One of our great strengths at Jacada Travel is the time we invest in cultivating real connections with the destinations that we sell. We’re lucky enough to work with some fascinating and passionate people across the world who share with us an appreciation of authentic and uplifting experiences in travel. So, when our good friend Fabrizio, whom we’ve known for many years now in Argentina, told us he was relocating his family back to his hometown in northern Italy, we knew we were on to something special.
It’s the sheer unexpectedness of Villa Piazzo that makes it so fascinating. A grand mansion house set in gardens that give way to a panoramic view of the plains below. This 19th century palazzo was bought by the municipality and turned into accommodation for newly-arrived immigrants. They come from different corners of Africa, Asia and the Middle East and are waiting on their papers before they move on, usually to another European country. The grounds are immaculate and there is even a tennis court where a group of guys were playing football. The palazzo’s occupants stay in dormitories and are provided with three meals a day. They’re free to come and go as they please, but its rural setting makes getting around hard; with no money to pay for transport, walking the 8 km to Biella is often their only option. Villa Piazzo also has a restaurant open to the public and Fabrizio’s son attends piano lessons here. The cooperative that runs it organizes social events, creating a dialogue between the local community and the new arrivals.
Casa Zegna is the ultimate Italian story: a family business, a luxury fashion house, tucked away in a mountain village and still intimately connected to the local community. The textiles industry already had a long history in the Biellese hills when the company’s founder, Ermenegildo Zegna, established his textile factory in 1910 in the village of Trivero. Filtered by limestone rocks, the pure mountain water used to wash the sheep’s wool had a special quality which translates into the highest quality wool. At the Casa Zegna, we visited two exhibitions tracing the history of the company, including a temporary exhibition documenting the company’s launch into fashion design in 1968. The Casa Zegna is awash with fascinating cultural titbits: in a pavilion behind the old family villa, the artist Ettore P. Olivero, father of the famous modernist artist, painted a series of murals documenting the company’s development, with Ermenegildo Zegna depicted as a Renaissance merchant! In the 1930s, Zegna constructed many municipal buildings in Trivero as a sort of model village for the factory workers. Among these is the original textiles shop, still fitted out with devastatingly chic 1930s polished wood shop fittings.
The village of Piedicavallo is paradise for walkers: with the Valle d’Aosta on one side of the mountains, and the famous Italian Lakes on the other, Piedicavallo has some of the most stunning scenery in northern Italy but is delightfully ignored by most international tourists. Post-Second World War, many young men left the village to find work over the border in France, perhaps settling in St-Laurent-du-Pont which I visited last year to trace the history of Italian immigration in Savoie, France. The village still has its lavatorio, an outdoor, communal laundry: while modern technology has superseded the lavatorio, people still come here to fill up their water bottles as the water is so pure. Leading from the village are a network of mulatiere, cobbled paths heading into the mountains. These erstwhile trade roads are now used mainly by pleasure-seekers heading off for a bracing hike.
Cycling through the villages of the Biellese hills is the perfect way to experience local life: perhaps stop in a bar to pick up a paper and practice some Italian; fuel up on a 1-euro espresso; or perhaps opt for a glass of Prosecco if the battery on your e-bike is starting to die. There are some excellent local restaurants, but when the weather is good, just stop in a local spaccio, a sort of farmhouse-shop, to pick up some (very) fresh cheese and meat for an impromptu picnic. The only headache is deciding on which scenic spot to stop at to eat. Exploring the villages in this way gave us a chance to really slow down and appreciate everything we saw en-route, whether it was the contemporary murals in the village of Bioglio, or the remains of a frescoed, 19th century roadside brothel!
There is no shortage of palaces to visit in Italy, so I was curious to see why Fabrizio had brought me to Palazzo La Marmora in Biella Piazzo, situated in a posh village on the outskirts of Biella. It is still occupied by its aristocratic owner, the Marchese di Marmora, who I discovered was an absolute fountain of knowledge about all the intricate details of his family home, from the paintings to garden to the various characters who have been associated with Palazzo La Marmora throughout history. Visiting a mansion house through the eyes of its ancestral owner is unique because it gives what often seems a grand, distant history an immediate and very personal touch.
On first glance, the Santuario d’Oropa seems no different to most big centres of religious pilgrimage in Italy: grand architecture, a vast and sprawling site, a listing in UNESCO’s World Heritage. But the Santuario d’Oropa holds a special place in the hearts of the Biellesi. The sanctuary is dedicated to the black Virgin Mary, to whom there are shrines in every village, almost every house, in the region. There are several theories that attempt to explain why the Madonna worshipped at Oropa is black: some say the candles used to venerate the original statue darkened the already-dark wood out of which it was carved, only later to be properly painted black. Other theories suggest that in this rural corner of Italy, the dark skin of the black Madonna was more relatable to ordinary people, as white skin was seen as aristocratic.
If you harbour a dream in your head about La Dolce Vita and Italian family life; sitting on a terrace eating good food and drinking excellent wine; about village life, good conversation and new friends; if there’s some feeling inside of you drawing you to Italy, Piedmont with Fabrizio is absolutely the trip for you.