Between crenellated towers and lush vineyards
Visitors driving along the inter-provincial road will be surprised at the sight of so many towers and castles standing out against the hills that characterise this “border land”. Many of them are private homes that can be admired for their stunning scenic effect, many can be visited – after previous agreement with the owners- as they are well-known, prominent wine-producing vineyards, while others again are always open to the public.
Set on a hill where the the Ardivestra and Coppa valleys meet, you can see Stefanago Castle, an imposing building dating back to the 14th century. Parts of the castle have been converted into accommodation for rural tourism. Nearby you can glimpse the mediaeval Torre degli Alberi. The castle, of Vermesca origins, is still the residence of Count Luchino Dal Verme and his family. The public can visit the outbuildings as they have been converted into a well-equipped laboratory where weaving courses are held, utilising antique artisan looms. Guided tours are also held at the other Castello Dal Verme, at Zavattarello, an elegant example of Ghibelline architecture whose origins can be traced back to the 10th century. The castle that you can visit and admire today is the result of great restoration work carried out by the Town Council that brought the castle back to its original splendour after it was burnt down in 1944 by the German army.
Another pleasant visit is to Castellazzo di Montù Beccaria, a vineyard overlooking all the other buildings in the village from its enviable position at the top of a hill from which there is a breathtaking view from the Apennines to the Alps. At the beginning of the 17th century, the castle was occupied by the religious order of Barnabites who used it as an educational centre but in 1802 the property passed to the Vercesi family following the rise of Napoleon who expropriated the possessions of religious orders and sold them to private families. During that period most of the church was demolished leaving only the nave which today is an evocative library. Another well-known vineyard is the Castello di Luzzano, situated in the hills that divide the Piacentino area from Oltrepò Pavese. The historical structure has the typical crenellated battlements surrounding a square courtyard. Excavations have brought to light the remains of a Romanesque villa, proof that this territory was, even then, a wine producing area. The old cellar now houses a small museum where some of the finds are on display.
In the Ardivestra valley, on the road leading from Godiasco to Montesegale, you can see the Pieve di San Zaccaria, one of the oldest religious constructions in the territory. Built in Romanesque style, it stands out for the austerity of its lines and for the meagre geometric decorations created by bands of sandstone and brickwork. The only adornment is provided by two simple rose windows in the centre of the façade.
Driving south, you should not miss a visit to Sant’Alberto di Butrio, a religious complex dating back to the 11th century and still today home of the religious order of Orionini. Situated in an evocative setting, the abbey complex encompasses the original church of Santa Maria Genitrice, two temples constructed in a later period dedicated to St. Alberto and St. Antonio, a massive square tower and a small cloister. A particularly interesting series of 15th century paintings can be admired inside the churches.
Continuing to Varzi you come to the beautifully restored, simple and unadorned Chiesa dei Cappuccini.
Built in Romanesque style, it was a parish church during the 12th century and in 1600 it became a convent for the Capuchin friars. During the last decades of the 20th century, it underwent extensive renovations and the whole complex has now been restored to its ancient splendour.
At Torricella Verzate, set in the hills around Casteggio, is the Santuario della Santa Croce, an 18th century sanctuary made up of fourteen chapels depicting the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) and a fifteenth chapel representing the “crowning with thorns”. The chapels, beautifully decorated with trompe l’oeil frescoes depicting landscapes and displaying 52 life-sized plaster figures, are situated along the sides of the churchyard and can be reached by an easily-accessible flight of steps.
A particularly interesting village is the mediaeval Borgo di Varzi, characterised by rows of porticoes constructed one above the other. A stroll around the village takes you back in time as you wander under the arcades of the little mediaeval streets and lanes; Via di Dentro, Via Porta Nuova, Via Roma, Via del Mercato, Vicolo Dietro le Mura, Vicolo del Voltone, Via Maiolica, Via della Piazzola, Via della Scaletta, Vicolo Odetti, Vicolo del Moro. Visitors can admire the 17th century Baroque oratories of “the whites” and “the reds”, the parish church of San Germano Vescovo with its neo-classic frescoed façade, the castle of the Marchesi Malaspina families and “the witches tower” as well as the old mansions of Tamburelli in late-Baroque style (1724) and since 1926 the Town Hall, Leveratto-Mangini (18th century) and Giacobone (18th century).
Mentioned in the guidebook of the most beautiful villages in Italy and well worth a visit is Fortunago, which, of all the villages nestled in the hills of Oltrepò is perhaps that where the old stone houses, courtyards and flower gardens in the historical centre have been renovated and restored to create a balanced and harmonious sense of beauty.