Dwight Peck's personal Web site

Northwestern Italy in the winter

A very brief, valedictory exploration in northern Italy, 23-26 February 2019



You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

The Vecchio Mulino, Bairo; Castello di Pavone; Grand St-Bernard Tunnel

25-26 February 2019

We're returning from an exhilirating afternoon wandering round the uplifting Sacro Monte di Belmonte, approaching the Ducal Palace in Agliè.

Our aging Volvo GPS navigator has led us several times directly past the Alladiese southern suburb back to our digs in Bairo, but this time, for variety, he's dragging us straight up through central Agliè.

We're on the little dirt road along the Canale di Caluso direct to the Old Mill B+B. That's the Fraternità di Nazareth on the hill.

A farm along the canal, some 400m east of the Vecchio Mulino

'Home', as it were, to the Vecchio Mulino di Bairo, our spendid accommodation for our visit. The B+B has been thoroughly renovated by the family of its last mill operator, but the grand project of revivifying the historic canal is ongoing.

And that includes the restoration of the old mill machinery, which appears to be at the charge of a consortium led by FAI (the Fondo Ambiente Italiano)'s Delegazione di Ivrea Canavese, with the communes of Bairo, Castellamonte, Agliè, and San Giorgio Canavese, with the collaboration of the Banca d'Alba and an organization called SMAT.

The canal bifurcates around the old mill building and then rejoins here just down the road. As mentioned here when we first arrived a few days ago, "the story of the mill began during the French occupation of the Canavese in the 16th century, when the commander of the French troops, the Marshal of France, Charles de Cossè, Count of Brissac, got permission from the French king Henri II to construct an irrigation canal, called the 'Caluso Canal', from the river Orco in nearby Castellamonte, past Bairo and Agliè, to his own lands in Caluso, a distance of some 17km, which was evidently completed in 1559."

"In 1561, Marshal Cossè de Brissac licensed the community of Bairo to build a three mill-wheel mill here where the canal passes closest to the town, whereby the commune could profit by leasing it to an operator who could charge for grinding the cereals and pounding hemp for the local population. That relationship continued into the 20th century, until the last operating miller died in 2006, and the facility passed to his two grandsons, who've renovated it beautifully, with a new wing, from 2008 to 2013 and opened it for commercial use."

The FAI project MARATHON set about in 2016 to restore the length of the old canal in nine 'stations' along the way, and we're at Stazione 4.

A last look round the Vecchio Mulino . . .

. . . and some of its equipment.

The upstairs corridor and . . .

. . . a glance out the window

The workmen have gone home for the day.

A little stretching of the legs along the Via Molino [a variant of 'Mulino']

'A votive offering made by the Bertotti Family, 1915-1918' (a family still known in the area)

Silly photo captions flood into the mind.

The usual suspects

St George and his dragon -- the military motif, with the dates of 1915-1918, may suggest that the votive offering had something to do with bringing a family member safely back from the WWI front.

Another nearby farm with the Alps behind

Turning back, with visions of dinner dancing in our head

Back along the renovated canal to the Vecchio Mulino


Up and away the next morning, 26 February, headed for home, after . . .

. . . the obligatory stocking-up with Italian specialties at the Bennet near Ivrea.

A colorful Bennet superstore

For years we've passed up the autostrada, near the Ivrea exit, and wondered at the huge Castello di Pavone on the little hill above the Bennet -- the 'H' and crossed fork and spoon on the battlements indicate that it's open for business.

So, since we're unlikely ever to get another chance, we'll navigate up through the little village and get a closer look at it.

It appears we're lost again.

There it is, after all.

Up the hill behind the castle, in the carpark, and there is no one here.

It appears that some of the outer walls date from the AD 800s, and we read that there is a Romanesque church dated to 850 in the inner courtyard. The present castle buildings date from the 14th century and would have served to protect the surrounding agricultural properties from marauders coming over the mountain passes and down the Aosta Valley where it comes out onto the plain.

It's said that the stronghold here was owned at various times by Arduin, the King of Italy ca. AD 1000, the powerful Bishops of Ivrea, and the Savoy dynasty. Alfredo d'Andrade, the man who organized the Borgo Medievale di Torino model village in 1884 and bought and renovated the Fénis Castle in the 1890s, bought and led the restorations of this place as well, apparently in 1855 -- the castle's present owners re-renovated it in the 1990s and turned it into a luxury 4-star hotel and event centre with 27 rooms.

And there's the Pavone, the emblematic peacock.

It's out of our price range, of course, but we can always dream.

The castle grounds and recycling centre

We recall the cautionary words on the information panel in the Borgo Medievale. The Pavone Castle was very badly treated, militarily, quite a few times and sometimes abandoned, then resurrected, and like so much else nearly destroyed by Napoleon, but it was rehabilitated by the brilliant Andrade based on his researches among other castles in the Val d'Aosta and Canavese. In the Borgo, we were reminded that we were looking, not so much at a medieval castle and village, but at a 'neo-medieval' castle and village according to what 19th century scholars and enthusiasts believed a medieval castle and village must have looked like.

It still looks great though.

Just a few kilometres north of Ivrea, above the Dora Baltea river, that's the Castello di Montalto, dating from the early 12th century but frequently assaulted and repaired, especially after the French siege of Ivrea in 1641. It came into the hands of the barons of Casana in the 19th century, who in 1890 had it entirely restored under the direction of (guess who) Alfredo d'Andrade.

Another castle, nearby (don't know the name of it), and then . . .

. . . there, left of centre, the B+B L'Ospitalità del Castello in Settimo Vittone, our frequent first night's stopping place on trips to Italy, from the Autostrada della Valle d'Aosta near the exit for Quincinetto. The old castle is on the left of the broad walled yard, with the renovated B+B behind it, and the 9th century pieve and baptistery at the right end of the yard.

This is the Fort di Bard -- the old fortress controled passage up and down the Val d'Aosta and delayed Napoleon's invasion of northern Italy by more than a week (as I recall), after which, of course, it had to be thoroughly rebuilt from scratch.

The Austrian authorities built this giant artillery complex in its place in the 19th century, for the same purpose, and it now hosts some museums and event facilities. We spent some days visiting in the tiny medieval village of Bard that's tucked in behind the fortress complex.

Just north of Bard, here's the Castello di Verrès, originally a 13th century fortress that was granted by the Savoy counts to the Challant dynastic lords in 1387 and thoroughly rebuilt by them, one of the first strongholds built in a single block rather than a number of buildings enclosed by a circuit wall (the outer structures visible now were added later as artillery platforms). It passed back to the Savoy Dukes in the 17th century, who removed the artillery to Fort Bard and let Verrès fall into disuse. In 1894 the Italian government purchased it from Alfredo d'Andrade and commissioned its restoration. It's now owned by the Val d'Aosta region and has been open to the public since 2007.

Another shot of Verrès -- as this is probably our last trip up the Aosta Valley, we're just recording a few more of the many castles lining the mountainsides above. The even more famous Castello di Issogne is in fact on the mountainside less than 2km on the other side of the river, but we've never been able to get a usable photo of that one from the autostrada.

The Challant clan were one of the two most dominant families in the medieval Aosta Valley, and the other one was the dynasty of the Quart, and this is their main stronghold, overlooking the city of Aosta itself.

We're turning up out of the Aosta Valley now, bound for the Grand St Bernard pass.

The second highest village on the old route, Saint-Oyen at 1373m altitude

The driving's better when there's not a line of semi trucks hurrying down in a sleety rain.

The highest village on the route, Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses

The turnoff to the right winds up to the Gd St-Bernard pass itself, open only about four months of the year -- the route ahead winds up to the left and comes back to the right through the galleries above.

The Mont Blanc massif

The entrance to the tunnel -- we're at the Swiss customs station settling up for anything that's over the limits.

Out onto the Swiss side, coming down towards Orsières -- the lovely Lac de Champey is just behind that.

And back to Ollon, Switzerland, our home for the past five years and for another week.


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 29 April 2019.


Recent Events