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Itinerary. Top 10 Italy’s most “appetizing” medieval villages
Let’s discover medieval villages that still embody the relationship between humans and the land by learning more about their traditional dishes.
The beauty of some medieval villages demonstrates that the Dark Ages were not so dark. In this period (from the Fifth century to the year one thousand), the agrarian economy and the feudalism encourage the rise of new settlements around abbeys and castles. Many Medieval cities and towns were notable for narrow and winding streets that wrapped themselves around a castle or monastery that is generally located on a hill. These urban centres are still related to nature and this relationship can be seen in the medieval urban planning and in the local products and dishes. Let’s start our journey on board of our (sustainable) car.
Taggia and its olives
Taggia, in the province of Imperia (north of Italy), was founded by a Roman military settlement, Tabia, along the coastline. In the Seventh century, during the barbarian invasions, it was moved inland, where people and the village was protected by the hills. When some Benedictine monks from Cuneo decided to build their monastery, the economy of the village prospered and many products were exported even to England. The city expands beyond the original set of walls and, in the downstream reclaimed lands, a new variety of olives that will go down in history was planted, Taggiasche olives. This graft, first created by the Columbine monks, takes root perfectly along the ridges of the Ligurian Riviera. Over the centuries, it spreads throughout Italy becoming one of the best olive varieties to be used even in the production of the extra virgin olive oil. When in the XII century Taggia was rebuilt after the Saracen raids, it expanded further downstream and a new castle with towers was built. The village’s position of power is reflected in the urban development around the castle.
Cortemilia and its hazelnuts
Since the Middle Ages, Cortemilia, in the province of Cuneo (north of Italy), has been an important political and commercial centre. The strategic position of this village, between the valleys of Bormida and Uzzone, and its proximity to Liguria, allowed the flourishing of craftsmanship and agriculture. Cortemilia is the capital of the round hazelnut of the Langhe. This variety of hazelnuts, exported throughout Europe, has the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) certification and it has always been used for local confectionery production. Cortemilia, known to the Romans as Cohors Aemilia, still has an old centre with a medieval urban structure. The Bormida River divides the village into two parts, San Pantaleo on the right bank and San Michele on the left bank. Around these centres there is a wide network of homes with arcades that date back to the fourteenth century. The cylindrical tower and the ruins of the castle of the Aleramica family, located in the centre of the medieval settlement, are perched on a rocky outcrop and they are protected by the bend of the river Bormida.
Neive and its four wines
This town in the province of Cuneo owns its name to the Roman family of the Gens Naevia that owned some lands. Neive still has the medieval radial street-system, the centre being the hill where formerly a castle, then a Benedectine monastery stood. After the Lombard invasions of the Sixth century, there was built the castle of Neive and the walls with only two gates to allow people in the city. This was followed in Tenth century by the construction of the Benedictine monastery, a symbol of the city of which only the bell tower is still preserved. Neive, which is plunged in the Langhe region is renowned for truffles, but it is more famous for its wine production. The vines of Neive produce the Barbera and Dolcetto d’Alba as well as the Barbaresco and Moscato d’Asti vine varieties.
Arquà Petrarca and its brodo di giuggiole (liquor made of jujubes)
Located in the province of Padua, the ancient village of Arquà Petrarca, named after the poet Francesco Petrarca who lived the last years of his life here (1369 – 1374), owes its present appearance to medieval urban interventions. Arquà has two centres that lie at different levels, the village of Arquà Petrarca di Sopra (which means above) and di Sotto (below) probably built along the defensive line between the Rocca di Monselice and Vicenza. The defensive walls of the castle (now Monte Castello) that surrounded the hill are no longer there, but many of the fourteenth-century houses that lie along the slopes of the Piccolo and Ventolone mountains have a late medieval structure. For centuries, in this village of northern Italy, jujube trees are grown. With the jujube juice, in the early autumn, a liquor called brodo di giuggiole is produced.
Venzone and its pumpkin
Between the Tagliamento and Canale valleys, in the province of Udine, Venzone is a medieval village nestled in the National Park of the Julian Alps. The old town, rebuilt after the 1976 earthquake, is enclosed by two sets of walls which are surrounded by a moat where the river Venzonassa used to flow. The outer walls with their many defensive towers, the houses with medieval structures and a series of narrow streets that twist and turn throughout the village are really peculiar. Given its proximity to Austria, Verzone there were customs duties to pay for the goods that came from Germany. Since 1965, Verzone is considered a national heritage site since it is the only medieval town in Veneto. The local dish is made with pumpkin. This vegetable is used in plenty of ways, it is used to prepare many types of pasta, it is an excellent side dish and it is used to prepare many sauces. In late October, there is a festival dedicated exactly to this vegetable.
Bobbio and its pilgrim soup
Bobbio, in the province of Piacenza, is a small Roman town once called Bobium. In medieval times, the life in the village was connected to the activities of the abbey of San Colombano, a religious and cultural centre for its prestigious library. Thanks to the abbey, since 1014 Bobbio was erected a City. The old town still has medieval features, with the monastery located in the city centre. The first monastery was replaced by a feud that surrounded the abbey, where the monks grew plants for a living. In this period, intensive agriculture was introduced in this area for the cultivation of vineyards, olive groves and chestnut trees. Since Bobbio is located in the surroundings of the Via Francigena, the pilgrims hosted by the monks were obliged to pass through this region. In medieval monasteries, as in modern taverns, pilgrims going through Bobbio could eat the “pisarei e faso”, a kind of dumplings made of flour and breadcrumbs seasoned with a sauce made of onions and beans.
San Gimignano and its saffron
San Gimignano is a small walled medieval hill town in the province of Siena, Tuscany. In the early Eleventh century, the village became a crossing point for pilgrims who had to go to Rome and an important trading center. In the Communal Age, despite political conflicts between pro-papal Guelphs and pro-imperial Ghibellines, the cultivation of vines ad saffron gained ground. The economic growth was followed by urban development: a new set of walls was built to protect the region. The still preserved thirteen towers underline the wealth of the city. The tower, in fact, was the ultimate symbol of power of noble families that built these huge structures to demonstrate their economic power and territorial control. Saffron, from Arabic Jafaran (yellow) has always played a crucial role in the economy of San Gimignano. Indeed, it was used for paying debts. Today saffron is the main ingredient of local dishes and it obtained the PDO certification that allows its production only in this village.
San Gemini, the village of water
The village of San Gemini, in the province of Terni, was founded by Yemin or Gemine, a Syrian monk who built his monastery. The area along the ancient Via Flaminia was dotted with small settlements useful for the communication between Rome and northern Italy. Despite the lootings and wars that involved the village before the Fifteenth century, when it became part of the Papal States, San Gemini has preserved its medieval urban structure. Today you can still see the main access road, the narrow streets and part of the huge walls. The nearby Parco delle fonti (park of sources), a park with an area of 70 thousand square metres where you can find oak trees and other native species, is home to the source of San Gemini and Fabia waters, which were renowned even in ancient times for their healing properties.
Casperia and its stringozzi
Located on the left bank of the Tiber River, on the western slopes of the Sabini and Casperia mountains, in the province of Rieti, Casperia was a Sabine settlement. The current urban structure of Casperia (Aspra Sabina until 1947) consists of a series of concentric and increasingly narrow streets inside the city walls. In the village there are plenty of typically medieval elements such as defensive towers, gates and casemates that were essential to protect the city from bombs. As for traditional cuisine, in late August Casperia hosts the festival of the stringozzi Aspresi, a local type of long pasta made with flour and water and usually seasoned with meat sauces.
Altamura and its bread
Altamura, a town of the Alta Murgia in the province of Bari, Apulia, was established by the Saracens. It doesn’t correspond to the Greek town of Altilia (literally, the other Troy) as many legends tell. On the ruins of the first settlement destroyed by the barbarians, the emperor Frederick II built an urban centre protected by a castle and fortified by megalithic walls. He let Jews and Greeks live in Altamura in order to repopulate the village. The cultural diversity of the population is the main reason why in Altamura there are different urban fabrics: the homes surrounding the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta lie in dead end streets, while those built around San Nicolò by the Greeks have yards. The Altamura bread, that obtained the Controlled Designation of Origin in 2005, is the first bakery product in Europe to get the PDO certification. It is produced only in this region with types of flour coming from nearby areas.
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