Think of the cities and towns of Italy and you’ll picture Florence, Rome, Siena, Milan. Dripping in art, architecture and design – these are mini-meccas for Italophiles. Like peacocks, they are resplendent, flashy even, in their riches. But altogether quieter, less showy, are the little towns and villages dotted between these behemoths of beauty. Here you’ll find a glimpse of the real Italy, places that tourists mostly overlook. The town of Piacenza, an hour’s drive south of Milan, is one such place.
In the north of Emilia-Romagna, Piacenza is perfect for foodies. In a province rich in farmland, it’s home to cuisine du terroir: simple, hearty dishes, such as capelletti stuffed with potato, pumpkin and sage, polenta, risotto and gnocchi. Eating out here is relaxed – people prefer to search out a trattoria or a pizzeria. Antica Osteria del Teatro (+39 (0)523 323 777) or Trattoria dal Ganassu (+39 (0)523 482 780) are both favourites with locals. Expect slow but engaging service – this is all about re-enacting the family meal. Fast food doesn’t really exist here so you may be gone for hours.
Piazza Cavalli is the main square in the town, dominated by two bronze horses and a medieval palace, known as Il Gotico. Take a wander down Via XX Settembre, the main shopping street, as evening falls and you’ll catch the locals – young and old – taking their passeggiata – the slow stroll, arm in arm, around the centro historico.
Then there are the hills and Apennine Mountains surrounding the town. Take a drive out and you’ll come across tiny villages unchanged since the Second World War. Visit in the winter and these hamlets are mostly shut, with just a few houses showing signs of life, smoke puffing out of chimneys from wood-burning stoves. Elderly black-clad women wave their sticks in greeting as you pass, their memories making colourful scenes. But come summer, the area sees a resurgence of life from younger Italian families who are rediscovering the villages of their parents.
And it’s not all eating and reminiscing. There’s plenty to do. Local attractions include Grazzano Visconti in Vigolzone (grazzano.it), 15km south of Piacenza, a preserved neo-medieval town complete with castle and pristine gardens, as well as Bardi, a town dominated by the 12th-century Landi castle (comune.bardi.pr.it).
For a scenic mountain drive, take a trip from Piacenza to Salsamaggiore Terme, a natural spa town that is inherently chic. Drive via Castell’Arquato, in the Val d’Arda hills. The old town rests on a high rock, overlooking the rest of the village, and dates back to the tenth century – it is nearly perfectly preserved (castellarquato.com). It may not have the treasures of Florence, the fashion of Milan or the wow factor of Venice, but Piacenza’s heart is in the right place.
CItalia are experts on holidays to Italy and offer many options throughout the country. Visit citalia.com for information on travel and hotels in the area.