VALLIERA, A GHOST MOUNTAIN VILLAGE RE-AWAKENING!
When we had to change from the coach to cars in the Italian mountain village of Colletto, I should have been prepared for what was coming – but I wasn’t!
The road (I use the term loosely!) twisted, turned, and bumped steeply higher and higher up the tree-lined mountain. The car had to stop and change gear several times, fighting to get a grip on the loose stones.
Thinking logically, I decided that if we did roll off the road, there were plenty of trees and bushes to break our fall; at least, for a while!
Relieved, we got out of the cars just outside Valliera, and all made a dash for the loos in the restaurant!
Sometimes you’ve just got to take a chance in life, I think, or I wouldn’t have seen some of the wonderful places that are hidden away in this world!
All memories of the journey (almost) forgotten, I stared across miles of unspoilt greenery/scenery, breathing in the clear mountain air.
Valliera is in the Val Grana, in the Piemont Region of Italy.
Skiers walk uphill with skins underneath their skis, and ski downhill.
There are seven valleys in the Cuneo Province, and 400 different ski trails within half an hour, and you can walk for a week without seeing anyone else.
Huts are dotted around for sleeping in.
What on earth compelled a group of settlers to climb up a mountain, hacking a path as they went, and to build a village up there, cut off from the rest of Civilisation?
You can understand people who go to start a new life beside the sea, or in the country. But right up a mountain, surely going to a harder life than they’d had before? Why?
Was it fear? Were they escaping from something?
Who knows? Well, if they did have enemies, they were safely unreachable for most of the winter, snowed in for months. But they were trapped! They used to take their livestock in the houses and spend their time mending and making things.
Valliera’s residents started to drift away after WW1, to find work in the towns.
Some of them moved to Torino in the Winter, and back to Vallieara in the Summer.
As they were good at working with their hands, they were employed to build the railway and as technicians to mend boilers in blocks of flats.
They also worked as coalmen, and as shoe-shiners!
There’s a tiny Shoe-shine Museum in Colletto.
After WW2, everyone moved away permanently and the small town almost completely emptied. By the 60s it was a ghost village.
The houses started to crumble, the roofs fell in and walls collapsed.
Plants forced themselves upwards between the stones, pushing the pathways out of shape. Everything was being consumed by the forest.
But Valliera had one claim to fame; cheese.
The poor villagers used to possess maybe a sheep, a goat and a cow. They would make their different cheeses and carry them all the way down the perilous mountain road to market, then drag themselves home again, up the steep, winding road, probably carrying their shopping.
Any cheeses that didn’t sell, they would mince all together, and they created the completely original Castelmagno cheese. It’s now one of the dearest cheeses in the world.
The animals have over 400 types of grass, flowers and herbs to graze on up the mountains.
Several years ago, a group of 20 friends and colleagues got together and decided to buy and renovate the whole village.
They managed to trace all the owners, or their descendents.
The last one was traced in Novarra, still working at his old job of salting and wholesaling anchovies!
Now the village is being slowly, gradually and tastefully renovated and the first holidaymakers arrived a few weeks ago.
Enrico, one of the group, has kept one of the houses for himself and his family. He showed me inside it. It’s traditional, with some of the original furniture still there. But it’s now got a huge picture window with the most magnificent unspoilt views over the tree-filled mountains.
Stepping out the front door, I carefully made my way down the steep, uneven steps, dodging stinging-nettles and hidden holes, and we tottered along uphill to the dairy.
Several winters ago, seven mts of snow fell. But the dairy had an important order for cheese. So Enrico, his wife and a friend strapped on snowshoes and carried the huge cheeses down the mountain on their backs!
Michael, the main cheesemaker, had started a fresh batch of cheese five days ago.
One thing that is freely available in Valliera is plenty of clear, drinkable mountain water.
First the milk’s heated to 30 degrees, which is the temperature of the milk inside the cow. Then rennet is added.
It’s sliced and stored under the whey for three days. Then it’s minced, put into tubs and pressed for a night.
After that, it’s stored in the ageing rooms downstairs for one, two or three years.
The minced cheese is called pasta!
There’s an Italian saying, ‘Andare in pasta,’ which means, ‘It’s done.’
Wine is also produced here now. It’s a Barolo wine, which is a deep red, heavy wine and again vey expensive.
Personally, I don’t like it. But it’s a very highly-rated wine.
We ate freshly-made Italian food outside the restaurant, including the most delicious gnocchi that I’ve ever tried.
While the others ate, I borrowed the key of the church, which the restaurant owner found in a box up on a shelf, and slipped away.
The lovingly-built and decorated church is crumbling like the houses. The painted frescos are all damaged from damp.
It’s owned by the Church, not the Group who bought the houses.
Will they invest the time and money to rescue the church before it’s beyond repair?
We’ll see. But they’ll need to hurry up!
After our lunch, it was time to drag ourselves away from this peaceful Paradise and make our way to Nice airport, which was a long drive.
Somehow, the journey down the mountain didn’t seem so scary after the relaxed atmosphere and several glasses of the local wine!
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