In Vercelli, a secret jewel of Lombardy, Ferrari is a quite good Renaissance painter and Casanova runs the hardware store. “You are like a land no one has ever mentioned before,” Pavese wrote of the place and from the first minutes of arrival – early Sunday afternoon and nobody in sight – it is clear this will be special.
There don’t appear to be hotels, the streets are narrow, labyrinthine; above them the spires and domes of huge churches are flecked across the skyline. My first helper is an Italian Professor, in town for a conference on literature in the morning. In French: “On a Sunday, mid-afternoon. Let’s see how I can help you.” The Professor leads to a local, who sends me off. I find a lot of back streets and then two sisters, Andrea and Lilliana (in fact mother and daughter). They drive me to the edge of town. “You are lucky,” Andea says, “this is a small, closed, town. Not many speak English. I teach literature in Turin, and I went to England, with my ex-husband – in a green Rover car. A Rover, so English.”
Vercellis is old; old and beautiful. Old, beautiful and utterly resistant to tourism (apart from the best tourist literature I’ve ever seen, for free.) A town of instant paradox, the place Tom found the “fork”, which he took home and tried to market as best he could. It became one of this signature party pieces at court and social dinners. In fact it took another 100 or so years for the fork to catch on in England.
The literature describes Vercelli has having “almost persistent discretion” which is the case. That my stockpile of Vercelli photographs is negligible after the first day says something about the town’s ability to entice in a very slow way. Turin, after all, is where “slow food” started, despite the “other” Ferrari. Here is a maze of 14th and 15th century buildings, a wondrous many-styled Basilica, a synagogue, more churches than seem possible for this small place. There is money here somewhere.
Vercelli is the rice growing capital of Europe and the local risotto-style dishes are delicate and delicious. The travelogue vocabulary is hard to resist: Vercelli is that rarity, a destination that isn’t yet. The town that elicits the frown and “there’s nothing there” from the students in Turin, has culture, museums, winding romantic streets, shops with sofas to shame New Yorkers, a bookbinding phenomenon, and religious centres, with people in them – praying. In the Basilica, the Synagogue, the smaller churches…everywhere. Later they hit the bookmakers before dinner.
At eight in Piazza Cavour, the central square, where the ghost of Tom is all too easy to imagine, fiddling with his fork as he eats rice dishes, there is not an empty seat in any of the three cafés, despite the inevitable early evening thunderstorm. I am the only foreigner. It is as though a thoughtful casting director has been watching Minghela’s Talented Mister Ripley, and has relocated his extras to north-western Italy. I tell the waiter, dressed for a post-modern Cowboy themed nightclub, that it’s fantastic here.
“So sleepy,” he says, catching the eye of a local beauty. “We are a town of 40,000, nothing happens here. Now in Turin…”
Much more Vercelli to follow.