An Afternoon in the Alps

It’s another scorcher here in Biella, so it’s time to do as the locals do on days like these, and head up into the Alps to find a nice riverside spot where the temperature is a little more reasonable. Of course since almost everybody has the same idea on this sunny Sunday, we’ll have to head quite a long way into the hills to find somewhere with a little privacy. After consulting with his parents, Cesco fixed on the remote Val Sessera as our destination. I had been maddeningly laid up sick shortly after arriving and unable to explore, so I readily agreed despite still feeling a little bit seedy.

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So we collected several friends and a picnic lunch and made for the hills, heading up the Cervo Valley, through which runs the Torrente Cervo or Cervo River, one of two major rivers to flow down to Biella. We passed through many little mountain villages, the narrow road between three or four story buildings barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. In some villages, the road is too narrow for two vehicles to pass, and so a traffic light is placed at each end of the town to prevent mishaps. Every building is painted in shades of orange or yellow and decorated with wooden shutters and brightly blooming flowers festooning the balconies – it’s all so picturesque I can barely contain myself!

We left the main road up the valley and continued along the mountain flank, rising all the while. Occasionally we would catch a glimpse of the plain below through a gap in the trees. Every nook along the way was packed with parked cars and people picnicking or napping under large sun umbrellas.

Finally we reached Bocchetto Sessera, the mountain pass between the Cervo basin and the Val Sesserra (Sesserra Valley). There is an inn here at 1380 metres above sea level (so, just over twice as high as Mount Cargill) which advertises trout and polenta concia as its specialities. Polenta concia is the trademark dish of the Piedmont region, and consists of hot runny polenta (a kind of corn meal) mixed with copious amounts of butter and cheese. A health food it is not, but it’s certainly kept the cow-herding mountain peasants going for hundreds of years. In fact, if you’d like to insult a northern Italian, you could try calling them a “polentone”, which means “polenta-munching hick”.

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Polenta concia. Photo taken in 2013 on a previous trip to Italy

It was crowded here too, and we were lucky to find a park, but our quest for a quiet spot in the Alps was not over yet. We still had a 45 minute walk down into the valley, where with any luck we’d finally be alone. But first I needed to pee, so I ducked into the inn past the guard cat and entered the bathroom only to back out again immediately in consternation.

One of our companions kindly explained to me that the hole in the floor was in fact the toilet and that I would need to crouch to do my business. Well okay…I know there are toilets like this in Japan but I’d never expected to encounter one in Italy. Having finished up I presented myself at the sink only to find no apparent means of turning on the tap. My long-suffering new friend again came to my aid, pointing out the button on the floor that I would need to press with my foot. Of course! Why didn’t I think to look there?

Ordeal over, I rejoined the group and we proceeded to head down a gravel road into the forested valley.

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Val Sessera

The Val Sessera is part of the Oasi Zegna, a nature and recreational reserve created in 1993 in honour of Ermenegildo Zegna, a wool industrialist of the 1930s whose passion was reclaiming the environment for the enjoyment of the people. As we descended, I couldn’t help but be the entomologist’s daughter that I am, examining the new and exciting insects to be found along the way. I found a large ladybird and a yellow and black beetle, and then the first butterfly of my Italian sojourn landed daintily on my wrist.

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The Piedmont Ringlet or Erebia meolans – isn’t it neat that my first butterfly is a special Piedmont butterfly?

There was also a fantastic green butterfly whose wings were veined like leaves, but tragically I failed to get a decent picture of it. You’ll just have to use your imagination until I can find another one.

Down the hill we eventually came to a bridge over a tributary stream to the Sessera River. Peering down into the clear water, dozens of little trout were visible. As a keen fisherwoman, my interest was piqued, but to fish here you must be a member of the society which manages the river. Call me spoilt by my Kiwi experiences, but if I’m gonna pay for access to fish, I’d like them to be a bit bigger!

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Lunch?

We left the road here and headed down a path through the trees which ran alongside the river. Suddenly Cesco halted and pointed excitedly at something. Not knowing what it could be I rushed forward to see a tiny snake disappearing into the grass. Cool!

Soon we found a shaded grassy spot to stop for lunch. I happily tucked into my cold pizza and pasta with pesto, completely unaware of the dreadful mistake I had just made. Soon I began to feel a sharp pain in my side, and lifted my shirt to see half a dozen angry ants chomping down on my unprotected love handle. I yelped and jumped up, noting for the first time that there were hundreds of ants swarming where I had unsuspectingly planted my butt. Ants are known as formica in Italian, which is easy to remember if you’re entomological, as the formic acid they excrete is the reason I’ll be itching and stinging for many days to come. With this and my sudden sickness I’m starting to wonder if Italy has it in for me.

Sulking, and no longer having a place to sit, I decided to check out a nearby ruin.

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An archaeological site

This interesting site contains the remnants of a mining operation that took place here from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. There’s the remains of a large oven or furnace which was used in the process.

Once I’d finished investigating the rest of the group had finished lunch, completely untroubled by the ants that had apparently singled out me in particular for their attentions. We scrambled down the bank to the stream, looking for a nice spot to chill out. There were some trout here too in the pools, and I decided to try out the waterproof camera my mum had given me after hearing one too many tales of cameras dunked in rivers.

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Underwater trout view!

A few more metres upstream we found the perfect spot, beneath a little waterfall which splashed down into a clear pool surrounded by warm boulders. I lay down to rest while some of the others explored, reflecting that if I had to be ill, then at least I had pleasant surroundings for my suffering.

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Our private little paradise!

After hanging out for some time we eventually had to face the walk back up the hill. This was not something I was looking forward to in my weakened state, but I was encouraged by promises of a granita (kind of like a slushy) once we got back to town. Very soon I was in a hot clammy sweat (some of you think that is a contradiction, but I assure you it’s entirely possible!). I soldiered on and finally gained the pass where I collapsed beside the road, pretending that I was merely appreciating the view out over Biella and the strikingly flat plain beyond.

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I simply cannot go one more step until I have fully appreciated this!

Once I’d recovered, it was back in the car and down the mountain for the promised granita. Despite not feeling well I’m glad I came out instead of stewing in my jealousy at home. It must be a wonderful thing to live so close to the Alps and be able to visit any time it takes your fancy. I hope I can have a few more trips into the mountains before I have to move on.

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5 thoughts on “An Afternoon in the Alps

  1. Sue Nunn

    Another great adventure as always…I see the camera is working well. Hope you are fully recovered from the sickness now. Looking forward to your next adventure.

  2. Megan Griffiths

    Sounds great. Too bad about the ants. What flavor granita did you have?

    1. amanda

      Half lemon and half yoghurt!

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