It must be a wee bit frustrating being a small town or city in Italy, struggling to share the limelight with heavy-hitters such as Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice. No amount of marketing budget will ever be enough to compete with their tourism profile and yet there are so many smaller, magical places with great stories to tell.
So, here is a small promotion for the city of Vercelli…
I walked into Vercelli on Day 7 of my recent via Francigena journey to Rome. It had been yet another long, hot day on rough, dirt roads and I was definitely ready for a rest day!
For anyone who has done any long distance walking, ‘rest days’ are treasured as a chance to put the feet up, catch your breath and do some desperately needed washing. This, of course, has to be balanced with the desire to enjoy everything the ‘resting place’ has to offer.
And Vercelli has tonnes to offer…
Vercelli is a city of around 47 000 people. It was founded in c.6th century BC by a mix of Liguri and Celtic tribes. How the Celts ended up here needs some further investigation on my part! Those folks really got around!
Vercelli is located in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, about 88km south west of Milan and about 77km north east of Turin.
Like many other Italian cities, it has an incredibly colourful past – annexed by the French in 1801, later attacked by the Austrians, and then as an important base for the Resistance Movement during WWII.
When I walked into Vercelli it was market day and the streets were a hive of activity. All the piazzas seemed to be crammed with fruit and vegetable stalls, African handbag sellers, and other hawkers selling underwear of various shapes and sizes. The streets were clogged with people chatting, walking their dogs and chasing the bargain of the day.
And the next day, I woke up in a ghost town!
It was Ferragosto and the place was deserted!
Ferragosto, coinciding with the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary, is a holiday that goes back to the time of Roman emperor Augustus. Way back then, several festivals took place during the month of August to celebrate the harvest; in 18 BC, Augustus introduced the ‘Feriae Augusti’ to connect them all and provide a longer period of rest after the harvest – a time of intense agricultural labour. (Source)
If I had a Euro for every sign I saw saying ‘Chiuso per Ferie’ (closed for the holidays) I could have been chauffeur-driven through Italy in luxury, rather than 40 days of slogging on foot to Rome.
Vercelli is described as the rice capital of Europe. The landscape around the city is almost universally flat with rice paddies stretching as far as the eye can see. Rice arrived in Italy in the 15th century and the country grows around 1.5million tonnes of the stuff every year. It now makes sense about where all that risotto comes from!
Reading the many online via Francigena forums, it seems that some walkers decide to skip the stages leading into and out of Vercelli as they think that it is boring because it is so flat, but they are missing out on a gem.
After a little relax and rest time, and when I had watched far too many repeats of Little House on the Prairie dubbed in Italian, it was time to take to the streets of Vercelli and explore.
Vercelli’s tourism planners have become very clever and have developed ‘The Frog’s Trail’. This trail moves you systematically around the heart of the city visiting 20 of the main sites/sights along the way. The trail includes a dizzying array of churches, basilicas, chiesas and cattedrale. If religious buildings are not your thing then there are casas, piazzas, torres, teatros and museos.
I decided to treat myself to a little beauty and culture. After seven days of giving the body a workout, it was time to stretch the mind.
Vercelli is one lucky city to be home of the Borgogna Museum. It is more art gallery than museum and is chock full of stunning artworks, sculpture, porcelain and furniture. It is all housed in the neoclassical home of Antonio Borgogna. When Senor Borgogna died in 1906 he willed the house and his incredibly extensive art collection to the people of Vercelli. The community has continued to add to the display since then.
I don’t have a creative bone in my body or know anything about art, but even I could appreciate the Renaissance paintings, medieval church frescoes, German, Flemish and Dutch art works as well as the output of a large array of 19th century Italian artists. I do admit that the many rooms devoted just to the Madonna and Child paintings got a bit monotonous, but there was plenty of other beauty to capture my attention.
I was fascinated to learn that during WWII the really valuable pieces in the collection mysteriously disappeared from the museum to be hidden away in numerous private houses throughout the city. Who knows what would be left today if that initiative hadn’t been taken.
The people of Vercelli are justly proud of this beautiful gallery and it was the highlight of my visit to this little known town.
Yes, it does pay to get off the well-trodden tourist paths.
What undiscovered gems have you stumbled across?
What: I stayed at Casa del Collonello, Vicolo Olivero 13, Vercelli. €60per night, including €10 city tax, a light breakfast and good WIFI.
Where: Vercelli is located in the Piedmont region of northern Italy.
When: 14 August. Clear, hot and dry.
Why: Vercelli was an important way point on the via Francigena.
How: I strolled in exhausted and walked out refreshed with a spring in my step.
Who: Me, myself and I (as everyone else was on holidays).
Related Posts: to start from the very beginning, have a look at my post about Day 1 of 40 days on my way to Rome.
Related Blogs: To read more about Vercelli, frogs and rice, have a look at Restaurant La Tagliatella’s story.
Read About it: For a fabulous read which includes loads of art and intrigue, grab a copy of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. As I said before, I know nothing about art, but I learnt a tonne in this novel, including how paintings are forged! Check it out on Book Depository.
#hiddengems, #vercelli, # renaissanceart