Trail Of The Unexpected: Heading South in Piedmont

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The Independent Travel

In the south of Piedmont, attitude counts. It was in 1275, while besieging archrival Alba, that Asti's troops came up with a cheeky new way of showing their disdain of Alba's defenders - by holding a horse race around the city walls, right under their noses. That daredevil bareback race evolved into Italy's oldest recorded palio (eight years older, in fact, than Siena's) and currently takes place in Asti's Piazza Alfieri every September. It is the culmination of 10 days of wine and food festivals, flag-throwing and swanning about in medieval costumes as only Italians can swan. Yet this is no show for tourists; the 21 competing wards really want to win. Cheating is not unknown.

Alba grits its teeth, then shows just what it thinks with a Donkey Palio, the comic highlight of its October truffle fair.

In the Middle Ages, these Piedmontese towns not only clobbered one another with as much gusto as Florence and Siena, but did so in landscapes that wouldn't look out of place in Tuscany. But they could be gentle as well. In the westerly Cuneese, courtly, art-loving Saluzzo is the "Little Siena of the Alps", and its Castello di Manta's exquisite frescoes of knights, ladies and the Fountain of Youth are the stuff of fairytales. West of Saluzzo, in Occitan-speaking villages, tiny churches shelter frescoes by the likes of Pietro da Saluzzo and Hans Clemer, artists as charming as they are obscure.

To the south, Limone Piemonte in the lush Maritime Alps offers the closest skiing to the Riviera. The real surprise, however, is on another mountaintop, by Artesina: a surreal 188ft Pink Rabbit soft toy, sprawling as if dropped by a mile-high toddler.

Around Alba, the pale, immaculately vine-striped ridges of Le Langhe and Roero - Piedmont's heartland of food and wine - have a hallucinatory beauty of their own. Between hill towns and castles, an array of smart and rustic agriturismos make ideal bases for exploring curiosities such as Cherasco, Italy's snail capital, replete with small-scale urbanity, or Magliano Alfieri's one-off museum dedicated to Baroque ceiling stuccoes; or Barolo's colour-drenched chapel by American artists Sol LeWitt and David Tremlett, painted in exchange for the "wine of kings".

Asti's province stretches south towards Acqui Terme, and north into Monferrato, where the steep, emerald landscapes have an elegiac quality at twilight.

Once a world-player, Monferrato produced Crusader Kings of Jerusalem and was ruled by the Paleologi, cousins of the Byzantine emperors; fittingly, Casale Monferrato's cathedral of Sant'Evasio has a majestic narthex reminiscent of the Hagia Sophia's. Other treasures to the west are more intimate: Cortazzone, where a fork-tailed mermaid and other secrets lurk in the decor of Romanesque San Secondo, and the Abbazia di Vezzolano, where the masterpiece is a rare 13th-century jubé, sculpted with 35 Patriarchal ancestors of Mary in high relief. They wear their names on sashes like beauty queens. Yet each figure is animated, individual and full of character - and in that, very Piedmontese.

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