On paper, it was an easy ride. About 9 klicks, roughly 600 meters in elevation, and a smooth return to the waiting car, through the woods, up the ridge and then back again into the woods. The signs at the beginning of the dirt road gave an estimate of 5 hours, and four years ago I knew I could do it in roughly half that time.
But that day it wasn’t 2012, it was 2016. I’d been living for years in a place where Primrose Hill is considered steep, and office life meant I gained weight, unlike my brother who hadn’t, and had kept going up to the country as if it was the only meaningful thing to do.
We started off quietly, him serenely pounding the path, me working hard to get the legs into a long-forgotten rhythm. The path started climbing shortly after we’d parked our car, still within view of the eccentric hamlet of Rosazza, half deserted but filled with quirky gothic elements. The sky was overcast, temperature in single digits, and the snow limit quite low for being April.
Much to my own surprise, I managed to keep a steady rhythm through the woods, steadily gaining altitude, as the path often became a flight of stairs cut through the rock. I could feel my own breath inching closer and the closer to the tone of a diesel engine struggling to rev up, and I was deeply conscious of the rivulets of sweat that streamed down my back and along my knees.
I followed my brother’s steps – regular, constant, as if he was using a metronome – and suddenly it dawned on me that it had been a while since I’d been able to hear only the sound of someone else’s steps. You see, it doesn’t get this quiet in London.
It hadn’t always been the case, though. Seventy years ago, before the economic boom transformed Northern Italy forever, Rosazza counted 700 souls. Crops – barley, potato, rye – were grown as far up as Piedicavallo, 1050 meters above sea level, on terraces that are still visible to this day. The woods that provided us a shelter of sorts – leaves were yet to blossom – didn’t exist, for they had been cleared to make space for farms and cattle.
Desate is the first settlement on the path. A smattering of solid houses, built with the sturdy syenite that’s so common in this valley, it thrived up until Mr Ford’s invention made its way up this corner of the peninsula. No driveable road reached it and everything had to be carried up or down on somebody’s back.
We stopped at the fountain to fill up our bottles and then walked the deserted alleys, past the little chapel – shut down – and many doors that still had those metal-covered blocks that homeowners put in front of the shutters to prevent ice and snow from ruining the wood behind. They had been placed there at the start of the season and were still there, weeks after the last snow melted away from Desate.
The majority of the tenements appeared to be in a good state, hinting at a regular, albeit occasional, use as second homes; on one door, wrapped in plastic, hung a yellow sign saying Vendesi.
“Yeah”, noted my brother “It’s been up for sale for the past year or so”.
A fluffy dog came to question, shyly, our presence. We caressed his head, obtaining a flurry of tail waggling in response. He then retreated, returning to his master in the only open house in the whole village. From inside came, idly, a delightful fragrance of a tomato sauce being slow cooked. Reluctantly we pushed through, leaving Desate and entering again the woods, wading into a sea of dead leaves fallen the previous autumn and not yet turned into humus. No flower, no blade of grass, no bud refined the slope we were labouring through. Spring, up here, was still a long way off.
We crossed an invisible divide, moving from one side to the other of the watershed that separated the unnamed valley we were walking in. Taking a momentary pause, my brother indicated the gulley we were coasting, and mentioned that he’d seen a deer here, last winter. It was real close, something that didn’t fail to surprise me. Yet, his tone was sort of matter-of-fact. “Well, that can’t compare with the time when a wolf crossed the road in front of me, down on the provincial road, a couple of years ago. It sent all the dogs in the neighbourhood mental”. Now that was something.
The limit of beech woods, in this part of Italy, is around 1200-1300 meters, and as we crossed it the path led us to a group of huts, clinging to the slope, short grass and moss its main vegetation, with the occasional short, bulbous pine tree. Not even in its heyday could this place be called a village, and in facts it wasn’t. Cascine Vernetto, a homestead, looked deserted and desolate.
Roofs had long since caved in under the pressure of snow and elements; windows no longer had glasses and open, mutely, onto rooms void of any furnishing or embellishment. A lone tin roof resisted, being slowly turned red by oxidisation.
Vernetto, even when it was used, hadn’t been lived all year long. These cabins were a transient camp for shepherds, who’d bring their cattle up high from the flatlands, to profit from the cooler temperatures and the rich highland pastures. Their milk would turn into cheese – toma, maccagno, caprino – and the wool would be sold to the burgeoning factories of the valley floor, Zegna and Cerruti just to nominate the closest ones.
While the habit of transumanza, transhumance, is still alive and well in most Alpine valleys, it all but disappeared from this one. The valley has been cut by a torrent, not by a glacier, and turned to be steep, humid and dark in many times of the year. Pastures were small compared to neighbouring ones, and progress caught on: factories didn’t need to be close to fast streams of water, and relocated in the flatlands; wool was cheaper when sourced from far flung places – South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, even Mongolia -; lack of roads that a truck could go on did the rest.
It is estimated that, between 1930 and 1960, the upper valley lost 60% of its populace. In the whole Piedmont region, 450 km2 of pastures and fields have gone in just 10 years, 100 times the size of the Vatican city, reclaimed by woods and nature once their caretakers had moved, or died.
We reached the apex of our ascent, the Selle di Rosazza, a sort of plateau hovering above the two villages: Rosazza, the one we departed from, and Piedicavallo, the one we were going to. On top was another group of deserted cabins, still boarded up. The good season hadn’t started yet.
The woods welcomed again as we descended towards Piedicavallo. Tall, beech trees grow all around us, into yet another village way too far down the abandonment scale to even retain a name. Scattered around the ruins, large rocks – boulders, in fact – are decorated with deep incisions, their purpose lost in time.
We got back on the tarmac road, and walked downhill towards Rosazza, trying to outpace a weather front. No cars drove past us, and only a group of grazing horses and a donkey witnessed our passage.
My brother pointed at a grassy knoll a few paces away from the ribbon of concrete, and noted “Last year I saw some hinds there, and it wasn’t even that far off season”. I looked around – no one in sight – and thought that if it’s true that, by 2050, 66% of the world’s population will live in cities, we shouldn’t be surprised to see hinds grazing by the road in May, or wolves in October, claiming back those places humans have abandoned.