Founded in 1,000AD, Saluzzo is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the Italian region of Piedmont. It occupies a striking hill top position, with the imposing, pyramidal peak of Monviso, ‘The Stone King’ as a backdrop. Saluzzo takes its name from the Salluvii, one of the tribes who first settled in the area while Il Re di Pietra – The Stone King is allegedly a candidate for the mountain on which Paramount Pictures modelled their logo.
Although it was mainly a conveniently-located stopover to break the journey, we had been really looking forward to our visit. However, driving through the ugly, industrial areas on the outskirts, searching in vain for somewhere to park, left us underwhelmed. Just beyond the point that we gave up and started to head back to the campsite, the one-way system led to the parking in Piazza Garibaldi. Part of the lower town, it was in a perfect location right next to the Cattedrale, which had waited patiently for our arrival since 1481.
Saluzzo is very understated. On narrow, ancient avenues, cobbled with pebbles, we set off for a wander up towards the hilltop castle. The street, La Salita al Castello – The Ascent to the Castle, took us past 15th-Century palazzos and the square, civic tower. After several additions and extensions, the tower, which dates back to 1462, is now nearly 160ft (48m) tall. We gave the pups a drink from the Drancia fountain, whose carved relief was smoothed and eroded with time. The blank, imposing bricks of the castle walls felt in keeping with its use as a prison right up until 1992.
There seemed to be very little in the old town and the buildings were run down and crumbling, although there were cranes everywhere; evidence of money being spent on renovation. For us, Saluzzo had none of the charm of the lovely hill villages of Vézelay and Mirmande that we visited in France. Perhaps because it was an authentic, working town, rather than a carefully manicured tourist trap, designed to impress!
It was 25°C and cloudy, which cut out our view towards Monviso, but made walking around town with our four pups bearable. The heat had been oppressive since we came down from the mountains. We ambled back past the 12th-Century church of St Giovanni and the Cassa Cavassa, a museum in the former residence of Francesco and Galeazzo Cavassa, vicars to the Marquis of Saluzzo.
The Cavassa crest particularly appealed to me. Heraldry often favours majestic animals, such as the eagle, bear or unicorn. I wondered how the coat-of-arms conversation might have gone with the Cavassa family,
“Hey Fran, shall we opt for a lion rampant? Or a what about an eagle épandre, or a stag salient?”
“No, Gal, I think we should have a fish.”
“What, you mean something big and impressive, like a marlin? Or fierce, like a shark or piranha. Or maybe we could go for clever and playful, like a dolphin.”
“C’mon Gal. You know a dolphin is not a fish. It’s an insect*. I was thinking more along the lines of a chavasson?”
“A chubb? That’s not very imposing – and aren’t they renowned for being really easy to catch, even without bait?”
“Yes they are, but you will surely change your mind once I tell you my interesting fact about the chubb…”
The Cavassa family motto, “Droit quoy quil soit” is ambiguous; it means either ‘Straight Ahead No Matter What’ or ‘Justice No Matter What’. My guess is that Mr Cavassa’s interesting fact about the chubb was its affinity for swimming upstream. Either that or its unswerving commitment to fair play and due process.
Saluzzo is renowned for its excellent food. Back in the lower town, we stopped for pranzo – lunch, at one of the many street cafés under the porticos. When the coronavirus lockdown eased in Italy on Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be With You!) we were able to buy takeaway food or coffee from a café to eat elsewhere. Since we’re on a budget, we dine at restaurants only occasionally. However, that rare privilege has been denied for months. This was our first meal out, sitting at a table, since February. It felt like the most incredible treat.
I was rather looking forward to the beef burger with octopus that Mark had seen advertised on the internet, although sadly, he couldn’t remember where! Fresh, grilled tuna with salad, followed by panacotta and coffee all brought to us by a friendly waiter in a face mask was a fine second choice. After so long in lockdown, it was unbelievably exciting to be somewhere different and out to lunch!
Mark and I were tired when we got back, but not just from the heat and exercise. Our nights in Paesana were not restful. Like Quasimodo, we were troubled by the bells. Distant clarions of cow bells in the Alps had been exchanged for a duo of campaniles in very close proximity.
Our campsite, Campeggio Valle Po was on the road to the church of Sainte Croce. I am uncertain of the location of its competing bell tower, but they each chimed every half hour and were out of synch just enough to leave very few minutes of the day – or night – chime free. 7am was a particular highlight. We got an extended, percussive ad-lib of bongs, booms, clangs and jingles from both belfries that reminded me of a classic, five-minute Cozy Powell drum solo. At least it got us up and at ‘em before the heat of the day kicked in. We had dropped to 600m from an Alpine village at 1800m, and were feeling Italy’s early summer heat.
Paesana is surrounded by marked hiking paths, but perhaps because we like the views or were just missing the mountains of Monte Rosa, we headed up hairpins for the high ground. The lush scenery was unlike anything we had seen before in Europe. It reminded us more of cloud forest in somewhere like Costa Rica or Hawai’i. Unfortunately, at the top, as in all the best cloud forests, the views were obscured by mist!
It was a relief to be out of the heat, though, and made a nice a change to walk somewhere where everything was not steeply uphill! We took the pups for a stroll through a charming, mysterious woodland that was damp and mossy, filled with magical carvings and led to a waterfall.
It reminded me of the Enchanted Forest at Groombridge Place, which is well worth a visit if you find yourself in East Sussex. (Although it’s for kids, it is really fun! My top tips are to go when it’s quiet, take a picnic and explore it anti-clockwise, ‘the wrong way round’, to avoid the crowds. If you like rock climbing or just a dramatic walk, the sandstone crag known as Harrison’s Rocks is nearby, as is the Ashdown Forest, the location for Winnie the Pooh. Click here for guides to Pooh and other walks at Ashdown.)
In winter, Pian Munè is a small ski resort, so we took advantage of the mountain refuge to treat ourselves to our first post-walk coffee and cake since lockdown ended. So close to the French border, if our snack had been hurled at us by a militant baguette sporting a gilet jaune, the service couldn’t have been more Gallic. With a dismissive wave of her hand and without looking up from her iPad, the proprietress shooed us away from the deserted, shady tables on the wooden terrace in front of the restaurant,
“You can’t sit there, that’s for lunch. Go over there.”
As we sat and perspired, now in full sun, Mark told me that on his way in to order, she had snapped, “You will be fined if you don’t wear a face mask.”
Had Mark not already paid, I would have left immediately and denied them the business, although the excellent coffee and fruit flan did make up for the couldn’t-care-less attitude. The local blueberries from the abundant fruit orchards of Cuneo were the size of plums!
Back at the caravan that afternoon, a violent thunderstorm split the skies and made us glad that The Bells had got us out for our walk early. We had met the two ladies opposite while they were out walking their dog and felt sorry for them braving the torrential rain in a tent. In more normal circumstances, we would have invited them over to sit in the caravan. Unfortunately, in these blighted times, social distancing prevents these random, friendly encounters, which are so much a part of the pleasure of our touring experience.
It was not just the bells that gave us another sleepless night. The campsite seemed to be popular for parties, although the ridiculous oompah karaoke did stop bang on the button of 10pm. We know that because, between them, the clocks chimed twenty!
*We have this on good authority from Peter Cook. Although Mr Cook was specifically referring to whales, they are all Cetaceans.
Join us next time as we experience the biggest challenge of our caravanning career, when we inadvertently tow a 7m caravan over one of the world’s most dangerous roads. A great opportunity to admire sheer drops that are not measured in anything paltry like feet or metres, but miles…