Since 2014 it has been a UNESCO site as part of Piedmont’s wine country, and since 2018 it has become part of “the most beautiful villages in Italy“. The production of DOC wines in the area are known throughout Italy and are gaining ground abroad, but if you go to Cella Monte, a small town of just over five hundred inhabitants in the hills of Lower Monferrato, you will not find anything touristy or self-congratulatory.
Instead you will find all the genuineness of a village that seems to have been crystallized in a non-existent time. There are very few cars, just the slow rhythm of the hills and the relaxation of the panoramas offered by the vineyards. Even the colors here are relaxing. Forget the bright colors of the Chapel of Barolo in the Langhe (of which we have spoken of here). In Cella Monte there are no blinding colors. Instead, you will be struck by the uniformity of the buildings, whose colours range from white to cream to pale yellow: an elegance of past times.
Cella Monte owes this unique characteristic to the building material used, which was the most commonly available stone historically throughout this part of Monferrato: the “preia da cantun” (in Piedmontese dialect, today translated into Italian as “pietra da cantoni“). It is actually the famous cornerstone, which was used as a large block in construction to make the foundation and the corners of the buildings and which guaranteed their stability. The Monferrato hills are made up of limestone rock that has stratified over millions and millions of years in alternating moments of submersion and emersion from the water, during those geological periods in which the Po Valley was still completely occupied by the sea.
The result is this heavy and crumbly stone that over the millennia has preserved the memory of this area’s marine past. And it still shows it today as some fossilized shells can always be found set inside the walls of the buildings and homes of Cella Monte. An exotic, seaside touch in a hilly, inland landscape; an absolute uniqueness! Perhaps it was to accompany this exotic note that a botanist residing in Cella Monte during the nineteenth century began the cultivation of ornamental palms, which today indeed decorate the entire village. A contamination with an excellent aesthetic effect!
Starting from the second half of the eighteenth century, an additional factor emerged to make these 9 municipalities of Lower Monferrato (including Cella Monte) more unique, so much so that they became UNESCO sites. At that time, the local people began storing wine in bottles, thanks to the reduced production costs of glass. And so, in the houses of the people of Monferrato, the infernot began to appear.
The cultivation of grapevines had always been practiced in Monferrato, and each family had its own production of wine that it consumed during the year, thus from harvest to harvest. With the appearance of bottles, the inhabitants started to store their best wines and/or special vintages. And with a brilliant intuition they realized that the limestone of which the subsoil is made, made for an excellent storage location because it maintains a constant temperature and humidity.
Thus, simple peasants, winemakers and quarrymen were transformed into sculptors and stonemasons and, starting from their cellars, dug deep to make additional rooms below where to keep the best bottles. This is how the infernots were born, as underground rooms, obtained by subtracting material to achieve the desired shape and style. Many infernots have niches along the walls to accommodate the bottles and in the center also a table, always obtained by carving its shape out of the solid stone, a bit like the works sculpted by Michelangelo.
In order to preserve the memory of this uniqueness and give it visibility to tourists, in 2003 in Cella Monte the “Ecomuseo della Pietra da Cantoni” (the Eco-Museum of the Local Stone) was established, where it is possible to visit an extremely interesting example of an infernot.
Visiting the infernot, it is impressive to think that they were made by ordinary, simple folk, who during the summer season dedicated themselves to the hard work of the fields, or of the vineyards, or of the quarries. But then in winter, a period in which the earth rests and there is less work, they engaged in what today would be considered a great labour. The infernots, in addition to being popular works of art, give us a strong and important testimony of the Monferrato character.
An immersion with eyes closed in the anthropology of the Piedmontese hill environment. Here you will find what is called “Sabaudity“, or better yet, what I would call, Piedmonteseness (since the Monferrato has only become Savoy since 1713). That almost stubborn modesty, that perfect and silent industriousness, which offers services with such kindness and professionalism as to almost arouse suspicion in those who are not capable of such beauty.
We may seem a bit cold, unfriendly, we Piedmontese, but we are only reserved and a little serious, and a little too concrete and industrious to “waste time” in too many ceremonies.
But that’s not all! The story continues in part II …
Ecomuseum of the Local Stone (Infernot)
Address: Via Circonvallazione, 15034 Cella Monte AL
Phone: +39 0142 488161
Hours: Visits by reservation
– Infernot visits of the Ecomuseum: August Sunday 10 am – 12 pm. Closed on the 15th.
– Book visit: Visits on other days
Where to stay
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