Bella Italia

There were flag throwers, drummers, peasants with their donkeys, a fire eater, a stilt walker, a princess and knights. There were competitions: rope pulling, sack races, log sawing.  There was a hike in the woods and a tasty meal.

It was a medieval festival in Roccasparvera, Italy, a tiny burg that is the sister cityRocca6   of Reillanne, our tiny town in southern France. We, and some 45 others from Reillanne, made the trek to southern Piedmont to join the festivities in early June.

The folks from Reillanne stayed at a hotel/restaurant outside of town known for its cuisine with porcini  (boletus), the king of mushrooms.  This region of Italy produces an abundance of these delicious fungi.

The Saturday night meal at the hotel was over the top – eight courses:  carpaccio with porcini, sliced cold turkey with a tomato/caper sauce, porcini flan, asparagus flan with a cheese sauce, porcini risotto, cannelloni, beef with roasted rosemary potatoes, venison stew – all topped off with a yummy peach/chocolate/hazelnut praline concoction. And, of course, wine – red or rose.

Italian breakfasts, in comparison, leave a bit to be desired.  With the exception of the croissants.  The Italian version filled with jam is excellent.

The festivities on Sunday got underway with a hike in the surrounding forests and Rocca4 countryside.  The mayor of Roccasparvera led a group of Italian speakers.  Another guide led those who spoke French. The princess, the peasants and donkeys, and a few others in medieval costumes accompanied the hikers. There were many stops en route for lengthy explanations of the history of the area.  At one point a naturalist took over to talk about an enormous ancient chestnut tree.

Back in town following the hike, there was an outdoor buffet lunch in the town square followed by impressive demonstrations by a troop of flag throwers.  Then the games.  Teams from Reillanne, Roccasparvera and a few neighboring communities competed to see which village had the strongest (rope pulling), the fastest (sack Rocca10 racing) and another test of strength, sawing a fat log. There was yet another contest – running behind a ball which rolled down a street.  I didn’t quite understand that one. 

It was all good fun.  Last November we went to another fest in Roccasparvera, the chestnut festival.  It snowed so much  the fest had to be cancelled. This time we had glorious sunshine, perfect festival weather.

Most of those from Reillanne headed back to France by bus after the festivities.  We had traveled by car and went on to nearby Cuneo for two nights.  It’s a lovely town with a huge central square surrounded by arcades.  My reason for wanting to visit Cuneo was to attend its huge Tuesday market.  Italian markets (the kind where they sell everything, not just produce) are fabulous.  I especially go for the bargain fashions.

Cuneo was rockin’ Sunday evening with an international festival. Numerous nationalities were represented, all with stands selling their culinary specialties.  I tried a chicken creation from Ghana, then Vietnamese tidbits.  The line was long with those waiting for Argentine beef. There was also street entertainment making for a jovial ambience.

After walking around town Monday morning, we drove (at the suggestion of the helpful woman at the tourist office) into the nearby mountains.  Our destination was Thermes Cuneo3 de Valdieri, a spa with a huge hotel and pool next to a roaring mountain stream.  A peaceful and beautiful spot.  We set out on a hike into the mountains, but had to abort as the path deteriorated, requiring proper hiking boots.  We were in sneakers, a sturdy version, but not sturdy enough.

Back in Cuneo, we stayed at a hotel in the town center.  A loud racket outside our window awoke me at 5 a.m. Tuesday.  They were setting up the market stands.  I went back to sleep,  but was ready for power shopping by 9. Bob, fortunately for me, stayed in the hotel and read the Herald Tribune.  He detests shopping and makes me nervous.

The main city square and surrounding streets were filled with stands offering everything from kitchen utensils and tools, to food, clothes, wallets and purses…..

I zeroed in on the clothes – trendy tops and pants at sensational prices.  Most of the clothes stands are run by women from the Philippines.  The clothes all have tags: “Made in Italy,” but you know they come directly from China. We’re not talking quality merchandise, however,  the prices can’t be beat and the shopping is fun.  As the prices are already so low, there’s not much room for bargaining.

I ended up with an assortment of tops, pants, a wallet and a purse – and some Parmesan, Italian sausage, blueberries, raspberries and zucchini blossoms.  The latter are hard to find in our part of France, and the produce was also a bargain compared to French prices.

France is great, but I love these trips to Italy.

(For more photos click on Photo Album, center column.)


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