We woke up at Masseria Ca Mia at eight o’clock and headed downstairs for breakfast. I noticed that the books on the shelf by the stairs were quite brainy—an Italian translation of Murphy, an anthology of verse in Piedmontese, several books about animals. It was a beautiful sunny day and I admired the grapes and roses while John went out to wrestle with Aaron on the lawn. The pretty hostess emerged asking what we would like – dolci or insalata? One of each, I answered, sweets for me and savory for John.
An Italian colazione is not the same as an English, American or New Zealandish breakfast. Basically, it’s strong coffee and a snack—enough to keep you going until lunch. Definitely no eggs in sight. Oatmeal is sold in pharmacies, not supermarkets. So I was expecting a small croissant for me and a bit of cheese and ham for John. We were on the verge of being alarmed when the hostess with coffee, juice, two warm croissants and a huge platter of cheese and cold meat.
We asked Signora Titty what was on the plate and she obligingly replied. The wedge of Castelmagno was hard and mild. Then there was Fontina: mild, sweet and smooth, produced from cows chomping on tender alpine grass and wildflowers. Our favorite was a soft white cheese called La Tur (tower), a creamy mixture of cow, sheep and goat cheese (read a nice description of it here). Then there were the meats: coppa (dry cured pork shoulder), mortadella di fegato (locally produced sausage made of liver), crudeo di Cuneo (prosciutto from Cuneo) and salame piemonte (basically salami made with local meat and wine).
Our friend the taxi driver came and picked us up at ten o’clock. He drove us down the hill and dropped us off at the train station, where we bought bus tickets to Novalesa, a little mountain town about eight kilometres north of Susa.
We wanted to visit Novalesa because of its proximity to Mon Cenis Pass on the Via Francigena (Frankish Way). For centuries, this was a very busy highway for pilgrims and merchants crossing from France into Italy. The pass offered relatively easy access for people and mules, so in spite of its current apparent isolation, Novalesa was once a place visited by people from all over Europe so it has an unusual abundance of churches and abbeys, including Novalesa Abbey, which was built way back in 726. Charlemagne himself stayed there and (amazingly) is still an active monastery.
The bus was due in an hour so I got a newspaper and tried to read the news to John. The name Pampalù caught my eye–it was a place up on the slopes of Mount Rocciamelone that was known in centuries past as the site of witches’ dances. It’s now known for its fortress, built between 1891 and 1894. About a year ago there were terrible wildfires in Val di Susa and it seems that Pampalù was burnt and the area is still suffering. Reading on, I saw there were also continued repercussions from a serious landslide that hit five homes back in June, causing 120 people to be evacuated. Here in the Alps, the effects of climate change are being experienced daily in the form of melting glaciers, drought, wildfires, flash floods and fatal landslides.
In happier news, a local couple were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, Matteo had turned ten years old and some acrobats and fire walkers were putting a show on in a couple of weeks.
The bus arrived and steadily climbed its way up Provincial Road 210 past the town Venaus, past a huge hydroelectric station and stretches of valley so idyllic that it was tempting to get off the bus, pick wildflowers, picnic and scamper about in them.
The bus dropped us off in Novalesa, but not before I double checked what time he was coming back, because we didn’t want to be stranded out there. Although it was pretty, there were dark, threatening clouds and neither of us fancied another 8km walk to Susa after walking around Novalesa for two hours.
There was a public fountain, as there is in most cities in this part of the world. We dipped our hands in the cool water and paused on the bridge to look at the beautiful stream Torrentia Moncenisio, tumbling down from then walked up a steep street into Novalesa itself. The town is basically one street: Via Maestra. The houses are tall and crammed together, medieval style. There are even some medieval frescos on the external walls.
The street was very quiet, but you could tell it wasn’t completely abandoned because there was the odd tell-tale clink of cutlery or curtain twitch. Not only that, but the street was pristine and flower boxes were well tended. All of a sudden a tractor appeared carrying a trailer of dung. I was quite impressed with how the driver negotiated the narrow street.
Near the end of the street I saw a sign advertising a trail up Mount Rocciamelone and suggested we try it out. John said by all means try it out, he personally elected to sit on a nearby bench and look at a vegetable garden.
I headed off where the sign pointed and found myself on someone’s farm. There were three possible paths, but I had no idea which one was the right one. I really didn’t want to get lost so instead picked a bunch of blackberries and returned to John suggesting we walk some more around town instead.
We followed the river upstream a little while along Via Cenischia. We could make out an old stone bridge much further up and wondered what it was. Just before the cemetery was a space called Plahe Marroniers, which in the local dialect means ‘Plaza of the Marroniers’. Here’s a crude translation of the sign:
The Moncenisio pass had its heyday between the 13th and 17th centuries, as the main commercial axis between Italy and France. It was constantly kept open even during the winter thanks to the continuous work of the mountain villagers who, in exchange for privileges, kept the track beaten down and marked the path by sticking stakes in the snow.
Over time the path has had various names, from the Roman road to the ‘Lombard’ or ‘Pilgrim’ ‘Ancient Gallic’ road, the ‘Frankish’ road and finally the ‘Royal Road’.
The men who managed the transport of people and goods, using rudimentary sedans and mules, were called ‘MARRON’. From both Novalesa and Lanslebourg, they accompanied the travelers through the pass. The climb was always very tiring and took several hours, but the descent was fast and intoxicating, in winter it might only take 10 minutes descend to Lanslebourg, but you’d have to sit on the ‘RAMASSES’ –a rough and sturdy sled, a sort of taboggan of yesteryear, the name it derives from the fact that in ancient times these slides were simply bundles of branches.
In Novalesa and in Lanslebourg, the starting points of the crossing, between the 16th and 18th centuries there was a diminishing number of hotels, inns and taverns where the traveler could stop to wait for the best time to cross. Nevertheless, experts could be found who would dismantle their carriages then put them together again after transporting them, by mule, across the pass.
Incidentally, though I can’t find information in English, I have it on good authority that the Marrons were originally ‘Moors’, or Muslims descended from ninth-century raiders. According to Liudprand of Cremona, in 889 a ship carrying twenty adventurers from al-Andalus anchored in the Gulf of St. Tropez. They were all converts to Islam, who spoke both Latin and Arabic. After building a fortress in Fraxinet (Latin for ‘ash forest’ and now La Garde-Freinet ), they settled and started a profitable piracy business. Using Fraxinet as a base, they even raided and plundered Alpine passes, including Novalesa–the Novalesa Abbey was captured and burnt by them. It’s interesting to think that some of these bolshy Spaniards might have stayed on and turned their entrepreneurial spirits to guiding people over the mountains.
We entered the solitary restaurant to find it ominously empty and quiet. The interior was wooden with old photographs of notable locals and scenes of mountain-village life.
The woman who eventually emerged was blonde, blue-eyed and rather stand-offish. She could easily have been be a descendent of the Countess Adelaide of Susa (1040-1091) renowned for capturing and burning the village of Asti for rebelling against her.
“Hello, is the kitchen still open?” I asked her.
“It’s closed,” she said. “Unless you want a sandwich.”
“OK, I’ll have a sandwich with cheese and…and…and”
I was struggling to remember the name of the ham they used, rather disconcerted by her genocidal gaze.
“Prosciutto?” she suggested dryly.
D’oh. Prosciutto—it’s the same in English! Dummy!
“Yes! Prosciutto!” I exclaimed gratefully.
She gave a curt nod and disappeared behind the bead curtain.
Five minutes later she emerged with a basket containing a very large roll filled with about 500g of cheese and lots of meat. It was an attractive looking bulk after our walk, so I dug right in.
Every element of the sandwich was staunchly rustic. The bread was quite dense and nutty, homemade and chewy. Then there was the prosciutto, which looked as if it had been cured in a stone cottage and was melt-in-the-mouth tender. But the most distinctive thing of all was the cheese. My impression, at first sniff, that it was similar to Marmite (the brown Australasian/British yeast extract)—tangy and yeasty. The second sniff was like a mild electric shock. It reminded me of the time our Great Dane May returned from her midnight pee liberally sprayed with skunk juice. At that time our brains had registered the experience less as a ‘smell’ than a chemical emergency—adrenalin started pumping into our systems and we were wide awake in a few seconds. After a few more bites, I noticed yet another nuance to this characterful cheese, something of a barnyard bouquet. I gave some to John to try and his response was, “Marmite? Marmite that’s been through a cow maybe!” It was hard to go on after this; I am rather suggestable and the mention of manure put me off. Not only that, but I saw a little cheese fly dancing around the edge of one of the slices. I carefully peeled the chunks of cheese off and wrapped them up in the paper napkin, hoping the cooks wouldn’t be offended.
The cheese made such a strong impression on us that we made inquiries later and learned that it was ‘toma Piemontese’, which means ‘cheese made by the farmer himself in Piedmont’. There are lots of different kinds, and most of them are quite mild. However, some are ‘puzzolente’ or ‘stinky’. Although, as this article bemoans, these cheeses are usually “produced on a small scale, distributed locally, and no futher. And our palates eager, for full flavor, weep.” Personally, I think that’s going overboard.
After our invigorating lunch, we decided we’d better get along to the abbey, which was a twenty-minute stroll away. We were determined not to miss the bus and didn’t have any kind of time-keeping device, so estimated how fast we’d have to walk.
Although we were power walking, we still appreciated the scenery. A late-summer walk on a lonely road lined with trees is a lovely experience. The trees offered cool shade in the sunlight, bees and swallowtail butterflies investigated flowers, the woods nearby breathed scents of sap and warm greenery. Looking up, we could see multiple waterfalls cascading down sheer cliffs and, improbably high up, a church steeple nearly touched a low cloud. In the distance the valley rolled away in the sunshine.
In spite of this dreamy scene, I was still worried I wouldn’t get to the abbey, so I ended up jogging up the hill, only to find that it was closed for maintenance. In a way I was relieved because it was hard to believe that the dark interior of a church could really compete with the beautiful landscape.
I decided there would be plenty of photographs of the interior online and in books, so I jogged back to meet John. We only got back five minutes before the bus.
Sure enough, I have been able to find some paintings. Here is a particularly beautiful twelfth-century depiction of Saint Eldrad (died c.842), who lived in the abbey and was known for building new churches, a hospice, adding to the abbey’s library and rescuing pilgrims in trouble.
I had not expected this day to be quite so full of cheese.