Article and photos by Luigi Ranzani
If you look north from the lakefront of Stresa or from the enchanted gardens of Isola Bella, you will be fascinated by the continuous profile of mountains that seem to embrace the basin of water of Lake Maggiore from above. Below this rock belt a succession of valleys and hills, intertwined and overlapping each other, covered by a thick mantle changing from dark green to ocher, ruby red, to the warm yellow of autumn tones.
These are the mountains and forests of the Val Grande, a unique and fascinating territory, once much exploited and inhabited by man and today protected as a National Park, which since 1992, has preserved and promoted its landscape uniqueness and naturalistic richness.
… a succession of valleys and hills, intertwined and superimposed on each other, covered by a thick iridescent mantle from dark green, to ocher, to ruby red, to the warm yellow of autumn tones.
We are located at the north-eastern end of Piedmont, between Lake Maggiore, Ossola and Switzerland. A hundred kilometres from Milan, in the middle of the Alps, there is a dense labyrinth of mountains and rivers, pastures and forests, gorges and cliffs: 150 square kilometres of exuberant and intact nature, a mountainous island the size of Malta, where the only way to visit it is to forget the car and wear a good pair of boots.
A favourite starting point to begin a journey of discovery is Cicogna (770m) the “small capital” of these valleys. A tiny village behind Verbania, with stone houses with long wooden balconies, lined up in parallel rows, clinging to the mountain and surrounded by chestnut woods. Cicogna can be reached by going up an asphalted road that runs high above the San Bernardino torrent, the most important river in the valley.
This small transfer alone has the flavour of a journey of exploration because, as you go along the groove of the valley, the sense of isolation and estrangement becomes more and more pronounced. After a tunnel we are in Ponte Casletto: here, forty meters below us, the wedding between the Val Grande stream and the Pogallo stream is celebrated, in an evocative and dizzying scenario, where the sparkling water turns emerald green and breaks the primordial silence of the mountain.
Immediately after, you ascend quickly with rapid hairpin bends and also the view of the valley begins to widen: we are now close to the town of Cicogna. About twenty inhabitants, a church, a restaurant, a hostel, a farmhouse, b & b, and the park’s visitor centre: not a little, considering the difficulties and inconvenience of living and working this far from the city. After a good coffee with grappa – as per tradition – it’s time to put your backpack on your shoulders and take the path towards Alpe Prà.
The beautiful paved mule track climbs smoothly into the ancient chestnut grove and allows us to observe the signs left by the ancient peasant civilization: numerous and regular terraces built stone by stone to create flat land where rye, millet, beans, and potatoes can be grown. Even if one feels the effort, step by step, we reach the magnificent clearing of Alpe Prà.
Prà, in the local dialect, means “meadow”: a pasture obtained by exploiting a natural terrace on the ridge that descends from Cima Sasso, where the grass was cut twice a year and stored in the barns as winter food for goats and cows. At the top of the pasture, a small and welcoming refuge is the ideal place to enjoy a relaxing break. From its parterre, the panorama is wide and surprising.
On our right, beyond the dark sinking of the valley, a long indented ridge, rugged and dense with impenetrable woods, marks the western boundary of the Park. Further on, the massive Monte Rosa closes the horizon, overhanging and immense, with ice and snow peaks over 4000 meters.
Towards the south, we are struck by the transparent and subtle light that comes from the reflections of Lake Maggiore. We can play at recognizing the name of the islands of the Borromean Gulf as that of the towns on the shore. On our right, beyond the dark sinking of the valley, a long indented ridge, rugged and dense with impenetrable woods, marks the western boundary of the Park. Further on, the massive Monte Rosa closes the horizon, overhanging and immense, with ice and snow peaks over 4000 meters.
In the shade of a centuries-old ash tree, you can indulge in the scent of polenta cooked on the woodstove, seasoned with red meats stewed for a long time with vegetables, or accompanied by semi-hard (local) or soft (gorgonzola) cow cheeses. Before returning to Cicogna, we wait for the low light and the more intimate atmosphere of the late afternoon to create the right environment to visit the enigmatic “coppellato boulder”:
a stone slab with a flat surface, naturally lying on the lower edge of the pasture, in a dominant position over the valley. The upper face of the boulder is engraved with a series of cupels – small trays of a few centimetres in diameter – connected to each other by channels: it is a religious symbolism that comes from the depths of history, probably carried out during the Iron Age (II-I millennium BC).
Still touched by the mystery of our ancestors, we sink into the cool stillness of the wood to reach Cicogna where it is not a bad idea to sit under a fragrant vine pergola, enjoying the evening while tasting the specialities (goat cheeses and salami) of Rolando, patron of the Corte Merina farmhouse.