We spent a few days last week in the beautiful countryside of Le Langhe, about 60 kilometres (37 miles) southeast of Turin. It’s a hilly area to the south and east of the river Tanaro in the provinces of Cuneo and Asti in Piedmont.
It was an ideal base to explore by bike some of Piedmont’s most beautiful rolling landscapes and picturesque historic villages. In particular, we wanted to discover the history, traditions, cuisine and natural beauty of this often overlooked area of Italy.
Langhe is famous for its wines, hazelnuts, cheeses and truffles – particularly the white truffles of Alba. The countryside, as it was in the first half of 20th century, features prominently in the writings of Beppe Fenoglio and Cesare Pavese ¹. The latter was born in Santo Stefano Belbo which was where we spent several days at a delightfully historic hotel.
In the early 14th century the town was firstly a fiefdom of the Marquises of Monferrato, then the Marchesi of Saluzzo, and then the family of Scarampi. Because of its wealth, the town was often under siege. Its ancient medieval tower was destroyed in the war between Spain and Austria in 1600. The economy of Santo Stefano Belbo now relies mainly on the production of wine, especially the Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante.
We stayed in a converted monastery built way back in 1619 by a group of Cistercian Monks on the ruins of a chapel built a century before their arrival. For them it became shelter, a place of work, of prayer, of hours marked by the tolling of bells, of the seasons. Nature here reigned supreme, and continues to do so. The subsequent centuries have respected the work of the hill’s first inhabitants.
In 1862, the monastery was bought by the Incisa Counts – a noble family from the surrounding valleys and transformed into a private house. Now San Maurizio has a second life. Its refectory becomes somewhere to display art. The cloisters are transformed into an Italianate garden. The austerity of the monks is softened by the colours of the soft furnishings and the painted walls and ceilings. San Maurizio becomes a home for the first time, an oasis of privacy, overlooking the undulating hills.
After four years of careful and conservative restoration to ensure the preservation of its significant heritage, in 2002 Relais San Maurizio was revived by a local investment banker. Subsequent additions to the gardens and property have respected the integrity of the original buildings and grounds and preserved monks’ legacy, a medicinal herb garden and an organic vegetable garden.
These two are a source of inspiration for the eco-compatible philosophy of the hotel’s kitchen and the raw materials on which many recipes are based, including the hotel’s detoxifying herbal teas and its San Maurizio 1619 Skinfood® line.
In June 2014, this part of the Langhe was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list for its outstanding living testimony to wine growing and winemaking traditions. Such traditions bear witness to sustainable economic structures, like San Maurizio.
Growing up, Pavese would spend his summer holidays in Piedmont’s Le Langhe region; this was an area he had a great affection for and is referenced in many of his works. Pavese published the vast majority of his work after WWII, while working at the newspaper of Italy’s communist party, L’Unità, still taking regular trips back to Le Langhe. In 1950 he won the La Strega Literary Award for a collection of novellas called La Bella Estate (The Beautiful Summer). Consumed by depression, he committed suicide in a hotel room, mirroring the final scene of his third novella, Tra Donne Sole.