Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town. The following interview was originally published in my Italy guide.
Today I’m happy to introduce you to Cristhian, a tourism professional here to tell us all about Casale Monferrato – a town on the bank of the River Po.
First, tell us about you.
I grew up in Casale Monferrato, in a family from the south of Italy. For work, I do small jobs as a freelancer and I love to travel to other cities or countries to discover the local culture.
If someone is visiting Casale Monferrato for the first time, what do you recommend they see or do?
Casale is a small city, but her richness makes her one of the best spots to visit in the north of Italy and to use as a base for further excursions (because of its strategic middle position between Milan, Turin, and Genoa). It was also a capital of the ancient state of Monferrato.
In Casale, you can find many churches (there are 55!) that deserve a short visit, but the main one is the Duomo, a cathedral over 1,000 years old. The Jewish Synagogue is one of most beautiful in all Europe (with its Jewish Museum and one hundred Hanukkah lamps made by famous artists).
Also, you can find many palaces and courtyards. One of them is a museum with the unique gipsoteca (plaster cast gallery) with hundreds of gesso sculptures.
As a capital of Monferrato, Casale is a perfect place to see all the beautiful, vast hilly area with its ancient villages, castles, vineyards, and typical food. It’s like Tuscany, but more real!
Finally, check out the Po River, the longest river in Italy, with its natural park and bio-diversity.
What neighborhoods or parts of town are best to stay in?
The best place is the center of the town. I recommend avoiding hotels and, instead, taking advantage of the local hospitality. In some cases, you can even volunteer for accommodation.
Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?
Day trips should include villages such as Rosignano, Cella Monte (with its infernot—an ancient excavated stone used to preserve food and wines), and Moleto (a town built with ancient sandstone from the sea, with its eco-museum dedicated to the material).
During the trip, stop by the many wine producers along the road to enjoy the panorama and taste the special, original wine varieties.
Another good spot is the Crea Sanctuary with its natural reserve, its walk through the chapels, and, on the top, a breathtaking view.
Tell us about the local dishes. What should people try here?
I always suggest a vegetarian menu, but the agnolotti (roast beef ravioli, sometimes with donkey meat) and the bagna cauda (hot garlic, anchovy dip), which is served so that every person at the table has their own small burner to warm the sauce and into which you can dip a variety of veggies, are also great.
With all this, try the local Barbera or Grinolino wines!
Rice with truffles is delicious, as is fritto misto (a big, strange dish with fried, crunchy fruit, entrails, and meat).
If you love food, come to Casale in the second half of September, when the wine festival takes place. There are about 25 villages that offer their local food and, of course, the wine that makes the event unique, special, and crazy!
What are your top three favorite bars and restaurants?
For the local, organic, and true experience in a wonderful, green place, try Cascina Trapella in Rolasco (at Strada San Martino 38/40). For a more conventional restaurant, try Il Melograno in Terruggia (at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele 9), which offers menus for vegetarians, vegans, and celiacs.
For a coffee, head to the Riviera Cafe (at Via Roma 128).
What is the best way to meet locals and make friends?
There is a special cafe’ in town called Pantagruel (located at Via Giovanni Lanza 28); it serves drinks, aperitivos, lunch, and dinner. Everything there is organic and local and every week they hold concerts and other events. The locals are very nice and it is very easy to make friends (just start toasting, saying cin cin, which is our version of cheers).
If you don’t see people when you walk in, look behind the small door; there is a courtyard and they might be there!
Also, on weekends, many people hang out in the cafes in the early evening. It is easy to talk with locals if they have had a few cocktails, but be careful, some old grandmother might throw water from her window if the noise is too much!
Why should people make sure to visit Casale Monferrato?
Casale and the Monferrato are Italy—tourism has not spoiled the place and never will, as there are not any leaning towers or Romeo and Juliet stories. You can find all the unique traditions here and if you stay a little while and get to know the locals, you will definitively find yourself pampered by the locals, invited to eat with Italian mammas until you explode, and falling in love with the area, as so many expats have.
What is the best place to go take beautiful photos of the city?
You can just walk to Salita Sant’Anna and from there you can see all of Casale Monferrato. On the second weekend of every month, you can find the Civic Tower and other monuments open. Up inside the tower, the view is great.
Anything else you want us to know?
Keep in mind that in July and August there are many mosquitos, produced from the east area of Casale Monferrato, where rice grows. They don’t bring any disease and they “go to sleep” at 10 p.m.
Also, it might seem like nobody speaks English here, but that’s not true. People are shy about it and many just need to be encouraged.