Sometimes when I travel I find that I am so assaulted with the newness of things, that it takes me a few weeks- even a few months- to truly begin to assimilate what I have learned. That said, I am finally starting to process some of my most recent experiences in the Langhe and Northern Piemonte. I can say now that this was the most important, most rewarding, and most truly educational trip to Italy ever.
My Piemonte experience this October was really the first time I think I have truly begun to understand the concept of Italian regionalism, or campanilismo. For example, I knew that the Toscani (people from Tuscany), are somehow different culturally, geographically, historically, linguistically even, from the Pugliesi (the people of Puglia). What I did not truly appreciate, was how driving within a region like Piemonte, you can reach, in under a couple of hours, many different worlds.
I left the Langhe, mythical wine region, well-known for its powerful and historically significant wineries and noble families, and I entered a part of Italy I never knew existed. The Val D’Ossola of Northern Piemonte. This is the little slice of Piemonte that juts out into the Alps like an icicle. Surrounded on both sides by Switzerland, encroached upon by looming mountains and treacherous, inhospitable forest and impossible mountain roads.
When I think now of my experience driving through Val D’Ossola I am struck by the visions of stark beauty, untouched wilderness, secret mystical forest. This is not the well-manicured, gently rolling noble elegance of the Langhe. This is wild, untamed, dangerous, dark. The people are decidedly Celtic-looking. Their dialect is impossible to understand- full of the clipped, musical sounds of Welsh or Gaulish. They are the direct descendants of Pagan warriors who roamed these hillsides and mountaintops, protecting their clans from invasions, pushing forward through the mountains for fear of extinction. Even today there is an air of self-protection, especially as the weather begins to turn inhospitably cold and wet, and winter looms closer.
The Alta Piemontesi (Northern Piemonte people) are closed by nature, self-insulating and defined by a curious skepticism of outsiders. Today in some of the most ancient towns in the Valley, where American or French archaeologists have restored many ancient ruins, the general sentiment is unclear as to whether or not the exposure- the “help” and the research- is entirely welcome.
This is not to say the Alta Piemontesi are inhospitable- in fact they are as gracious and congenial as possible. However I wonder if I could ever truly fit in here. Could I be really accepted? I doubt it- as the place itself does not run through my veins. There is a connection between these people and their land, that runs deeper than anywhere else I have experienced. Even in this honorable pride, there is a profound sadness here. Does it come from thousands of years of hardship? Of death and freezing cold and starvation and warring clan-ships? You can feel it in the local music- the crooning lonely tones of an ancient wind instrument and the relentless, primal beating of a drum.
These are people who wander the hillsides alone and find solace and comfort in the predictable unpredictability of the forests. They work around each other, foraging mushrooms in silence, drinking coffee in the bars without much exchange or idle chatter. But they are bound together by this place- this primal wilderness and all of its ancient secrets.
I am find myself fascinated by Val D’Ossola- although I am not as comfortable here as I am in other parts of Italy. I must be drawn to the secret society, the elite obscurity and the rich history I know is here, just waiting to be discovered.