Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino, by Samuel Butler

Chapter VI


An excursion which may be very well made from Faido is to the Val Piora, which I have already more than once mentioned. There is a large hotel here which has been opened some years, but has not hitherto proved the success which it was hoped it would be. I have stayed there two or three times and found it very comfortable; doubtless, now that Signor Lombardi of the Hotel Prosa has taken it, it will become a more popular place of resort.

I took a trap from Faido to Ambri, and thence walked over to Quinto; here the path begins to ascend, and after an hour Ronco is reached. There is a house at Ronco where refreshments and excellent Faido beer can be had. The old lady who keeps the house would make a perfect Fate; I saw her sitting at her window spinning, and looking down over the Ticino valley as though it were the world and she were spinning its destiny. She had a somewhat stern expression, thin lips, iron-grey eyes, and an aquiline nose; her scanty locks straggled from under the handkerchief which she wore round her head. Her employment and the wistful far-away look she cast upon the expanse below made a very fine ensemble. “She would have afforded,” as Sir Walter Scott says, “a study for a Rembrandt, had that celebrated painter existed at the period,” 9 but she must have been a smart-looking handsome girl once.

She brightened up in conversation. I talked about Piora, which I already knew, and the Lago Tom, the highest of the three lakes. She said she knew the Lago Tom. I said laughingly, “Oh, I have no doubt you do. We’ve had many a good day at the Lago Tom, I know.” She looked down at once.

In spite of her nearly eighty years she was active as a woman of forty, and altogether she was a very grand old lady. Her house is scrupulously clean. While I watched her spinning, I thought of what must so often occur to summer visitors. I mean what sort of a look-out the old woman must have in winter, when the wind roars and whistles, and the snow drives down the valley with a fury of which we in England can have little conception. What a place to see a snowstorm from! and what a place from which to survey the landscape next morning after the storm is over and the air is calm and brilliant. There are such mornings: I saw one once, but I was at the bottom of the valley and not high up, as at Ronco. Ronco would take a little sun even in midwinter, but at the bottom of the valley there is no sun for weeks and weeks together; all is in deep shadow below, though the upper hillsides may be seen to have the sun upon them. I walked once on a frosty winter’s morning from Airolo to Giornico, and can call to mind nothing in its way more beautiful: everything was locked in frost — there was not a waterwheel but was sheeted and coated with ice: the road was hard as granite — all was quiet and seen as through a dark but incredibly transparent medium. Near Piotta I met the whole village dragging a large tree; there were many men and women dragging at it, but they had to pull hard and they were silent; as I passed them I thought what comely, well-begotten people they were. Then, looking up, there was a sky, cloudless and of the deepest blue, against which the snow-clad mountains stood out splendidly. No one will regret a walk in these valleys during the depth of winter. But I should have liked to have looked down from the sun into the sunlessness, as the old Fate woman at Ronco can do when she sits in winter at her window; or again, I should like to see how things would look from this same window on a leaden morning in midwinter after snow has fallen heavily and the sky is murky and much darker than the earth. When the storm is at its height, the snow must search and search and search even through the double windows with which the houses are protected. It must rest upon the frames of the pictures of saints, and of the sister’s “grab,” and of the last hours of Count Ugolino, which adorn the walls of the parlour. No wonder there is a S. Maria della Neve — a “St. Mary of the Snow”; but I do wonder that she has not been painted.

From Ronco the path keeps level and then descends a little so as to cross the stream that comes down from Piora. This is near the village of Altanca, the church of which looks remarkably well from here. Then there is an hour and a half’s rapid ascent, and at last all on a sudden one finds one’s self on the Lago Ritom, close to the hotel.

The lake is about a mile, or a mile and a half, long, and half a mile broad. It is 6000 feet above the sea, very deep at the lower end, and does not freeze where the stream issues from it, so that the magnificent trout in the, lake can get air and live through the winter. In many other lakes, as for example the Lago di Tremorgio, they cannot do this, and hence perish, though the lakes have been repeatedly stocked. The trout in the Lago Ritom are said to be the finest in the world, and certainly I know none so fine myself. They grow to be as large as moderate-sized salmon, and have a deep red flesh, very firm and full of flavour. I had two cutlets off one for breakfast and should have said they were salmon unless I had known otherwise. In winter, when the lake is frozen over, the people bring their hay from the farther Lake of Cadagno in sledges across the Lake Ritom. Here, again, winter must be worth seeing, but on a rough snowy day Piora must be an awful place. There are a few stunted pines near the hotel, but the hillsides are for the most part bare and green. Piora in fact is a fine breezy open upland valley of singular beauty, and with a sweet atmosphere of cow about it; it is rich in rhododendrons, and all manner of Alpine flowers, just a trifle bleak, but as bracing as the Engadine itself.

The first night I was ever in Piora there was a brilliant moon, and the unruffled surface of the lake took the reflection of the mountains. I could see the cattle a mile off, and hear the tinkling of their bells which danced multitudinously before the ear as fireflies come and go before the eyes; for all through a fine summer’s night the cattle will feed as though it were day. A little above the lake I came upon a man in a cave before a furnace, burning lime, and he sat looking into the fire with his back to the moonlight. He was a quiet moody man, and I am afraid I bored him, for I could get hardly anything out of him but “Oh altro”— polite but not communicative. So after a while I left him with his face burnished as with gold from the fire, and his back silver with the moonbeams; behind him were the pastures and the reflections in the lake and the mountains; and the distant cowbells were ringing.

Then I wandered on till I came to the chapel of S. Carlo; and in a few minutes found myself on the Lago di Cadagno. Here I heard that there were people, and the people were not so much asleep as the simple peasantry of these upland valleys are expected to be by nine o’clock in the evening. For now was the time when they had moved up from Ronco, Altanca, and other villages in some numbers to cut the hay, and were living for a fortnight or three weeks in the chalets upon the Lago di Cadagno. As I have said, there is a chapel, but I doubt whether it is attended during this season with the regularity with which the parish churches of Ronco, Altanca, &c., are attended during the rest of the year. The young people, I am sure, like these annual visits to the high places, and will be hardly weaned from them. Happily the hay will be always there, and will have to be cut by some one, and the old people will send the young ones.

As I was thinking of these things, I found myself going off into a doze, and thought the burnished man from the furnace came up and sat beside me, and laid his hand upon my shoulder. Then I saw the green slopes that rise all round the lake were much higher than I had thought; they went up thousands of feet, and there were pine forests upon them, while two large glaciers came down in streams that ended in a precipice of ice, falling sheer into the lake. The edges of the mountains against the sky were rugged and full of clefts, through which I saw thick clouds of dust being blown by the wind as though from the other side of the mountains.

And as I looked, I saw that this was not dust, but people coming in crowds from the other side, but so small as to be visible at first only as dust. And the people became musicians, and the mountainous amphitheatre a huge orchestra, and the glaciers were two noble armies of women-singers in white robes, ranged tier above tier behind each other, and the pines became orchestral players, while the thick dust-like cloud of chorus-singers kept pouring in through the clefts in the precipices in inconceivable numbers. When I turned my telescope upon them I saw they were crowded up to the extreme edge of the mountains, so that I could see underneath the soles of their boots as their legs dangled in the air. In the midst of all, a precipice that rose from out of the glaciers shaped itself suddenly into an organ, and there was one whose face I well knew sitting at the keyboard, smiling and pluming himself like a bird as he thundered forth a giant fugue by way of overture. I heard the great pedal notes in the bass stalk majestically up and down, like the rays of the Aurora that go about upon the face of the heavens off the coast of Labrador. Then presently the people rose and sang the chorus “Venus laughing from the skies;” but ere the sound had well died away, I awoke, and all was changed; a light fleecy cloud had filled the whole basin, but I still thought I heard a sound of music, and a scampering-off of great crowds from the part where the precipices should be. The music went thus:-10


By and by the cantering, galloping movement became a trotting one, thus:-


After that I heard no more but a little singing from the chalets, and turned homewards. When I got to the chapel of S. Carlo, I was in the moonlight again, and when near the hotel, I passed the man at the mouth of the furnace with the moon still gleaming upon his back, and the fire upon his face, and he was very grave and quiet.

Next morning I went along the lake till I came to a good-sized streamlet on the north side. If this is followed for half-an-hour or so — and the walk is a very good one — Lake Tom is reached, about 7500 feet above the sea. The lake is not large, and there are not so many chalets as at Cadagno; still there are some. The view of the mountain tops on the other side the Ticino valley, as seen from across the lake, is very fine. I tried to sketch, but was fairly driven back by a cloud of black gnats. The ridges immediately at the back of the lake, and no great height above it, are the main dividing line of the watershed; so are those that rise from the Lago di Cadagno; in fact, about 600 feet above this lake is the top of a pass which goes through the Piano dei Porci, and leads down to S. Maria Maggiore, on the German side of the Lukmanier. I do not know the short piece between the Lago di Cadagno and S. Maria, but it is sure to be good. It is a pity there is no place at S. Maria where one can put up for a night or two. There is a small inn there, but it did not look tempting.

Before leaving the Val Leventina, I would call attention to the beautiful old parish church at Biasca, where there is now an excellent inn, the Hotel Biasca. This church is not so old as the one at Giornico, but it is a good though plain example of early Lombard architecture.

9 Ivanhoe, chap. xxiii., near the beginning.

10 Handel’s third set of organ concertos, No. 6.

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