Have you ever wondered how a medieval city looks like? If you never had the chance of strolling along the street of a medium sized city of Italy that still keeps its medieval atmosphere pretty intact (at least in the historic centre), you should definitely go to Asti. With approximately 60.000 inhabitants, Asti is nowadays the fourth largest city in the Piedmont Region, in northwest Italy, but also the undisputed capital of wine making. Did you know that the one of the best selling wine on a world scale is named after this city and you probably know it under the brands of the biggest companies the make this wine, called “Asti Spumante Docg”. Apart from wine, Asti has been among the most powerful cities in the middles ages, mostly during the 13th century when the trading and financial expertise of its merchants and bankers, turned the city into the bank of several monarch of Europe as well as the Pope’s one. The high volume of cash inflows into the city became an asset for the municipality (by the way Asti is the second municipality ever established in history, in 1095, just after Pisa, in Tuscany), in fact, merchants and bankers contributed to the transformation of their hometown into an incredible collection of Towers, fortified houses, churches and alleys that made Asti looking like a medieval Manhattan. Therefore, wear some comfortable shoes and start exploring these 5 highlights that will allow you a full understanding of the city and of the overall medieval way of living in northern Italy.
1) The Cathedral of St. Mary: built in a timeframe of approximately 700 years, this huge church is among the biggest gothic buildings in norther Italy. Do not let yourself be misled here as you will probably feel that the gothic style is something different. What you need to know here is that the gothic architects in the Piedmont Region made use of local materials such as bricks and sand stone, both to ease the transportation of the building materials and to keep the costs at a reasonable level. These, have been placed in perfect alternation of red and white to provide the façade and the southern side-wall with a more refined, elegant and enliven look. Take you time to admire the tall façade, its rose windows and the decorations of the portals, then move to right side and enter the Church through a little portal, called Portico Pelletta which, despite being on the outer side-wall of the church, is actually the main gate. The interiors will surprise you with a completely different atmosphere, as you had just jumped in time from the middle ages to the 17th century. Every single available centimetre of the inner walls has been, in fact, covered with frescoes and the side chapels are enriched by altar pieces signed by the Master of the local Renaissance: Gandolfino.
2) The Holy Sepulchre Round: we have to make something clear here. It is obvious that the Holy Sepulchre is in Jerusalem, however, in the middle ages, several “replicas” of it were built in Europe by the Knights Hospitaller of St. John, a religious brotherhood established after the capture of the holy city in 1099 (nowadays called the “sovereign order of Malta”). In Asti you can see one of the best preserved replicas, built at the beginning of the 12th century. It is actually a complex of 3 buildings: the Holy Sepulchre Round, a monumental tomb for one of the Masters of the brotherhood, later on transformed into a church, and the Holy Infirmary. The mission of the knights was in fact the protection of the pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Take your time to immerse yourself in the pure medieval atmosphere of this place, which, despite being in the modern city centre, still provide you with an incredible sense of peace and tranquillity, regardless of your fondness for religion. 3) The Palio Museum: another clarification is required here. Your might have probably heard of another “Palio” in the city of Siena, in Tuscany which probably is the most popular outside Italy. However, the oldest Palio of Italy was born in Asti, in 1275, as far as we know, although its birth might be even earlier than that. The Palio is a horse race but not a common one: it is run in the middle of the city, in the month of September by the 14 districts of the city and 7 villages just outside the municipality, for a total of 21 contestants. The winner wins the Palio, which is a painting depicting the Patron Saint of Asti, the city itself, and the horse. Such topic is painted, every year, by a different artist. The Palio Museum is located in a historic building very close to the cathedral of St. Mary. By visiting it you discover everything about this amazing tradition rooted in history and kept alive by the modern citizens. Obviously, if you travel in September you’ll be lucky enough to see the Palio live.
4) The Towers: several cities in Italy claim the crown of “city of one hundred towers”. It is true that building tall towers was a common tradition in every medieval city, both as a symbol of prestige as well as a shelter place in case of attacks (hostility between merchants and bankers was not unusual at that time). However if there is a place that actually had more than one hundred towers, even if for a short period of time, this is Asti. When strolling along the medieval alleys of the city centre you should keep your eyes at the level of the roofs because every now and then, you will see squared building, displaying facing bricks joint to a little house. That was a tower, which has been lowered maybe because the owner was defeated during the Guelfs-Guibellines battles, or for safety reasons. Two towers still keep their original height: the Comentina Tower, approximately 38 meters, and the Troyan Tower, reaching 44 meters, some other 12 towers are still visible although their height is nowadays shorter such as the Roero Tower along Corso Alfieri or the Guttuari Tower, in Piazza Statuto.
5) The Crypt of St. Anastasio: Located in the very heart of the old city, this amazing archeologic site tells the millenary story of a church that was re-built 4 times in a timeframe spanning from the 8th century after Christ until the 17th century, and its final demolition at the beginning of the 20th century to build a school. What remains here is an a amazing crypt built in the 11th century and enlarged in the 12th, using building materials coming for previous temples and houses of the Roman times, when the city was called Hasta. At the entrance, a set of panels and drawings display the story of the archeologic site to ease your understanding of the various remains, then move on to a longboard cemetery, dating back to the 8th century after Christ and finally into the astonishing crypt.
To access the Holy Sepulchre Round, the Palio Museum and the Crypt of St. Anastasio you need to buy the “smart ticket” al Palazzo Mazzetti (closed on mondays) for a flat price that is comprehensive of several museums in town. The above list of my selection of highlights although there is much more to do and to see in this incredible town. If you are a wine lover you might plan you visit in September and you might attend the “Douja D’Or” wine event, taste some very good wine from all over the Country and stroll along the old city sipping a glass of wine. Where else could you do it? So let’s plan your visit to Asti and you like more info, just click on the “follow” button of the blog and fill in the contact form. I will be happy to reply to your queries.