RICE, MONKS AND CONTEMPORARY ART

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Weekend in Vercelli. The perfect trip to the cradle of British devotion and the best Italian risotto.

 

The idea of finding yourself immersed in wintery fogs or flooded in paddy fields doesn’t sound like a perfect Italian escape, right? That is only true for those who have never visited Vercelli, a place where these elements are an asset rather than a downside. Gently caressed by the river Sesia, Vercelli is sleepy city of about 47,000 inhabitants, situated between Turin and Milan, in the Piedmont region.  Its history has deep roots that date back to around 600 BC; a lovely old place, embellished with Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches and palaces, medieval towers and fashionable boulevards.

 Vercelli’s history is strongly linked to Britain. In Middle Ages, hundreds of visitors, most of them from the British Isles – pilgrims, merchants, clerics, craftsmen, artists, but also beggars – travelled to Vercelli and stop there for a couple of nights in one of the hospitalia. One hospital in particular, called Santa Brigida degli Scoti (Brigida in Italian sounds like british, just as Scoti refers to the Scottish) was an important reference point for English-speaking pilgrims,
who could rest in a place where local people spoke their language and knew their traditions and prayers.  According to a legend one of those British pilgrims, perhaps a preacher or maybe intending to bring a present to some important member of the clergy, was taken ill during his stay and died in Vercelli, leaving behind his precious manuscript, later referred to as the Vercelli Book. And is now preserved in the Capitular Library of the Cathedral Museum (http://www.tesorodelduomovc.it).  The Vercelli Book is a late 10th century manuscript compiled in a scriptorium in southern England, one of four major anthologies in Old English. It has been estimated that these four manuscripts contain almost 90% of the whole Anglo Saxon poetic output. The other three, The Cotton Vitellius Manuscript, The Junius Manuscript and The Exeter Book, can be found, respectively, at the British Museum, The Bodleian Library in Oxford, and in Exeter Cathedral.

The Vercelli Book is a unique collection of Old English religious texts offering a fascinating glimpse of Anglo-Saxon spirituality. The poems contained therein are even older than the manuscript and offer clear evidence of the importance the town had in the Middle Ages.

 

It was only decoded in 1822, and since then became the main source for the study of the development of the English language. If you want to refresh your Old English you can have a look at a copy of the manuscript for €5 or look at the original in the library for €10 (only available to groups). The symbol of the city and main attraction is the Saint Andrew Abbey, built between 1219 and 1227 under the guidance of cardinal Guala Bicchieri who, returned from England, had received from King Henry III the perpetual rights to the income of Saint Andrew’s Abbey in Chesterton, Cambridge. Thanks to this financial support, the cardinal instructed some monks from Saint-Victor in Paris to work on the new abbey and the hospital to be built for the pilgrims who travelled the Via Francigena.

 

The abbey is a wonderful early example of Gothic architecture in Italy, inspired by Cistercian models and featuring Romanesque elements as well. It is well preserved and open during daytime.

 

Monks not your thing? Then head to Arca, a gallery of glass and steel standing inside the old San Marco church, dating back to the XV century, whose frescoes have been being restored over the past few years. The masterpieces on show comes from the Peggy Guggenheim Museum and among them are works by Mirò, Mondrian, Calder and the later Kandinsky paintings. Having admired the modern, you’ll be able to get back to the old, appreciating the imposing aisles of the old church, which often houses other works of art and temporary exhibitions, as well as the astonishing frescoes, a breath-taking collection unparalleled in Europe. (http://www.comune.vercelli.it/) The monks and pilgrims were very prone to fasting, but you need not be so devout. Since Vercelli is the European capital of rice cultivation, it’s imperative to try the panissa, the traditional peasant food made with rice, beans and sausage, to be washed down with a glass of Piedmont red wine.

 

GETTING THERE 

By train: less than 50 minutes from Milan or Turin with the Freccia Bianca line. Trains leave every hour. www.trenitalia.it

By car: take the A4 highway from Milan, exit at Santhià, and follow to Vercelli. It’s a 60 minutes trip.

WHERE TO SLEEP

Hotel Matteotti – Corso Giacomo Matteotti, 35 – phone +39 0161 211840 http://www.hotelmatteotti.it. Double room from  €85,00.

Hotel Vercelli Palace – Via Tavallini, 29 – phone +39 0161 300900 http://www.vercellipalacehotel.it. Double room from €80,00.

WHERE TO EAT

Ristorante C&M – Corso Magenta, 71 – phone+39 0161 253585 http://www.hotel-cinzia.com/ristorante

Il Giardinetto – Via Luigi Sereno, 3 – phone +39 0161 257230 www.ilgiardinettovercelli.it

 

 

 

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