"And castles have their legends and ghosts, they have their stories and their history, a history at times of dominance, blood, and arrogance, and others of sweetness, goodness, and love..."
Francesco Leale, introduction to Andar per castelli: Da Vercelli da Biella tutto intorno
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The region of Biella in the zone of Alto Piemonte is so scattered with castles, it's as though a child overturned a Monopoly board and the houses fell in the space of one square foot. The regions is divided into 82 townships with 39 castles, and that's not accounting for the fortifications ransacked centuries ago, or towers simply eaten away by time that no longer exist today.
This itinerary takes you to four of Biella's castles, each one as unique in its modern-day use as their ancient histories are: visit the ultimate events venue, the seat of a Town Hall, a high-class hotel, and a restaurant and Regional Enoteca (Wine Shop). Enjoy in half a day a trip that once took horse-drawn carriages much longer to accomplish.
Begin by imagining the people and events of centuries ago, and what the general atmosphere of such a castle-rich region might have been. Local noble families were always mixed up with the Savoys or Visconti, defying one family while bending a knee to another. The modern-day regions of Biella and Vercelli passed continuously between three noble families: the Marquises of Monferrato, the Visconti of Milan, and the powerful Savoy family; centuries later, it is difficult to untangle the winding histories.
Take the A4/E64 highway from Turin towards Massazza Castle, passing expanses of rice paddies that Alto Piemonte is known for and the occasional, handwritten sign for Vendita riso (rice for sale). Call Giorgio, the owner, to schedule a 45-minute tour before visiting. Following in the direction of Milan, exit at the town of Massazza along the SS230 road. The Castle is a typical Medieval defensive construction: as beautiful as its rooms and grounds are today, they were, as nearly all castles in history have been, once principally built for ruling power and protection.
The origins of its base are probably Celtic Ligurian before it passed to the Ancient Romans; the castle itself was built around 1000 AD, and one of the three main "Monopoly players" took over in 1300, the Visconti of Milan. This family turned it into one of the most beautiful Lombard castles in Piemonte. From 1400 to 1800, the Avogadros ruled over it, a family who seemed to have had their fingers in several castle pies in the area. Today, the Castle is owned by the Cavallari, who have transformed it into a stunning venue for events, including a theatrical area with good acoustics, ample space for dinners and ceremonies, and a fully-outfitted kitchen fit for a castle.
Continue along SS230 in the same direction for 4 km, taking a left at Verrone. The Castle is simple to find once in town, its tower punctuating the sky above the rooftops. It will be open to visitors in 2014, although by asking mayor Cinzia Bossi, whose offices are right inside the castle, you may find that one or two rooms are ready to peek into. This castle also has medieval origins, its base another trace of the Ancient Romans and Celtic tribes that once inhabited the area. The noble Vialardi family controlled the town and castle, supported by the Savoys, without whose protection they would have lost control to the Avogadros.
Once exiting the town, travel for 5 km towards Sandigliano, keeping in the same direction on SS230. The third castle is the Rocchetta of Sandigliano, first mentioned in 999 by Emperor Ottavo III. From about 1200 on, ownership bounced from Sandigliano nobles to supporters of the Savoy. At one point in 1426 they lost the castle for 20 years because of some ill-timed defiance against the Savoys (for whom it was an especially ambitious year, who simultaneously attacked nearby towns of Burolo, Cavaglià, Solussola, Roppolo, and Alice). Today, the castle is a privately-owned hotel that meets all expectations that staying in a castle could inspire: the grounds are beautifully kept, blooming with flowers and climbing roses, and the castle and rooms are pulled straight from a fairy tale.
Alternatively, about 20 minutes away near Biella is Cascina Bonina; while not in the direct line of this castle itinerary, this intimate farmhouse has a dreamlike quality in its decorations and green surroundings, olive groves, and lemon trees that makes it worth the drive. And, while you're nearby Biella, stop by La Mia Crota in the city center for an excellent tasting menu - a platter of cheeses and cured meats paired with local wines - or to browse the locally- and internationally-stocked wine shop (Enoteca).
Hop into your car to visit the final castle, the Castle of Roppolo. Exit Sandigliano and travel down SS143, or Via Antonio Gramsci, towards Vergnaso for 20 minutes until Salussola. Turn right onto SP Salussola-Dorzano, and upon entering Dorzano another right on Via Scaglia Cavalier. Winding through greenery, follow signs to the castle that sits at the top of the hill with an excellent view of the valley and Lake of Viverone.
This castle’s origins are just as ancient as the others, hailing from 963 AD or before. Its early history is relatively docile, making headlines in the mid-1200s when the Vercelli family confiscated it and ordered it to be destroyed. Thankfully, orders were not carried out. Later, in the 1400s, the Savoys managed to snag this castle for their empire collection, and it stayed - at times precariously - in their hands until 1837, when it was privately purchased.
The Ristorante del Castello in the main area offers traditional Piedmontese specialties, and a wonderful selection of wines. In fact, just next door is the Regional Enoteca della Serra with over 100 of the best wines, spumanti, and grappa from Alto Piemonte and the Aosta Valley in its stone and brick 16th-century cellars, as well as an assortment of traditional food products. In addition, the Enoteca holds the city's tourism offices with information on events and itineraries, and they organize guided visits of the Castle of Roppolo, as well.
The route: quick facts
Begin: Massazza (BI)
End: Roppolo (BI)
Length: 25 km
Wine Plus: A unique route that takes you back in time to visit an undiscovered part of Piemonte full of castles and history.
Suggested Wine: Bramaterra, a Nebbiolo-based wine from Alto Piemonte