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.

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…

Milano metropolis

The Milan Duomo is justifiably famous, with soaring spires, and statues adorning every possible face. But it is so famous that hundreds of people were queueing to see inside it, so  I chose not to join them.

I  had been told about the Golden Madonnina statue atop the Cathedral, and indeed my friend Paola and her mother had sung the Milanese song about her to me!

There were more than enough people milling about in the grand square it fronts, where Victor Emmanuel II is celebrated in that very grand arcade.

There is an imposing statue of him on his horse, but yellow paint had been thrown at his horse’s rear in some sort of protest, I assume, by folk less impressed… or more oppressed.

Instead I chose to visit the more humble and quite ancient Church of San Stefano Maggiore, originally of the 5th century, and later the 11th. It has become the church for migrants, and I noted that, unlike the grander churches, much of its paint inside was worn away.

It was also notable because of its black Madonna.

Milan is the centre of design, so I did go to the Museum of Design…think Alessi, Ferrari… which was an eye-opener.

It is also famous for fashion; sadly all beyond my budget.

Street style is something else, as I saw when I watched this lady sashay with supreme nonchalance to the Metro.

Thanks to my friend Trish, we did master the Metro, once we got used to ‘M’ not standing for Maccas. It was very handy to where we stayed, but incredibly crowded at non peak 

For those who chose to drive into the city, there was ample parking, especially for motorbikes. I loved that these tiny cars could fit into a motorbike spot. There were also pushbike lanes and bikes for hire.

All in all, Milan was too big a city for me to feel comfortable, albeit a gracious and interesting one. Too many people!

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!

Elegant Parma

If I thought Cremona was grand, Parma is more so. If I’d only associated Parma with ham or Parmesan cheese, I have had a major shift of associations. I now also know Verdi belongs here. It is an elegant midsized city, with many boutiques and parks and cafés. And of course, churches.

This being a personal take on my travels and not a travelogue, I will share glimpses like this one as much as grand buildings. This elderly lady had been feeding the pigeons with bread chunks, much as she would have had in her café latte for breakfast.

Parma is well-maintained, its historic buildings constantly being cleaned and refurbished, as seen on the octagonal Baptistry.

Certainly the Cathedral was grand, but I am finding the gold and arches and frescoes are beginning to blur. I did see a relief sculpture by Benedetto Antelami that was a first in using more natural representations in flow of robes and position of limbs.

This church is especially famous for its groundbreaking Correggio dome fresco, with its unusual perspective, from below, and where for the first the bare legs and implied bare bottom of the Christ are shown. It caused a great stir at the time, but he was truly avant garde and opened the way for others.

I preferred the later Benedictine Monastery, with its simpler lines and central well, where water was drawn that had been collected from the roof.

The Monastery has a famous library, with an adjoining room of arches and unusually simple frescoes, commemorating the translation of the bible into the four languages of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac.

It does have a church; way too grand for monks, I thought.

In its Correggio dome fresco, of the Vision of St. John (San Giovanni), painted after the infamous one, the perspective is still from below, but the exposure of bare limbs is toned down.

The octagonal Baptistry used lovely pink and white marble from Verona in its  construction. Inside, its open space soars to a high frescoed dome, with a central large baptismal font designed for adults. The astrological sculptures, again by the trailblazing Antelami, have been moved from the upper galleries to the ground floor.

But for me the highlight of this building’s treasures is the atypically realistic Madonna and her atypically playful Child.

Cremona the contradictory

Of course the Town Hall was not open for me to see inside… or not until the afternoon when I’d be gone. Indeed the official looked horrified when I asked. But I can’t be sure if this was at my Italian or the idea of a morning opening.  So I wandered.

Cremona celebrates both its famous sons: composer Monteverdi and violin maker Stradivari. There is a Monteverdi Festival occurring: as this banner proclaims, ‘It is not Cremona without Monteverdi.

In his own piazza stands a statue of Stradivari; I liked that his tools were included at his feet.

I saw several music schools and violin makers’ shops, and at least 6 people carrying cases for stringed instruments large and small. Music matters in Cremona.

As do statues. They are everywhere, of every possible subject and in every possible position.

Alongside and atop the statues are pigeons; beneath are bicycles.

Cremona, on the rich agricultural plains of the Po River, is flat, so many people cycle about. They seem to weave effortlessly amongst the pedestrians in the narrow streets as much as the large squares.

The squares or piazzas also host edging cafés… and newspaper stands, just as in Martin Place.

I was able to visit one museum, the Museo Diocesano, modern and well-arranged, full of paintings and statues of Madonnas and Nativity and Crucifixion scenes.

As befits a town first established by the Romans in 218 B.C., cars are banned from its historical centre. Streetside parking is facilitated beyond that. I note that fuel is almost twice the price as in Australia. My friend says that applies to everything in Italy…

I am not sure about access in the old town for the many villas and what seem to be  elegant and ancient equivalents of gated communities.

 I am finding the lack of public toilets somewhat of a problem; how many times must I have a coffee so as to use their toilet? In the biggest café opposite the Duomo, I am surprised that the only toilet is a porcelain-rimmed hole in the floor. I back out; surely I am in the Men’s by mistake? But no, it is the only one.

Ah, Cremona! Ah, Italy…

I do manage to keep the Duomo in sight, do not get lost and even catch the right bus back. As soon as I see the Piacenza hills in the distance, I find myself thinking, ‘Nearly home’.  After three weeks, Salsomaggiore does feel like ‘home’.

Cremona the Grand

A day trip to Cremona has been my first solo excursion, catching an early bus from Salsomaggiore, which did arrive at the right time, offering the right money, that we’d been told by the bus company was essential. Except my right money was not what was required, so I was left scrabbling through my coins, to be rescued by the bus driver.

‘Head for the Duomo’, I’d been told.  Fearful of getting lost, I made sure I kept that tall Tower in sight from wherever I went. There were people queuing to take the ‘vertical tour’ to the top of the Torrazzo or Bell Tower, c.1300, the highest made of bricks in Europe. Good luck to them; my friend’s mother had told me how as a child, she had been taken to the top and seen the cars down below like ants. The stuff of nightmares for me.

I preferred to look in the Cathedral, consecrated in 1190.  It is breathtakingly high and solid, arched and full of gold and frescoes, impossible to see them all in the gloom and so far up. There are several galleries, with special dedications and candles to be lit for special prayer requests.

I sit for a while in the main nave, savouring the peace and coolness, while in a smaller area a Mass in Latin is being sung, with five priests officiating, and quite a few attendees. I could have sat there all morning…

When it is empty I take a photograph of this gold-bedecked ‘chapel’ and wonder how it must be to have such grandeur as your local church.

Even the rear of the Duomo complex is impressively lofty. The left hand octagonal building is the Baptistry, not open at the time of my visit.

Feeling I have had enough of religious subjects, I think I will like the Commune or Town Hall (mainly 13th century) as the approach frescoes appeal here, and am assured by the Tourist Office that is open for me to see inside.

Silly, gullible me…

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!