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.
Holidays nearly over, we're on the autostrada in the flat Po valley, going north on the Milan west tangenziale, 23 December 2017.
The road north past Lago Maggiore into the Ossola valley towards the Simplon Pass
We're here for the night in Vogogna, a venerable town of fewer than 2,000 citizens in the Piedmont region about 20km up the valley from Verbania on Lago Maggiore -- once the capital of the lower Ossola valley (in competition with Domodossola, the capital of the upper Ossola), it preserves a small section of the medieval town as well as a restored castle museum and a ruined ancient fortress, and bears the award of I Borghi Più Belli d'Italia, Italy's Most Beautiful Villages.
We're booked into the 14th or 15th century Palazzo del Gabelliere, or palace of the tax collector and customs house, on the Via Roma, and this is the communal salon.
Our room near the top of the house, small but well fitted out
The view from the window
We're off for a preprandial exploration round the village.
Arcades along the Via Roma
The Via Roma in the evening. There are signs of a Roman presence here in the late 2nd century, but the first documentary notice of Vogogna dates from 970, shortly after which, in 1014, the Emperor Henry II, Saint Henry of Bavaria, the last of the Ottonian emperors, donated the town and countryside to the Bishop of Novara.
From 1328 Vogogna served as the capital of Ossola Inferiore, or the lower Ossola valley, though in 1342 authority over the town and region was acquired by the Archbishop of Milan and co-ruler of Milan and other cities, the Cardinal Giovanni Visconti, who began improving the fortifications to strengthen the town as a key part of the Milanese northern defenses.
At the end of Via Roma, this, in a festive mood, is the Palazzo Pretorio, with offices of the town and regional administration in the upper story, and below, the broletto, the assembly space for civic discussions common among northern Italian medieval communes. The Palazzo was built on the orders of Giovanni Visconti in 1348, as was the castle just up the hill and a restructuring of the walls enclosing the town and surroundings.
In 1360, however, the town was badly damaged by the aggressions of a league led by John II Palaeologus, Marquis of Monferrato, and it was sacked in 1374 or '75 by Vogogna's rivals from Domodossola. In 1411, evidently, Vogogna successfully repelled raids by Swiss invaders over the Simplon, but in 1416 it was allied with the Swiss in raids in the Upper Ossola valley.
The Nursing Madonna.
The Via Nazionale through downtown Vogogna
The next morning -- the Palazzo del Gabelliere as we set out for some enthusiastic sightseeing, 24 December 2017
The arcades along the Via Roma
The Palazzo del Gabelliere again
From 1450, the Sforzas succeeded the Viscontis in the Duchy of Milan, but local power here and throughout the region of Lago Maggiore was wielded by the Borromeo family, and the late 15th and 16th centuries are considered to be the high point of Vogognesi prosperity. Under the rule of the Spanish military, however, under the Holy Roman Empire from the early 16th century onward, the village and region went into a long decline, continuing under the direct Austrian domination after 1706 and the Savoyards from 1743 until the French invasions at the end of that century.
The Via Roma again, 120m long from the Chiesa di Santo Cuore to the Palazzo Pretorio
Back to the Palazzo Pretorio (we learnt later that on the ground floor there is the Mascherone Celtico, a Celtic mask or bust from the 3rd century BC) and the foot of the Via Castello
In this 17th century building, adjacent to the Praetorian Palace, lies the headquarters of the Parco Nazionale della Val Grande, the Val Grande National Park, the largest wilderness area in Italy, 150km2 extending far up into the mountains.
The Via Castello, and the castello
In a medieval village in northern Italy, greetings!
The Castello Visconteo, built over rudimentary existing structures, was commissioned by Giovanni Visconti in 1348 to watch over and defend the town and the valley across the Toce river. In 1798, with the end of the Duchy of Milan under Napoleon, the castle became municipal property and was employed as a prison for criminals and political prisoners until 1914. After restorations, begun in 1990, it was opened to the public in 1998, and the interior was remodeled into an excellent small museum that was inaugurated in 2005.
Through the forecourt and into the inner courtyard -- the castle was a garrison stronghold and never a family's residential palace.
From the forecourt the view down into the old town
In the inner courtyard, and now into the museum in the main building
Recreations of medieval life
There are also a collection of medieval arms and various other permanent exhibitions.
Views of the ground floor
On the top floor there is an odd but interesting military history exhibition, featuring these little lead soldiers recreating the Battle of Crevola, 28 April 1487, when the feisty Jost von Silenen, Bishop of Grenoble and then of Sion, sent his brother Albin with an army from Lucerne and the Swiss canton of Valais over the Simplon Pass as soon as the snow cleared out sufficiently. Meeting up with another Swiss army returning from the Savoy, the raiders besieged Domodossola and set about viciously looting throughout all of the Ossola valleys.
The Duchy of Milan was able to send an army in relief, commanded by the Trivulzio brothers Renato and Gian Jacopo, which caught up with the Swiss at the Ponte di Crevola near Domodossola -- the Swiss army in the late 15th century was considered to be the most effective in Europe, and its famous pike squares had seen off Charles the Bold's Burgundian armies at Morat and Nancy as recently as 1477. Here, however, the 5,000 Swiss were caught from three sides by the ducal light cavalry and badly mauled; the survivors were allowed to escape into the high mountains, not a pleasant proposition for them at all, and their dead were very badly treated by the local population (Mallett, Mercenaries and their masters, 1974, rpt. 2009).
The details of the battle of Crevola, and much else besides about the military of the time, are extensively explained in the thoughtful exhibits, only in Italian unfortunately.
Exhibits are ranged about their own sealed room at the open top of the square tower at one end of the castle
A room for meetings and exhibitions under the roof
A recreation of the garrison facilities
And the prison
And an exhibit about the Return of the Wolf of Vogogna (got hit by a train, evidently)
The top of the round tower
Across the valley of the Toce river, with the Church of the Sacred Heart
Castle views from the 20m round tower
Our visit is nearly over
Up the hill just above the castello there are the ruins of an ancient rocca or fortress, possibly from the 9th or 10th century, destroyed in 1514 by raiders from Domodossola with allied Swiss bands.
The Visconti tower
The neogothic Chiesa di Sacro Cuore di Gesú, completed in 1904, at one end of the Via Roma
The ancient rocca, and the Albergo Vecchio Borgo (good dinner, but doesn't take cute little kitties like Melvin the Doge)
The road to the Simplon Pass
The Swiss customs station in Gondo
Simplon cyclists on Christmas Eve
Nearing the Simplon Pass (Sempione in Italian)
The old Simplon hospice
On the pass at Simplon, 2006m altitude
Melvin admiring the Alpine views
On the A9 'Autoroute du Rhône' near Sion, 30 minutes from home. Nice vacation all round.