Varinella, our village in Piedmont

Because we have a cooking lesson at our house on our LAND OF BAROLO tour, those guests get to see the stomping grounds of my hubby, Claudio Bisio, firsthand. This post is for everyone else. It’s a virtual stroll through the village of Varinella, population 200, just a stone’s throw from the town of Gavi in southeast Piedmont (of Gavi di Gavi fame).

Like many small villages in the Ligurian Apennines, Varinella was once relatively self-sufficient, boasting a grocer, a butcher, an elementary school, and an osteria (run by Claudio’s uncle). Today they’re all gone.

Nevertheless, Varinella has avoided the fate of more remote mountain villages, which nowadays can be little more than ghost towns occupied by a few elderly residents. The scourge of depopulation bypassed Varinella thanks to its proximity to Arquata Scrivia (pop. 7,000) right across the river, and to Genoa 25 miles to the south, whose residents have been moving to towns like Arquata in pursuit of cheaper rents, more spacious apartments, easier parking, and a quick 30-minute train ride to work.

What’s more, in the past decade Varinella got a significant facelift thanks to European Union (EU) funds. Today one could even call the village cute.


When I met Claudio back in 1997, he had just started restoring the house of his maternal grandmother (below), a major undertaking that involved replacing the timber-and-terracotta roof and building new walls, staircases, and entryways.

It’s now 21 years later, and he’s almost done.


Here’s Claudio in 2014, after he’d restored the facade with help from the EU.

To slow the rate of rural depopulation, the EU has invested in certain European villages—repaving the streets, replacing street lights and streets signs, partially underwriting restoration work on home exteriors—but the selection process is very competitive. Municipalities must apply for funds, and in order to do so, residents must first submit their own renovation plans, complete with detailed bids.

Claudio jumped through those hoops and ultimately got some funding to replaster our facade and install new windows and doors.

Below left is the result as Claudio and his architect, Piero, intended it. But town authorities didn’t approve, saying the amount of exposed stone and brick wasn’t “authentic” to the region’s architecture, historically speaking. That pissed Claudio off, so he and Piero drove around the neighborhood photographing old buildings that proved them wrong. But the authorities wouldn’t budge; ultimately they had to re-do the plasterwork.

Looking at it now, I must say I prefer the cleaner, simpler lines of the revision.

Those brick arches, by the way—found in several buildings and haylofts along our block—date back to the 1700s, while the oldest building is probably from the 1200s.


Those wavy, organic shapes make another appearance in our living room (below). It’s a very trendy thing to do in Piedmont restoration: leave an old chestnut beam, a patch of stone, or other interesting architectural elements exposed in that way. Unlike Tuscany and warmer points south, plastering the rest of the underlying stone is absolutely necessary to keep out the awful cold and damp during Piedmont’s winter months, when it can feel more like Dickens’ England than sunny Italy.


Below, our kitchen, where we manage to have groups of up to eight people making risotto, bagna cauda, and tiramisu during our LAND OF BAROLO tour every October.


On occasion, I use the kitchen’s weathered wooden fireplace mantle to take bottle shots for my wine articles:


And I recently discovered that the old garage door (below) serves as an equally nice backdrop, especially in the indirect afternoon light. Claudio wanted to paint that door, but I wouldn’t let him. “Do you know how much they charge in the U.S. for rusticated finishes like this?” I said.


Below is where Claudio attended elementary school. It’s not the proverbial one-room schoolhouse, but close; they did mix together kids of different grades. The village no longer has enough children to populate the school, so they go to Arquata. The building has since been restored by one of Claudio’s best friends, Marco, who turned it into a very comfy home fit for a family of four.


Next door is the former osteria run by Claudio’s uncle. It too is now a private house, its terrace looking rather forlorn with a lone ficus tree occupying the space once filled with diners. It was this uncle who took the school-aged Claudio on wine-buying excursions to the cantina sociale, where they’d stock up on vino sfuso to serve in carafes. That was the beginning of Claudio’s passion for wine. (It certainly wasn’t weeding his father’s small vineyard, a chore he detested.)


A few steps beyond is the village church. Claudio gave up on Catholicism long ago, but we willingly attend the confirmation of friends’ kids. And I love the bells, which trigger fits of howling from the town dogs.


I know every dog in town, but these guys are new. Strangely, Italians don’t like it when you pet their pets. So I walk a fine line.


In a village of 200 people, the community center is, yes, the center of community activities: chestnut roasts, farinata nights, recitals by the local guitar school, outdoor amateur theater, baci court competitions, and just your run-of-the-mill meeting of friends and watching soccer while the kids entertain themselves. All the village dynamics play out in Il Circolo, for better or worse. If I wrote novels, I’d set one here.


Further down the street, one arrives at Claudio’s childhood home (below), recently spruced up with a coat of peach paint. This was where he was raised; as he grew to be a young adult, he took the ground floor space as his own. Uncharacteristically independent—unlike the mamone or mamma’s boys among his peers—he chose to move out long before he was married and do his own cooking and laundry. His new place, however, was just a block away. (To be fair, Varinella has only two streets.)


As recently as 1997, when I first met Claudio, one room of the building below was still a grocery store. It was poorly stocked and open just two mornings a week, but it saved a trip to Arquata (a mile on foot) during emergencies, like when we lacked milk for breakfast. But you had to be careful. I made the mistake of taking the only carton of 1% milk. “That’s reserved for someone else,” the shopkeeper told me sharply and made me put it back.


At the far end of main street, on the hill leading out of the village, sits this house, which held the butcher shop. But that closed long before my arrival.


Above, a random door. Below, some of the semi-feral cats collected by one family; an EU-funded sign for the street where we live; a Madonna on the gate to the village’s oldest structure, built to house the bishops (vescovi) who first developed Varinella a thousand years ago.


More freshly painted facades and renewed stone streets, courtesy of the EU; wild roses near our house.


A few doors down from us is the home of Claudio’s closest childhood friend, Paco. Or rather, his parents’s house, though Paco lived there for a number of years post-divorce, letting his mother take care of him (true to the stereotype). The trellis is laden with Concord grapes, which are very popular in these parts.


The far end of Via Vescovi leads back to the main street through this arch. Only compact cars can pass.