Dear Traveller friends,
Today I want to add another beautiful destination to your tour of Piedmont. After Turin and Biella, it’s time to visit Monferrato, the famous wine-producing area between Alessandria and Asti. Since Monferrato is quite wide, we are going to talk about the lower part of it for now (Basso Monferrato).
The Lower Monferrato has three points of interest you can’t miss:
- the very well kept town centre of Casale Monferrato
- the “Infernot”
- the vineyards on the hills.
If you want to visit everything with leisure, you need a weekend. This way you can devote your Saturday afternoon to Casale and Sunday to the hills and the Infernot. However, if you are willing to keep a good pace, you can do everything in one day.
When to go
The best period to visit Monferrato is September. Since it is renowned for its vineyards, the grape harvest season is the most splendid period to visit the area.
As an alternative, the rest of the Autumn or Spring are good periods too. Summer is great for a tour of the hills, but the heat and mosquitoes are quite unbearable in the flat areas. I’d discourage a visit in Winter, when fog and snow may prevent the view of the landscape and make going around tricky.
Our tour starts in Casale Monferrato. Even if it’s not very well known, it’s a fascinating town that deserves to be visited. Half a day is enough to see the best of it.
Even if this town isn’t a tourist destination, the city council organizes the event “Casale città aperta (open city)”. During the second weekend of each month (2019), all the most important points of interest are open to the public. Be careful, though, during the second Saturday of each month, the points of interest are only opened in the afternoon. A visit the town at another time of day may prove a disappointment, because you risk finding the attractions closed.
The tour of the city starts in Piazza Castello, the perfect place to leave your car and begin your walk.
Among the main attractions, one is Piazza Castello itself. The first stop is the Castle, which appears quite different from the splendour of the past. After a long period of glory, which lasted to 1600, the castle was modified to assume the role of a defensive stronghold in anticipation of the war between the Savoy State and Austria. These changes were dismantled, creating, in fact, the vast square. Of what remains of the Castle, you can visit the towers and the ramparts.
Once out of the Castle, you can visit the Church of Saint Catherine. Despite its need for heavy and expensive restoration works, it’s a masterpiece of Baroque art, due to the sumptuous frescoes decorating the interior. The hall in the rear of the church is interesting too. It used to be used by the cloistered nuns to attend to the masses without meeting the rest of the congregation.
The last point of interest in Piazza Castello is the Municipal Theatre, built at the end of 1700 and recently restored. Now its sumptuous stuccoes and gildings decorate the four stories balconies.
When you finish the visit of Piazza Castello, you can proceed along Via Saffi, where you can see the Civic Tower, the symbol of the town. During the event “Casale città aperta” you can climb the tower and admire the view of the city from its most suggestive observation point.
Keep walking along the main street of the city centre and reach Piazza Mazzini, also known as “Square of the Horse”. From here, you can go on in Via Lanza and enjoy the “sweetest” moment of your tour. Here you’ll find the Pasticceria Portinaro, the confectionery which prepares Krumiri, the typical biscuit of Casale Monferrato. Surely you can’t miss it!
Not far from Pasticceria Portinaro, there is the Church of Saint Dominic. Built around the end of 1400, it contains valuable works of art, such as the funerary monument of Benvenuto Sangiorgio and a couple of paintings of XVI and XVII centuries.
Going back towards the centre, you can’t miss a visit to the Cathedral of Casale Monferrato, the Cathedral of Saint Evasius.
This Cathedral, built during 1100, survived to several misadventures and has some rare elements. The most peculiar is the narthex, the entrance typical of the Eastern architecture. Have you ever seen a church with this kind of access in Italy? If the answer is no, you’ve found an excellent reason to visit Casale. Other characteristic elements are the five narrow naves and the luxurious chapel of Saint Evasius, which contains the Saint’s remains.
Outside the Cathedral, you can proceed with your tour in Via Mameli. Here you can see the most beautiful palaces of Casale Monferrato. Most of them are private residences, so it’s difficult to visit the interiors, much more interesting than the facades. However, you can visit the City Hall (Palace Gozzani of Saint George) where you can admire the staircase decorated with cherubs, created by Giovanni Battista Bernero.
After turning in Via Cavour, you can reach the Civic Museum and the Plaster Cast Gallery Leonardo Bistolfi. The Civic Museum hosts several paintings by local artist, which date back to 1600 and 1700. Inside the Gallery, instead, you can admire the sculptures of the most famous artist of Casale, Leonardo Bistolfi.
Don’t forget to visit the cloister of the Holy Cross Covent. Unfortunately, only a small part of the frescoes, depicting the stories of Saint Nicholas, is preserved. But those which survived the test of time are almost unaltered and allow the visitors to imagine how beautiful the entire cycle had to be.
If you have time, you can now take a stroll along Via Roma, the most charming pedestrian area in town.
The last thing to see in Casale is the Jewish District, one of the most ancient in Europe. Built around 1400, it became the mandatory residence of Jewish citizens during the Savoy’s domination. The symbol of the district is the Synagogue. Don’t be deceived by its appearance. Despite being simple and austere outside, the interior is rich and decorated in Rococo style. Another stop you can’t miss is the museum, one of the richest in Europe.
Don’t forget that visit to the Synagogue aren’t allowed on Saturdays, not even during the event “Casale città aperta”. If you are interested in visiting the Synagogue, the best solution is going there first on Sunday morning and then leave Casale towards the hills.
With the Jewish District, we end our tour of Casale Monferrato. For dinner, the best solution can be an agritourism on the hills. Here you can dive into the discovery of local products and recipes. However, you have to reserve your table in advance, especially in Autumn and Spring.
If you prefer to remain in town, I suggest the Drogheria Corino, a small place where you can find some local plates.
I had the chance to have lunch at the agritourism Tenuta Varocara, near Cella Monte. Here we tasted many delicious traditional dishes and local wines for less than 40 euros per person. However, the slowness of the service and the abundance of food aren’t ideal for a quick one-day-tour. I suggest this option for Saturday evening if you are spending the weekend in the area.
After visiting Casale Monferrato, now it’s time to leave towards the hills and the Infernot.
One of the most peculiar elements of Lower Monferrato is the Infernots, which are UNESCO heritage. An “infernot” is a small underground compartment, connected to the main cellar and used to store bottled wine. Most of the infernots around Casale date back to the second half of the Nineteenth century. During the winter, the farmers who were free from their work in the lands used to dig in their cellars to make them more spacious.
Over one thousands of infernots are estimated to be scattered around the Lower Monferrato. However, few of them are intact and accessible to the public.
Here is a map that will help you locate the villages with recorded infernots.
It’s quite tricky to find information about the openings and where to find them. The reason for this secrecy is that most of the infernots are inside private residences. For security reasons, the inhabitants open their houses to visitors only on a few occasions, usually three days throughout the year.
If you want information about the openings, you can visit the site of the Museum of the Cantoni Stone or the single websites of the villages. One which is frequently updated is the website of Treville.
It’s impossible to visit all the infernots in just one day. That’s why my suggestion is to focus on one or two villages.
If for some reason you can’t visit the Lower Monferrato during one of the opening days, that’s not a problem. Some restaurants and wineries posses infernots and organize tours for their clients.
Besides having an up to date website, during the openings, Treville offers a free guided tour of all the infernots in the area. The geologist Alfredo Frixa usually acts as a tour guide and will help you understand the history of the land by showing you the most peculiar characteristics of the infernots.
There are five infernots you can visit in Treville. All can be easily reached on foot, walking around the village. This guided tour is more or less two hours long.
Treville’s infernots are among the most fragile of all the Monferrato. They were dug in the most recent layer of the Cantoni Stone (17-14 millions of years ago), which is more abundant in clay and therefore less stable in sustaining the structure of the infernots.
Cella Monte can boast seven infernots; most of them, however, are situated in nearby villages. The easiest to visit are the one inside the Ecomuseum, the one inside the wine estate La Casaccia, and the one inside Cantina La Ca Nova.
Other infernots you can visit by booking a tour
There are other infernots inside some wine estates, restaurants and B&B. To visit them, you can get in touch with the owners through their websites and book a tour, maybe adding a wine tasting experience or a lunch with local products. In the list below you can find the links to their websites.
- Ottiglio (Fraz. Moleto): B&B
- Ottiglio: Infernot Vinicea
- Ponzano M.to: Infernot azienda agricola Alemat
- Grazzano Badoglio: Infernot azienda vitivinicola Fratelli Natta
- Cella Monte: Infernot Ecomuseo della Pietra da Cantoni
- Cella Monte: Infernot La Casaccia
- Rosignano M.to: Infernot Vicara
- Rosignano Mt.o: Infernot Castagnoni
- Rosignano M.to: Infernot L’Infernot B&B
- Terruggia: Infernot La cucina di Annalisa
- Vignale M.to: Infernot Cantine Buzio
With this tour around the hills in search of the infernots we close our weekend in Casale Monferrato and the Basso Monferrato.
In our next tour, we are going to discover another beautiful part of Piedmont, the Roero.