Vercelli: Where is it?

Vercelli is a small town in Piedmont, in the northwest of Italy. It has about 45.000 inhabitants and it is the capital of a province characterized by two different extreme territories: a great plain (the beginning of the Padana Valley), strongly shaped over the centuries by rice cultivation, and the picturesque Alpine valley, Valsesia, which culminates at 4554 meters at the Capanna Margherita, atop Mount Rosa.

Which kind of place is Vercelli?

From a landscape point of view, the most fascinating element is based on a special system of canals, deeply exploited by rice cultivation, mostly deriving from the Cavour Canal, one of the first pieces of infrastructure after Italian Unification (1866). This system of irrigation creates an unusual network, unique worldwide, exploiting water elevation differences and thus not requiring water pumps help.

Between April and May, rice field flooding results in a spectacular landscape, creating an almost hypnotic experience for visitors. But you can enjoy “the gentle plain” even in springtime, or in the fall, during rice harvesting. From a varying degree, summer and winter, offer unexpected beautiful days, where the skyline and big spaces meet the circle of the Alps.

La mietitura del riso nella campagna di Vercelli (Photo: SAPISE)

Rice fields around Vercelli (Photo: SAPISE)

The dimension of an ideal visit is a mini-tour: starting from the biggest architectures (stately farmsteads as realms, historical canals dating to Leonardo’s time) to a visit to the agricultural farms, where approaching to rice cultivation techniques and indigenous retail, up to a tasting menu in one of the several country “trattoria” restaurants.

Eventually, two places stand out for their natural habitat preservation: the reserve of the Park of “Lame” of Sesia (“lame” are swamp formations or expanses of water deriving from loops abandoned by Sesia river) and the Regional natural Park of “Bosco della Partecipanza” in the town of Trino.

In the name of rice cultivation and the landscape of the canals, its animals and its flora, Vercelli is a twin town with the French one of Arles.

La facciata della basilica di Sant'Andrea a Vercelli (Foto: Giulia Varetti)

The basilica of Sant’Andrea in Vercelli (Photo: Giulia Varetti)

What to do in Vercelli?

There are numerous cultural events throughout the year in proportion to the size of city.

At least two of these enjoy international cosmopolitan fame: the International Music Competition G.B. Viotti, (planned by the historical Società del Quartetto, it is a pioneer event dating back to the early ’50s, along with that of Geneva), and the Festival of Civil Poetry – admitted to UNESCO’s World Poetry Directory – which has awarded the greatest poets from all over the world.

Since 2006, Vercelli has had a space dedicated to Modern Art, placed inside a deconsecrated medieval church: it is ARCA, which has hosted international exhibitions, co-operating with the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation and the State Museum of Mosca.

While offering much in the present, Vercelli boasts many treasures in the past as well.

Of Celtic origin, Vercelli witnessed one of the most important battles of ancient times (the victory of the consul Gaius Marius over the Cimbri, in 101 B.C.).

Vercelli lived in glory during the Middle Ages, it was the site of the university Studium and other important stop-overs along the “via Francigena”, which led pilgrims coming from Canterbury to Rome.

The Abbey of Saint Andrea, which dates back to the beginning of the thirteenth century, is one of the most beautiful churches in Europe and a commendable example of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic style.

It was built in just eight years, between 1219 and 1227, thanks to the economic contributions of Guala Bicchieri, a well-known Cardinal of Vercelli who, having been sent to England by the Pope, had been able to establish good relationships between the Barons and John Lackland, contributing to the drafting of the Magna Charta.

As a conformation of such a strong link with British culture, Vercelli hosts one of the most ancient texts written in old English, the so-called “Vercelli Book”, which dates back to the tenth century and is now on exhibit (as a copy) at the Tesoro del Duomo Museum (Vercelli Cathedral), together with one of the most important reliquary collection of Northern Italy.

Gaudenzio Ferrari - Crocifissione (San Cristoforo Church)

Gaudenzio Ferrari – Crocifissione (San Cristoforo Church)

During the Renaissance, the city still enjoyed many moments of unquestionable prestige, as it was the site of a renowned painting school, and as a testimony to this greatness, an extraordinary group of frescoes created by Gaudenzio Ferrari still exists in the church of San Cristoforo (follow this link to see pictures and have a virtual guided tour of the church, in italian).

After the relocation by the Duke of Savoy of the capital from Chambery to Turin (1561), the political hegemony of Vercelli showed a slow decline, even if we should remember that in the past the city had even hosted the Sacra Sindone (Holy Shroud).

Between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth,the city was endowed with its most important cultural museum institutions organizing many events all year long: the Borgogna Museum, which is an elegant gallery, the second best museum in Piedmont only after the Galleria Sabauda in Turin for its great richness in Renaissance artwork; the Leone Museum, which nobly narrates the elegant history of the territory, from the Neolithic period to the nineteenth century and the Wars of Independence.

Many other artistic and architectural charms enrich the city, from the fascinating Synagogue to Piazza Cavour (which is very unique with its original medieval structure), to the Modernist district that now houses the Rice Commodity Stock Exchange and the Chamber of Commerce.

Vercelli sports tradition deserves a special mention: the Pro Vercelli society transformed the city into not only a world capital of fencing, but a legendary place of Italian football, as symbolized by the 7 national championships won from 1908 to 1922 and by the legendary player, Silvio Piola.

What about the delights of Vercelli gastronomy?

I biscottti tipici di Vercelli: i Bicciolani

Bicciolani, the biscuits of Vercelli

Vercelli culinary tradition is closely connected to rice production, with peaks of expression in risotto and its countless variations: the most traditional one is called Panissa and is enriched by salami and beans. The wines to combine Panissa with, come from all over the Piedmont, but they have very noble features already found in the province of Vercelli, as for the Bramaterra wine and especially the Gattinara one.

Dessert offers two exciting experiences with Tartufata (a typical cake with chocolate phyllo dough) and – even more so – with Bicciolani, shortbread cookies with a secret blend of spices that makes them irresistible.

Bicciolano is also the name of the local mask, a cousin of the Gianduia mask of Turin, who is a star during local carnival, and he is always on stage thanks to the tradition of puppets of the Niemen Family.

The appeal to tourists is based on the mix of all the above listed elements, enhanced by the strategic proximity and easy connections to Milan, Turin and Genoa. Vercelli invites enjoyment of a very natural, artistic and authentic experience, with soft , sweet and tailor-made way of life.

Vercelli area: discover places, monuments, tours, food and more (in italian)

Fun! How do I reach it?

  • Vercelli is conveniently located less than 80 kilometers from Milan and offers as many as 12 daily train connections, and a special night train during Expo 2015 weekend
  • The access to the motorway network is very easy (from Vercelli to Rho Fiera in 60 min.) and Vercelli is in the centre of the three main international airports in the Northwest (Malpensa, Linate, Caselle)
  • Vercelli also offers the use of a touristic airport for general aviation, available as further alternative to reach the city.

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