Cuneo & the Illuminata Festival
While we had a drink in Monaco, we figured out our next stop, we wanted to be in Turin the following evening and didn’t want a long drive that afternoon as we’d already done Nice to Monaco and our overall plan wasn’t that far. We ended up finding Cuneo because Savona was out of available rooms on the hotels we checked.
It was about a two-hour drive from Monaco to Cuneo, a town we’d only chosen due to being about halfway between Monaco and Turin. Turin was our destination for the following day, and so we’d not looked at any events or information on Cuneo, it was a way-point for us.
It took just under three hours in the end due to a ten minute stop at a one-way tunnel and twenty-four minutes at another. It is more than a little frustrating to be trapped in the car waiting on a visible countdown when no cars are coming the other way, and there is nothing nearby to entertain you. Luckily by this point, we had connected my Spotify account to the car speakers. I think it was this break more than anything else that had my friend ask for a shared play-list. There is only so much Katy Perry and Taylor Swift an Aerosmith fan can take after all.
The route itself is lovely, cutting through the valleys of the Alps, generally following the path of whatever river cut through the rock in ages past. We passed through several tiny towns, with villas and small restaurants. My favourite restaurant is the one that had a series of dressed up mannequins in the window to make it seem to a casual glance that they were busier than that were. It is a combination of genius and creepy that you usually only find on a TV serial killer.
We got to Cuneo and found the hotel without an issue. We had been surprised during the drive at how large the town was. We parked up near the central square where a small fair seemed to be going on. After checking in to the hotel, based in an old palace, the car had to be moved as it was the last day of the Illuminate, the festival of lights. The receptionist/bell-hop/restaurant expert offered to drive our car for us, which we cheerfully agreed to as we’d been in it quite some time. Looking back, this was perhaps our longest day of driving of the trip.
The hotel was originally a palace, and so it has some strange concessions. We had to change lifts to get to our room on the second floor. We’d have had to change staircases had we not been carrying rucksacks, so it was not an elevator specific issue. The windows all had balconies, and our room had two balconies, and while double glazed they also had wooden shutters which meant when closed, it was very dark.
We headed out into Cuneo to explore a bit, and the receptionist had given us about seven recommended restaurants to look at and told us the light show was at 10 pm and 11 pm. We walked around the old town, which was a very traditional Italian town with stone archways which covered the key walkways and with shops set back into the walls. We stopped, after a few false starts, for a beer or two on a terrace. It was then we discovered the Italian need to feed people. We only were stopping for a beer, and we had a complimentary tapas plate brought out with bread, olives, prosciutto and other nibbles.
When we finished, we walked to one of the restaurants recommended that seemed most in line with what we were looking for, the Osteria Dei Morri. In the square it faced we saw a large tent with music playing, on one side was Complesso Monumentale di San Francesco an impressive building. Filling the canvas were perhaps a hundred seniors, waltzing together with some resting while others danced. It was something you’d probably not see anywhere else in Europe outside of a managed event in a retirement home. Europe always underestimates the energy of the elderly.
After watching for a while, we went to the restaurant. I knew we were out of luck as soon as I walked in and saw the bride with her hen party, taking up most of the restaurant. We then tried a number of the other options, and they were all very full; many were closing soon, whether to catch the light show or because a small Italian town eats early we didn’t know. (My experience is that Italy and France eat early, despite what they might claim, restaurants in smaller cities will all be closed by 10 pm.) We finally went to a semi-fast food pizza place called Pizzeria Bella Napoli, which was incredibly cheap. And the food was solid. It cost only €20 for us both including a carafe of wine.
After dinner, having missed the 10 pm show due to not being able to find a restaurant we could sit in, we walked back to the main square for the final play of the festival. The narrative of that is, in my opinion, better in any case.
There were a series of songs, some international like Bowie or Coldplay. Some local that I naturally didn’t recognise, all matched up to changes in the lighting. There were concentric squares in the centre with highlights on the outside and at the back a large ‘clock’.
It was an extraordinary session, more so to us because it was such a random occurrence in a town we only chose to stop in due to it being more or less halfway to Turin. This is always my favourite part of travelling. The known tourist items are still ‘good’ but the unusual events in a town no one would go to for a holiday. That is something special.
We woke very late, just before 10 am mostly due to the absolute darkness of the room. I’d woken a few hours earlier at about 6:30 needing the bathroom and figured I had time to go back to sleep. When my mate woke and checked his iPad as he often does, the brightness was enough to wake me as well, and we realised we’d overslept and had missed any chance at breakfast.
We got up and got ready quickly before we checked-out. The owner of the hotel gave us some specific directions to get out of town as there was a parade going on. It seems the adventure never stops in Cuneo!
I got to play with the little dog in reception before we had to leave, which was a bonus for a day that had started poorly.
The owner had recommended we take the ‘blue’ route, the more rural roads rather than, the shorter ‘green’ highway route. We agreed with his idea, as there is little point in a driving holiday if all you do is rush from place to place on a generic motorway. This would mostly become our approach for the holiday as highways are much the same the world over, the “A” roads, however, are often more interesting.
The route was out of the mountains and relatively straight. The Italians love a roundabout as much as the British do. Mostly we passed through fields full of corn crops with the occasional village and once or twice through industrial parks as we got near to a highway intersection. Its a beautiful country and very different from the mountainous terrain we had been driving through the day before. It is incredible in Europe how much diversity of terrain there is in a short space that is often unappreciated.