Coastal cornucopia

This Camden Haven area keeps on surprising me with fresh natural  visual treats. Like this early morning view across the river as the sun began to streak light across Dooragan. The outgoing tide impacts on the riverside ‘beach’ drew me closer.

It was as perfectly rippled as a raked Japanese garden.

In Kattang Nature Reserve, these small trees were covered in starry blossoms.

It is Nematolepis squamea, I am told (ex-Phebalium). Such a dainty and graceful blossom to gather in clusters like this.

On a different, low and sandy coastal walk, there was an extraordinary variety of white-flowering shrubs.

Too many for me to identify, but the many flannel flowers were in bud, so those will clearly dominate when they bloom.

I am off camping for a few weeks, to colder, higher, rockier inland national parks, so the next posts will depict very different aspects of nature. There will likely be longer gaps between posts as reception will be rare.

Stay tuned!

Dooragan

Most people go up to the Lookout on North Brother Mountain, in Dooragan National Park, for the views. The wealth held in its short rainforest walk is often missed — like these pencil orchids. I saw some on rocks and high up on trees.

It has great rocks, mossed green and lichened white, caught in mid-tumble.

The lichens here could not decide to go with stripes or splotches,  so did both.

Long ago fires must have left this ancient tree with such a perilous hold on the slope… and on life, but alive it is.

Most of the lower greenery in this forest was provided by vines, but these stubby cycads also collected moss in their geometrically patterned trunks. I am told it is Lepidozamia peroffskyana.

Walking back to the actual lookout, I was assailed by a strong perfume. Looking around, I realised there were many Sweet Pittosporum (undulatum) trees full of the tiny blossoms that gave out so much scent.

And yes, the view is wonderful. So many waterways! I can see Camden Head, where I often walk in the fabulous Kattang Reserve, It is the northern end of the long Dunbogan Beach, where I also often walk — when I can bear the 4WD tracks.

From another lookout, I can see South Brother and Watson Taylor Lane and Crowdy Head. What an area to live in; it has it all…

On the steep winding road down, what I at first mistook for early flannel flowers prove to be masses of what I call Everlasting Daisies, identified for me as Cononidium elatum, thriving on the drier slopes.

Ancient engineering marvel

This enormous 274m long stone structure appears in the landscape as if from nowhere. Cars are now held back from its proximity, so you walk –along with many others – and suddenly there it is: the Pont du Gard, the tallest and best preserved of all Roman aqueducts.

Built in the 1st century AD to carry water 50 kilometres to Nîmes from springs at nearby Uzès, it was designed to have an average fall of 7mm per 100 metres, and it worked! The top level was a stone-lidded conduit, smooth inside, which required much maintenance to keep clear of carbonates and vegetation over the six centuries of its use.

The actual 49-metre high structure is of rough limestone, no mortar. You can see the large projecting stones that supported the scaffolding as it was built. The lower level’s road bridge was added much later; water was the reason for this mighty undertaking.

I had mistakenly thought it was built to bridge the River Gardon, but no, getting water to Nîmes was its main purpose. The six arches of the lower level are six metres thick to cope with that river’s flood. The history of the Pont is chequered, but Napoleon figures large in taking on its restoration.

The river is treated as a swimming and boating place by many and as cars can access each side of the river, people can walk to its sandy beaches.

On the far side is a large park and promenade, with cafés and seating and playground, and walking access to the beaches. It seemed a very popular place for families.

Back on the main tourist access side, I briefly visited the Memories of the Garrigue park, where the original ‘garrigue’ vegetation and the typical early land use, of grain and vines, as well as making charcoal, was commemorated.

Garrigue vegetation is Mediterranean, likened to our mallee, as its trees are low growing. It can have dense thickets of kermes oak, stunted holly and holm oaks, with lavender, sage, rosemary, wild thyme and artemisia common.

It reminded me of Bimblebox, although many trees there are taller, in its dry grey-green nature, compared to the lush chestnut, oak, lime and plane tree forests I had become used to in Italy.

Many famous people visited this Roman marvel, and many have written of it in awe. UNESCO considers it a ‘testimony to human creative genius’… as do I. The architectural and engineering skills that devised it are astonishing; once more I am struck that such a civilisation was wiped out, and really by greed, for conquering more and more. Greed remains; will we?

City of water

To replace the ancient water sources that had supplied Nîmes for centuries, the huge Fountain Gardens were built in the mid-18th century. 

Remnants are still there of the original water holding basin on the hill, which would have received the water via aqueducts, including the Pont du Gard where I will take you next. As these remnants, like those at Pompeii, are extremely rare, I tried to visit, but it was closed on a Sunday.

Fountains abound, with walkways shaded by large plane trees.

Fish and ducks and pigeons make use of the water, as does the occasional frolicking dog, and once I even saw a swan.

Even the gates are guarded from climbing trespassers by decorative extensions – rather more attractive than rolled barbed wire.

My favourite ruin was this Temple of Diana, from the 1st century BC: possibly not to Diana, possibly not even a temple. Romantically shrouded in mystery and time…

The central basin has this Nymph statue… with attendant pigeon, but as usual I wonder why the wingless cherubs below look so miserable.

This one looked positively demonic.

The Gardens were full of statues, but I especially liked this gentle one to Love… quite young love too.

From the formal pools and waterways, paths wind up through a shady forest to the 36 metre high Tour de Magne, once part of the defensive Roman walls around the city.

I had intended to climb up the internal spiral stairs, but I chickened out. From the outside, looking up at those who had made it, I knew I’d been wise. Bugger the view.

But even away from the Fountain Gardens, in the centre of main avenues there is water, shallow, unpretentious, just coolly flowing along.

Sometimes, as in the modern Place d’Assas, it is combined with statuary, non-mythological, but still symbolic.

Nîmes still appreciates its water origins. So do I.

Nîmes: history upon history

While our First People are known to have an extremely long history of occupation, they trod so lightly that we newcomers cannot easily read that history. 

Not so here In Nîmes, where you walk up any of many streets and bang! right in front of you rises the imposing Arena, the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world.

They were setting up for a light and sound show that evening. How incredible for a 2000 year old venue to be still going!  Not that any gladiators would be seen here now, but the range of trained and very particular fighters was unknown to me until I read about them here.

Nîmes, considered the French capital of bullfighting, holds a three-day festival, the Feria, each year, with bull runs through the streets, acrobats, musicians, parades, stalls, horsemanship and of course, bullfights.

The Arena was carefully designed to allow for Roman social classes to access and exit which of the four levels they would occupy without a crush or running into the others.  It would seat 24,000.

Railings have been added but the stone seating remains the same. They were a bit of a stretch for a littlie like me.

I envisioned the hordes of tourists going up these steps tonight, the same steps that everyone since the Romans have used.

Just look at the width of the arch/wall… such huge blocks of stone.

Stones and bricks, and all still holding together.

This hole seemed deliberately done to show us that beneath the stone facing is a rubblestone wall?

Arches, arches everywhere… but I see no information as to who would have had to come up these steps from deep below 

I had expected more history, with Hollywood images of lions and Christians in my head; I will have to research more.

Just look at the narrow bricks in this arched roof. Gravity-defying yet perfectly logical…

The longevity of this craftsmanship, this knowledge and planning, makes a mockery of our gimcrack disposable modern buildings, unlikely to last 200 years, as our colonial ones have done, let alone 2000.

When I visit the attached museum, I am even more agog…

Versailles at Colorno

A delightful day and dinner at the home of Claudio and Lisa, friends of Paola’s, meant I got to see Colorno.

It is famous for the Palace known as Reggia di Colorno, and although it was closed that day, their son Damiano, who speaks good English, volunteered to show me around the outside. (Photo by Reggia di Colorno)

Like most of the grand places still functioning, this Palace has been repurposed; chairs for an event that evening were being set up in between the elaborately styled formal gardens.

From a defensive castle to a palace for grand families, the fortunes of which rose and fell with the vagaries of Italian alliances, through several major renovations, it became the favourite home of Marie Louise, Napoleon’s wife. With 400 rooms!

In 1870 it was acquired by the province of Parma, and is now home to ALMA, a world-renowned Italian culinary school.

The Italian Baroque building is topped by many statues, and its grand gardens and fountains are backed by a forest, albeit a little untended.

Damiano shows me this lovely long leafy walk; I do not know what sort are the trees so intricately merged.

He also showed me this ancient tree, struck by lightning but still thriving.

Out the front, the grandeur of this ‘home’ is stately, tasteful. The building, which also houses historic library archives, where Lisa works, was damaged by the 2023 floods. She and a colleague worked frantically to save what they could as the water rose, but not enough was possible.

It is clear that the residents of the now-defunct adjoining Orphanage were not seen to be in need of such grandeur.

As always, I am drawn to interesting hardware, like this door knocker seen on the walk back.

I was lucky to have Damiano as a guide to this impressive complex, so I thank him.

Bobbio up close

Must be about time I showed you another garbage bin; here’s Bobbio’s version, with a cigarette extinguisher and butt receptacle on the side. No chance of accidental bin fires.

I loved these wavy wooden seats, human body friendly; or perhaps hunchbacked like their bridge.

Although the streets are narrow, space is found for tubs of flowering plants. Pedestrians must listen for cars, and occupy doorways if need be.

Tiny three-wheeled utes and vans were perfect for such streets, needing little space to park, sounding like a cross between a motorbike and a wind-up car.

Doorways always drew my attention, as I constantly seek examples of ancient hardware, having once worked in architectural hardware. This unusually intricate arch had an equally intricately shaped timber door.

Above another doorway arch was this building date: over 100 years before England decided to offload its convicts on the Great South Land… and neglected to ask the owners if they minded…

Having written for The Owner Builder magazine for years, building methods fascinate me, like these deep and complex brick arches.

I have seen small square bricks used to make round pillars, but I hadn’t seen curved bricks before.

The soft pale colours of the old bricks in Bobbio add much to its gentle charm.

If you could afford it, the range of wonderful food shops in Bobbio would make a stay worthwhile alone, from small shops selling gourmet and local specialty bread and pastries, cheeses and cured meats, fruit and vegetables, wine… and truffles and truffle products.

The church interiors are as grand as anywhere, but I liked best the small chapel commemorating a local miracle that happened nearby, which is why the Madonna of Help is Bobbio’s patron.

This ceiling detail caught my eye: colomba is Itallan for ‘dove’, the universal symbol of peace, and St Colomban founded Bobbio…

Inside the church itself, we were fortunate to visit when the organ was being played … and played well. The resonances were deep, and so moving that I had trouble not being moved to tears.

On the last morning, the sunrise over Bobbio, with the high-tech antenna in the way, seemed to sum up its present state: beautiful, ancient, but a little spoiled by modernity and tourism and its needs.

Bello Bobbio

When a town is crowned the most beautiful in Italy. as Bobbio was in 2019, expectations are high.  A friend had also said she loved it, having spent some months here. But I suspect that was prior to the accolade and the tourism boom.

Most images of Bobbio show the famous Devil’s Bridge or Hunchbacked Bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, which dips and rises across the Trebbia River. It is said that the bridge was built overnight by the Devil, after a deal with Bobbio’s founder in 615, the Irish monk San Colomban.

The first bridge was likely built by the Romans in the 1st century BC (!) as Bobbio was an important part of the Salt Way. Several floods have caused rebuilding and I could see buffers on each side of the river bank plus a large platform around the supports of the main flow.

Bobbio is indeed beautifully situated, with the hills close by, and its narrow streets wind up to the protective Castello and down to the river with many fascinating twists.

St Colomban certainly thought it was a great spot, as he founded his monastery here. It shows how interconnected the world was then.

The monastery and the many churches externally have the lovely simple lines of medieval architecture.

From the castle’s upper windows the views of the town and valley show why it is claimed that Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ used many details from here in the background of the painting.

Even the castle’s adjacent tower is in there, in the bottom left corner, but for me the attraction of that was its self-supporting roof. I tried not to think about the room below, where criminals were thrown to die, impaled on the waiting knives.

Much of Bobbio has been restored, its pale bricks and stone walls repointed; much more is scaffolded now and in the process of restoration. 

It had the feeling of a Tidy Town, and I wondered if the council paid people to neaten and beautify, as most seemed to have done.  And of course it was teeming with tourists, in the summer holiday season. But as the next post will show, there was much to marvel at in Bobbio…

Life signs

In the middle of our week at Piero, the very kind Nicoletta takes us with her to Luino to shop for food. En route we stop in Curiglia for her to go to the Post Office; I see yet another shrine to the Madonna, this time above the public water source.

I also see one of the many trattori, the small 4WD narrow mini tractors and trailers, perfect for the narrow tracks; Nicoletta has one… less new and shiny, that can negotiate the track almost up to Piero from the car parking area. She still has to lug provisions up the last steep part into the village.

It is Wednesday, and Luino has hosted a market every Wednesday since 1541! It is huge, with fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers, cheeses and meats, as well as endless stalls selling clothes, handbags and shoes.

Although this lady does not look happy, her giant wheels and slabs of Parmesan cheese do make me smile! As does the very idea of a market that has been consistently held here for almost 500 years.

Next day, we decide to walk up to the village of Lozzo, above Piero. We pass Piero’s little walled cemetery, its flowers safe from the goats.

Above it are the community gardens, entered via another of Ambrogio’s special gates. The criss-cross section at the bottom is of old bush saw blades.

It is a steep walk through steep green forests, but easier in some stretches as not via steps, as to Monteviasco.

But there are many scree sections, where I need my stick and we must step carefully on the loose stones. No doubt it is also why there are several shrines on the way, as heavenly intercession could be handy…

But Lozzo is disappointingly lifeless. It has the usual overly elaborate church, whose bells ring as we arrive, and it has a memorial, seemingly to captured soldiers, but hardly any houses seem inhabited.

The decorative metal heads to hold back shutters are my main takeaway from a quite depressing village.

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.