We arrived in Valle Maria on the Sherpabus from Cuneo station to find a truly magical valley, free from the intrusive clutter of ski lifts and containing some wonderful, atmospheric and historic villages that are linked by a network of old trackways, and which provided the basis for a good week of walking.
Our first base was at the Al Chersogno agriturismo in the hamlet of Allemandi, set high on the shoulder of a mountain and adapted from a traditional farmstead, with characteristic roofs of heavy stone flags. The following morning we had a lift to the end of the road, from where we climbed up into the high mountains. Having just flown in from home, which is only 20m above sea level, we started to feel the effects of altitude as we climbed above 2,000m, so opted not to attempt the 3,024m peak of Monte Chersogno, but instead walked on to Lago Camoscere, a small lake tucked high under the encircling peaks at a very respectable 2644m.
While we sat and ate our packed lunch by the lake, I sketched part of the enclosing wall of rock that rose to two peaks just shy of 3,000m, and then tried to capture Monte Chersogno as it kept coming into and out of view; the clouds rolling in, then pulling away to reveal the tall cross on its summit. And all the time a pair of young ibex licked salt from the mortar joints to an old ruined building on the far side of the lake. Our return route took us along the flanks of the mountain, now completed shrouded in low cloud, then down a delightful, tree-lined track that ran through fields speckled with Autumn Crocuses, to arrive back at the Al Chersogno ready to face the six-course dinner.
On our second morning we woke to a clear blue sky and an unobstructed view of Monte Chersogno, which I quickly sketched after breakfast and before it was again masked by low cloud. That sketch does not feature here as it would later be bartered with Luigi, the proprietor of the Al Chersogno, for a copy of his CD of folk music from the area. My sketch completed, we set off for a walk that would take us over the flanks of the mountain and into a wooded side valley, to visit a series of hamlets and villages. After descending steeply through the trees and autumn fungi, we crossed a river to enter Chiosso Superiore, now largely abandoned, and where the decaying houses made an appealing subject for a sketch. Later, having completed our route around to the far side of the valley, there was just time to enjoy a cold beer and sketch San Martino Superiore, the last of the villages, before catching the Sherpabus to ride back to the Al Chersogno.
The following day it was time to leave the Al Chersogno and move on to the village of Chiappera, near the head of Valle Maira. Early on in our transfer walk we visited more achingly attractive historic villages that called out to be sketched, but with a long day ahead there was no time to linger, and sketching would have to be left for another day. Leaving the villages behind we climbed to Col Serasin then dropped steeply down to eventually arrive at Acceglio, the principal village of the upper part of the valley, and from where the Sherpabus ferried us to our next base, La Scuola, converted from the old school in Chiappera.
On our fourth day in Valle Maira we were keen to take advantage of a continuing window of good weather to go high into the mountains and, if possible, to visit one of the summits. We set off south from Chiappera, then joined the ‘Senterio Frassati’ path to climb west into a high alp enclosed by lofty crags then south, and on up, to eventually arrive at Passo della Cavallo (2539m). From here an amazing mountain vista opened up in front of us and, while we paused on the high pass for lunch, I sketched but a fraction of it looking south towards Punta Villadel (2810m). In clear visibility we made our way up to the summit of Monte Soubeyran and our high point of the week at 2,700m, from where we enjoyed a 360 degree panorama, before descending along the Franco-Italian boarder to reach Col des Monges. We continued our descent past a string of small alpine lakes and imposing cliffs of rock, arriving back at La Scuola tired, but well satisfied after some superb high alpine walking.
Chiappera is dominated by Rocca Provenzale, a vast shark’s fin of rock that rises to 2,402m and is separated from the main mountain massif by Colle Greguri (2310m). The climb to the col and back around the far side of Rocca Provenzale makes for an enjoyable, if slightly shorter, circuit, which therefore also allowed more time for sketching. We delayed our departure while I sketched the village with the towering Rocca Provenzale behind, lit by the morning sun, then set off to climb to the col. The route up to Colle Greguri also provided evolving views back down to Chiappera; a cluster of stone roofs encircling the church’s clock tower. Then, arriving at the col, a new vista opened up ahead, northwards towards the French border, and the opportunity for a further sketch while we ate our lunch sitting on top of an old WWII gun emplacement. In the afternoon we dropped down to follow a youthful River Maira as it tumbled its way down to the valley floor and back to Chiappera.
Our final transfer took us to the hamlet of Finello, set in the side valley of Marmora on the south side of Valle Maira. It is too far to walk in a single day from Chiappera to Finello, so our day was sandwiched between two transfers by Sherpabus, and our walking route went from the hamlet of Pratorotondo east, to the village of Preit. While the day started in bright sunshine, the forecast was for thunder storms in the afternoon. We were also keen to avoid a route-march against the clock in order to arrive in time for our pick-up, so opted for a shorter, and more direct route that still took us up to a high pass and provided the opportunity for a short side excursion to visit a nearby summit. We set off east from Pratorotondo, climbing once again across the wooded hillside to reach Colle Soleglio Bue at 2338m, from where a path led south west to a small cairn on the rounded summit of Soleglio Bue (2413m).; As we returned to the col the forecast rain arrived, accompanied by rumbling thunder that echoed around the hillside.
But the rain did not persist, and while the thunder continued to rumble for most of the afternoon, we were able to shed our waterproofs and enjoy the mountain scenery as we made our way down the hillside through meadows and woods. A brief spell of sunshine even afforded the opportunity for a quick sketch of Monte la Bianca (2,744m), which dominated the view ahead, before we dropped into a belt of deciduous woodland then reached the road immediately south of Preit. Our final two nights were spent at Locanda Occitana Lou Pitavin, a delightful hotel and a mix of old and new, all built of stone and wood in keeping with the traditions of the area. In the evening light I just had time for a quick sketch of the hotel, along with the roof and chimney of its adjacent bread oven, before we embarked on our five-course evening meal (that was accompanied by fresh bread from the same bread oven).
Our last day’s walk took us through a string of medieval villages in the Marmora valley, and innumerable opportunities to sketch. Having visited the wonderful frescoes in the Capella de San Sebastiano, we climbed to the village of Tolosana – a village on the cusp. Some houses around the church have been carefully restored, but a large part of the village is still in need of a lot of 'TLC'. Sitting outside the communal bake house, I sketched the view back down the central trackway, before we continued on our way. Our switchback route took us down, to cross a side stream, then up towards Reinero, where I paused to sketch the village strung along the hillside above. In Reinero we enjoyed an amazing homemade soup at Casa Loa, before walking on through more pretty villages as we circled back to Finello, and the final feast of a memorable holiday.