A Brief Guide to Discovering Italy’s Smallest City in the Lower Monferrato
If you find yourself in the Monferrato region and wish to explore its most characteristic corners, read on to discover what to see in Moncalvo, dubbed the “smallest city in Italy.”
Moncalvo, nestled in the heart of Monferrato between Casale Monferrato and Asti, boasts a long and prestigious history dating back to Roman times. While initial evidence points to Roman occupation, its strategic location likely attracted Ligurian settlers even earlier.
The medieval era saw Moncalvo gain the status of a “civitas” (city in Latin), a designation it proudly retains despite its current small-town status. Whether it is truly the “smallest city in Italy” is debatable, but the allure of this title for Moncalvo is undeniable.
Notably, from the 10th century, Moncalvo served as the inaugural capital of the Marquisate of Monferrato, founded by the legendary Aleramo. Although the capital changed hands over the centuries, Moncalvo’s centrality in the Monferrato region persisted. Its grand castle, coveted by influential families like the Gonzagas, witnessed occupations by foreign armies. In the 18th century, Moncalvo became inseparably linked to the fate of the Duchy of Monferrato upon its annexation to the Duchy of Savoy.
In recent years, Moncalvo has invested heavily in tourism, showcasing its cultural and gastronomic excellence. This dedication earned recognition from the Italian Touring Club with the prestigious Orange Flag award.
With this introduction, let’s embark on our journey to discover Moncalvo.
What to See in Moncalvo: The Castle
Our itinerary begins at Piazza Carlo Alberto, a spacious square where parking is readily available. The imposing Moncalvo Castle is immediately noticeable in the vicinity.
In reality, you are already within the castle, or rather, where a significant part of the structure once stood. Only two well-preserved stretches of walls remain, enclosing half of the square’s perimeter. Within these walls, 19th-century renovations transformed spaces into scenic arcades and commercial establishments, including the tourist office
Notably, the castle’s panoramic position provides breathtaking views of the surrounding territory. Consequently, it has become a must-visit for landscape enthusiasts and those seeking memorable selfies, particularly at three designated points: the two towers and the Belvedere Bonaventura atop an old castle turret.
For those inclined to explore further, hidden gems include sections of the Castle Walkways. These corridors, recently restored, aim to become an additional tourism attraction. To visit, inquire at the tourist office—admission is free.
The Wine Shop
If you wish to combine the charm of walkways with wine tasting, a visit to the Wine Shop is recommended. Nestled within one of the walkways, this establishment exudes a unique atmosphere with subdued lighting and the typical fragrance of Monferrato cellars. It offers a different way to immerse yourself in the spirit of Moncalvo.
What to See in Moncalvo: The Historic Center
Beyond the castle and the splendid Monferrato hills panorama, Moncalvo boasts a charming historic center. Here, historic palaces narrate the town’s evolution from medieval times to the present.
Piazza Carlo Alberto and Piazza Garibaldi
One particularly distinctive building in the Monferrato village is the Synagogue, overlooking Piazza Carlo Alberto. Although unassuming, it holds significance as the world’s only synagogue erected on a city’s main square. It stands as a precious testament to the once-numerous Jewish community that inhabited Moncalvo until the Second World War.
Nearby, between Piazza Carlo Alberto and Piazza Garibaldi, lies the Municipal Theater. Adapted in the 19th century from what remained of the Castle Guard Corps’ palace, this architecturally unique theater frequently hosts high-level theatrical events in Piedmontese dialect.
From Piazza Garibaldi, the town’s main square, venture into the winding alleys of the medieval historic center. Here, the authentic spirit of Monferrato unfolds amid small shops and buildings with exposed brick facades.
Via XX Settembre alias “la Fracia”
Among the historic center’s streets, Via XX Settembre (Fracia) stands out. Considered the commercial street par excellence by Moncalvo residents since medieval times, it intersects with charming narrow alleys, offering picturesque views.
Descending the street, you’ll encounter Vicolo XXVII gennaio 1945, a reminder of the liberation of Auschwitz. This area once housed the ancient Jewish ghetto, now commemorated by four “stumbling stones.” Further down, Palazzo Lanfrancone, a Gothic-style building from the 13th century, showcases medieval decorations and the historical insignias of the town’s furriers.
Casa Montanari and the Church of Sant’Antonio Abate
A highlight on Via XX Settembre is Casa Montanari and the Church of Sant’Antonio Abate. These interconnected structures feature a terrace from which the palace leans on the church’s sacristy.
Before descending further, explore the church’s interior, home to works by Guglielmo Caccia, known as “Raffaello of the Monferrato.”
The Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and Palazzo Testafochi
Another captivating area in the historic center encompasses Palazzo Testafochi and the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. These 18th-century brick buildings, designed by the renowned architect Magnocavallo, showcase both historical and architectural significance.
Palazzo Testafochi, named after the family that acquired it, blends Baroque elements with internal porticos featuring ancient-inspired capitals. Unbeknownst to many, some capitals are original artifacts, not replicas, discovered in the nearby Gessi hamlet.
The Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, also influenced by Magnocavallo’s classical architectural vision, serves as the Diocesan Sanctuary of Santa Teresa of Calcutta. Its pastel-colored interior, adorned with Corinthian capitals, leads to the choir, housing a 15th-century tempera-painted icon of the Virgin and Child, originally from the first parish church of Moncalvo.
What to See in Moncalvo: The Church of San Francesco
One of Moncalvo’s most intriguing sites is the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi, situated on a small hill facing the historic center. Established in the 12th century atop the ruins of an ancient castle, this Franciscan convent underwent reconstruction in the 17th century after a collapse.
Noteworthy for its artistic significance, the church houses a small museum and remarkable works by Guglielmo Caccia and his daughter Orsola.
What to See in Moncalvo: The Civic Museum
Art in Moncalvo extends beyond its churches to the Civic Museum, housed in a former Ursuline convent. Unexpectedly, this small museum features works by 20th-century masters such as Chagall, De Chirico, and Guttuso. The collection, a testament to the passionate artistry of Moncalvo’s ambassador and collector Franco Montanari, also includes artifacts from his diplomatic missions, showcasing African and Japanese art.
In addition to paintings from prominent artists, the museum displays three masterpieces by Orsola Caccia, intricate still lifes with underlying theological narratives.
Throughout the year, the museum hosts various temporary exhibitions, catering to diverse artistic tastes.
What to See in Moncalvo: Tradition of Tamburello and Historical Fairs
Our visits to Moncalvo revealed the town and its associations take great pride in their traditions, embracing them with enthusiasm
Firstly, Moncalvo is known for its unique version of tamburello, a wall-based sport popular in the Monferrato region. Matches are played in squares or near ancient fortifications, and in Moncalvo, the playing field is set within the Medieval Castle walls, creating a picturesque setting. A chance encounter with an official match or a friendly game at the foot of the walls is not uncommon during a visit to the towers.
Moncalvo’s fame extends nationally and internationally for its historical fairs celebrating local products. Three noteworthy events include:
- Fiera del Bue Grasso (Fat Ox Fair): Held annually in December for nearly four centuries, this fair showcases the best examples of Piemontese cattle. Judges, including expert breeders and veterinarians, evaluate the animals, and the winner parades adorned with a drapery.
- Fiera del Tartufo (Truffle Fair): Running for over sixty years every October, this fair highlights the renowned White Truffle of Moncalvo. Piazza Carlo Alberto transforms into a truffle market featuring the region’s top exhibitors, along with stands offering other local products and crafts.
- Festa delle Cucine Monferrine (Monferrato Cuisine Festival): Established in the 1980s and recurring in June, this festival unites Moncalvo and surrounding villages in Piazza Carlo Alberto. It showcases ancient Monferrato dishes paired with the finest local wines.
Now equipped with knowledge about what to do and, more importantly, what to see in Moncalvo, the next step is to experience its beauty firsthand. If you decide to spend a few days in Monferrato, click here to discover the best accommodations at the most competitive prices near Moncalvo!