Monday, 29 July 2013

The Hill towns

This region of Italy is particularly rich in geographical and historic beauty. Geographically it consists of steep hills, mountains and river valleys heading up from the coast to the borders of France. Wherever the hills aren’t terraced for olives they are heavily wooded. Further north there are national parks and hiking trails. 

Historically it consists of numerous medieval villages, mostly built on steep hillsides in seemingly inaccessible places. Most date from around the 12th C at a time when this part of Italy was suffering attacks from the sea by Saracens or Barbary pirates, i.e. Muslims from North Africa. So it is all about defence: the remote locations away from the coast and the structure of the towns themselves, few entrance gates and tall stone buildings (typically 4-storey), narrow awkward alleys winding through the town with steep steps. Add a few big walls, towers and occasional fort and they must have been hard work for invaders. Not to mention those who lived there! So if you want to visit them and see as much as possible then you need to be reasonably fit – or you soon will be!

One of the many hamlets in the area
A few days ago we went on a trip to take in both aspects. For only Euro 1.50 we took the local bus up the Argentina valley from Taggia to Triora. The trip takes 50 minutes even in the hands of Ayton Senna’s younger brother, on a road so narrow much of the oncoming traffic had to reverse out of our way. The valley contains a beautiful river that tumbles over big boulders, ones that probably rolled down the steep valley sides long ago (hopefully)  – there was a lot of wire netting and concrete works holding the hillside at bay above the road. As the road climbs the bus has to squeeze through the street of villages, almost collecting the houses along the way, and there are numerous hairpins to negotiate. All in all the cheapest and most scenic bus trip I’ve been on.

The last witches in Triora ...
Triora sits high up in the mountains in alpine scenery with half a dozen other hamlets dotted around on surrounding hillsides. Its main claim to fame is it was the last place to burn witches during the Renaissance. Consequently there are a few tourist shops – the only ones we’ve seen in Italy to date – selling witch dolls.  Apparently the town was badly bombed during the war as a reprisal, but you wouldn’t know it as it must have been all repaired in keeping – a mix of run down and possibly abandoned buildings and some nicely refurbished stone houses. We had a nice lunch (pizza and a panino) outside in a piazza containing two churches, one dating from 1594, the other 100 years younger. Like most churches here they are locked so you can’t explore inside. A very photogenic place – check out the Triora section of the photo gallery on this blog – made more spectacular by the approaching storm: heavy black clouds coming in from the mountain tops, thunder and lightning.

Our day out almost finished on a bad note. There are only a handful of buses going there each day and, as we couldn’t find a timetable in Triora, we judged departure times based on when we knew they arrived back in Taggia. Big mistake! After waiting around until 4pm for our anticipated 3:30pm bus, we discovered there was only one more bus and that wasn’t until 8pm. Faced with a four hour wait as big drops of rain started appearing, we were starting to get a little concerned. Then to our aid arrived two Albanian brothers who, as climbers, work repairing the tops of buildings and fixing concrete and wire netting to the cliff faces above the roads. Though they had just knocked off and were heading home (a hotel somewhere in the region) they decided on the spur of the moment that the work’s van needed a quick sprint to Taggia. So, in possibly record time we sped back down the mountain engaging in a surprisingly successful conversation in bits of Italian and English. Apart from feeling somewhat car-sick, it was a brilliant trip. And it has changed my preconception of all Albanians being thieves and mobsters. These couldn’t have been more friendly and wouldn’t even take some “beer money” for their trouble.

The last trial of the day (excluding the 50 minute slog back up the hill home) was waiting for the 4:15pm reopening of the supermarket. Around 5pm we found out that it is closed on Wednesday afternoons. Why???

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