We are often traveling in Europe at the time of my birthday and every year that happens, PJ asks where I would like to celebrate. Usually it will be the Pont de l’Ouysse in the Dordogne or the Crispol in Vézelay, but this year I wanted to do something different. In 2015 when we went to Italy, we stopped halfway just on the Italian side of the Alps to stay at the Affittacamere Al Cantoun, a small hotel with a restaurant in the mountain town of Chiomonte, not far from Susa. We liked it so much that we stayed again on our return trip so that we could sample the wonderful cuisine of Paolo Aiello. So when PJ asked, this time I opted for a two-day stay in Chiomonte which we reached after a three hour run from Sisteron in the Provence through the Alpine passes. We stopped on the way to shoot the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal in Embrun.
We arrived in Chiomonte and parked in a square across town after we determined that our car would not fit through the arch that led to the church parking lot we normally park in. As we hauled our baggage into the hotel courtyard we found Stefano, who runs the Afficamare, sitting at table with his parents Fernande and Gaspare.
Stefano greeted us in English, which was a bonus. On our last visit, we spoke almost no Italian (and what I know comes from innumerable viewings of the Godfather trilogy) and what we did speak was cruelly corrupted with pidgin Spanish. The family spoke no English and we stumbled from one language to another trying to find a common tongue.
We had a lovely dinner that night, of course, with a bottle of the local Chiomonte wine to accompany. Paolo came out to talk and in the course of conversation I mentioned that we did not see his fabulous torre di polenta con funghi, a fabulous dish with alternating layers of polenta, wild mushrooms and a rich cream sauce. He apologised and said that was a spring dish when the mushrooms were readily available. He asked if we would like it for my birthday; he thought he could get fresh mushrooms the next day. I greedily replied to the affirmative.
The following day was my birthday and when we went down to breakfast, Stefano asked if we would like to shoot a church in a small village on the other side of the valley. PJ and I were eager to do so and we set a time. When we arrived at 2pm, Stefano, Paolo and their father were there to accompany us in the small car. We could see the church, just a few hundred yards away across the steep valley, but it took about 15 minutes to drive there. Stefano, used to driving in the area and knowing the secret protocols, drove much faster than I would have dared. It was possible he was trying to give me a thrill, because I have a fear of heights. We arrived in Ramats in good shape, though, and were met by a family friend, Giorgio, who opened the church for us. Giorgio made it easier to communicate because he spoke French (he has cousins on the “other side of the mountains”, meaning France).
The church, the Chiesa Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, is mostly 15th century with a Romanesque apse. Unprepossessing on the exterior, it possesses vibrantly colored frescoes.
There is some damage done to the 15th century frescoes, but for the most part they are in good condition, covering the vault, rear wall and sides of the apse.
It astonished us to find frescoes like this in a tiny village perched on the side of a mountain in the Alps. This ensemble was created by an anonymous artist dubbed by art historians as the “Master of Cognet and Ramats”, referring to the frescoes at the nearby Cappella di Notre Dame del Coignet. The frescoes feature a fine annunciation on the apsidal arch and the life of Saint Anthony in the apse itself.
We had a great time photographing the small church in Ramats, but then it was time to go home to get ready for my birthday dinner. And dinner did not disappoint! Not only did we have torre di polenta con funghi made with porcini mushrooms, but I had the boar stew, which was marvelous. After dinner, there was a fuss in the kitchen and then the entire family emerged with a birthday cake!
The cap to this perfect birthday was going to the town square to watch the final of the Champions League between Real Madrid and Juventus. We were torn in loyalties, because we are Real fans, but Juventus is in nearby Turin and we are big fans of their goalie, Gianluigi Buffon, and their now-departed midfield legend Andrea Pirlo. In the second half, Real scored three goals to take the match, but for me the amazing thing was watching PJ’s performance. Despite being happy for Real, she acted like it was a disaster of the first magnitude for the benefit of the Juventus fans surrounding us. Personally, I was in awe of the performance, worthy of Italian opera buffa or commedia dell’arte!
The Aiello family made this day very special for me and we hold them dear in our hearts. The welcome, the cuisine, the fantastic alpine setting, all contributed to a most special celebration. All that is left is for us to learn to speak Italian so that we can do their welcome justice on our next visit!