Slow Train to Susa

Summer is winding down in Turin—the breezes are getting cooler, and there are already crisp brown leaves covering the sidewalk here. Holiday makers have mostly returned, tanned and relaxed, from the beaches and slopes. Being perverse, I decided that now, when everyone else is returning, is when we should take a mini-summer trip.

So last Thursday we got on the train and headed west to Susa, a town between Piedmont and France.  Incidentally, it was a regional train—slow, with eleven stops. A high-speed railway between Turin and Lyon has been planned for two decades but the project has provoked fierce opposition, especially by the NO TAV movement (Treno Alto Velocità means “high-speed train”). Back in 2011, there was even a violent battle between protestors and 2,500 police officers with tear-gas canisters and a bulldozer.  It’s such a hot-button issue that my guidebook advised not mentioning the topic to anyone in the area.

 

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Piedmont, Susa is west of Torino near the French border.

 

SUSA

When we got off the train at Susa, you could feel the difference in the air. It was like a sun-warmed apple straight off the branch.  Fresh, crisp, summery with hints of evergreen sap and wildflowers.

We went out on the street and found ourselves in a pleasant municipal park next to the tourist office (closed, bafflingly, from 12.00 to 4.30).  A statue of a dashing member of the Alpini presided over some pink begonias. Behind him loomed a big old yellow barracks building.

 

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The town is in a valley, but that’s an understatement. You feel like an ant in the Grand Canyon–the mountains rise on either side in a way that could be described magnificent or threatening depending on your mood. The distinctive triangular peak of Rocciamelone was believed at one time to be the highest mountain in Europe, if not in the world.

You walk around the historical part of Susa in less than twenty minutes. From the train station we walked along Via Roma, which is sort of a miniature shopping district. Local specialties include fragrant alpine cheeses, a particularly virulent brew of genepy, sweet focaccia, ice wines and books about local superstitions (we are in witch country).

On the other side of Via Roma you come to a big Waldesian church on one side and the Diocesan Museum on the other, next to the river. The museum was officially closed, but we played the dumb-English-speaking-foreigner card and some nice young man came and let us in anyway, even though it meant he had to turn the lights on in about fifteen rooms. The most striking object was perhaps this painted wooden statue of the Madonna and Child, probably from the 13th century:

 

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We also saw some interesting paintings that we didn’t quite understand. One was this painting of the Virgin surrounded by significant Dominican figures, and a little dog with a candle in its jaws.

 

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Another was this, which appealed to John’s martial instincts but which he had a hard time making sense of.

 

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Leaving the museum, we paused to admire the Dora Riparia before heading into the medieval centre of town, Saint Giustus Cathedral. This is a 12th-century church that is built right next to a Roman gate from the days when the town was called Segusium. The Gallic king Marcus Julius Cottius (hence the ‘Cottian Alps’) negotiated dependent status with the Romans in the first century BCE. In order to cement their alliance, he even had a big marble arch constructed, the ‘Arch of Augustus’, which stands to this day.

 

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Other Roman remnants include parts of the old wall and a Roman amphitheater.

 

Masseria Ca Mia

Speaking of the amphitheater, I’d drawn a rudimentary map to our accommodations using the Roman theater as a landmark. I believed my sketch would get us there but, sadly, I was wrong. We ended up going on a long hike straight up hill 6 km in exactly the wrong direction. Looking on the bright side, we did get a nice view.

 

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After much groaning, swearing and sweating, we decided to retrace our steps back into Susa, have a cold drink, then get the tourist office to call us a taxi.

Although this meant waiting for an hour for the tourist office to open, we didn’t particularly mind since we spent the time sipping cold white wine and relishing the feeling of sitting down, as opposed to trudging up a mountain highway.

 

MASSERIA CA MIA

A taxi driver showed up and drove us to a little farmhouse in the middle of nowhere where four dogs were barking like mad. This was ‘Masseria Ca Mia’ which, in the Alpitan dialect, means ‘My Farmhouse’.

“Aaron!” shouted a fair girl with robust lungs wearing a stars-and-stripes T-shirt.

She was addressing, as far as I could tell, a large, lively very handsome black dog that looked like a cross between a Staffordshire terrier and a black lab. He was running around in circles barking joyously. The other dogs, just as lively and vocal but very old and fat, were two chihuahuas and one miniature dachshund, Tina.

The girl ushered us in, we gave her our details. We then crawled upstairs and collapsed on an extremely comfortable bed in the ‘matrimonial’ suite, where we rubbed our blisters and read Miss Marple novels. Every so often we would hear a frightening, low demon growl from one of the little dogs or a human voice yelling, “Aaron!”. And delicious smells involving garlic and meat wafted up. It was a comforting domestic atmosphere.

Dinner that night was cooked by Signora Titty (pronounced Tee-tee) and I must say it was pretty delicious. I had spaghetti carbonara, and John had a steak and vegetables. There were two rugged looking Swiss cyclists behind us who were enjoying their meal too, and no wonder considering the steep grades their legs would have had to negotiate to make it this far.

Aaron spent most of the meal gazing wistfully at John as he consumed the steak. Here is a picture of him looking quite angelic and not like a dog that enjoys biting rear ends and terrorizing chihuahuas.

 

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Bum biter. Note the homegrown tomatoes

 

That night, we slept like the dead. Tomorrow we were off to Novalesa.

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