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Among the Stone Houses in the Upper Langa (150km)


Cortemilia (CN)

It was only natural that this itinerary should start in Cortemilia, centre of hazel cultivation in the Langa and site of a Roman cross-roads. Cortemilia’s historical centre is divided by the river Bormida into two areas: San Pantaleo and San Michele which are dominated by a lovely circular stone tower, all that remains of defence walls which once protected the town. Some fortifications can still be seen, the most impressive in the whole of the Langa region. Here, the dichotomy between church and secular power is well illustrated by the presence of the castle and the Convent of St Francis: apparently the saint stayed in Cortemilia during one of his many pilgrimages. Don’t miss the attractive parish churches which gave their name to the two areas of the town, not to mention the lovely little country church (‘pieve’) which is a Romanesque jewel outside the town walls and is now used for concerts and art shows. Just above the ‘pieve’ the famous stone terraces begin, where, in times past, the country folk cultivated their crops and which are so similar to those found in nearby Liguria. At the top of these Dante-esque circles we don’t come upon Hell, but the Ecomuseum of the Terraces of Monte Oliveto set in a delightful stone house typical of this area’s dwellings.
Passing by other country churches and convents, we arrive in Castino, a village full of flowers situated between the Bormida and Belbo valleys. Once, it was a wealthy Medieval town with three monasteries: in fact, the Benedictine one is still to be found in the village centre. The first ever tourist truffle area is to be found behind the castle gardens. From here we continue in the direction of Scorrone, among dry stone walls and a fountain mentioned in Cesare Pavese’s books, in the midst of the vineyards situated between Cossano Belbo and Santo Stefano where Moscato and Dolcetto grapes are grown. This Dolcetto, in fact, is now known as ‘Dolcetto dei Terrazzamenti’ (Dolcetto of the Terraces). Cossano is famous for the following:’ tajarin’ egg noodles, furmentin, Tomin cheese, salamis and…unsurprisingly, good wine! Don’t forget to visit the little church of San Bovo and, opposite it, the Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Oak (‘Madonna della Rovere’), mentioned in both Fenoglio and Pavese’s books.
Santo Stefano Belbo is no longer the town which contained “… four houses and a lot of mud, although the provincial road does pass through it…” as Cesare Pavese described his home town, but is now a prosperous valley town with a peaceful and well-kept historical centre atmospherically shady and with old-fashioned signposts. Here,at the bottom of the main street, the Pavese Study Centre is to be found together with the ‘Confaternità’.
Above the town, the ruined tower lends an almost Scottish touch to the hillside. Pavese’s most famous book, ‘The Moon and the Bonfires’ is an immensely touching and beautiful novel which can confidently find a place among the greatest of 20th century literature. Here, everything speaks of Pavese: there is the Gaminella hill, for example, the house belonging to Nuto, the musician- carpenter who befriended the writer and the Nido house above Canelli, “… Gate to the World, that tastes of vermouth and the breeze that comes off the Belbo…” Here, there is also the house where Pavese was born with its museum and inn to visit. If we climb the Valdivilla hill, passing just below the little church of Moncucco, we get to one of the most scenic places in the valley with a truly breathtaking view from the narrow road which winds its way between sheer hills covered in vines. The fruit of the genius of rural pre-technological engineering is tangible here, with its dry stone walls, terraces and ‘causagne’, or head posts of the rows of vines, all defying gravity and meticulously built by hand.