Piemonte - Italia
From Busca to Acceglio
Testo: Rosalba Graglia
Driving through the Val Maira, along the scenic main road no 22, means immersing yourself in a dimension in which nature and culture act as the guiding threads.
On the hills, the small neogothic castle of Roccolo stands between villas and farmhouses, together with an axcellent rock-climbing training wall on the site of the ancient feudal castle, Castlas.
Only 9 km further on, you can experience a real flash-back into history at Villar S.Costanzo. The village grew up, as early as the 8th century around a Benedictine monastery from the Longobard epoch which was then destroyed by the Saracens and rebuilt in the 11th century. Today the ruins of the old abbey - the crypt dates back to the year 1000 and the minute chapel of S.Giorgio contains l5th-century frescoes - are well protected by the parish church of S.Pietro in Vincoli.
Slightly higher up the slopes of the mountain, surrounded by woods, is the romanesque-gothic church of S.Costanzo al Monte, one of the most beautiful in the whole of Piedmont, with an apse that is referred to by history of art textbooks and splendid carved capitals.
The centre of Dronero, the "major gateway" into the valley is entirely medieval: the crenellated "Devil's bridge"; the romanesque and gothic parish church and the grain loggia, an attractive octagonal building dating back to the 15th century. Also worth mentioning are the Confraternity of the Gonfalone, the ruins of the town walls, the old porticoes, ancient noble palaces, towers and windows, the liveliness of the Monday market, a classic rendez-vous for the whole valley.
Do not forget to visit the MallÚ Museum, housed in the family home of the art critic Luigi MallÚ who bequeathed his collection of paintings, ceramics, prints and old photos to Dronero.
At this point the valley is broken up into an infinite number of amlets, which fit together like a puzzle to make up the fairy-tale scenery. Roccabruna, for example, is made up of 93 tiny villages scattered over a plateau: many of them are no longer inhabited, whilst others have been turned into small cooperatives producing biological crops or farm holiday enterprises. Every hamlet has a small chapel a wall fresco or two, a votive pillar, stone houses...
Then you come to Cartignano, two villages linked by a stone bridge over the Maira river, dominated by a 15th-century castle. And further on, isolated hamlets, like Galliana or Chiauderes, that reveal small chapels and frescoed medieval houses.
Some 3 km on, you come to S.Damiano which was the valley's most important town in the mid l9th century but it now only has a population of 506 inhabitants, a couple of attractive l8th-century churches, and a cluster of minute hamlets.
From here it is worth taking a fascinating detour up the Pagliero Valley to discover the traces of the art of stone carving commenced in the l5th century by the Zabreri brothers: a microcosm of medieval fountains, mullion windows, carved portals...
Having passed through the narrow "Porte di Lottulo", which look as if it might have been the backdrop for a Wagner opera, you reach Macra where it is obligatory to visit the l2th-century church of S.Salvatore with its stone walls, gabled belltower and late romanescque l5th-century frescoed interior.
Celle, which lies up a side valley in an area which is ideal for horse trekking, still conserves a sensational polyptych by the Maestro of Elva in the parish church of the hamlet known as Chiesa, whilst the chapel of San Sebastiano, standing alone on a mound, is completely frescoed by Giovanni Baleison (1484). One curious fact worth noting is that Celle, a village in the midst of the mountains, now numbering 128 residents, was the homeland of the "ancioÚ'; namely the anchovy merchants, who bought their wares in Liguria and on the C˘te d'Azur and then sold them at fairs all over Piedmont, and also in Lombardy and the Po Valley.
The valley road continues to climb up to Stroppo (elev. 1087m), with 115 residents and 9 hamlets. In medieval times, however, this was the valley's capital, and even boasted a hospital-lazaretto, a beautiful building dating back to the late 15th century in Borgata Caudano. Art is everywere in Stroppo: the church of S.Peyre (13th cent.) contains beautiful frescoes from the l5th and 16th centuries. Around Stroppo, a myriad ot paths and itineraries wait to be explored - including the historic route known as "the road of the cannons" - to be walked on foot or riding the docile Merens horses which now live here.
The surprises provided by nature and culture do not end here. In Elva, cradled in a green basin at an altitude of 1680 m, where the road from the valley has literally been "carved" into the rock in the midst of a wild and isolated panorama, the romanesque parish church of S.Maria Assunta is completely frescoed by the Maestro of Elva. Until the middle of the 19th century Elva was the centre of the wig production (the "caviÚ" of Elva collecled women 's hair throughout northern Italy) and it still produces the local "fourmage ed' caso".
You then reach the medieval houses of Prazzo and the strange painted house in the hamlet of S.Michele.
At Marmora and Canosio you find old "baite" or farmhouses, with wooden balconies and a few noble houses with gabled facades in valleys that seem to have been created on purpose for trekking, both in summer and in winter on skis, offering accommodation in pleasant farm holiday facilities. Here, as is generally the rule in Val Maira, unexpected art treasures are hidden in minute isolated hamlets - for example, the church of S.Massimo in the parish of Marmora, which has 15th-century paintings and sculptures.
Antique tradition are still kept alive, like the "bajo" (Badia), the summer festival in the hamlet of Preit di Canosio.
From Acceglio you can take numerous itineraries to explore nature and tradition leading towards a cluster of tiny hamlets.
VALLE MAIRA - ComunitÓ montana Valle Maira
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