A stroll through the “ventine” – from Asti to Viatosto
A visit to Asti can go beyond the city itself. As a matter of fact, and this is a very rare if not unique case in Italy, Asti has an incredibly vast district of about 10-15 km radius, including several villages or hamlets that were once elevated to the status of autonomous municipality and which, with the establishment of the province of Asti (in 1935), were eventually absorbed by the "new" capital. The people of Asti conventionally call these hamlets "ventine" not because there were twenty of them: the term, according to G. Bera writing on “Il Platano”, actually derives from the word "vicinia" which in the Middle Ages used to describe the smallest settlement. Therefore Asti enjoys a genuine loop in the open countryside. We will not trace a single route, also because the "ventine" are not an organic system, and in many cases coincide with ancient and often isolated settlements.
A third route takes us out of Asti on Corso Alessandria to reach Quarto, divided into a lower and an upper village, with the parish Church almost on the balcony of the hill. A curious Palio degli Asini (donkey race) is held here (as in Alba, Cocconato and Calliano Monferrato) in defiance of the noble and equine Asti Palio. The inhabitants of the village claim to have known about it since at least the 18th century.
Going back towards Asti you turn right at the junction on the state road to reach the hamlet of Castiglione. Probably founded by the Franks, Castiglione is one of the oldest "ventine" (hamlets) and has been documented since 899. The place was meant to be a real fortress for the city of Asti, and for this reason it has been destroyed many times over the centuries: no trace remains of the castle, but the first parish Church (15th century), just outside the town heading towards Asti, is worth a visit. On 2 January, a very impressive ceremony is held to celebrate the Fagiolata di San Defendente (the "Bean Soup Festival of San Defendente"), which was once distributed to the poor, in deference to the wishes of a certain Guglielmo Baldissero, who paid a debt on behalf of the Canons and asked that after his death, once a year, they celebrate a mass in his memory and donate an emina (a handful) of beans to the poor. This was back in 1200 and the tradition has been carried on ever since.
Castiglione takes us back into the wild: the woods are still dominant here, thanks to a harsh and demanding hillside that is ill-suited to being farmed: only a few steps further on and the Portacomaro vineyards offer an entirely different landscape. We descend towards Asti and turn right towards Caniglie, a remote rural centre consisting mainly of scattered houses: we are now on the main road to Moncalvo and Casale Monferrato.
The densely populated hamlet of Portacomaro Stazione is noteworthy thanks to its good wine producers, whereas Valmaggiore is again a charming peaceful place, very green, with lots of horses and many beautiful residences. From there, passing through Valgera, where the same combination is repeated, we reach Valmanera, where the homonymous ancient Carthusian Monastery is a must-see. This was one of the most important monasteries in Asti together with the one in Azzano; half-destroyed by Napoleon, it still preserves a section of the original quadrilateral and is a significant monument in Asti. Inside, it houses the impressive manufactory of Arazzeria Scassa, founded by the legendary Ugo Scassa in 1957, who was one of the world's greatest tapestry makers, and it also hosts a restoration laboratory and museum.
Finally, from Valmanera we can easily climb up to Viatosto to reach the splendid Church of Maria Ausiliatrice, a Romanesque three-nave treasure, first mentioned in 1194 and whose oldest parts date back to the 13th century. During recent restoration work, most of the original 14th-century frescoes emerged and today the Viatosto parish Church can be fully enjoyed in all its essential richness. The church is also a rare treasure trove of works of art: the wooden statue of the Madonna (14th century) in the apsidal niche is beautiful, as is the wooden panel of the "Madonna delle Ciliegie" (Madonna of the Cherries) from the 14th century and the painted sandstone group, "Incoronazione della Beata Vergine Maria" (Crowning of the Blessed Virgin Mary) dating back to the late 15th century.
The natural balcony of the churchyard (which can also be reached on foot from Asti) is a beautiful viewpoint over the city and the hills of the “ventine”.
Text by Pietro Giovannini
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