Saturday, November 06, 2010

Valsusa, 2: Chapels

AFTER AN INTERLUDE of a couple of days in Milan, too busy to write, I resume, I hope. If you look at a map of Italy you see at what's normally though of as the northwest — though in fact the peninsula does not run north and south, but lies at a rakish angle against the compass — a big sort of shoulder: that's the two regions of Val d'Aosta and Piemonte. Val d'Aosta's an interesting place, rather isolated though easily accessible, a valley open at the south corner but otherwise ringed by Alps, home to Italy's magnificent national park the Gran Paradiso. We've driven through Aosta a few times, twice spending the night in one or another corner high up a side road, and have fond memories of the people, the terrain, and the cuisine. But we know Piemonte much better.

Piemonte's terrain is quite varied, flat and easily farmed in its southern half, rumpled for vineyard and truffle forests in the east central region, marshy along the great Po river where the best rice is grown. But it's the western side of the region I like best, the series of five or six valleys cut and drained by fast streams running from the high snowy ridgeline down to the foot of the mountains (pie monti in dialect).

Lindsey's father was born in Chiomonte in one of the northernmost of these valleys, the Valsusa. The country hereabouts is rugged. Chiomonte's above the Dora Riparia river on the south , right bank; across the river the mountain rises nearly vertically in some places, terraced with vineyards that seem impossible to maintain, and laced with perpendicular flumes, pipes perhaps a meter in diameter, bringing snowmelt down precipitously to run a hydroelectric plant.

(I like to think Lindsey's father was inspired by the awe of this landscape, and by this daring domestication of its powers, to an early fascination with electricity; he became an electrical engineer after his emigration to the United States.)

Like the Savoie on the other, French side of the ridge, the mountains and foothills on the Piemonte side are dotted with romanesque chapels, many containing frescos in the powerful, sometimes lyrical naive itinerant style of the area. We visited two of these: San Benedetto on the south side of the valley, above Villar Focchiardo in a regional park; and the Abbazia di Novalesa on the north side, just off the road leading over the Moncensio pass to Lanslebourg on the French side.

Chapel at the Abbazia di Novalesa

The Abbey was interesting for its architecture, its fine site overlooking a beautifully farmed valley, and its frescos celebrating Saints Eldrado and Nicholas, important local saints whose pilgrimages led them to these mountains. We drove there, impolitely driving right up to the abbey which is still a working religious retreat open to tourists only a few hours a week, and we joined a group of Italian tourists guided by an enthusiastic and very sympathetic guide who did her best to be sure I had some idea of what she was explaining though she knew very little English.

We walked to San Benedetto, driving to the end of a long narrow paved road, through many switchbacks, to a parking spot at the end, then walking nearly an hour along a narrow footpath through mixed hardwood forest, crossing a fast stream (half cascade) midway on the walk on a crude bridge a foot or so wide, then climbing fairly steeply before suddenly coming out into an alpage centered on a stone farmstead and the chapel, church really, of S. Benedetto.

S. Benedetto (center) in its alpage

This was founded by Cartusian monks walking here on their pilgrimage from Mont St. Michel on the French coast, by way of the Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps outside Grenoble, finally to Rome. I suppose these waypoints were settled partly to shelter, partly to supply later pilgrims taking the same strenuous but in many ways refreshing journey. In their day, of course, the terrain was wilder; the woods full of wolves, life considerably more uncertain. On our little pilgrimage up to the chapel the only danger was the slippery wet chestnut leaves underfoot; those, and the souvenirs left by milk-cows and cow-dogs, inevitably fouling our shoes.

On one side of the church a low side-room has been turned into a fromagerie where wheels of mountain cheese, tomme or tomo depending on your language, are left on crude wooden shelves to take on some age. I asked the farmer, who was about to round up his herd, what breed the cows were: "French," he said — the same red-brown breed we'd seen playing their bells on the main street in Lanslevillard. (Looking back on the little video I made of them that day, I see now that some of them are the Abondance breed, easily distinguished by the black "spectacles" they wear.)

The church has been stabilized, not really rebuilt, and a wooden suspended floor has been provided to protect the original. Apparently concerts are given here in the summertime; there must be a paved road up here that we didn't know about — I'm glad, as we might otherwise have missed a truly fine afternoon's hike.

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