Updated: Apr 13, 2021
When we think of Italy it is normal for our minds to go straight to the classics: pizza, pasta, The Godfather, Ferrari and so on yet Italy is so much more. Thousands of travel bloggers have talked to you about Italy, is even considered one of the best countries to start a backpacking adventure and get experience but what I am about to talk to you about is nothing more and nothing less than the hidden gem of the North: Biella.
Obviously if we are to talk about the North I also have to mention Milano and Torino but my focus here will be more on that little town that reflects the real life of Italians, what living with them feels and how easy it is to fall in love with this region and it's people.
Let's quit the teasing, shall we? And get straight to enjoying what Piemonte has on its plate for us!
It all started with an Au Pair job
If you've ever seen a picture of me, first of all I'm sorry for the nightmares and second I do not look "family friendly", well the job that took me to Northern Italy was an au pair one. For those who don't know what that is I'll give you a fast explanation: is basically a mash between a babysitter, a teacher and a cook. It's quite awesome as a way to learn about local customs and traditions.
The family that hired me was Barbara and Niccolo's with their two outstanding kids: Francesca and Giovanni. We were all living in an apartment in the city of Biella and what a city it is lads and lasses! When my French teaching and cooking duties were over the town was mine to explore, from the Duomo di Biella; Cattedrale di Santo Stefano, the Oropa river in the outskirts and the Menabrea beer factory in the south Biella has all a typical small Italian town must.
Italians and Mexicans have too much in common, from the way we cook, and we interact with our families to the stories we tell over drinks I felt like I never left home. The hospitality I experienced here is one of the thousands of reasons I want to go back as soon as possible! And also Miss Barbara's cooking, her pizza recipe is terrific! I've tried to recreate it to no avail sadly. Maybe one day.
Biella, City of the Arts
Let's begin with a bit of information, Biella is the capital of the region Piemonte located 80 Km from Torino and 80 Km from Milano, makes it a great place to stop at in a northern Italian road trip.
It's also home of Citta dell'arte - Fondazione Pistoletto, Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto began Progetto Arte, whose aim is to unify the artistic and social-economic aspects of life. Located in an unused textile factory it is a center that supports creative resources by producing innovative ideas. The Citta dell'arte is divided into different Uffici (professions) these being: work, education, communications, art, nutrition, politics, spirituality, and economics.
Speaking of art, if you are a tattoo addict such as myself you can't go to Biella and not visit S.M. Art Tattoo Studio. Opened in 2015 by artist Silvia Maschio close to Biella's city center next to the Piazzo, here you will find a talented and amazing Bielliese woman Eleonora Tavella, apart from the great service she gives, you will not regret getting some of her ink on you, believe me, Italy has given many artists to the world and it hasn't stopped producing talent just yet.
Biella also has a center for Italian learning which offers free lessons of Italian to immigrants and anyone who is interested in learning the language. I must say, this is a great way to keep their language alive! I attended two lessons in this place, I fully recommend it to anyone who wants to learn. Did I mention that is free? It is!
Birra, Pizza e Festa
Art is not the only great thing you'll find in Biella, food and drink are part of its cultural heritage too. One "must visit" is the Menabrea Birra beer factory, not only do they produce one of the best beers in all Piemonte (and around 100 thousand hectolitres of beer anually), they also have a Pizzeria inside the factory. All the dough is made with the same yeast used for the beer, this makes it a pizza you can't have anywhere else in Italy or the world for that matter. I recommend the Fungi paired with a nice Menabrea Bionda, thank me later.
Menabrea was founded in 1846, at that time special jugs of beer were made and given to all the families of Biella, these jugs can't be bought anywhere and are passed down from generation to generation. "What's so special about these jugs you devilishly smart Mexican?" Well, if you have one of these jugs you can fill it up with Menabrea beer directly in the factory for only 2 EUR no questions asked. Barbara and Niccolo had one of these, and they were kind enough to allow me to refill it as many times as I wanted, they truly understood me as much as my parents.
After a great pizza and beer you might want to relax with a nice espresso and chill atmosphere. There's a great place for that down in Piazza Battiani: Senza Tempo Cafe e Vino. Apart from the wonderful coffee and great alcohol choice, Senza Tempo hosts a multitude of events, from music to comedy Senza Tempo is a great example of what a normal weekend plan looks for a Biellese.
And if you're up to continue the party then head out to Via Italia into Tattoo Cafe pub & bar. This place has some of the best deals in alcohol you can find, the Prosseco bottle is one of the best in town and the service is extremely friendly, I can guarantee you a lovely time. And while you are there ask for a shot of Benzina, trust me is the signature cocktail of Tattoo Cafe you won't regret it.
Oropa: UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Biella also has nearby natural and notable tourist attractions that offer a big range of outdoors activities. Including the Zegna Viewpoint, the Bielmonte Ski Resort, Burcina Natural Reserve, and the Oropa River to name some. The Sanctuary of Oropa is a site of big religious importance, people still go on long pilgrimages to this site but it was until 2003 that the Sanctuary of Oropa and the Sacred Mountain of Oropa became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The weather is quite permissive throughout the year in Oropa, you can see people fishing in the river or running along its banks almost in every season. I didn't spend as much time as I should've in Oropa but I can recommend the river as a great place for a picnic and for what Gio and Fra told me, skiing there is the must fun you can ever have.
Grazie Famiglia per Tanto
I spent around four months in Northern Italy, a piece of my heart stayed with Barbara, Niccolo, Francesca and Giovanni. I taught them how to make Ceviche Sinaloense and Quesadillas, and they taught me so much about Italian culture, cuisine and life. If there ever is a correct way to visit Italy it has to be by having an Au Pair job.
Yes, it's easier to book a tour and go around Rome and Venezia I am sure, but Italy is family, art and food. Italy is talking with Italian kids about their days and exchanging opinions, Italy is having a glass of wine or a beer with homemade gnocchi whilst laughing of our differences and similarities. Italy is Barbara teaching me how to make pizza dough, Italy is Niccolo showing me his Duke card and laughing about his military service. Italy is Francesca talking to me about how much she loves foxes and hates spicy food, Italy is walking to the park with Gio whilst he does tricks in his scooter.
Italy is Biella.
Famiglia, grazie mille per tutta la vostra ospitalità e pazienza. La cultura italiana è sempre stata qualcosa che ha attirato la mia attenzione, ma è stato grazie alla sua bellissima famiglia che ora sono perdutamente innamorato della sua cultura e Biella. Non importa dove mi trovo nel mondo, sarai sempre accolti nella mia casa nello stesso modo in cui mi hai accolto nella sua. Grazie mille ancora una volta, vi amo moltissimo. Amore, Stefano.