The area where I visit most when I come to Italy, is the flat region of the Po Valley, situated in Piemonte. In the north east of the country.
It is a strange landscape, ideally suited for growing rice in the waterlogged fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. In particular risotto rice, of which the region is famed for.
On one side sits the Alps. Looming large on the horizon. On a cloudy day it is hard to tell where land and sky meet.
But drive a little way out of Vercelli, my base for food, football and friendship, and the other side of the country takes on a vastly different shape.
Gone are the rice fields and mountain views, replaced in contrast by a series of smaller hills – topped with the kind of towns and villages that let the mind run riot.
It’s hard not to think of them as feudal states. With towers (albeit church steeples) and vantage points – ideally suited both to launch and repel attacks.
As we snake up each incline – winding past vineyards and nut trees – we cross the boundaries of these “states” with only warnings of dangerous, poor weather driving conditions before us. No army awaits us at the top.
As a city boy, they offer sweet refuge from the bucolic world below. These are buildings of history – of life. It’s hard not to think of them as worlds of their own. Separated by power, dispute and Grignolino grapes.
I am most probably making it all up. The castles and the churches we pass by could be products of simpler, more peaceful times. But as we stretch out on the road back to Vercelli, it’s all too easy to close your eyes and imagine another argument between each hilltop nation, settled out on the vast plains we drive through.
Just pray they don’t ruin this year’s grape crop.