is by none other than the well-renowned architect, Alessandro Antonelli, most famous for his undeniable masterpiece, the Mole Antonelliana; today symbol of the city of Turin.
The location itself has been the destination of pilgrimages ever since the 17th century, well before the erection of a church, when only a small chapel existed, known as the Chapel of the Purging Souls (Cappella delle Anime Purganti).
The consistent stream of pilgrims made the construction of a church inevitable, and a first church was erected. However, even this second building was too small and had soon to be expanded into the magnificent building we see before us today, completed between 1822 and 1917.
The Santuario presents itself with an impressive façade, partly covered by a grandiose colonnade, to which access is granted through a wide flight of stairs. Once you reach the threshold of the temple, a large barrel vault welcomes you, supported by a single order of pillars.
The temple is still subject to pilgrimages and is an excellent spot from where to start exploring the hills of Novara, going on one of the many hiking or bike trails.Any suggestions?
The first official Carnival in the town of Borgosesia was held in 1854, thus making it one of Italy’s many historical carnivals. Today the carnival goes on for a period of 3 to 4 weeks, a time filled with food events and costume balls and - of course - with carnival floats en messe parading around the town centre for each of the three Sundays in question.
The Borgosesia carnival is somewhat different from other European carnivals of Roman origin in that it doesn’t end on Shrove Tuesday but on Ash Wednesday; the first day of Lent.
The local dialect for Ash Wednesday is Mercu Scûrot, literally meaning dark Wednesday. This “exception” to the rituals of traditional Roman carnivals came about because the people of Borgosesia simply did not want the festivities to come to an abrupt end, so they decided to host a proper funeral for the carnival on Ash Wednesday!
This custom became a tradition and, still today, on Mercu Scûrot an actual funeral procession takes place.
A fake coffin on a hearse is followed by “mourners” dressed in traditional costumes: tails, gala (a large bow tie in cotton lint), top hat and cloak. Another indispensable accessory is the cassù, a wooden ladle used to drink wine from: in fact, the procession stops at every osteria (tavern) on the itinerary for a timely break.
After lunch – usually beans – the “mourners” or cilindrati, as they are called on account of their top hats, proceed on a tour of the town which then terminates well into the evening.
A reading of the last will and testament of Peru Magunella (the town’s mask character) is carried out and a puppet representing him is burned on a ritual pyre. Finally, an exhibition of elaborate fireworks takes place to close all celebrations.
If you’re in the area during the carnival period make sure you experience this extraordinary cultural heritage of the past.
Ph. Credits: Carlo Pozzoni, FrozenlightAny suggestions?
A delectable treat with ancient roots, Canestrelli di Crevacuore are crispy wafer biscuits that were traditionally eaten only during special occasions. Not to be mistaken with the common canestrelli (round biscuits typical of Piedmont and Liguria), Canestrelli di Crevacuore are made with an iron press, which was carefully preserved by the family who invented them. Eventually, the press passed down to the eldest daughter along with the original recipe.
Flour, butter, sugar, cocoa, eggs, spices, and red wine are the essential ingredients in the precious recipe, which dates back to the 17th century.
For excellent Canestrelli di Crevacuore, the dough must be firm and compact. To mould and cook them, a small piece is placed on the hinged iron, similar to a hand-held waffle iron, and cooked until crispy.
When ready, the result is a thin, fragrant, crispy wafer easily recognized by its characteristic checked pattern. Ideal with coffee or even better, a glass of Barolo Chinato, Canestrelli di Crevacuore is a small treat filled with great tradition.
Curiosity: for some, tradition requires reciting a Hail Mary during cooking, to get the time just right!Any suggestions?
Rising proud among the pre-Alps at the beginning of Valsesia, Monte Fenera (899 m.) dominates the surrounding area and can be distinguished from the Novara and Vercelli plains. Declared Natural Park in 1987, its area covers 3,378 hectares, encompassing the municipalities of Borgosesia, Boca, Cavallirio, Grignasco, Prato Sesia and Valduggia.
The Park offers an astonishingly rich and diverse fauna and flora, with several animals found only in this habitat, such as the peregrine falcon, the black stork, a truly rare breed, laying its nest for the first time in Italy in 1984, and the wallcreeper.
The diversity of the park, spanning from dense woodland to open pastures, rock walls and heathland, grants a stunning richness in animal and plant species.
Visiting the park means discovering a rich portfolio including thirty botanical species, rare instances of Daphne alpina, wild grape, sixteen types of ferns, among which osmunda regalis and butcher’s broom aplenty, to name but a few instances.
Of notable archaeological and paleontological interest, the many caves on the mountain offer a priceless insight into the history of the area: the remains found there trace back to the Palaeolithic period and the Neanderthal man, who lived here about 54,000 years ago, as well as the Cave Bear (Ursus Spelaeus), extinguished about 24,000 years ago.
The many caves have been known ever since the XVII century, but have been thoroughly explored only from the XX century onwards.
These can now be visited upon arrangement with the park administrator: you will enter a world of adventure and secret charm by exploring the Grottone, Grotta Chiara, Grotta della Torre, Grotta dei Pipistrelli and Grotta del Laghetto.
Architecture also plays a part in this park: the Sanctuary of the Holy Cross in Boca was executed by the architect Alessandro Antonelli, who planned the Mole Antonelliana in Turin, while the churches in Soliva and Castagnola show a neoclassical style.
There truly is a realm of adventure, culture and nature waiting for you in this uncovered gem in north-west Piedmont.Any suggestions?
A cured meat produced in the province of Biella, Paletta di Coggiola is a recognised P.A.T. product (prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale) thanks to both its tradition and excellence. The name paletta (shovel) derives from the shape of the shoulder blade of the pig, which looks like a shovel! It is the muscle in this area that is used in the production of Paletta.
Historical records show that cured meats made from the shoulder of the pig were once considered only for the poor, while the more noble parts were consumed by the wealthy.
Producing Paletta di Coggiola requires brining the cuts of meat for three weeks in a solution of water, salt, herbs, and spices. The brine is stirred frequently to ensure proper penetration of the flavourings. The brined meat is then well-seasoned with pepper, packed in a natural casing, tied, and allowed to age for one month.
It is sold raw, but is usually eaten cooked; traditionally hung from a wooden stick, to prevent it from touching the bottom of the pot, and boiled in water.
Once cooked it should be thinly sliced and can be served as a second course with potatoes, polenta, and onion compote but can also be served cold as an antipasto.
If the idea of preparing the meat seems too intimidating, fear not, since Paletta di Coggiola can be found pre-cooked and in some select areas, pre-sliced and ready to serve! Just be careful: while it can be eaten raw or sotto grasso (packed in fat), the flavour may be too spicy for some tastes.Any suggestions?
PRODUCED FROM A MINIMUM OF 90% OF NEBBIOLO grapes and up to 10% of other local grapes, Gattinara DOCG is a red wine with a distinctive flavour. A DOC since 1967, it was granted DOCG status, a higher quality certification, in 1990.
Curiosity: most Gattinara producers though prefer to use 100% Nebbiolo grape which is locally referred to as Spanna.
The production area is limited to the hills around the town of Gattinara, in the northern part of Piedmont and is not far from the Alps and the massif of Mount Rosa.
Vineyards have existed in the area since Roman times and interesting facts about the history of this wine producing area can be found in Alberto Pattono's historical essay "His Excellency Gattinara", published in 2013.
Volcanic activity during prehistorical times left the soil rich in minerals giving its characteristic red colour. The singularity of this soil, combined with the ideal microclimate, contribute to the production of outstanding Nebbiolo grapes. In fact the area enjoys a sunny but cool climate with considerable temperature swings.
Gattinara DOCG must reach a minimum alcohol content of 12.5% (13% for riserva) and is required to age for 36 months with 12 in oak barrels. Riserva Gattinara has an aging requirement of 48 months including 24 in wood.
This full-bodied wine is high in acidity and tannin, which contribute to its remarkable longevity. With its rich and earthy character it rivals acclaimed Piemonte reds Barolo and Barbaresco at a more affordable price.
One of the most prominent producers of Gattinara is Travaglini, a family-owned wine estate established in the 1920s and still run by the original owners' heirs. Travaglini wines are easily recognized because of their peculiar curved bottle shape. The bottle was designed to celebrate the exceptional 1952 vintage and was kept by the family as their trademark. Other producers include Anzivino, Caligaris, Petterino, Bianchi or Il Chiosso, just to name a few.
Gattinara DOCG can be ordered in the many restaurants of the area or bought in shops in both Italy and worldwide.
This noble wine is best drunk with red meat, game, roasted vegetables and hard cheeses. Most winemakers have cellars which can be visited and offer wine-tasting and tours, always the best way to get to know a wine. For details check the individual websites.Any suggestions?
The Sanctuary at Montrigone was founded in 1631 on the site of a demolished stronghold belonging to the Counts of Biandrate. It was built with funds collected by the community, thankful for having survived the terrible 1630 plague and was initially dedicated to Saint Roch, invoked against the plague, and later to Saint Mark, protector of fields and harvests. With the growing popularity of the cult of the Virgin Mary the sanctuary was later on dedicated to St. Anne, Mary's mother.
Situated on a small hill, which was once in a secluded area, it is now part of the town of Borgosesia. Despite finding itself in a suburban context it maintained the name of Sacro Monte, normally a hill in a remote location.
The walk up the hill follows an itinerary of thirteen small shrines representing the stations of the Cross, painted by Lorenzo Paraciono in 1753.
The exterior of the church has a portico with five arches divided by serizzo marble columns. The walls were built using the remains of the destroyed castle with the addition of rocks coming from the River Sesia.
Inside the church are six chapels with statues by Giovanni d’Errico and Giacomo Ferro, dedicated to the holy Mary. Also the beautiful decorations in the cupola are dedicated to the ascension of the Virgin Mary.
Outside the church, in three contiguous cells dug in the rock, are further sculptures: a dead Christ, a Magdalene in the desert and a beautiful representation of St. John the Baptist kneeling and looking upwards.
English composer and novelist Samuel Butler visited the Sanctuary and mentioned the statue of St. John in his "Essays on Life, Art and Science" with the following words: "This figure puzzles me more than any other at Montrigone; it appears to be of the fifteenth rather than the sixteenth century; it hardly reminds me of Gaudenzio, and still less of any other Valsesian artist. It is a work of unusual beauty, but I can form no idea as to its authorship". Butler's opinion aside, we do recommend the walk up the hill and a visit to this place of tranquillity in the middle of Borgosesia urban life!Any suggestions?
The imposing Torre delle Castelle is situated on a hilltop overlooking the town of Gattinara. It was part of an important fortified complex dating back to the 14th century, when the area was at the centre of an important trade route and was occupied by the Visconti family. The tower itself is much older, namely from the 11th century, as established by laboratory tests, and was restructured sometime around the year 1250.
The fortified system consisted of two rows of walls, hence the name Castelle, Latin plural for castellum meaning settlement.
It is not clear why a significant fortification was built in such a relatively remote area. The settlement itself included a church, San Giovanni alle Castelle, officially recognized in 1217, which was restructured in 1525 and again in the 18th century to be finally demolished in 1950. The Madonna delle Nevi Chapel was erected in its place.
The Torre delle Castelle area is open to the public and easily accessible both on foot and by car. It has a public picnic area and a small exhibition / meeting hall which can be rented for events or fairs.
Its splendid panorama though is the main reason for a trip to this hill. With pleasant views over Gattinara on one side and magnificent views over the vineyards and the Alps on the other, Torre delle Castelle makes the perfect destination for all lovers of natural beauty and landscapes.
Tip: visit at dusk for a perfect blend of colours and scents or later for a picnic under the stars.
Ph. Credits: Francesco GalanteAny suggestions?