Written by Giulia Minero
Everyone loves the warm, luxurious feeling of a fine knit pullover in the colder seasons. Yet, few people actually know that the story behind some of the most appreciated luxury wool knitwear is one that begins in Biella, a small, intimate city located right beneath the Piedmonts’ Alps, in Northern Italy.
The variety and beauty of its landscape, a triumph of hills, green fields and mountains - so close it seems you can touch them with your finger tips - are just some of the features that make the region of Biella unique. Though, as you can imagine, there’s a lot more to discover here.
One of the most thrilling aspects about getting to know this area is that it isn’t a tourist destination, but one of those must-visit spots at least once in a lifetime. Biella is a gem for connoisseurs, the perfect retreat for a weekend or a break from the bustle of the city. It is the ideal blend between the comforts of a – yet very small – city provided with shops, boutiques, restaurants and entertainment and an old village, where time seems to have stood still.
[A panoramic view of Biella – Photo credits: Alessandro Vecchi under c.c 3.0 licence]
The land of luxury
While approaching the city by car or small local trains connecting it to the closest major cities like Novara, Turin ad Milan - because yes, these are the only means to get to Biella - the eyes will soon notice a quietly unspoilt environment with green rice fields dotted with small farm-like homes intertwined by majestic buildings home to the ‘glories’ of the local wool industry.
The truth is that this characteristic environment, where the natural disposition of hills, waterways and great woods helped provide local factories with the necessary rough materials, has always been key to the success within the manufacturing sector, combined with the intelligence and opened minds of local businessmen. A sad reality for some locals, but an interesting discovery for foreigners: some of the the wool used by local manufacturers is not locally sourced, but comes from faraway countries such as New Zealand, where sheep farming can maximize use of wider spaces and lower prices.
The typical ‘Biellese savoir faire’ is what really makes the difference in terms of beauty, softness and durability of the knitted goods produced in this region. If you are a shopping addict looking for a wool or cashmere garment to enhance your wardrobe, then go for a Made in Biella one and you will complete your look with one of the purest expressions of luxury and timeless style. As a matter of fact, some of the most high-end fashion brands choose the local fabrics for their spectacular collections. Be ready, local products will not be cheap, but the quality will be worth the splurge!
Get to know the charming lady
Walking through the streets of the city will reveal its real soul. The majority of the inhabitants of the city come from Biella-born families: this means that almost everyone will be able to tell you its history.
At any rate, if you feel lazy or shy, here are some tips. As a charming lady, whose age can’t be told based on the appearance, Biella is older than you think! Its origins are lost in the mists of time, but are currently set around the 4th century B.C. Then the city quickly expanded and acquired its original name ‘Bugella’ during the Roman domination, when it turned into a strategic stop for the army aiming to reach the French borders. Since that time its’ economy started booming, reaching its glorious days in the 19th century.
[The ancient Funicolare]
A great idea for a sightseeing experience can include exploring the Medieval village of ‘Piazzo’, a real city within the city located atop of the town centre. Wear comfortable shoes and get ready for a little walk or use the ancient ‘funicolare’ (a typical mechanical means of transport to climb over small distances and travelling over rails and cables). Forget about subways or trams, there are no such things in Biella as locals like to stick to the old, sweet traditions! Take a visit to the small local eateries and then pay a quick visit to Palazzo Gromo Losa, currently home to photo exhibitions, where the flare of the pictures perfectly interacts with architectures of times gone by. Exhibitions by Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016 and 2017 were held here!
But that’s not all; at just a stone’s throw from the city a small village closed within its medieval walls known as ‘Ricetto di Candelo’ can be found. A part of its tiny stone-made houses lying on cobbled pavements can be visited all year long. But don’t worry if you wish to discover them all as September offers the perfect chance to combine a sightseeing tour and a wine tasting experience for true connoisseurs. Your must-go event is called ‘Vinincontro’: act like a local and go for an after dinner glass of wine served in local private cellars before admiring a dreamlike view.
[Streets at Ricetto di Candelo, photo credits Davide Boldo under c.c 3.0 licence]
“A visit to Biella is never complete without a tour of its surroundings”, says Monica, a 71 year old local resident. The amount of beauty spanning from worshipper’s destinations to natural parks and gardens can prove her right.
First of all the old sanctuary located in Oropa, located 1,159 metres over the sea level within a natural mountain amphitheatre and hosting one of the most beloved religious symbols in the hole Italy: the statue of the Black Virgin with the Child. It’s said that during the plague of the 17th century the presence of this small statue prevented the plague from entering the city borders, saving its inhabitants. Still today, every year worshippers from all over the world come to visit the sanctuary and receive a blessing. The green meadows and hills around Oropa, full of interesting pedestrian itineraries are widely appreciated by those wishing to spend a relaxing day immersed into nature.
[Santuario di Oropa, photo credits Davide Papalini under c.c 3.0 licence]
Important renovation projects and environmental friendly initiatives powered by the Zegna family, owners of the fashion brand Ermenegildo Zegna, provided the area with a beautiful natural reserve aptly named Oasi Zegna, located in the nearby hill of Bielmonte. Horseback tours, walks or guided tours through luxuriant plants and flowers are just some of the activities that can be held here, surprisingly at reasonable fares compared to other Italian natural resources. Moreover, late May and early June offer the ideal chance to feel like William Wordsworth, admiring blooming daffodils turning the landscape into a pure yellow natural carpet. Last, but not least, locals particularly appreciate Bielmonte as an intimate ski hub to spend Sunday or to teach children the art of winter sports, thanks to its slight slopes and kid-friendly features.
Lovers of gold, you are welcome! Unfortunately – despite newcomers have tried to prove this wrong since the times of the Romans - the surroundings of Biella are not El Dorado, but host some traces of ancient gold mines. This happens especially in the natural park of Bessa, on the way to nearby Ivrea, where expert gold seekers spend full days peering though massive rocks and waterways to find specks of gold. The interesting fact is that some of them succeeded in gathering a small fortune!
People visiting Biella currently remain astonished by the variety of local gourmet creations ranging from cold cuts to biscuits, from cheese to invigorating main courses whose origin are rooted in local Piedmontese tradition. Let’s be honest, food always takes its share. While visiting the area, make sure you try Paletta di Coggliola, a tasty pork-made cold cut flavoured with herbs from the meadows, which can be found at various butchers in town. Or even the torn butter biscuits called Torcetti, perfect to melt in your mouth while enjoying a cup of tea, or the chocolate sweets known as Canestrelli¸ one of the Biella born favourites for their crispy texture. Good news for food lovers: they are cheap but tasty and can be found at various pastry shops in the city centre already boxed in practical take away packages.
[Typical butter Torcetti biscuits]
Keeping in mind the small size of Biella, the city boasts a booming food scene. Indeed, Biellese people, who have always had quite a wealthy lifestyle, love going out for dinner. Prices can be high at times, especially in the city centre, but it’s enough to move towards the mountains to enjoy the cheaper, authentic flavours of the local cuisine including Polenta Concia, a thick polenta dish mixed with stretched Maccagno cheese and melted butter or Bagna Caoda, a rich sauce made of anchovies used to accompany raw or boiled vegetables, meat carpaccio cuts or cheese.
All this can be completed with a glass of Ratafià, a traditional spirit made out of cherry juice and herbs.
[Michelin-starred restaurant Il Patio, photo credits Il Patio ristorante official]
Though the most demanding palates can also take advantage of a one-Michelin star awarded restaurant named Il Patio, located just a short distance from the city centre and combining local tradition with contemporary creations ad innovative pairings.
There’s a bite for every palate!