The Piedmont region is a collection of different landscapes and, to a certain extent, slightly different cultures, as well.
Bordering France and Switzerland, it offers the Alps as well as plains and hills that provide the perfect environment for some of the world’s best wines. Its proximity to two different countries also provides for some language differences. The main local dialect is Piedmontese, although Franco-Provençal and Occitan are also spoken. Not known by many, but Occitan is spoken also in Monaco, France, and the Aran Valley of Spain. So, Piedmont, strictly translated as “at the foot of the mountain” does offer some interesting diversity.
One such city within the region that adds to this diversity is Cuneo. It is also the capital of the Cuneo province, which is the third largest province, by area, within Italy and is called by the Piedmontese La Granda, the large one. It is located at the foot of the Maritime Alps and at the convergence of the Gesso and Stura di Demonte rivers, as it comes forth from the Valle Stura. Nicknamed the town of seven sieges, it still retains the plan of a military town. It was once surrounded by massive walls, had large squares and magnificent palaces of wealthy aristocrats.
Originating in the 12th century, it was first built as a fortified town. Its location, in a naturally strategic position protecting the roads to France through the Tenda and Maddalena passes, made it a natural choice to be used as a military location. Its fortunes went back and forth under the Saluzzo, Visconti, Savoy and French rule. The French actually demolished the walls wanting to develop the town to the southwest. You can tell where the old walls were, as they are now delineated by streets. During World War II, Cuneo was one of the main sites in the country of partisan resistance against the German occupation of Italy.
The economy is primarily based on the agricultural produce of the area, although in addition to agriculture, especially wine, engineering, paper products, metallurgy, rubber and cattle play an integral role in its local financial system. If you have a sweet tooth, Cuneo can help satisfy your cravings. The town’s specialty is Cuneesi al rhum, chocolates with a unique rum-based filling. The most widely known brand is Arione. Located in the city’s central square, it has kept much of its old world elegance. Many have stopped in to taste the famous Cuneesi al rhum, including Ernest Hemingway in 1954.
Attractions in Cuneo
While you are enjoying a sweet, take in some of Cuneo’s sites, as well, as there are many.
The baroque Cathedral of Santa Croce is built with a concave façade in the early 18th century. Santa Maria della Pieve, renovated in 1775, houses frescoes inside and a beautiful painting of the Circumcision.
The Chapel of Santa Maria del Bosco was part of the Benedictine abbey of Borgo San Dalmazzo. It was destroyed in 1656 and rebuilt in the 19th century with a grand neo-classical façade and dome.
The Chiesa di San Francesco had been abandoned for centuries and was finally brought back to life in the 1920’s. The Civic museum is inside.
The Chiesa di Sant’Ambrogio dates back to the early 1200’s and is linked to the Lombard League when Milan and Cuneo worked together. As a sign of their friendship, they decided to share their patron saints.
Piazza Galimberti is the town’s central square and is surrounded by architectural arcades. Here is held the outdoor market and it’s where the Casa Museo Galimberti, a museum of history and archeology is located. The railway station even gets in on the act with an exhibition of railway relics inside its museum.
Festivals and Activities
If you are looking for great local festivals, there is plenty here starting with a large summer music festival in June. There is also a festival celebrating the town’s patron saint, St. Michael, held on September 29. There are many chestnuts roasting on an open fire at the Chestnut Fair held in the fall and don’t forget the regional Cheese Fair in November.
The Tour de France travels through here, as well. The Italian leg of the Tour often goes from Digne-les-Bains, in France, to Prato Nevoso in Piedmont, followed by a rest day in Cuneo. From there, bikers head on to Jausiers in France.
Want to go spelunking? Well, the Bossea Caves, in the Maritime Alps, are some of Italy’s best caves. There are guided tours that take visitors through walkways along underground rivers and lakes. The Maritime Alps Nature Park also has waterfalls, rivers, lakes and over 2500 different floral species. The Alps obviously also make for great skiing in winter and biking and hiking in summer. The Valle Stura provides a scenic view for botanical enthusiasts.
Cuneo’s unique wedge shape gave the town its name. The city has over eight kilometers of covered walkways, portici in Italian, made up of arches of various widths and height. It offers the town a distinctive feel and also helps with shading during the hot summer months, as well as giving protection from snow during the winter. Its main street is a great spot for shopping, cafés and una passeggiata. Cuneo is also a good base for excursions into the Alps and other small towns around the area.
Cuneo is on the rail line between Torino and Ventimiglia, and also provides bus services to other nearby towns and villages. With bike and car rental available, you can explore this provincial capital on your own terms.
There is truly something for everyone here in Cuneo. Long ignored, it has only recently been a sought after location for those traveling to this part of Italy. As you spend time here you will know why.