Back in 2011, my son went to Italy on a school exchange for two months. After learning Italian all through his school years, it was a good way to immerse himself in the culture by living with an Italian family – and hopefully improve his own grasp of the language before he continued his Italian studies in Year 12.
Josh was hosted by a lovely family from Ceva in the Piedmont region of north west Italy and after his two month stay, he returned home with stories of the great time he had had and the wonderful places he had visited.
Having never been to this part of Italy before, I was curious to discover it for myself, and on our trip to Europe this year, I was able to do just that. We spent two busy, but very enjoyable, days being shown the sights of the area by Josh’s host family.
Ceva is a small town of around 5,000 people, dating back to pre-Roman times. It was also the scene of the Battle of Ceva in April 1796 between Napolean’s army and the Austrians.
Our first port of call was the town centre where the weekly market was in full swing. We wandered through the narrow streets to a lookout above the town, taking in the sights of the ancient buildings.
After familiarising ourselves with Ceva, we headed for Mombasiglio and its castle which was home to Napolean’s army during the 1796 campaign. Castello di Mombasiglio was closed for renovations when we visited but is normally open to visitors from 3pm to 5pm on weekdays.
A natural bridge, formed over hundreds of years by the river flowing beneath it, made an interesting stop on our way to the truly amazing Il Santuario di Vicoforte.
Located in the small town of Vicoforte, the basilica was started in 1596 and completed in 1733 and has the biggest ellipsoidal (oval) dome in the world.
From outside, with its twin towers on each end and huge dome in the middle, it looks impressive enough but go inside and you’ll be gob-smacked!
The frescoed cupola and ornate altar are breathtaking, perhaps even more so when you consider where this church is built – in a small town, not in a huge city.
Built on a pilgrim site, it is believed tens of thousands of visitors would descend on the site some days and so, in 1596, the Bishop of Mondovi decided a suitable place of worship should be constructed. He could only have been pleased with the outcome!
Suitably impressed with our morning’s outing, we enjoyed a delicious lunch at our hosts’ home before driving north to the hillside town of La Morra, in the heart of the Barolo wine region.
Ancient cobblestoned streets lined with colourful houses and shops led us to a lookout where we had fabulous views of the hills below, all lined with row after row of grapevines.
Next stop was the town of Alba, home to one of Italy’s most famous companies, Ferrero Rocher, makers of that European staple, Nutella.
Another ancient Roman town, Alba was once surrounded by fortified walls, some remains of which can still be seen today.
Browsing the shops in the pedestrianised old town I recognised one of the region’s specialties, the white truffle. Instead of shopping, though, we sat at a lovely outdoor cafe for a cold drink and a spot of people watching.
Our day wasn’t yet done. Late in the afternoon we drove back towards Ceva, stopping at Mondovi. About a 20 minute drive from Ceva, this is where Josh had attended school during his time in Italy so I was really keen to have a look around.
Mondovi is built around two historic centres – Piazza is situated on the summit of the hill where the town was originally founded and Breo alongside the River Ellero at the foot of the hill. A modern funicular takes you between the town in minutes if you’re not keen on walking.
The school and Belvedere (clock) Tower are in the old town so after visiting them, we enjoyed a delicious al fresco dinner in Piazza Maggiore before taking the funicular to the new town.
On Wednesdays during summer, most shops stay open until midnight and there’s a real festival atmosphere so we joined in the passegiata and enjoyed the street performers before heading home after a busy, but very enjoyable day.
The following day was a little less busy but no less enjoyable. Heading south, our first stop was Savona, an ancient port town on the Mediterranean in the Liguria region of Italy.
Famous as a one-time home to Christopher Columbus, these days Savona is more popular as a beachside holiday destination for the Turinese.
It wasn’t much of a day for topping up your tan the day we visited with umbrellas pulled down and boats ashore in readiness for the expected rain.
The seaside promenade was lined with stalls selling everything from beach wear to hardware but again the Old Town beckoned. Narrow streets, gelati-coloured buildings and striped awnings are just what I expected of an Italian seaside resort and this is Savona to a tee.
After coffee and a taste of some typical Savonese cakes we bid farewell to Savona, heading a bit further west along the Mediterranean to Borgio Verezzi.
The drive to the commune of Verezzi was not for the faint hearted. The road climbs steeply away from the sea past houses clinging bravely to the hillside but, after many switchbacks, we reached the village 200 metres above sea level.
Aside from its annual open-air theatre festival, which was being set up when we visited, Verezzi is probably most visited for the stunning views it provides over the Mediterranean.
Lunch of a locally caught fish at Concordia Restaurant in Verezzi was the perfect way to conclude our visit.
The drive back to Ceva took about an hour and after a rest, we then finished off our visit to this beautiful part of Italy by attending the Ceva Festa, an annual music festival that takes place over a few days each summer.
The food and drink were great, the music (heavy metal) not really to our taste, but it was a great finish to our visit to be immersed in a festival that the locals really throw themselves into.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Piedmont. There is so much to see and do that we barely scraped the surface in two days, and having locals, who know the area well, show us around, was wonderful.
This is a region of Italy that I would definitely return to, to not only re-visit some of the places experienced on this trip but also to explore it further.
Getting to Ceva
Ceva is located about 100 km from Turin. To reach Ceva from Turin by car will take around one hour or by train, approximately one hour and fifteen minutes.
A car is necessary to explore beyond Ceva.
Where to stay in Ceva
San Remo Hotel offers good-sized rooms with modern bathrooms, TV and air conditioning. Free Wi-Fi included. Restaurant on-site.