I set off yesterday morning intending to visit one of the most amazing places on earth, the monastery of Sacra di San Michele. It is perched on a crag at one end of the Susa Valley and has a starring role in Umberto Eco’s In The Name of the Rose. Here it is, in all its glory.
Preliminary research told me that the trip was simple: take a train to the village of San Ambrogio, then trudge up a steep hill. But on arrival at Porta Nuova station, I realized I didn’t know which train line would take me to San Ambrogio. Typing it in as a destination on the automatic ticket machine didn’t work so I went into the ticket office and asked a guy in a Trenitalia vest.
“Oh, Cuneo,” he said.
That didn’t sound quite right to me because San Ambrogio is west of Turin and Cuneo is south. But who was I to argue? My grasp of geography, let alone the Italian railway system, is feeble. So off I went and bought a ticket to Cuneo. Then, eager to comply with known ticket laws, I verified it in a stamping machine.
There was still an hour to wait before departure and, having a fretful disposition, I decided to double check in the ticket office to see if the train was going to the right place. I took a number and waited ten minutes to see a person behind a desk.
The person in question was sallow of complexion and grim of manner. He oozed hostility the way a salamander secretes venom. Bitter experience had clearly taught him that train passengers are among the stupidest people on earth, and he could already tell I was a prime example of the breed.
“Hello, I would like to check that my ticket is correct,” I said in very slow Italian, which seemed to aggravate him unbelievably. “I would like to go to San Ambrogio.”
Actually, I felt proud of my suave, technically correct sentence and thought he should at least acknowledge my effort in the linguistic area. Maybe not with a high five or “Bravissima!” but at least some kind of sympathetic smile or nod of acknowledgement.
“It’s the wrong ticket.”
“Mmmmm, oh! But…the gentleman told me that…is it possible to change the ticket?”
“No, it’s not possible,” he barked, then pointed to the stamp. “You’ve already validated it. Next!”
I suddenly had a strong urge to elbow him in the face. I quickly decided it wasn’t practical because the desk was too deep; I’d have to lean forward too far, compromising the force of the strike. So I thought about unleashing a flood of verbal abuse: “Maleducato babbuino! Funzionario ottuso!” The sad fact was, though, that I didn’t have the vocabulary to do a good job without time to prepare. I had no choice but to rise above it.
“Huff!” I said, turning sharply on my heel.
Fury turned to despair. Tears rose to my eyes. Fourteen euros down the drain! A whole morning gone! A sense of futility overwhelmed me.
The only thing to do, I decided, was to go to this damned Cuneo after all. That would teach him. I went to the station bookshop ‘Feltrinelli’, bought a Lonely Planet guide to Piedmont and settled down to read something about this place. Here is the paragraph about its history:
Placed in a strategic position at the mouth of six valleys, and wedged [‘incuneata’] at the confluence of the rivers Stura and Gesso (hence the name), Cuneo emerged as a free comune in 1198. The first decades of its history were very lively; in 1259 it was taken by Charles of Anjou, between the 13th and 14th centuries it was subjugated by the March of Saluzzo, passed again to the Anjous until 1347 and then to the Viscontis; finally in 1382 it became a Savoy possession. But even then the city couldn’t rest—between 1542 and 1799 it was forced to endure 7 sieges but, thanks to having medieval walls (later destroyed by Napoleon), it managed to avoid capture on five occasions.
Gradually the ancient burgh expanded, new quarters being built to the south-west, which brought a strange contrast between twentieth-century Rationalism and the eccentric Baroque of buildings in its historic centre.
The Second World War gave the finishing touch to the formation of this city’s identity: without the heroic sacrifice of Cuneo and her Partisans, the story of the Resistance in Piedmont would probably be very different.
(Piemonte, Lonely Planet Guide, Basso et al. )
I got on the train and set off for the two-hour journey. The seat was very comfortable and there were only two other people in the car. The view was that of the countryside in hot summer: cornfields, a tractor mowing a field and kicking up dust, ramshackle old sheds, yards of rusted cars, unbelievably huge warehouses in the middle of nowhere, train platforms with rusted signs with a church steeple just visible.
Just before Cuneo, the train started climbing and emerged on an extremely tall bridge overlooking a braided river.
When I got out of the grand train station, I found myself in a pretty street bathed in sunshine. The horizon was jagged with the misty purplish silhouettes of the peaks of the Maritime, Cottian and Graian Alps. A park opposite the station had a lot of trees, an oddly tall tower-thing and a fountain that was playing with the sun in a very attractive way, and a bust of Giovanni Giolitti, the 13th Prime Minister of Italy who was born in Mondovì in Cuneo province.
“Well, here I am,” I thought to myself. “Better go see something.”
The first street I walked along was startlingly wide and grand. There was an arcade on both sides—a covered walkway for pedestrians supported by a series of arches. It was about 2 o’clock when I arrived so almost everything was shuttered up except for a shoe-repair place and an Asia-Africa grocery (we foreigners are not quite as serious about the sacred break for pranzo). The contrast between the vast streets and the spooky emptiness gave me a 28 Days Later feeling.
After a while, though, I got to the big long main street and there were small clots of people here and there. The shops were still closed but one or two bars were open. I amused myself by walking and looking at pretty window displays in the arcade. The Colors of Benetton store was advertising a sale of 70% off. I wondered if they’d been losing business in this part of the world. Cuneo is not so far from Genoa, where the bridge collapsed a couple of weeks ago. The Benetton family owns Atalantia SpA, which operated the bridge and, not surprisingly, many Italians are furious with them right now not only because they must bear some responsibility for the disaster, but because they waited two days before issuing any statement expressing sympathy for the victims.
Most of the shops were for clothes, shoes and accessories but there was one that sold truffle stuff. The delicacy grows especially well in the province of Cuneo, particularly around Alba, where you (or rather your dog/pig) can even find la trifola d’Alba Madonna (the truffle of the white Madonna).
At the end of the street I reached a truly enormous piazza. When John saw aerial pictures he thought it looked like a military parade ground. The picture doesn’t really show how big it is unless you realize that I’m already halfway across it and the ant in the distance is actually a person.
Beyond the square was Via Roma, a pedestrian-only area with an extremely high concentration of churches. I went into three of them but had some trouble finding the medieval parts suggestive of their early origins. You can see a bit in this shot:
At this point I noticed that my backpack was quite heavy. Anticipating climbing a steep hill in the middle of a summer day, I’d packed two bottles of water and a bunch of bananas. And after that I’d bought the Piedmont guide, a book for my niece and a monograph on Medieval Magic. Ugh.
Nevertheless, I had two more hours to kill and I’d come all this way, so I kept going through the pretty little old, completely empty, streets, went into another church, gave a beggar some change and indignantly refused to give him “just a little bit more”. No, crazy man, get stuffed, that’s 1.20 euros!
After another half-hour of wandering I realized that I needed to pee. It was an awkward time for the bladder to complain. There was a port-a-potty at the end of the street, but I’m allergic to them. A lot of the smaller bars that were open didn’t have toilets, and the bigger bars were still closed, waiting for the dinner hour. I saw a sign to a McDonald’s (say what you like about McDonald’s, wherever you are, it stays open continuously and contains a restroom), but the sign seemed to lead nowhere.
In my search, I saw a good-sized, well patronized gelateria. I scooted in, located a bathroom and promptly set up camp. I ordered a latte macchiato and a crostata di albicocca, used the nice clean bathroom and sat down for half an hour. Around me were groups of friends chatting happily about mutual acquaintances.
Meanwhile, my feet were tired so instead of more wandering I read a bit more about Cuneo:
Museum of the House of Duccio Galimberti
(naturally closed on Mondays)
On 26 July 1943, the day after the fall of Mussolini, Duccio Galimberti, son of a convicted fascist and future commander of the formation of the partisan Italia Libera, stood on the balcony of this sumptuous apartment to deliver his most famous speech to the citizens below: the war was not over, and would never be over “until the expulsion of the last German, until the disappearance of the last trace of the fascist regime, until the victory of the Italian people who are rebelling against the tyranny of Mussolinianism.”
Finally I decided I shouldn’t loiter any longer, paid, checked the receipt for the time and realized I still had an hour until the next train left. Time to get a souvenir for John. There were plenty of confectionary stores advertising local specialties such as Cuneesi al Rhum (which Ernest Hemingway supposedly liked and bought at the local shop). These are tiny meringue sandwiches filled with rum-flavored chocolate and covered with chocolate (oh my god, WHY didn’t I buy any??).
Anyway, John doesn’t really eat sweets so I went into a Salumeria instead. They were advertising things like Trout salami, boar speck (speck is a boned pork leg that has been cured then slow-smoked), cured lamb, lard (yes, lard is a Piedmont specialty) and other stuff. It was so difficult to choose anything that when the butcher called on me, I panicked and picked up the first thing I could see, which was a 1kg hunk of Kaiser speck. Ham. John doesn’t even like ham. Oh well. I also got ‘pan castagna’—a kind of sweet made with chocolate, glace chestnuts and hazelnuts. Incidentally, La Tonda Gentile del Piemonte – ‘the Round Noble Woman from Piedmont’—is the local variety of hazelnut that is extensively in confectionary products like Nutella. It is also an ingredient in the Piedmontese chocolate-nut-butter called ’gianduja.
With this fatty swag, I made my way back to the train station, looking at the locals and immigrants relaxing on benches in the rose-filled city park. It was a nice place but I was ready to leave.
Just before entering the station, I saw this plaque, which commemorates the execution by firing squad of five partisans in 1944. Notice that one of them is a woman.
Final view of the hazy horizon. Bye Cuneo!