Lower Monferrato of Castagnole
The hills around Castagnole Monferrato, seven in all, are famous for the production of Ruché, the most spicy of Piedmont's aromatic red grape varieties. Our itinerary traces a vine leaf, an embroidery of paths up and down these gentle hills, from which all of Piedmont can be suddenly breathed in from the top of a ridge.
In Castagnole Monferrato, the treasures are all enclosed within the walls of the Ricetto (the medieval fortification known as la Miraja) just beyond the big parish Church of San Martino: from the theatre to the beautiful mediaeval houses on which 17th-century farmhouses and ambitious late-19th-century buildings are nestled.
The ruins of the former castle have been replaced by the charming neo-Gothic space of the former kindergarten with the old seat of the Philharmonic Orchestra next to it. Worthy of mention is also the Mercantile, a Baroque villa now open to the public, with an Italian-style labyrinth garden.
The shortest route to Viarigi meanders towards Montemagno, but we will take a broader route, travelling from Castagnole Monferrato past the stretches of truffle woods which suddenly appear to the south-east: we descend along a few bends and then go through a rural valley to the nearby village of Refrancore, a grid of houses once fortified on the Gaminella stream. The oldest and most fortified group of houses was, however, located on top of the short hill, where we can still find the old Church of San Martino, with traces of its gate-tower found in the bell tower.
From the village square, on the other hand, the slender 18th-century bell tower of the now lost Church of San Sebastiano stands out, the symbol of the village, along with the Finocchini, delicious aniseed biscuits that you should definitely try. We should also mention the sensitive 20th-century painter Massimo Quaglino and the small Church with its Romanesque apse in Borgo Maddalena (towards Valenzani).
We move up and down over gentle hills to reach Accorneri, a densely populated hamlet shared with Viarigi, which is our next stage. The village is quite unique in its genre with its strips of multi-terraced houses and with the beautiful Torre dei Segnali (Signals Tower), the first outpost of the Marquisate of Monferrato's surveillance system on this disputed borderland.
Viarigi definitely deserves a stroll through stairways and vaults to discover views, courtyards and doorways, surrounded by a flood of red tiled roofs. The beautiful 14th-century parish Church of Sant'Agata, with its 17th-century façade, preserves a triptych of the Madonna by Gandolfino da Roreto (d'Asti) along with Macrino, one of Piedmont's most important Renaissance painters. The Church of San Silverio is also worth a visit, with its Greek-cross plan and alternating two-colour ashlars, overlooked by a medieval palace, one of the oldest in the village.
All around, as far as the eye can see, there are more woods than vineyards. Just above the woods, the tiny 11th-century Church of San Marziano stands out. It is the last (or first) country Church on the Via Francigena of the area, with its refined Romanesque architecture of yellow sandstone and splendid, isolated viewpoint.
The ups and downs begin again in one of the most beautiful valley basins in the province. Montemagno awaits us at the end of a short ascent, revealing the glacis of its Castle from afar. Actually, the whole village is perched on the other side of the hill, on the sunny side; from the Castle of the Calvi di Bergolo family, a fortress that was converted into an evocative Baroque mansion while preserving its typically medieval appearance, there are 12 alleyways (numbered as such) which branch off by maintaining the fortification’s original layout.
The old parish Church has a bombastic staircase and columned façade and, although uncommon in these areas, it has a remarkable scenic impact. However, Montemagno's secrets are mostly well hidden... such as the frescoes of Santa Maria della Cava (1491), among the most important in the Asti area along with those of Sant'Andrea a Montiglio (it. Romanesque in and around Montechiaro d’Asti), or the charming ruins of the Romanesque Church of SS Vittore e Corona (12th century). Finally, here comes the surprise of a daily celebration... that of bread! The typical "griva monferrina" is given due consideration in an event dedicated to what is see as man's first and most important food. And along with bread you must also eat salami which, throughout Monferrato, is cooked, handmade (each butcher's shop makes its own), spicy and fatty: an unforgettable treat for the senses!
Every road that branches off from Montemagno provides a fully immersive experience in a rural landscape bordering on reality. Next, the route takes us towards Grana (it. Moncalvo, Italy's Smallest Town), a compulsory junction for Moncalvo (it. Lower Monferrato of Moncalvo) and a panoramic viewpoint over the other Ruché hills. The village is entirely clustered around the imposing parish Church of the Assunta (1776), whose altarpiece is the Madonna col Bambino e Santi (1595), one of Moncalvo's most beautiful works of art.
The road heading towards Calliano takes us to the San Desiderio crossroads, the ancient border between Monferrato and Astesana, which allows us to make a U-turn to go along the ridge which from San Pietro (where we can take a nice shortcut to Castagnole Monferrato) descends to the main road of Scurzolengo. There is in fact only one road which runs through the whole village and there are just a few streets in the centre built around the imposing Castle. Actually, the grim castle also incorporates the parish Church which further increases its overwhelming size.
Opposite Scurzolengo we find Portacomaro, homeland of Asti's most deeply rooted grape variety: Grignolino, which can be tasted in the local Bottega del Vino (Wine Shop). This wine shop is housed in the scenic donjon that completes the village's beautiful medieval Fortification. Furthermore, a must-see is San Pietro, the small 12th-century Romanesque Church (one of the few without a circular apse), curiously located at the end of a steep flight of steps just outside the old town and which houses frescoes dating back to the 14th and 16th centuries. Portacomaro is also widely known as one of the undisputed capitals of Tambass, the tamburello ball game of Monferrato, which is similar but distinct from the Langa-based pallapugno game.
The surroundings are by far the most charming of this itinerary, whether you get to the remote little Church of Sant'Evasio, immersed in the Miravalle woods, or run along the parallel Castellazzo ridge, or take the other road leading to Scurzolengo: a wide tour which, from Monterovere, seems to have been created specifically to fill your eyes with these unspoilt views.
Our route, meanwhile, follows the ridge to Castiglione passing through ciabòt and Liberty-style villas, it is by far one of the most beautiful routes in the whole of Monferrato. Castiglione, once a municipality and today a “ventina”, i.e. hamlet of Asti (these are the municipal identities which joined the city and made it the capital of the province in 1935), is another small hilltop village famous for the San Defendente fagiolata (a bean feast held on 2 January), which has been a religious festival and food distribution to the poor for over 800 years.
From here, passing through Cornapò, you reach Migliandolo (another municipality, now an "independent" hamlet of Portacomaro), a peaceful country village that you go through in slow motion to descend on the other side into the Valenzani valley, from which you return to Castagnole Monferrato in a few bends.
Texts by Pietro Giovannini
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