Mulini magic

Just a short walk from the bridge to Piero is a turn to the famous Mills of Piero, the Mulini. Built of local stone in the 18th century to use the strong flow of the Giona torrent to turn the timber wheels that would turn the stone wheels to grind the local produce like wheat and chestnuts, it was the reason for small villages like Piero, to house the workers.

People would bring their grain and nuts from both sides of the slopes, when a stone bridge, now gone, connected the sides of the river. You can see here that they diverted the flow of the river to the mill wheels. It is overwhelming to see the sheer amount of stones carried, for buildings, paths and walls, and the skill of the dry stone laying.

So even before the British were invading Australia, the mills of Piero were at work.

Holding weirs were also built of stone.

I found I could not see enough of the intense green of the mossy roofs and walls and the soft light-filled green forest. I went up there three times to bathe in its magic. Sole abandoned stone huts kept appearing further up the hill; what were their stories?

The rushing of the river meant it was never silent, but one time we heard an ongoing tinkling approaching.

Crossing from two sides of the creek, a flow of small goats kept daintily picking their war past us. Most wore goat bells, most had horns, most were brown, some were cream. We counted about 50, and later we would eat the wonderful cheese Alessandro makes from their milk.

One goat stood as if on guard until the whole flock had passed, then stepped off his rock to join them in the enchanted forest beyond.

Like some of our rainforests, this is a mossed and lichened green world. Even the light through the trees is green.

So many mosses of every shape and shade of green…

We walk up beside the stream as far as our friendly guide Gigi decides is safe; while the ancient bridge is further up, the way past this first canyon in the river is too dangerous, ‘pericoloso’, for us, says Gigi, demonstrating how narrow and steep and broken the path gets. Gigi has good English so could translate what his friend Ambrogio said as he identified wild plants; often it was clear, as the Latin names are the same.

My images of this green valley and my imaginings of the lives lived here until less than my lifetime ago will stay with me and enrich my world forever.

I had loved the Heidi story as a child — still do — and now I have seen the goats, and later even a goatherd, I can see her on these meadows below the Alps. Although somehow Julie Andrews keeps intruding…

Fancy 1400 steps?

Not far from Piero’s bridge is this signpost, showing that Monteviasco is only 1.1 kilometres away. Unfortunately it does not show that every step of those 1.1  kilometres is upwards,1400 stony steps winding their way to this higher village. It also reckons there is a restaurant and accommodation there.

I have to stop often to give my knees a rest. The steps pass through a beautiful chestnut, beech and walnut forest. I choose a good stout stick to support my slightly wonky progress; stones laid vertically are not like concrete steps.

The climb is worth it, as the views of deeply incised mountain valleys are superb.

There used to be a (shudder!) cable car running up to here, but after the accidental death of an employee, it was stopped… and years later, has not restarted. Not even my knees would have induced me to use such a thing.

We can see  a mountain farm, for summer grazing use, other small villages across the valley, and even a glimpse of Lake Maggiore far below.

There is of course a church, amazingly grand inside for a small village. The earlier … and current…influence and role of the Catholic Church in communities is very evident. We pass small shrines to the Madonna or a special saint on every walk.

The restaurant advertised for Monteviasco, Il Circolo Vecchio, is the only surviving one of three, but is open, friendly and serving good coffee and fabulous cakes. However, its very large dining room seems optimistic.

But on our carefully tentative way down– more perilous than fatiguing– we pass dozens of people coming up, many with short-legged dogs, and even one with two little goats.

That restaurant will be full, and the climbers will have earned whatever delicious food is on offer.

I also pass several of these small lizards, the sort I have seen often in the Emilia Romagna region but rarely managed to catch with the camera. It is, I gather, an Italian Wall Lizard, but there are several sorts. I have seen one at least with a bright green back. They are like our skinks, small and speedy.

This creature is not moving, so I can study it at leisure; if only such an ancient stump could talk… as some might say. But all Italy is drenched in history, and its people are the slightest of its passing inhabitants.

Peaceful Piero

Up a winding and sometimes hair-raisingly narrow road from Luino, the twice-a-week bus takes us to the village of Curiglia. The bus driver beeps before especially blind corners, but in several places it is a matter of inching past the oncoming vehicle, or in the old towns, of one backing up until room is found to pass.

We are met by our hostess for the week, Nicoletta, who saves us a walk of several kilometres by a lift to the car parking place, from where we walk several more kilometres to the ancient tiny village of Piero, seen here from the path above it.

We clatter over the Ponte di Piero bridge across the Giona river, as clear and fast flowing as one would expect of a mountain stream.

The path climbs through impossibly green creekside clearings, where several dairy cows lumber, their cowbells clunking.  Beside a smaller fast  downhill creek, the path becomes steeper and stonier… and slower!

And we are here at Baito Kedo, the heart of Piero and our home for a week.

Part of the Valley of Veddasca’s agritourism network, it offers walkers a place to rest in charming shady surroundings, drink coffee, beer or wine, eat delicious local food, or stay in the Hut, as we will.

Nicoletta is a really good cook, able to whisk up tasty dishes even for vegetarian me, or a fabulous layered torta from their own mulberries, and a heavenly local yoghurt with berries and ginger that could become an addiction. In the village, Alessandro makes such great goats’ cheese that we buy three sorts.

In our Hut, downstairs the kitchen looks on to the restaurant terrace.

Upstairs, the view from our large bedroorn window takes you past the higgledy-piggledy roofs to the mountains. I am entranced by the vertical stones used to support the chimney’s roof. I will soon learn why most things are made from stones.

Like most alpine villages, the stone houses are small, lean on each other and cling to the steep slope.

Chinese jasmine spills over many walls, while hydrangeas and oleanders show how much they love this summer.  Winters are rarely cold enough here anymore for snow, we are told. Climate change? But you would see the snow covered mountains nearby.

The ‘road’ through Piero is for feet, not cars, and stones are used to help the climb and slow water flow. The stones here are amazingly flat, perfect for houses and walls and paths. Some roofs are made from slate stones, quarried elsewhere and often carried by the women in ancient times, Nicoletta tells us.

Of course there is a church, small but well cared for, although the priest can only come twice a year.

Water runs freely… and free … and is cool and clean.

So why and how am I here in this fairly isolated place?

My friends Paola Cassoni and Ian Hoch, Bimblebox carers, lived here about 40 years ago, when it was going through what might be called a ‘hippy’ stage. When I said I wanted to visit less cities and palaces, and more nature, they suggested Piero.

Some of their old friends still live here, like Ambrogio (above in the photo taken by Trish) herbalist and native plant guru, and the generous Gigi, who could speak English, and gave us his time … and from his garden lemon balm and rose petals to make tea. 

Ian Hoch credits Ambrogio with being the reason why he is so passionate about preserving Nature and BImblebox, and about teaching others to do the same.

Ambrogio also makes magical gates from nature’s sculptures, timber found in the forest. Trish was admiring this one, the entry to his own garden.

Lake Maggiore roundabout

Descending the narrow cobbled streets to the Lake requires time and care, as where we stayed was full of fascinating little shops and galleries… and also because cars still somehow drive along them.

After much calculation of time available before our afternoon bus and scrutinising ferry routes and times, Trish determines that we can take a round trip to see the little towns of Cannobio and Cannero across the Lake up closer. There is some debate at the ticket office but we have tickets for the three legs of the trip so it seems fine. She tells us what time to get the ferry.

We leave Luino behind.

First stop is Maccagno, where I see people sunbathing on the narrow strip of lakeside ‘beach’, or swimming.

I even see a caravan park and someone on a paddle board. It is summer after all.

The town of Cannobio is charming, and quite large. I can now see small ‘settlements’ all around the top of the Lake.  Who needs the Riviera?

There is a horse statue here, grand steps… and lots of waterside cafés.

Everyone disembarks, except us. We have tickets for the round trip, right?

Wrong; the ferry heads back to Luino.

We are assured we can stay on board from there as it now goes to Cannero… and on to Cannobio! This is the ferry we were meant to catch. 

Conflicting information seems to be the Italian way!

The ferry is full; people are coming across for lunch at the many cafés.

We do get to pass close by the two islands with forts, seen from distant Luino.

And then we go to Cannobio again, and back to Luino.

All this leaves us with little time for lunch and the food shopping we must do, as where we will spend the next week is very isolated.

We run out of time before the bus is due. 

After our ferry mixup, we can only cross our fingers that the bus will come and we are at the right stop.

Reaching Luino

After several long tunnels, our train from Milan emerges on a grey day to suddenly present us with this … Lake Maggiore. Steep forested hills dip their feet in the water, and tiny towns cling to its narrow edges.  Even grey, it is stunning.

We have arrived at Luino, to stay one night before heading into the mountains.

We get little chance to explore far along the promenade, as rain is threatening.

There is a great children’s park with a musical instrument installation, of drums to tap, and pipes of varying notes to strike like gongs.

Another golden Madonna watches over the port’s walled marina for small boats.

Familiar Erigeron plants (Seaside daisies) flourish in any crack in the walls.

But the weather defeats us; rain hunts us from our coffees and follows us up to our lodgings for the night.

This is small but well-planned, high up under the roof. I am taken by the new windows, well-made and clever, where the one operation opens and closes both the upper casement windows and the lower hopper one.

Next day dawns fair, the clouds are lifting and the outdoor cafés are again in use.

I am getting used to coffee and sweet pastry for breakfast, as that is the norm, with many varieties beyond croissants from which to choose.

I do admit to a hankering for avocado on toast with a dash of lemon, but even if we were self-catering, avocados are extremely expensive here. I also learnt that you must weigh your fruit and vegetables first and affix the product number and weight or the checkout person will reject them.

The lake beckons…

Living Castello

The castle that most appealed to me was the closest to my friend’s home in Salsomaggiore. It is the Castello di Tabiano, just down the hill and atop another, up a winding road.

Even from the outside, the castle looks well kept, with very old and large trees gracing its edges. Early on this Sunday, there were only three of us to be guided through the Castle by the amiable and well informed Claire, who spoke English very well.

It was originally a military fort built by the Pallavicino family around the year 1000 to oversee the lucrative salt trade, where the salt was extracted from the thermal waters of Salsomaggiore and Tabiano and taken by horse to barges destined for Milan or Venice. It had a moat and a drawbridge and could house within its walls all the animals needed for fresh milk, eggs and meat, enough for the village and troops to survive even a year-long siege. The rainwater cisterns are still used today.

Bought by Giacomo Corazza in the late 19th century, it took 20 years of restoration by about 70 craftsmen to turn the abandoned fortress into the gracious home of today. Having made his fortune in London from ice cream and ice, Giacomo went on to turn the castle and its surrounding hectares into a highly productive farm: wheat, wine and cheese.

It was only 10 years ago that the castle and its village, its piggery and dairy, were transformed into a beautiful venue for weddings, events and conferences, plus a hotel and a restaurant. Even 25 years ago the family was still farming here.

And members of the family remain in residence.

It is this sense of continued life, with so much equipment so recently stilled, that imbues the castle with its special ambience.

Of course a chapel had to be added for the family, and the shallow horse-friendly steps were replaced by a grand staircase in pink marble.

Although the stables became the wine cellars, the horse history is still there, with the tack room looking as neat and ready as it once must have.

The whole castle was built to follow the rock beneath, with the rainwater cisterns using that rock; the rose garden with its stunning views is actually atop an icehouse cave, where snow would be brought in, squeezed into ice, sprinkled with straw and sand, and raised as needed.

The 1800s’ passion for exotic plants brought such trees as palms and Lebanese cedars, and the micro-climate created by the sea breeze, albeit from 50 kms away, ensures their survival.  That lavender at the base of the palms apparently kills bacteria that attack palm trees.

In the area where the family lives, chandeliers of Venetian glass illuminate grand ceilings, in rooms like the Ballroom, the Hunting Room and Dining room, filled with treasures and tastes brought with them from London. Here Claire is noting the fireplace lined with turquoise majolica tiles.

Certainly the Ballroom, or Mirrored Room, is impressive, with enormous and elaborately framed mirrors from London.

But my favourite room was the Children’s Room, pleasantly and charmingly decorated as their playroom.

The family has great plans for further restoration, including of the Corazza greenhouses that had used the Roman grottoes under the walls. I’d like to come back in five years and see… and perhaps stay in the hotel and enjoy the history and the view up close…

Much about Castello di Tabiano will remain etched in my mind.

Thanks Claire!

A castle or two

Castles are all different; like the old ad said,’Oils ain’t oils’.

This one, outside Parma, is the 15th century Torrechiara, and open for us to enter.

A steep cobbled ramp led up to the main entry, past where the portcullis would have been lowered against the enemy.

Of course it has sweeping views over the country that would have been under its protection.

This included the village within its hilltop realm, needed to house the workers and artisans to run this fort-cum-villa.

From the broad tiled loggia or verandah, I can look down on the roof below and admire the ancient lichened terracotta tiles.

It has the usual central courtyard and well, which all look quite simple, almost monastic. Inside is another matter.

Yep, frescoes galore for the family’s living and entertainment rooms, but they were very different to the religious ones with which I’d been swamped. So much skill and talent had been at the disposal of these wealthy families.

I loved that this one featured jugglers and acrobats.

And I especially loved the beautiful ceilings of these four connected rooms, depicting birds at different times of the day.

But the defensive purpose of this place was brought home by the incredibly heavy-looking armour and weaponry, The soldiers must have been short, judging by the breastplates, and I hoped the fellow on the left had a matching codpiece.

Safe within their fortress, protected by their short soldiers, I could imagine the pleasure of being surrounded by ceilings and walls painted with fascinating scenes.  For a time…

But I found myself yearning for at least one more restful and less demanding room, with plain white walls and just a few pictures.

The next castle, my favourite, was quite different, as you will see next post!

Ten centuries on…

Appropriately high for defending from invaders, with the Piacenza Hills in the background, the Castle Vigoleno remains impressive. In wonderful condition, given it was built in the 10th century, it stayed in the one family for five centuries or so.

It is a grand and sprawling ridgetop complex, really a fortified medieval village, with a classy restaurant, San Giorgio, I assume named after St George of dragon-slaying fame, as on the crest. We could not see inside the apparently gorgeously appointed event centre venue and hotel rooms, nor tour the castle.  Wrong day.

But we could wander down the cobbled alleys past occupied houses and admire the views of the valleys far below.

And we could enter the 12th century church, a mere eight centuries old!

This Madonna puzzled us; why is she standing on unhappy heads, and why is the bellringer for lepers beside her? If I find out, I’ll let you know…

The church was dark, but its massive supporting columns loomed large. My arms could not reach around such a solid bulk.

Here I have to confess that en route to this Castello Vigoleno my camera settings dial must have been bumped so all the outside photos were overexposed.  Sorry: mi dispiace! But you can get an idea of its grandeur. This is the main courtyard, with the restaurant and fabulous view beyond.

The distinctive swallow-tailed tops or merlons were for sheltering behind as you fought through the slits. Iron grilles would have been lowered at the entry to the outer walls and to the main castle.

This is prized wine grape growing country, and no matter how steep, the soil of these hills are planted with best loved varieties, like Gutturnio.  These vines are growing beneath the walls of the much more modest Castello Scipione. Also built about ten centuries ago, it has remained in the hands of the one noble family.

Of more homely appearance, Castello Scipione is also in greater need of repairs, with the typical narrow  Italian bricks jostling with stones to shore up damage. As I walk over its rough cobbled lanes, I am somewhat overwhelmed to think of the feet that have walked here before me, so very long ago.

When we owned the old jail and residence at Minmi, I had the same feeling about the hollows worn in its slate steps… and it was less than 200 years old!

Living history

The walk along the ridge and down to the valleys from my friend Paola’s family home offers seductive views of ancient castles, towers and churches.  We head for the closest.

All three …castle, church and cemetery … have been recommended to me to see.

The sign seems to send us to the right place.

But not one of the three is open. Like so much of Italy’s  built history, the upkeep is too great; some are being repaired by current owners, hopefully to become income earners.

We can hear peacocks, and the dog of which the sign warns.

We pass the totally closed-up church; we can see nothing of the inside.

We could have prayed by the ivy-draped shrine to the Virgin, set in a small garden nearby.

To Paola’s bemusement I am fascinated by any evidence of older ways of building and this barn by the road is both sad and beautiful as its timber lintel rots and the bricks follow its trajectory.

Any walk in this country means chances for foraging. Not as many as in Paola’s youth, but enough to warrant always carrying a bag, just in case some still exist and are ripe.

Wild plums, red and yellow, wild cherries, alpine strawberries, walnuts, wild oregano…

Even if no finds, the intense green of the roadside trees stuns me; it is hard to imagine their winter bareness, with perhaps only the ubiquitous ivy not leafless or snow-covered.

We walk down to Tabbiano Terme, another spa town, full of apartments, some hotels; no shop but a pharmacy… and this one big farmhouse in empty fields. I think of all the food that this farm could grow now, for all the people living here, who include refugees housed by the government. I am told many hotels are only still open due to this funding, but  surely some refugees must be from the country and could grow food?

No; it is all about the money, says my friend.

So what’s new?

On Monday we will be taken to a castle that is open…or so it says… so I hope to share that next.

A tourist in town

Salso’s most opulent building is the Berzieri Thermal Spa, unfortunately not operational, nor in fact even open for me to see its reputed wonders. A temple to Art Nouveau, the images of its interiors look wonderful and I would really love to see them.  Built from 1913-1923, it is meant to resemble an oriental palace or a grand casino. Maybe that’s why I find the outside over-the-top — I am not charmed.

I did sit at the café opposite to ponder on its famous facade and attempt my first ordering of a coffee on my own. I did this partly because my friend Paola had warned me that there are no public toilets in Italy but that every bar/café must have one. The ordering was not a success, as I ended up with two cups of coffee: one the cappuccino without froth and the other the double espresso I had meant to be included… must be the wrong accent, the emphasis… or just a most non-Italian coffee wish.

But there was a toilet…

Of more interest to me was the ornate Scotti Well Cage; the well was one of many that once drew the hot mineral laden waters to the surface. Only one spa now operates in Salso but it is intentionally therapeutic, not recreational; not the sort of spa we Australians are used to, either basically coming straight out of the ground as at Pilliga or harnessed for the local pool as at Blackall or Moree.

A building that did have charm for me was the much smaller Warowland. It had been built as an art gallery but became a home. Its functions now include that of the Tourist Information Centre. The graffito plaster walls are highly decorated inside and out with fine painted patterns and I wonder that artisans can still be found to maintain them.

I had been directed to it as ‘the yellow building’. I did know the word ‘giallo’ for yellow, but there are many shades of yellow.

My first wrong call turned out to be the local Council Chambers. I am wondering if the warm colours of the buildings are partly because in the snowy cold winters the town needs the visual warmth.

Next to it was a building of yet another shade of yellow.  A scooter and a pushbike were parked nearby; I have noted that many of the bicycle riders are older women and they do not wear helmets. It is apparently a rarely enforced law.

A murkier shade of yellow adorns a private home in the town, but it is enlivened with the riot of potted flower colour and the gay green curtains.

I am agog at so much here that I am going to do more posts per week than usual to keep up with my fascination. Coming with me?

Stepping to Salso

My head is finally clear from the 21-hour torture of the plane trip but actually it is still spinning… from the differences in place and culture and language in which I am to be immersed for two months.

I am staying with my friend Paola at her mother’s house in the hills above Salsomaggiore Terme, which is a most beautiful town in the region of Emilio Romagna, so recently flooded in its lower areas. It is a town of leafy trees, parks and plazas, narrow streets and wide avenues, of boutique shops and cafés, of buildings quaint or grand.

My usual readers will not be surprised that the first photo I took here was not of the grand view above, but of a detail: a public rubbish bin. Apparently of ancient beauty, but of modern design, make and function.

The walk down to the town is via steep paved steps, bordered by weeds like the orange papavera poppies I had seen growing wild by the train line from the airport to Milan station. Even the stones in the edging drains here are aesthetically laid, diagonally. 

Naturally the walk back up is more of a strain; I could choose to follow the longer winding road instead. Italians drive on the other side of the road, very fast, and often one-handed, as, if in company, they are usually speaking — also fast — which necessitates gesticulating.

From the train I had also remarked on the many abandoned large farmhouse complexes, old and partly vine covered, in the midst of fields. People prefer to live near services now I am told. Yet on my walk down to Salso I pass quite a few mansions similarly falling into disrepair.

The first was Poggio Diana, once a sort of resort, a nightclub, a place of hospitality, of dancing and fun, with a pool and overgrown tennis courts below. I fall in love with the windows, the shapes, the shutters, and begin to feel the sadness of history’s changes. I think of the Hydro Majestic at Katoomba…

The road runs below the large tree-filled grounds of half-hidden, once grand villas. I think I see the one I want to rescue most. I am told many were built by owners of vineyards elsewhere in the region to take advantage of the higher air and the thermal spas, as the latter were the reason for Salsomaggiore Terme’s establishment.

Armies of gardeners would be needed for any of these, like this imposing rare one clearly still used by its wealthy owners.

Of course most Italians do not live in grand villas, or even separate houses, but in apartments, and I love that so many beautify them with flowers, roses and geraniums especially.

Most of the houses I do see are tall and narrow; colour abounds, particularly yellow. The house where I am staying is of three levels; I am in the attic.

I am getting used to tiles, and stairs, and even Italian TV. The latter is overly glamorous, bright and lively and I now better understand why the Eurovision Song Contest is so glitzy. But it is a good way to learn Italian…

Tia up close

From the little bridge across Tia Creek above the Falls, you can see the water weeds waving gently with the current of the mysteriously cloudy water.

Slightly above that the water is more calm, the banks higher. I keep an eye out for platypus, as they have been seen here, but I have no luck.

Like the slopes of the Gorge itself, the scattered creekside rocks are aslant, rough and layered.

Several sorts of lichen choose to adorn a few, softening them visually at least.

On the longer Tiara Walk, the post-fire tree regeneration is the main feature, apart from the views over the Gorge, of course.

Such glimpses never fail to astonish me; so close, so extreme, and here I am meandering along the top beside it, as if the land extended safely forever.

But in between, my attention keeps being drawn to the bright new growth of some of the young trees, glowing like firelight amidst all the black and grey.

Others are purple and magenta on the backs of the new leaves, commanding attention with their colours before the mature sage green.

Hard to keep watching where I walk, to avoid tripping, amidst so much to see. \

But I do; a fall when bushwalking, especially when on your own, is no fun… as I learnt at Gibraltar National Park!