If you are looking for ideas to enrich a free day or if you have seen my video and would like more information, read on, today I will talk about a wonderful trip out-of-town to Albugnano, in Monferrato.
The hills of the Monferrato are distinguished by their exceptional, environmental views that are very much untouched by humans: the towns of Monferrato are generally very small (even less than a thousand inhabitants) and are well spaced from each other. Try driving through the narrow, often curved and gently inclined roads, and you will soon realize that you are driving in complete relaxation. Your eyes will be filled with the peaceful, natural surroundings and your senses will let go.
Now you will be well prepared to immerse yourself in a visit to discover one of the best preserved medieval canonical complexes in Piedmont: the Canonica of Vezzolano. Already the approach made of curves and climbs and landscapes of pure nature will put you in a mood of serene expectation … and then, finally, the building: solitary, millenary but beautifully designed in a manner most pleasing to the eye.
The facade is remarkable and exceptionally well preserved: you will be immediately struck by the richness of the decoration, which speaks of a Romanesque style to which we may not be accustomed: polychromy obtained by alternating horizontal bands of exposed brick and sandstone, three orders of blind loggias, which have a purely decorative function, and the sawtooth patterns below the roof on each side rising towards the apex.
All features of a Monferrato Romanesque church with a strong Po Valley influence: this tells us that the Canonica, founded in 1095, was positioned specifically in an area of high visitation and strong traffic: it was in fact on a junction of the Via Francigena (click here for reading about it).
A site isolated from the town, to allow the canons to follow the rules of St. Augustine, but in an area of transit and cultural exchange with many local influences from Monferrato, Po Valley and transalpine. In fact, the statues that enrich the facade are in the French style: the blessed Christ in the center, in front of a mullioned window, between two archangels, and the Madonna enthroned in the lunette above the central portal, with the Holy Spirit.
Entering you will be struck by the marvelous decoration that encompasses your view: it is the jubé or rood loft, a structural element typical of medieval churches, which was used to divide the audience of the faithful from the canons during mass, to prevent them from breaking the rules. The name jubé derives from the Frenchification of the Latin writing “iube domine benedicere” (Father, give me your blessing), an invitation probably carved or painted often on these structures and addressed to the faithful at the entrance to the church.
Today it is rare to find a jubé still in place in a church, because after the Council of Trent (1563) they were all torn down to make the churches into a single room; this is why the Canonica of Santa Maria of Vezzolano is so unique: here the jubé was never knocked down, probably because as early as 1405 the Canonica passed into receivership and quickly lost its importance, thus escaping even the Counter-Reformation.
The decoration of the jubé is of excellent workmanship, with depictions of stories of the life of Mary and the Patriarchs and you will notice the blue color of some details still perfectly preserved: it is a precious lapis lazuli coming from the Caucasus.
Inside the church you will feel in the middle of the medieval period: the capitals’ decorations with iconography of pagan tradition, still in the Romanesque style and the bi-color pattern, while looking up you will find cross vaults and pointed arches: here is the French influence of a premature gothic. Take a look at the apse of the altar, an original from the twelfth century with a precious representation, at the window, of the Annunciation that reveals links with the Annunciation of the Sacra di San Michele.
Finally, in the cloister you will be overwhelmed by the vivid colors of the fourteenth-century frescoes!
You will find yourself thinking how incredible it is that the frescoes have managed to stay in such excellent condition, despite the fact that in the fifteenth century, this church had lost so much importance that it passed into receivership and in the nineteenth century the cloister was even used as a granary …. a great testimony to the fact that the quality of materials used and the realization of the artworks were very high.
This detailed visit will certainly have given you an appetite …. and thank goodness! Because Monferrato is essential from an enogastronomy standpoint. What one wants now is a beautiful agritourism. Here in the area there is a place that I can definitely recommend: it is much more than just a farm, is an ethical and organic agritourism, committed to the protection of social and environmental biodiversity, it is called Ca’ Mariuccia.
Upon arrival, many different animals will welcome you along the sides of the walk from the car park to the actual restaurant/farmhouse: horses, goats, ponies, ostriches, a Scottish Highland cow (!!!): Ca’ Mariuccia is also an interactive farm. The atmosphere is family-like, welcoming but very professional: the interior is furnished with a delicate taste and attention to detail. The food is divine: being from Piedmont, I can not help but exalt their bagna cauda: it’s amazing !!!!
If you have to taste it for the first time: taste it here, it’s authentic and it will drive you crazy !!! Their wine list is not lengthy but is of high quality: absolutely to taste is the Albugnano, the DOC wine of the area, a red wine created using at least 85% Nebbiolo grapes.
To help you digest your lunch, I recommend taking a stroll up to the “balcony of Monferrato“: otherwise known as Albugnano, a small village of about five hundred inhabitants, called the “balcony of Monferrato” for its position on the top of the hill that is perhaps the highest in all of the territory of Monferrato. From its Belvedere Motta park, it offers a splendid view over the hills, without any obstacles, reaching to the Alps. The peace that you will find in visiting this tiny village, and the wonderful panoramic views, are definitely worth the stop.
And on a day like this you will have experienced all of the magic of Monferrato: a history one thousand years old, Romanesque art, excellent wines and food, breathtaking views, and outstanding nature.
Canonica of Vezzolano
Address: Località Vezzolano, 35, 14022 Albugnano AT
Visiting hours summer season (April-October): from Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm – closed Mondays (if not a holiday) – during religious celebrations it is not possible to visit the church
Address: Località Sant Emiliano, 14022 Albugnano AT
Price: €€ – €€€
Kitchen: Piedmontese, Italian, Mediterranean, vegetarian