This week I got into a Fiat Panda 4×4 that turned out to be a time machine. The precise date to which it took me was 1969, but it could easily have been a couple of centuries earlier. Renato, the butcher and shopkeeper of my village Casabasciana, wanted to take me somewhere hidden.
He knows I like walking in the wilderness, and thought this place would appeal to me, but wouldn’t reveal any more. We fixed Thursday afternoon, and I gathered my equally curious and appreciative friends Lone, Klaus and Tove to accompany us. Crammed into the Panda, we drove down the hill to the Lima Valley and turned right toward Abetone and Renato’s home town of Popiglio.
Opposite the road to Lucchio, before Popiglio, we turned left into a gravel lane where Renato’s cousin Giuliano was waiting for us with his Panda 4×4. We divided ourselves between the two cars and bounced and wound up the eroded track, passing an occasional farm building.
Just when it seemed we couldn’t go any higher, we reached the end of the road and the farmstead where Renato’s and Giuliano’s mothers and Giuliano himself were born.
The sky was a uniform grey that day which added to the mood of desolation. The buildings sat on a narrow terrace, with stalls and pigsty beneath the house on the downhill side and the main door at the back.
Numbers 1 and 2 must have been the buildings we passed on the way up.
Giuliano opens the main door and to our right is the kitchen, focal point of a farmhouse.
There are almost too many things to take in, objects signifying a different way of living.
The family tries to keep the place in good repair, but it’s becoming more and more difficult.
I’ve seen these burners in many old houses. You put coals from the hearth in the iron boxes and a trivet on top on which to rest the pot. The bottoms of the boxes are gratings that allow the ash to drop through and you remove it through the square holes beneath.
The bedrooms are on the upper floor.
Renato explains that this object was made from thin strips of chestnut wood. You hung a pot of hot coals on the hook inside at the apex and placed it under the covers as a bed warmer. We all giggle at the idea of a priest in the bed.
In the background another model of ‘priest’, and in the foreground a tool to hold a skein of yarn while you wound it into a ball.
The upstairs landing, like the kitchen, was another ethnographic museum.
Giuliano’s father and grandfather were charcoal burners.
There was a mountain cable car for hauling heavy goods up to the house.
The tour of the main house concluded, we went to see the rest of the buildings.
At the far end of the courtyard the door on the right opened into the much smaller house where Renato’s mother was born. Renato asked if we could guess why they left the courtyard covered with weeds. Because the pavement was so beautiful that if anyone saw it, they’d be up there with crow bars in an instant.
The metato was the building in which chestnuts were put (‘mettere’ means ‘to put’) to dry on a slatted ceiling above a smouldering fire before being shelled, sorted and taken to the miller to be ground into flour. Back in the house we had seen some of the other tools required for the later stages.
When the earthquake of 1920 caused landslides that covered several villages, the lower walls of houses were reinforced with these stone buttresses, just like a mediaeval fort, one of which we could just see across the Lima valley.
Above the tiny village clinging onto the wooded slope are the remains of a fortress, part of Lucca’s late mediaeval line of defence against the Florentines.
There was an almost unwelcome surprise. Adjoining the far end of the house was another house, owned by other people from Popiglio. They had brought it right up to date, including a television aerial.
I wanted to see where the charcoal pile used to be. We drove back down the road a few hundred metres where we were greeted by more spectacular views.
We know Vico Pancellorum well because of its restaurant Buca di Baldabò, one of our favourites in the area.
On the spot where the charcoal used to be produced was a strange orchid.
It has no chlorophyll, but is a saprophyte which feeds on rotting vegetation with the help of a symbiotic fungus.
As we drove away, we learned the sad subtext to the visit. The family had concluded they had to sell the house. Their children have no interest in it, and since Prime Minister Monti introduced more taxes for uninhabited buildings, it was becoming too much of a financial drain. Their 7 hectares (14 acres) of fields and woodland are also subject to taxes. The top half of the road is private and requires constant maintenance. But who would buy it? Do I know anyone?
The 2014 Slow Food guide to the extra-virgin olive oils of Italy is out. Since the 2013 harvest 130 Slow Food collaborators have been working hard to assess more than 700 farms and over 1000 different oils. Like wine, some vintages of olive oil are better than others: 2012 was a great year for Lucca oil, but 2013 was particularly difficult, producing less characterful oils. Nevertheless, the guide recommends nine oils from Lucca Province.
To read more about olives and olive oil, please go to my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/extra-virgin-lucca/
Why the Garfagnana?
The Garfagnana is unquestionably beautiful. It’s rugged mountains cloaked with green forests set it apart from the Tuscany of Chianti to the south and the Po Plain of Emilia over the Apennine Mountains to the east.
But I could never understand what use it could possibly have been to the Dukes of Ferrara, the Este family. In 1429 Nicolò d’Este annexed the Garfagnana to his realm and for almost four centuries the Garfagnana remained under the Dukes, who defended it against the republics of Lucca and Florence.
I searched the internet; I asked my city guide in Ferrara. It seemed never to have occurred to anyone to wonder why.
Today I went to the Sagra della Minestrella di Gallicano. Minestrella is a soup of wild herbs and beans made only in Gallicano, a town of fewer than 4,000 people. Today it is the southernmost town in the Garfagnana. When the Garfagnana was under the rule of the Dukes of Este, Gallicano was the northernmost Lucchese stronghold (apart from the even smaller town of Castiglione di Garfagnana). Directly across the river in Barga the Florentines held sway. Surrounded by strong neighbours, Gallicano went its own culinary way.
The plan of the day included an introduction to wild edible herbs, a walk (in the rain — not planned) identifying the edible herbs along the path to the Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita (Old Restaurant of the Hermitage), where we not only feasted on the legendary minestrella, but numerous other traditional dishes illustrating the use of wild herbs, not omitting the focaccia leva, a flatbread unique to Gallicano.
The conversation turned time and again to the detailed history of the region and the extent to which it influenced agriculture and culinary tradition. Everyone seemed to be well versed in the history of the place. It was the symbolic and often the actual basis of their ownership of the land. I talked to Cesare, who had organised the event, about taking my clients to forage for edible herbs and use them to prepare a meal. He was agreeable, but cautioned that the activity wasn’t to be just about the identification of the plants, their recipes and flavours; it had to include their cultural history, what they meant to the families who ate them.
Ivo Poli, who had given the lecture on the wild plants, gave me a lift back to my car. He lives in the next town north of Gallicano and had always been a Garfagnino (citizen of the Garfagnana). I asked him the question that had teased me for so long. It’s easy, he said, ‘We had the petroleum of the Renaissance: charcoal.’ I’d walked in the tree-covered mountains; I’d seen a charcoal burner at work; I’d watched the blacksmith Carlo Galgani beating iron in his charcoal fire; I’d been to a village that produced nothing but nails; but I’d lacked the historical glue to put them together.
Far more important than nails and horseshoes, every ruler needed charcoal to smelt iron to make arms to defend his borders and subdue new territories. The village streets lined with grand houses with imposing doorways suddenly make sense as residences of the oil barons of their day.
I always get excited about the winter Slow Food Soup Tournament. The 2014 dates of the Disfida della Zuppa have just been announced. The displays of skill of the competing zuppistiare a wonder and will satisfy the mid-winter yearnings of any hungry foodie. Compare it to eating the Ladies’ Moguls Freestyle Skiing.
I’ve written about zuppa in several blogs (if you’d like to read more, see below for the links), so this time I’m just going to tell you briefly what zuppa is and translate the email I received this morning soliciting zuppisti to enter the Tournament.
Zuppa derives from the 16th-century ‘suppa’ which means ‘a slice of bread impregnated with liquid’, a sort of crouton. The Lucchese zuppa alla frantoiana, the protagonist of the Tournament, supposedly originated at olive presses (frantoio means olive press). After you pressed your olives, you took your new oil to the fireplace in the frantoio where a pot of soup was simmering over the flames. The press’s owner put a crust of bread in a bowl, ladled the zuppa over it and you seasoned it with a drizzle of your oil. Since olives were pressed between November and January, the ingredients were winter vegetables. (Nowadays the fashion is for bitterer, more piquant oil and many olives are pressed in the second half of October before they’re completely ripe.)
This year there will be 11 matches before the semi-finals and the ‘Cup Final’. Anyone who makes zuppa can compete, whether mamma, son, aunt or professional chef.
The philosophy behind zuppa is deep and produces endless discussions at the matches. What are the essential ingredients? At past tournaments the consensus has been: dried beans, olive oil, bread and cavolo nero. In the realms of ‘freestyle’, you can add wild edible herbs, seasonal vegetables, whatever your family recipe includes or whatever takes your fancy. What’s not allowed? Unseasonal vegetables like zucchini.
In the light of this, Slow Food’s call for contestants is poetic and provocative:
Non è mai troppo tardi per partecipare alla disfida ed entrare nel’albo ufficiale degli zuppisti lucchesi.
Portate la ricetta della nonna, della zia, della trisavola, la vostra. Con erbi, senza erbi, con pane, senza pane, con cipolla fresca, senza cipolla fresca, ne abbiamo vite tante, ma non ancora tutte. La ricetta della zuppa è per definizione una ricetta che non esiste, se non nell’esperienza di chi la fa e ne custodisce i sapori, i profumi, gli aromi, i ricordi.
It’s never too late to participate in the tournament and enter the official annals of Lucca soup makers.
Bring the recipe of your grandmother, your aunt, your great-great grandmother, your own. With herbs, without herbs, with bread, without bread, with fresh onion, without fresh onion, we’ve nourished ourselves with many, but not yet all. The recipe for zuppa is by definition a recipe that doesn’t exist except in the experiences of those who make it and preserve the flavours, the fragrance, the aromas and the memories.
The jury is us the public, so if you’re near Lucca between now and the end of March and want a truly Slow Italian experience, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll book you in for the date of your choice. But hurry, the competitors are world class and the games sell out quickly.
Dates of zuppa matches
13 February: Ristorante pizzeria “i Diavoletti” di Camigliano, 18 February: Sala parrocchiale di Capannori, 21 February: Rio di Vorno, 26 February: Antica e Premiata tintoria Verciani – il Mecenate a Lucca, 28 February: Osteria da mi pa’, 1 March: Aquilea, 7 March: Osteria storica morianese da Pio, 8 March: Agriturismo Alle Camelie, 14 March: Sala parrocchiale di Carignano per il gruppo Equinozio, 21 March: Rio di Vorno per i Gruppi GAS Lucca Pisa, date to be announced: Pecora Nera
Links to my other zuppa blogs: Soup Tournament, Elegy to Soup, Soup Put to the Test, Souprize, Slow Food Disfida della Zuppa or Soup Tournament, Another Zuppa
I first thought about the power of water when Bob Coleman, my tai chi teacher and director of works at Neal’s Yard Dairy (there’s always a food connection), was trying to get us to comprehend the force behind one of the moves in ‘grasp sparrow’s tail’. Water isn’t compressible, it doesn’t give when it hits you. We practised sending all our energy to our forearms and not budging an inch.
While I was editing the World Bank’s independent review of the Narmada dam project in India with social anthropologist Hugh Brody, I became aware of the power of water to disrupt traditional communities.
Moving to the valley of the Lima River, a major tributary of the Serchio (pronounced serk´-ee-o) River that flows across the Lucca plain and into the sea just north of the Arno brought me closer to the power of water. As you drive up and down the valleys, you see everywhere the evidence of the power of water to generate electricity through micro-hydro plants.
It’s impossible to imagine what the Serchio was like before dams were built on every tributary and the main river itself, and huge tubes were drilled through the mountains between the tributaries so that water can be shunted to whichever reservoir needs it most. I’ve read that it was navigable, which it certainly isn’t today. One theory for the unequal heights of the arches of the Devil’s Bridge is that the masts of sailing ships had to fit through one of them.
In mediaeval times the river (then called the Auser) progressively flooded land nearer and nearer to Lucca. Luckily, the Bishop of Lucca San Frediano, an Irish priest, was also an expert hydraulic engineer, and put a halt to the flooding by moving the course of the river to its present channel in 561 to 589. It takes a long time to move a river, but it did the trick. The Lucca plain is still crisscrossed by drainage canals to stop flooding and create rich arable land.
Once or twice every winter due to a particularly heavy rainstorm or snowmelt, the Serchio is in spate. The swirling drive of the water is almost intoxicating as it fills the whole river bed and churns the worn river stones gouging out unfortified stretches of the river bank and piling up new pebble islands that will be visible when the water recedes.
Occasionally it floods the main road at the Devil’s Bridge, just upstream from the big dam at Borgo a Mozzano, the last bulwark where the amount of water flowing across the Lucca plain can be regulated. Usually the most annoying damage is a few small landslides (frana in Italian) that either undermine or block the narrow mountain roads connecting the main road along the valley floor to the ancient villages high on mountain ridges.
As I write this it’s been raining hard, really hard for five days in the Province of Lucca (probably elsewhere too, but what’s local has most impact). There’s an occasional break of a few hours, and then the rat-a-tat of the drops starts again. The force of the water in streams, rivers and canals is destroying roads, houses and fields. There are many more landslides and trees lose their grip and topple over also blocking roads. Although I didn’t ask for them, my computer gives me FaceBook updates from the Provincia di Lucca. In the last 24 hours they’ve been coming through nearly as fast as the raindrops.
24 hours ago
#maltempo [bad weather]: The level of flow of the Serchio remains constant. The major danger remains the network of drainage ditches on the Lucca plain.
#maltempo: Road maintenance crews from the Province removed detritus from the road at Acquabona (Castelnuovo Garfagnana) on the SR455. They positioned protection blocks. The road is open.
#maltempo: On the strada provinciale 37 of Fabbriche di Vallico (locality Lombardo) in course of removal of detritus and water issuing from an adjacent ditch. Light inconvenience but the road is passable.
#maltempo: In locality Ripa (comune of Seravezza) the eponymous river overflowed because of an obstruction of the river course caused by a landslide. Two houses are flooded. The comune sent its own volunteers to protect the houses and sent the Consorzio di Bonifica [land drainage] Versilia Massaciuccoli to remove the obstruction from the canal.
#maltempo: The water flow at the dam at Borgo a Mozzano at 13.00 was 600 to 700 cubic metres per second.
[I hope the Devil’s Bridge is holding strong. It’s over 1000 years old.]
21 hours ago
#maltempo: Engineers are constantly monitoring the situation of the #serchio.
#maltempo: The frazione of Tereglio is cut off due to two landslides which fell on the SP56 and on the SC Tereglio–Lucignana.
#maltempo: A rise in the level of the #serchio has been registered.
15 hours ago
#maltempo: A night of work for the personnel in the operations room for civil protection in the Province of Lucca. Many and diverse emergencies caused by the strong rain. At daybreak visits to the places are planned to assess the landslides and flooding.
14 hours ago
#maltempo: In the comune of Gallicano, the frazione of Fiattone is reachable only by 4×4. The road was affected by a landslide.
[Just below Fiattone is Podere Concori where Gabriele da Prato makes excellent wine. Are his terraces being swept away?]
#maltempo: SP60 from Pascoso–Pescaglia remains closed due to a landslide. Road maintenance crews are working at the site. Pascoso continues to be unreachable. [A comment 5 hours ago: It’s still closed.]
13 hours ago
#maltempo: Transit barred by a landslide on the comune road Mulino di Burica, in frazione Fabbriche di Casabasciana (comune Bagni di Lucca). At the moment one house is cut off.
[It’s getting closer. That’s at the bottom of my hill.]
#maltempo: A landslide has closed the road to Sillico, comune of Pieve Fosciana.
[How will Ismaele, one of the norcini who teaches my Advanced Salumi Course, get up there to feed his pigs and cattle?]
I feel anxious. What will be next? It feels like the world around me is crumbling, washing back to the sea where it came from.
12 hours ago
#maltempo: The comune road to Bargecchia (Pieve Fosciana) was rendered impassable by a landslide obstructing also the road to Capanne di Bargecchia. The two communities are cut off, reachable only on foot. Work has already begun.
#maltempo: The road to Sillico in the comune of Pieve Fosciana previously interrupted by a landslide has been reopened as an alternating one-way system to ambulances only.
[Will they feed Ismaele’s pigs?]
#maltempo: Worrying the level of Lake Massaciuccoli which has reached 48 cm. It is continually being monitored especially in the vicinity of Massarosa.
#maltempo: In locality Lombardo, in the comune of Gallicano, a landslip is affecting a high tension electrical pylon. ENEL [electricity company] is assessing the situation.
11 hours ago
#maltempo: After the peak flow during the night of 1100 cubic metres per second, the flow of the Serchio at 7.00 am was down to 950 cu.m/sec. The levels are being constantly monitored by the Province’s engineers.
3 hours ago
#maltempo: President Baccelli [President of Lucca Province] inspects the SP56 in the Valfegana.
[That’s the road to Marzia, one of my cheesemakers. Good thing they’re almost self-sufficient.]
Gradually the reports bring better news; roads have been partly opened and dikes repaired, but some people have lost their houses. President Baccelli has asked for financial assistance from the Tuscan region.
In one of the gaps in the rain, I go out to investigate whether Casabasciana has suffered any damage.
I’m relieved to find that all the houses and roads are intact. Mediaeval town planners had the good sense to bed their villages on solid rocky spurs high above the valleys that were subject to flooding. The cobbled streets slope toward the centre where the water gushing from downpipes from roofs coalesces into mini-rivers that flow downhill out of the village.
I think of the people swept away by tsunamis and major floods. We’ve escaped lightly, this time.
9 Ways to Celebrate Chestnuts
I’ve just received an email from Ponti nel Tempo (Bridges in Time), the tourist organisation for the Alpi Apuane, notifying me of NINE chestnut festivals, one starting tonight and eight on Sunday. You can tell these are for locals because they don’t give you much warning; they assume you live here and are ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Here’s what’s on offer:
From Friday 11 to Sunday 13 October
Autunno Apuano, Loc. Bosa (Careggine)
Sunday 13 October
Fiera di ottobre, Castiglione di Garfagnana
Castagnata del CAI, Fortezza di Mont’alfonso (Castelnuovo di Garfagnana)
La Castagna e i suoi sapori, Convalle (Pescaglia)
Mondinata con la Befana, Pegnana (Barga)
Castagnata in piazza , Cascio (Molazzana)
Festa della Castagna, Trassilico (Gallicano)
Festa della Castagna alla Selva del Buffardello (San Romano in Garfagnana)
Festa del Borgo della Poesia , Castelvecchio Pascoli (Barga)
Details of each event can be found at www.pontineltempo.it.
What’s most surprising to me is that despite being a sagra (festival) junkie, I’ve only been to one of these, the Fiera di ottobre at Castiglione, where they serve a delectable lunch including porcini mushrooms and black truffles. Highly recommended! Although every single sagra is tempting, I’m going to Convalle, because that’s where my friends Nada and Romeo live and weave the most beautiful household linens. To read more about them see my blog Weaving a Life of Happiness, and to visit them come on my Tastes & Textiles tour next May. But I’m digressing.
Chestnut festivals are attractions for the whole family. The children enjoy the roast chestnuts.
So do their parents and grandparents, but the latter are especially nostalgic about the necci, chestnut-flour pancakes cooked between flat stones or steel plates over a burner and often used as wraps for ricotta. Some of the grandparents ate dishes prepared with chestnut flour for every meal when they were young.
Collecting, drying, shelling, sorting and milling chestnuts is a whole story in itself, a story of nourishment and social cohesion. You can read about how my village does it in my blogs Getting Under the Skin, To the Mulino, At the Mulino.
Sadly, we haven’t lit the metato, the chestnut drying hut, for the last two years, because there haven’t been enough good quality chestnuts.
The enormous, centuries old trees are under attack from a teeny weeny Chinese wasp with a long name, Dryocosmus kuriphilus, which was first spotted in the Piedmont in 2002. The female lays its eggs in the leaf bud (no male fertilisation is required) and the first year no damage is detected. The following spring galls are visible on the affected leaves and the presence of the larvae causes the leaves to be smaller and deformed. Photosynthesis is inhibited, the tree becomes weaker and produces fewer and smaller chestnuts. The most effective control found so far is a Japanese wasp, the natural predator of D. kuriphilus, which has been released in limited numbers, and should result in a good battle. Australians will shudder and think of the cane toad.
I don’t suppose attending a chestnut festival will help the poor chestnuts, but we’d better enjoy them while we can.
I’ve written about zuppa alla frantoiana, a typical seasonal soup of Lucca, so many times that you’d think I’d be bored with it. But no. It’s the archetypal winter dish—a minestrone on a foundation of stale bread—and varies according the cook, his or her family tradition, the vegetables available in the orto (veg patch) and hedgerows, the quality of the bread and of this year’s olive oil. Every zuppa conforms to certain principles and yet each is unique.
Five years ago Slow Food Lucca Compitese Orti Lucchesi realised the qualities of zuppa were not so dissimilar to football teams (all teams play by the same rules, but each has its own characteristics) and organised the Disfida della Zuppa (soup tournament) composed of several rounds, with the winner of each round going through to the finals. The contestants range from home cooks to restaurant chefs. The jury is composed of us, the public, who come to taste, debate and judge. The 5th round of this year’s Disfida, at restaurant Il Rio di Vorno, went like this.
Judging with our eyes first, we see that each zuppa looks entirely different. We season the zuppe with generous drizzles of new season extra virgin olive oil from a nearby olive farm.
Number 2 aromatic, number 3 badly burnt. If you turn your back for a second, the bean puree that forms the basis of the zuppa sticks to the bottom of the pan.
You can tell what country you’re in without hearing the language, just look at the hands.
Each soup gets positive marks for intensity of aroma, intensity of flavour and complexity of flavour, and negative ones for too much salt, too little salt, too much acidity and burnt odour. We also give each an overall rating from 4 to 10. Nothing less than 4. I guess they don’t want anyone to feel too discouraged.
Polpetti of bacalà (salt cod), rustic puree of chick peas and stewed cabbage seasoned with a hint of wine vinegar.
Francesca made zuppa number 2, the one everyone at my table judged the best. She’ll go through to the finals. Brava Francesca!
The whole evening only costs €2o for Slow Food members and €23 for non-members, and that includes wine and coffee. What a bargain!
To read more about zuppa see Elegy to Zuppa, Soup put to the test, Souprize, Slow Food Disfida della Zuppa and over at Debra Kolkka’s blog Bagni di Lucca and Beyond, Who made the best soup?, and Serious Soup on Bella Bagni di Lucca.
Next round: 9 March at 20.00 at the Sala Parrocchiale, Capannori. See you there!
Orto in February
It takes some willpower to go down to the vegetable garden on a cold, gloomy February day. But as soon as I’m out the door and heading down the main street of the village, my spirits lift. Even though driving rain for the last two days has melted all the snow around Casabasciana, the Alpi Apuane in the distance are dusted white.
My camera and I aren’t up to showing you how beautiful the 3-minute walk to the orto is. And as for how fresh the air smells…
Around the next curve and I can see the Prato Fiorito capped with snow and the Apennines stretching back into the distance.
My last report on the vegetable garden was in September. I’m now harvesting what we planted then, but it’s not a great success story. I followed the instructions of the man I bought the plantlets from, but you need a magnifying glass to see the fennel bulbs.
Any experienced fennel growers out there who can tell me what I did wrong? Maybe the same thing as the Savoy cabbage? Are they a special variety for one-person households?
Then there’s the Cercospora leaf spot on the bietola (Swiss chard), but I’m cleaning that up and the new leaves are clear and green.
The cavolo nero stands sturdily against all ravages except mine. It’s so good in soups and on crostini.
If I start to feel depressed or bewildered, I only have to look up.
The road to Bagni di Lucca
This monumental road sign stands at the intersection of Borgo Giannotti and Via San Marco just to the north of Porta Santa Maria, the main northern gate to the city of Lucca. Borgo Giannotti was a meeting and resting point for merchants on their way from the port at Viareggio to the Garfagnana where they sold their wares. There are many other interesting things to be discovered in Borgo Giannotti and I’ve written about some of them in my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website:
Behind the scenes
If you crane your neck to look up as you drive along the rocky corridor of the Lima Valley from Bagni di Lucca, you’ll catch glimpses of stone villages in small tears in the forest that cloaks the slopes.
There are 31 scattered around the 165 sq km of the comune of Bagni di Lucca (similar to a township in the US, smaller than a county in the UK), and Debra Kolkka is pursuing a project of visiting all of them and showing you their charms over on her blog Bella Bagni di Lucca.
Since one of my great pleasures, particularly during the winter months, is walking in the woods, I’ve observed that the villages are only the tip of the iceberg of a culture that existed in this territory until only a few decades ago. When reading Debra’s recent pieces about two adjacent villages, Cocciglia and Palleggio, a much expanded project entered my head.
Why not try to follow the remaining mulattiere between the villages? These beautifully crafted cobbled roads formed the main arteries of transport before asphalt arrived in the 1960s.
Yesterday, with my faithful walking companions Keith and Penny Barry, I set off to walk the short distance from Cocciglia to Palleggio. Here’s what we saw, compliments of Keith, since I had left my camera and iPhone at home.
We began at the Oratorio of San Michele which Debra noted at the bottom of Cocciglia. The mulattiera descends to the right of the oratory, and is completely overshadowed by the tarmack road leading up to the village. You might miss it if it weren’t also designated as Trail 10 of the Italian Alpine Club.
As we descend we see some of the cobbles have washed out and a little way along we’re directed up to a higher level at a point where a landslide has nearly washed out the original mulattiera. At least someone is still maintaining the path.
Now we descend toward what we know must be the Scesta River, and we wonder how we’ll cross. On another walk we met this major tributary of the Lima higher up and it’s a sizable torrent, not to be hopped over on stepping stones. Yet despite all the rain we’ve had, we don’t hear water running. Gradually a stone arch camouflaged by moss and ivy emerges ahead.
The riverbed below is dry. We surmise there must be a dam higher up the river, but that’s another walk. Now we have just a short uphill stretch until we reach Palleggio.
Will we arrive at the bottom of Palleggio at the little Oratorio di Santa Maria della Quercia that Debra found at the end of her visit?
This certainly isn’t it, picturesque as it is.
We’re on a rough tarmack road now which curves to the left and meets the modern road up to Palleggio. And on our right…
We start down the road Debra ventured a little way along and can’t stop ourselves continuing to the end, but that’s a story for another time of a more recent road and more recent construction. Two hours later we are back at the church and find the lawn mowers at work in the field opposite.
The shepherd is lurking above by the municipal dustbin. His name is Marcello and he makes cheese. Not now of course, he explains, because the animals aren’t lactating, but between April and September I can come buy cheese from him at the top of Palleggio. What’s his surname, I ask, so I can ask the way. Oh, that won’t be necessary. Just ask for ‘il pastore’; there’s only one shepherd these days.
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