(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Category: history

At the top of the Roman world, monks to the rescue!

It’s that time of year when Italians flee en masse to the shore. Cities are hot ghost towns with few stores or restaurants open. Since I took my summer trip to the US early, my intention upon my return was to settle down and get some work done. Yet this week it was so quiet (and hot) that it was hard to concentrate.

So when a friend called and offered a day trip to the mountains near Aosta, I jumped at the chance. I admit that just escaping the heat would have been motivation enough, but my friend Ben has a particular talent for getting to know strangers, often with interesting results. Besides, he wanted to visit a monastery high up on an Alpine mountain pass where he had done an archeology dig 20 years ago. Everything about the trip called me to join in.

Our group (Ben, his wife and baby son, and a common friend) ate lunch on the way up to the pass at a rustic stone restaurant perched on the side of a steep incline, its balconies lined with bright red geraniums. Naturally Ben knew the restaurant owner, an extroverted man with white curls and sparkly blue eyes who was aptly named Felice. We sat down on the terrace to a perfect Aostan lunch–mushrooms in cream, chestnuts in honey with lard, soft toma cheese with hazelnuts sprinkled on top, melon, and mocetta (a lean cured meat), among other things. And that was just the appetizer course! Then came gnocchi wrapped in strings of melted fontina, and polenta accompanied by sausage, veal, and rabbit, the last of which was cooked in a mustard sauce. After lunch we split a homemade tiramisù, then drank the obligatory coffee required to be able get up from the table, and complementary homemade genepì as a digestivo. I really would have been perfectly happy with the day just as it was.

Our view from the terrace at lunch

But then we drove up and just across the Swiss border to the Col, or pass, du Grand-Saint-Bernard, named for the founder of a monastery that has ministered to pilgrims there since 1050. This monastery replaced an even an older one nearby which had been destroyed during the Saracen invasions. And before that, the Romans ran a hotel of their own on the site. The pass is so high up that it’s closed for much of the year, with the snow sometimes reaching the second story of the monastery so that the monks have to ski out the windows. Modern travelers usually cross the Alps in winter by tunnel.

But August is high tourist season. Most people come to hike and to see the place that gave the world the St. Bernard rescue dog (some dogs remain there in summer, but now rescues are made by helicopter). Helping stranded travelers is still part of the monks’ vows. And they still risk, and at times even lose, their lives when people hike precariously along the crumbly schist rock or get trapped in the deep snow. We met one of these monks, a friend of Ben’s from his archeology days.

The Roman road (top) and the adjacent foundations of the temple to Jupiter (bottom)

On the Italian side of the monastery, Ben pointed out the old Roman road through the pass, dug out of the rock, and the remains of a temple to Jupiter (the high altitude made the site a sort of Mt. Olympus of the Roman Empire). Most of the temple’s stone had long since been re-appropriated, leaving only traces of foundation and steps carved into the side of the mountain, as well as a human skeleton of unknown origin. On the far side of the monastery and around the peak towards Switzerland, a vast valley opened up with nothing in it but a winding road, some hiking trails, and a sort of ventilation tower for the long mountain tunnel underneath. Here Ben led us to the other site his team had excavated, the Roman hotel. There was still lots of Roman terra cotta scattered about, and the team had discovered Celtic beads there as well.

The Col de Grand-St. Bernard may not be the pass that Hannibal came through with his elephants, but it was certainly used by Napoleon, and was described by Dickens in Little Dorrit. Above, Ben shows me a piece of Roman terra cotta at the site of the archeological dig.

Once the monastery ran a hospice for pilgrims stopping along the Via Francigena, a medieval road from Canterbury to Rome. Now it’s more of a starting point for local hikers. But some of the the hikers we saw that day were also modern day pilgrims, attending the French-speaking evening mass in the basement chapel, its low, vaulted ceiling lit by constellations of tiny halogen lights. My French was so rusty that I could only follow along because I knew what was coming next.

One of the texts from the monastery’s library

We had hoped to eat dinner there, but the refectory was full of hikers and we were out of daylight, so we went home. Even though summer tourists at peak season had overwhelmed the dining room, Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard still felt like an outpost. It’s so inaccessible in winter that the monks have to rely on stored provisions and anyone of their order who dies has to be kept in a nearby outbuilding until the ground thaws enough to bury them. I can only imagine what it must have looked like centuries, even millennia, before, when it was the only place of welcome anywhere around.

Here’s a video (from the hospice’s website linked above) with a nice overview of the monastery, in French with English subtitles. You even see Ben’s monk friend Frederic sitting at the refectory table!


Viaggetto a Verona


This is an “old people selfie” that Carlana and I took at the Castelvecchio museum in Verona. Neither of us really knows how to get rid of the fishbowl effect in the selfie-cam. But we didn’t let that stop us from having a good time!


When an old New York friend, Carlana, said she and her husband would be coming to Italy but not to Torino, I took that as an excuse to drive to the closest meeting point, Verona, and see a new town. Verona is 3 1/2 hours from Torino by car and is part of the Veneto region. The people there are notably blond, even compared to the northern Torinese, and their “o”s tend to become “u”s, as in nui for noi.

You can also see Venetian influence in the local architecture–particularly the pinks and reds in the stucco, the slender columns, the conical brick bell towers, and the occasionally pointed windows (see below). The whole town started out on a Roman grid, with the original amphitheater still dominating the main piazza (above) and the Roman city gates still extant. But the main part of the Roman city center has long been overlaid with serendipitous medieval twists and turns.


We had a great time walking around all the old streets, ducking into the characteristic Romanesque churches, sipping vin brulé from the market, and of course, eating and catching up! Carlana likes history too, so I had a happy and energetic touring companion.

Some things to note below: Renaissance frescoes on the sides of buildings in Piazza delle Erbe (which was the original Roman forum, used for chariot races), a plaque marking where a city captain was killed during a coup in 1277, and the conical bell towers.

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There was so much going on in architecturally in Verona that I plan to do another post. But before I end for today, what would a trip to Verona be without Juliet’s balcony? Actually, the only thing they know for sure about this house is that it did belong to the Cappello (Hat) family, from which the name Capulet derives. But that doesn’t keep the entire courtyard entrance from being covered with graffiti, the tourists from flocking to the balcony, or the shops nearby from bearing Romeo and Juliet themes. In fact, since we were there just before Valentine’s Day, the entire town was festooned with hearts.

Back soon with some more of Verona!


Juliet’s balcony, or at least a house belonging to the Cappello family.

Imago Christi update


A couple of months ago, I wrote a bit about Sarie and Alberto’s new film project, Imago Christi. Now they’ve made a couple of scenes and are seeking funding to continue. Meanwhile, here’s a short videoblog about the project. You can also follow their movie news on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (#imagochristifilm).

Meanwhile, Sarie is having a great time learning to sew historical costumes. If you follow some of these accounts, particularly Instagram, you can see her progress!

La Bella Noeva


Oops, I rather disappeared again, didn’t I?  What have I been doing, besides eating a lot of oil and vinegar on potatoes, practicing calligrafia rustica, and trying to make tiramisù? Well, hard to say, but I’ve been listening to the music in this video a lot over the past few days, and it’s absolutely delightful. Other than it being Baroque music with original instruments and some of my favorite Monteverdi pieces on it, I’m not even that deeply knowledgeable about it. Sarie and Alberto could tell you a lot more, I’m sure. But it’s well worth listening to, all hour and twenty minutes of it. If you hit the “show more” tab, you’ll see the names of the pieces. And there’s a fun sort of surprise encore at the end, too. The singer, Marco Beasley, is not only a skilled singer, but he is very expressive to watch, which I didn’t figure out for a while because at first I was always doing something else while listening.

Finally I got so curious about how someone could be named Marco Beasley and speak French with an Italian accent that I looked up the group, Accordone. Turns out his mother is from Naples, but his father is English. If you bring this video up on YouTube, another one will also come up, with street music from Naples. It’s altogether different, with lots of percussion, but just as interesting.  Buon ascolto!



I’ve been wanting to go to Rome ever since we moved to Italy, and finally made there it last week. Most Italians we talk to say it’s their favorite city. Certainly it has deep roots, and points of interest from almost every era. It has a similar serendipitous energy to New York, the organic beauty of an old European city, and the warmth and unpredictability that I’ve come to associate with Italy.

The ostensible reason for my trip was to meet with a tax attorney who knows both the Italian and American systems. (I’ll say as little about that as possible.) Sarie and Alberto went with me, Sarie to try out a Baroque violin, and Alberto because he had never been.  (And no doubt, they wanted to see Rome together.)

The unpredictability follies began on Wednesday, before we’d even arrived. The proprietor of the AirBnB we’d rented called and said there was a problem with the plumbing in the apartment, and could he upgrade us to a better one? In some ways the new apartment wasn’t as suitable as the original, but what else could we do? We agreed. Then on Friday, as we came home from a full day of walking around the city, the woman who managed the second apartment met us saying that the other guy had booked ours with someone else–a group of five who were arriving that night!  She did a spectacular sales job on another apartment upstairs, and they moved us up immediately. By the time we were settled it was 9 p.m. and I still had to cook dinner, using utensils I’d counted on having from the other apartment. So I “borrowed” a few from downstairs!  They even allowed us to bring the DVD player with us so we could watch Don Camillo.

We were amused that the new apartment had tiny LED lights on the bathroom ceiling inside the shower. They changed color. Other than that, our accommodation follies were thankfully ended.

What follows are some photos from our time in Rome, with a few explanations.  Enjoy!


Above, top: The street where we stayed. Middle: A street of steps around the corner.  Rome is the City of Seven Hills, after all. We were on the Esquiline, in the Monti neighborhood. Bottom: Someone across the street was airing sausage in the window on Saturday morning. We were intrigued.

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From the Colosseum and the Forum. 1) A view of the Forum from the Colosseum 2) Nice tourist photo of Alberto and Sarie in the Colosseum. 3) A frieze of the Sack of Jerusalem from the Arch of Titus, as you enter the Forum 4) The Nympheum, a grotto under the Palatine Hill 5) Some excavations of houses on top of the Palatine Hill, beyond which is a line of typically Roman trees.

Sarie took the last three photos above.

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On Friday we met a cousin of mine for lunch near Piazza Navona and then went on to the Vatican Museum.  I particularly wanted to see the Sistine Chapel, since I’d tried to go three times on my last visit to Rome (in 1984), but never succeeded. This time I was not disappointed, but no photos are allowed. This was just as well, because I would have taken way too many.

But I enjoyed all the other Vatican frescoes too,such as Raphael’s The School of Athens, The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (above center), and a corridor of frescoed 16th C. Italian maps, including one of Torino and its surrounding towns. Some of the names were a bit different, but we recognized most all of them, including Alberto’s home town.

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And finally, what trip to Rome is complete without St. Peter’s? It is enormous in scale, richly appointed, and of course, it’s the center of the Catholic Church. We had the idea of going to mass there on Saturday night, but unfortunately we never made it.

Near our apartment was another papal basilica, Sta. Maria Maggiore. It’s smaller than St. Peter’s, but still grand. I went there by myself on Saturday to see its famous mosaics, but my photos didn’t turn out so well, so instead I’ll post a link to a virtual tour. It’s well worth even a virtual visit!

In sum, we all enjoyed our visit, and I’d go back at the slightest provocation! But as the train rolled out from the tunnels near Genova and I saw the Po Valley spread out bright green on both sides of the train windows, I felt at home again. Shortly afterwards, the clouds parted in the north to reveal one glowing Alpine mountain, covered with new snow. Funny how one  can get attached so quickly to a place. I still can’t speak the language half the time. And yet it’s home.

Dutch interiors


The exterior of the Willet-Holthuysen home, which has an extra-wide facade and a servants’ entrance below

The Dutch, as you may know, are famous for their interiors.  And as one Dutch docent noted, for one of the world’s tallest nationalities, they live in some of the smallest spaces of any country (even the houses of the rich aren’t so large as elsewhere).  So I suppose they make every bit count.

I visited several different house museums while in Amsterdam.  One, the Willet-Holthuysen home, was decorated according to the style of its Victorian owners, while another, the 17th C. Geelvinck-Hinlopen home, was eclectic but included original elements.  And sometimes I’d just run into a viewable kitchen in a museum that wasn’t a house museum at all.

The pattern of most of these houses was that of an upper class family. They were usually on the Herengracht, which means something like Canal of the Aristocracy (or at least merchants). Usually Dutch houses were quite narrow, two or three windows across and four stories high, but the rich merchants sometimes bought two lots, affording a door and two windows (one room each) on either side.

A common layout included a library on the right side of the entrance, a parlor on the left, and a dining room in the back. Sometimes the dining room would have a low ceiling, which allowed for a sort of mezzanine-level linen and china pantry above. In the back of the house, overlooking the garden, was a sunroom or conservatory. The family’s bedrooms were upstairs, and the female servants slept in the attic.  Downstairs there was a servant’s entrance below the front steps, which led to pantries, male servant’s quarters, and the kitchen. Two of the houses I saw also had a carriage house behind the garden, facing the opposite block, but that was only for the richest people.

Below are some examples of the rooms in the family quarters.  Then scroll down for more explanation:

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Libraries and parlors

Bottom two photos: 1) A typical style of 17th C. curio cabinet.  The inserts were sometimes made of ebony, and sometimes merely painted black.  2) What do you know?  A painting by Bouguereau (top)!

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Dining rooms

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Over the course of the week, I realized that while sometimes the formal rooms felt a bit stuffy, I always liked the kitchens, which were intended only for servants to use. They too had their common features: Tiles on walls and floors, brass fixtures hanging from pegs or the ceiling, assorted earthenware jugs, windows (often facing the back) over wooden cabinets, a stone sink in the corner, built-in cabinets to hold china, a large table in the center of the room,  some kind of large stove/oven combination (open fireplace or wood stove) along one of the walls. One house had a tap built into the stove to take advantage of the heat for hot water, and another had a small room between the kitchen and the garden outside for messy jobs such as cleaning fish.  I’d also frequently see a small marble sink built into the wall of the servants’ hallway. One home had a shed by the back door for powdered wigs!

Below are some, but not all, of the kitchens I observed over the course of the week. The one at the bottom you may recognize from the last post. It’s Rembrandt’s kitchen.

And below the kitchens, there are two last photos and comments.

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And finally, I saw some magnificent examples of Dutch dollhouses as well. They often included perfectly detailed miniature tea services, books, and linen cabinets.  Some were scaled-down versions of their owners’ houses. Here is a small sample, including an elegant home, some kitchen implements, and a more modest home.


Up next:  A different kind of house museum altogether!

Pilgrimage, sacred and profane

Sunday was a fine day, what our family used to call a “boaty day”: Clear deep blue skies, with a light breeze, temperatures warm but not hot, and that extra sparkle that makes even ordinary buildings and trees look magical.  The main ingredient in a boaty day, though, is wonder.

Unfortunately Sarie and Bob were busy, but I went out by myself. My main thought was to get a good view of the mountains. I have a hobby of finding ways home that take me from east to west, facing the Alps. But to come home west, I had to first go east. So I headed to one of the busiest, most eastern spots in town: Piazza Castello.

On the way, I ran into a bike parade.  Families and singles were gathering near Piazza Solferino to bike together through town, no doubt to publicize alternative transportation.  New people were heading from every direction, and every few seconds a couple more riders would ring their bells as they joined the parade.  I saw a friend of mine, in a chartreuse hat and riding a yellow folding bike, join the parade.  She was too far away to hear me call, though, so I walked on.

When I got to Piazza Castello, there was a children’s festival going on. Dozens of white tents with activities crowded the piazza, and young volunteers dressed in white coats with clown motifs–a striped sleeve here, brightly-colored shoes or hose there–wove through the crowd.  Once I got past the mass of tents, I headed towards La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo.  I’d noticed a while back that although this church has no facade to call attention to it, people are always going in and out.

Inside, there was a long vestibule with a pietà at one end and a door at the other.  It was not your typical Italian church entrance.  But immediately the splendid sanctuary drew me inward. Enormous, ornate, and octagonal, it immediately drew the eye straight up to a cupola far above.  I took a seat towards the back and slowly accustomed myself to the regal atmosphere of a Baroque interior.

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La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo has a plain facade outside and a startlingly spacious inside, topped with a dramatic cupola

Images from Wikipedia Commons

My intention had simply been to have a look around, to see where the interior took my thoughts, perhaps to pray.  I find the interior of an Italian church to be an easy place to concentrate on prayer, even if I can’t participate in the mass.  But after I had been sitting in the church for a few minutes, I noticed that there was a woman giving a tour.  My interest was piqued even though I couldn’t hear clearly what she was saying, so when she finished and she started another tour for a Frenchman, speaking slowly in Italian, I asked if I could join them.

She started the tour with the history of the church and why it was named for San Lorenzo.  A former Savoy ruler had won a battle on S. Lorenzo’s feast day and promised to build a church in his honor.  After the war, however, he didn’t have enough money for major projects, so he consecrated an existing church (now the long vestibule) to the saint. It wasn’t until the next generation the Theatine priest Guarino Guarini built the present-day church. The resulting style was so distinct that it’s now called Guarini Baroque.

The Theatine order specialized in math and science, so Guarini filled his creation with 17th-century architectural wonders and symbolism.  Suffice it to say that nothing in this riot of trompe d’oeuil architecture is random. The cupola draws the eyes heavenward, geometrical shapes symbolize Biblical numbers, a chapel of the Nativity faces one of the Crucifixion, and even the colors of the materials are significant. But there are two effects in particular that I like. One is a skylight above the altar, surrounded by sculpted white clouds and golden putti interspersed with golden rays. The other is a series of curved paintings hidden in dark niches above the four chapels.  On two days each year, from 9:00-9:30 and then again from 12:00-12:30 , the sun hits portholes above these chapels and illuminates the paintings inside (on the left side first, and then on the right).  The next such day will be September 21.  If at all possible, I plan to go!

It was evident to me after a while that the docent wasn’t merely going through the motions, but really found the church inspiring and spiritually significant.  I sat down for a long while after the talk, looking at the entire space with new eyes.  I was glad I had taken the time for the tour.

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The Palazzo Madama is a Baroque palace in the front and a medieval castle in the rear.  The first photo shows the view from La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo

Images from Wikipedia Commons

Leaving the church, I walked across the piazza to the Palazzo Madama, a.k.a., the Queen Mother’s Palace.  The Palazzo Madama is a fascinating hodgepodge of a building styles at the very center of the city.  In fact, at its core is one of the original Roman city gates. There are at least two other stages of architecture built into the palace, including an medieval castle (in the back) and a Baroque façade (by another famous Torinese architect, Filippo Juvarra) added so that the Queen Mother could make a proper ceremonial appearance. Apparently medieval spiral staircases did not provide adequate drama for the later Savoys. Originally Juvarra’s design was to have replaced the old castle entirely, but since the new palace was never quite finished, today the palace looks like some kind of archeological exposition, with all its successive renovations exposed. In the interior courtyard, you can stand on a glass floor and survey the castle’s foundations and crypts. In one interior stairwell, you can see remnants of four or five phases of building, including the original Roman wall, on a color-coded map.

Knowing that the main staircase is open all day, I walked up to the second floor of the façade and stood by the front window, the one where the Queen Mother would have made her appearances. There were only a couple of people standing around, so I had one of the best views in town pretty much to myself. Directly in front of me was Via Garibaldi, the original Roman decumanus, or main east/west road. Now the main pedestrian thoroughfare in town, it runs straight from Piazza Castello towards the Alps like a textbook study in two-point perspective.  The street is lined on either side with elegant four-story buildings similar in style to those in Piazza Castello, each with stores on the ground floor.

Down below, the festivities were still going strong.  A rock band was playing a children’s song (in Italian) in which each verse was punctuated by a squeaky toy.  Via Garibaldi was crowded with shoppers making their passaggi.  I really didn’t see how anyone could even move down there.  Above the crowds, a flock of pigeons would senselessly startle and fly from one side of the street to the other, and above the whole scene an escaped pink mylar balloon jerked ever higher to the right. “Squeak-squeak!  Squeak-squeak!” I looked towards the Alps and towards the setting sun, and felt satisfied.

This was my Torino, the sublime and the ridiculous, the sacred and the profane.  This was what I had come to see.

Local history in film


A few posts ago, I mentioned that Sarie had a part in a movie.  This small production,  A.D. 1245, is based on local history at the time of Pope Innocent IV and Emperor Frederick II.  From what I’ve read of the script and seen of the trailer, the plot involves political intrigue, betrayal and an invasion in the Valle di Lanzo north of Torino. It’s the stuff of Sir Walter Scott novels, or their Italian equivalent.

Since this is mostly a medieval and swashbuckling sort of movie, most of the leads are male, but the Duke of Lanzo’s daughter does play a part in the story.  That’s where Sarie comes in. But I can’t give away the plot, now can I?

You didn’t know Sarie acted?  Neither did I. (Nor did she, she adds.)  But she’s friends with the director/lead actor, Alberto, who also organizes her Baroque group.  And apparently the part comes quite naturally to her.

The crew is very resourceful in making everything look proper to its era with very limited time, manpower, and money. Much of yesterday’s shoot took place in an abandoned building, with jury-rigged props.  Alberto put Christmas tree lights in the fireplace for embers and/or color correction, and will later create a computer-generated fire to go with them.  The fireplace itself is a transformed armoire.  The bed sits on bricks. To make the non-existent fire flicker, someone waved an arm in front of the lighting. And so forth.  But in the end, it all looks fairly convincing.

Since the movie is, naturally, in Italian, the crew initially planned to dub someone else’s voice over Sarie’s. Obviously it wouldn’t do for the Duke of Lanzo’s daughter to have an American accent. But they worked on the accent, and as the time for shooting neared, they decided that the main difficulty, her e’s, sounded reasonably Piemontese, if not exactly Italian. After that, she just had to avoid too many r’s in one sentence.

Sarie, meanwhile, was quite happy about getting to wear a medieval dress. Later on she gets to wield a sword for a bit and fall off a horse.  And get a gash painted on her face. And even build some sets.

Anyway, this is how she’ll continue to spend some of her vacation time until the movie is finished (hopefully) in December.  Not bad for the joint efforts of music students and a local historical society!  Then they just have to figure out how to distribute it.  I think that, given some English subtitles, it looks like a natural choice for homeschoolers, don’t you?

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Counting castles

The castle of Fenis, from a webcam image on Saturday.

Most of the time, living in Italy isn’t a vacation. We’re here because Bob invented a job, and between that and Sarie’s junior year with online classes and conservatory, we haven’t gone on many adventures.

So I was delighted when Bob said, “Let’s go driving up into the Valle d’Aosta next Saturday.”  The original idea was to go hiking, but I didn’t even mind when all-day rain washed out that plan.  We were still going exploring.

Our rain-modified plan was to drive to Ivrea, a sort of far suburb of Torino, and then proceed to Aosta, between the mountains and near the Italian/French/Swiss borders.  For those of you from Georgia, I might as well say it:  This is the original Valdosta.  But other than that, there are no similarities.

Top: A geological map of Ivrea, posted in a shop window. (The Valle d’Aosta is the narrow valley off to the top left.) Bottom:  Ivrea’s main street.

Our first stop was Ivrea.  We stopped there because someone who works at Bob’s office lives there and said it was an attractive town.  (Some Italian suburbs are just outlying areas of cities with ugly new apartment buildings.) Ivrea had one main pedestrian thoroughfare, a Saturday market, a river running alongside it, and up the hill, a cathedral and a fort.  We got some coffee and walked along the main street, then bought some cookies at the market.  When the seller heard me explaining to Bob in English what was in all the types of cookies, he asked, “Are you German?”  Which means he didn’t speak any English at all.

Then, curious about what was further up into the mountains, we kept driving. Just outside of Ivrea, we saw a large storybook castle.

Terraced grape arbors on the sides of the mountains.

As we started to drive into the valley between the Alps, we saw more castles. Some looked ruined; others looked well-preserved.  We also saw grape arbors all up and down the sides of the mountains, many of them made of stacked stone.  And eventually we saw a sign saying that we had left Piemonte and were entering the Valle d’Aosta.  Signs were in Italian and French.  Roofs went from tile to slate.  All the place names were French.  We were obviously in a border region.

Aosta had a cobbled main pedestrian street similar to that in Ivrea.  We walked along it until we found a restaurant that looked traditional, but not ridiculously touristy.  We are aware as we walked in, however, that there was something about this town that drew tourists, because we sat between a French family and a Chinese couple, and our waiter spoke English.  Excited to be in a different region, we tried items from the menu that didn’t look familiar.  We found out that Valdostan cuisine means cheese, especially Fontina.  I had ham and cheese crepes and Bob had polenta with cheese.  Bob couldn’t finish his polenta, which says a lot.

Thus armed with calories, we continued to explore the town.  We knew that it had some extant Roman walls.  Those, in fact, were right next to the restaurant, with apartments built between them (above).  But then we saw a map with an amphitheater.  After walking down a couple of dead ends, we found it.  In retrospect, it would have been hard not to.  It took up most of the town!


Most of the houses in these photos are either the back side of the main thoroughfare or one block back. The third photo from the bottom shows the Tour Frommage.

The amphitheater was well-preserved, and there were medieval buildings built into it all around the edges. Some were still lived in, like the ones between the walls in the photo above, and others, mostly the towers, were now preserved as monuments.  Our favorite was the Tour Frommage, or Cheese Tower.  It was so named because the family who built it was named Casei, which sounds like casein, Spanish queso, etc.  Even though the Italians and French say formaggio and frommage respectively, the association wasn’t lost on them.  Nor on our family, who quickly invented a family tree using feminine-sounding cheese names like Velveeta.

By time we finished walking through the amphitheater, it was too late to explore any longer, so we started back home.  On the way back, Sarie decided to try to count and photograph all the castles. There seemed to be one on every semi-independent rock in the valley.  The photography was of mixed success, since we were now on the autostrada and opening the car windows resulted in tons of noise and a wet lens.  But she counted eleven castles. Below is Bard, a Savoy castle, one of the largest, and one of the closest to the road:

Of course, all these castles and ruins got us wondering what the story was behind them, so I did a bit of Googling when I got home.

One thing I found was that every Roman colony town had a main road, a decumanus, running from east to west.  This is why both Ivrea and Aosta were split right down the middle by a wide  (pedestrian) thoroughfare. And the walls we had seen in Aosta were its Porta Praetoria, or military gate, facing the direction of barbarian invasion (the Alps).  And then I realized that Torino’s main pedestrian shopping street,Via Garabaldi, was once its decumanus.  Via Garibaldi runs straight west towards the Alps from the Palazzo Madama, which is built around the original Roman east gate.  And Via Palatina, which is one of my favorite streets in Torino, was probably its main north/south road, or cardo.

It’s a little harder to tell about the castles.  Border regions usually get left out of the sort of history you study in school.  Everyone learns about the Holy Roman Empire and Italian Unification under the Savoys.  But The History of the Medieval World annoyingly leaves Torino off every map until almost the last chapter of the book, so it’s hard to tell where it belonged when.

After the Celts, Romans, Ostrogoths, Franks and Lombards, it was ruled in the late 900s by Arduin of Ivrea, who took it after the Saracens were expelled. The Saracens?  What were they doing in the Alps?  Then the Burgundians. Then the Savoys.  No wonder they needed castles.

And thus ended our little reconnaissance mission into the mountains. I didn’t even mind the rain, because the clouds made the landscape look mysterious and fairy-tale like. But I can’t wait to go back and see the insides of the castles.