THE LURE OF THE ALPS
The whole thing started because of a telephone call from one of my cousins in Italy; they were organizing a family reunion with all our relatives during the first week of June 1994, just three weeks away. For some time my wife and I had been talking about going to Italy to ramble in the Alps. Within 24 hours the decision to attend was taken and arrangements for the trip were made. The result was that this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable holidays ever taken. Allow me then to share some of the highlights.
The flight to Montreal/Paris/Milan went smoothly; as we arrived at the airport of Linate (Milan) we went through a custom check performed in a perfunctory manner and we proceeded to the car rental agency to take possession of our rental car. The attendant offered us a larger model, at no extra cost, so that all of our luggage would be accommodated (the trunks of most Italian/European cars are minuscule).
As we had decided to lose ourselves for a few days hiking in the Alps before completely surrendering our freedom to our relatives, we immediately headed towards the Maritime Alps. We hastened to flee the confusion of the suburbs of Milan and in no time we plunged into the lush, green countryside of Lombardia and Piemonte. It was the last week of May, a perfect time to visit Italy before the tourist invasion of the summer and all around us nature was bursting with vivid colours and melodic bird songs.
From Milan we took the A7, A21 and before Asti cut towards Alba on our way towards the Maritime Alps past Cuneo. This whole area is famous for robust piedmontese wines and good spumantes. Our destination was Limone Piemonte which is 242 km southwest of Milan.
Once out of the urban smog, we found ourselves immersed in the beautiful green countryside of Lombardia, dotted with flooded rice fields, outlined by low dykes in order to contain the precious water required for the cultivation of the excellent "arborio" rice. We feasted our eyes on fields of golden wheat, seemingly waving at us, almost ready for the harvest only a few weeks later. Further still, we saw fields of deep green alfalfa in bloom, kept lush by the numerous artesian springs fed by the melting snow high on the alpine arc. Throughout the region we glimpsed imposing brick farmhouses now in ruins. Seeing them in this abandoned state provoked a profound sense of sadness since these complexes once housed a dozen or more large families which used to work in the surrounding farmland and in the cavernous barns (check the films: "1900" and "The Wooden Clogs").
In contrast to the haze that normally envelops the valley of the Po from the western Alps to the Adriatic sea, that day the air was clear, seemingly pure. The sun was gleaming with pageantry. Looking westward, the whole arc of the western Alps could be seen gloriously basking in the midday sun, glittering from the snowcapped peaks; the massifs of the Mon Viso, the Gran Paradiso and the Monte Rosa were easily recognizable all in their majesty; surely a breathtaking scene. To see them in their immensity, the hunger for our destination grew sharper; we were now getting closer to Asti where the Piedmontese "Langhe" and hills start, covered by extensive vineyards that give us the famous red wines like Barolo, Nebbiolo, Grignolino, Dolcetto, Barbaresco and Asti spumante, just to name a few.
Further on, just outside the town of Alba, we encountered two "carabinieri" (paramilitary police) on road patrol. One of the two holding a machine gun signalled us to stop and then approached our car. I promptly obeyed the instructions, somewhat nervous and at the same time a bit irritated for what would probably be a long and unpleasant delay. I gave to him the papers including the international driving licence which he took to the patrol chief (maresciallo) for verification. After a few long moments he returned and declared that an important document, the car permit, was missing. Following a frantic search of the car we gave up and tried to explain (both my wife and I can speak Italian fluently) that we had just arrived from Canada, that we had rented the car at the airport, and that we knew nothing about a car "permit". At this point the officer told us that his superior, the "maresciallo", would like to have a word with me. As I glanced at my wife I could see that she had blanched; it turned out that I had to sign a rather large ledger in lieu of providing the car "permit".
This done, the "maresciallo" drilled me with questions like "how big are the police cars in Canada: "big V8", what kind of motorcycles do they use: "Harley Davidson" etc. After each answer both officers glanced regretfully at their rather puny little Fiat. Then the conversation turned to politics, geography, economy and why was I driving with the lights on during the day. All the while the "maresciallo' took out a pack of cigarettes, offered me one (I declined since I'm a non smoker) and as he put one in his mouth the underling hurried to light it! We finally shook hands and said goodbye like old friends.
Back in the car we continued our trip towards Cuneo and beyond, both relieved that the interlude with the carabinieri turned out to be better, even if longer, than anticipated. We both laughingly agreed that this episode was like a parody of daily italian life.
We arrived in Cuneo, we crossed the main piazza, but kept going because the call of the mountains, by now very close, was getting stronger. Further still, the road in the Vermenagna valley slowly started to climb and to get narrower. We reached Vernante, popular for the ruins of the castle up high above and for the lovely murals from the "Pinocchio" story (enlarge photo at left: "Tina's Fountain"). We continued to Limone Piemonte our final destination, just 6.5 km away.
Usually when we visit a village or a small town, we leave the car at the outskirts. Here in Limone Piemonte we found a good spot on the south side of the town close to the bridge on the Vermenagna and near a public fountain. From here we visited the narrow streets of the town and called on the tourist office. Limone (from the old greek leimon = meadow) counts 1,731 souls, is at an elevation of 1,009 m. amongst cool beech woods, and is well known as a summer resort as well as for winter sports.
One can visit the parish church of S. Peter in Vincoli, a renowned example of piedmontese gothic architecture with a romanic belfry. The precious wooden pulpit comes from the certosa of Pesio and dates from the XVII century. At the tourist office we found the attendants very courteous and we were informed that because it was low season, the choice of accommodations was limited. Following the guide given to us, we checked out the first two hotels, one of which was in the town itself. This one, as it turned out, was the only one with the heating system still on. We decide to take the car and go higher up towards the Tenda pass. After a few hairpin curves we found the Hotel Edelweiss in the locality called Panice at an elevation of 1,210 m.
The hotel was family owned. The affable owner took us to inspect a couple of rooms both with a balcony and wood panelling on the wall. We decided to take the one with the best view of the surrounding mountains. By then it was mid afternoon and the peaks all around us were basking in the warm sun like sleeping giants. Everything was peaceful and finally we could rest.
Later, having decided that the next day we would have an early start, we went into town to buy a local topographic map showing all the walking trails. We also stopped at the bakery and grocery store to pick up the food we would need on the hike.
The Vermenagna valley is one of six major valleys in the Cuneo region. The others are: Pesio, Gesso, Stura and Grana valleys; all offer a variety of nature, history, mountain glens and activities with flavours of long ago. The three regional parks (Argentera, Palanfre' and Pesio) adjacent to the French parks (Mercantour and Queyras) add to the richness of the flora and fauna of the whole areas whose peaks can reach over three thousand meters in elevation. There are hiking possibilities for every type of hiker.
For our first hike we chose the RISERVA NATURALE of PALANFRČ. As planned, we got going very early in the morning and drove north towards Vernante (elevation 799 m). Once in town we took the road to the village of Palanfre' (elevation 1379 m). We arrived in the small piazza which was still in the cool shade of the early morning light. We got out of the car and stretched our stiff muscles, deeply inhaling the energizing mountain air. Not a sound could be heard but the soft gurgling of a fountain just a few feet from the piazza and the rushing water of the creek down in the valley. We looked up towards the snow capped peaks, by now kissed by the warm rays of the sun resplendent in the deep blue sky; we felt exhilarated and free and yet we were captivated by the intoxicating experience that we were about to have.
It promised to be a hot day for the climb; we approached the cheerful fountain which invites any vagabond to quench their thirst. Sparkling water spouted from a cut tree branch and cascaded into an horizontal tree trunk; we filled up four one litre bottles with the pure bracing water (enlarge photo at right: the fountain as seen on a previous excursion.) Not far we found two rustic walking staffs to help us both climb and descend. No doubt these walking sticks were put there by some other rambler and this gave us a sense of fellowship with all those lucky people who came before and will come after us to relish these sights. With knapsacks well balanced on our backs and hiking boots snugly tied, we took one last sip of water and started up the mule track that would take us higher and higher. We engaged in peaceful conversation followed by long interludes of silence and reflection. The themes were diverse, eclectic, interspersed with heartfelt laughs. The mountain was there under our feet, and we revered its immensity, gradually oblivious of those things that become totally unimportant in the mountains.
The mule track became a well kept trail and here and there alpine flowers dotted the rocky slopes. The rhododendron were not in bloom yet but the blossoms were almost ready to burst. This trail would take us to the lake of Albergh (elevation 2,038 m.) in about 3 hours. At the entrance to the valley of the Albergh (wich means high pastures) we saw high on the horizon the pyramid of the Frisson mountain (elevation 2,637 m.) whose peak seemed to be frolicking with gallivanting and playful clouds (enlarge photo at left: taken on a previous excursion.)
After more than two hours of hiking, we encountered snow on the trail deep enough to render it impassable without proper equipment. Consequently we bowed to the will of the mountain, found a shaded resting spot and after a leisurely lunch, took the trail back to Palanfrč. We abandoned the useful staffs near the fountain. This time the mountain had prevented us from reaching our destination, nonetheless, my wife and I felt fulfilled for the opportunity to absorb those beautiful peaceful vistas, accompanied by the sound of melting snow tumbling through the rocks and the whistle of marmots. We learned, yet again, one more life lesson that the mountains continue to offer for those willing to listen.
After three days visiting and walking in these beautiful surroundings, we reluctantly left and slowly made our way to Piacenza where the cousins live.
But first we took a detour and visited Val Pesio with its magnificent Certosa (XII c.) and the Parco Naturale encompassing the majestic Marguareis group (elevation 2,651 m.). Although the visit was short due to low and misty clouds, my wife and I fell in love with this green valley and its rugged peaks and so we pledged to return and discover its deeper secrets (enlarge photo at left: view of a cloister.)
L'ALBERGH - LOCANDA - RESTAURANT