In September of 2016, I went to a rural corner of Liguria and had one of the most meaningful trips of my life, which I wrote about for Dream of Italy. As I was limited by space, I couldn't include everything I wanted in the piece; and as the full content of Dream of Italy newsletters is only available to Italy enthusiasts who select either a digital or print membership, this post is devoted to the details that were left out (and to those worth repeating!). Many people ask me if there is any corner of Italy that isn't widely visited or written about; there are a few places that are blessedly free of the trappings of modern tourism, and this inland area of Liguria, only 40 minutes from the coast, is one of them.
The reason for my trip was the Festa della Transumanza, a weekend-long festival in the village of Mendatica dedicated to the ancient tradition of transhumance, "crossing the land" in Italian. Distinguished French historian Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) referred to transhumance in his as "one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Mediterranean world." Generally speaking, transhumance is the seasonal migration of shepherds and their flocks. In the late spring, shepherds, their sheep, a few sheepdogs, and sometimes goats or cows, leave fields at lower elevation and climb to higher elevation, where in the warmer months there is more for the sheep to eat. In the late fall, they make the trek back. (This is in contrast to the nomadic tradition, where entire communities, their animals, and even dwellings move long distances periodically.) Braudel relates that in the Navarra region of Spain, shepherds would come down from the highlands when there was a market being held. In the winter months, the flocks and men hurried down the mountain to escape the cold and "flooded into lower Navarre like an invading army. All doors were padlocked against these unwelcome visitors, and every year saw a renewal of the eternal war between shepherd and peasant." Transhumance has existed in varying degrees on every continent, yet in most places today the livestock are transported by vehicle or the tradition has died out completely; but it is still practiced in Mediterranean countries today, notably in Arles in southern France and in the Abruzzo, Molise, and Puglia regions of southern Italy (transumanza trails in these regions, known as tratturi, along with the archeological site of Sepinum, have been submitted to UNESCO for consideration on its World Heritage List, and Mendatica is also being considered for this protected status). Even in Carlo Levi's Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita, written in the 1960s, Levi observed that "Just ten years ago, during the seasonal transhumance, shepherds drove flocks of sheep through the centre of Rome, as they moved down from the high mountain pastures to the lowland plains where they would winter their flocks. I remember watching them move by night through the Piazza del Pantheon, I remember hearing them from a distance as they passed in the shadows, like a muted murmur. And even then in the meadows of the Villa Doria Pamphili shepherds would spend the winter in their huts of straw and leafy branches. Nowadays, the much more numerous flocks of cars have occupied all the streets, making it impossible for animals to pass."
It was after reading about the tradition, and seeing photographs of sheep completely taking over towns and mountain roads (including one of the tunnels in the Alps between Italy and Austria!), that I became somewhat obsessed with witnessing it in person (and okay, I've long had a fondness for sheep). I wanted to experience the transumanza in the north of Italy if only because there had been a few pieces already written about it in the south, and the Mendatica festa turned out to be perfetto as the village's very existence is inseparable from the transumanza.
Mendatica, founded by fugitives fleeing the destruction of coastal Albenga in 644 AD by the Lombards, was later a refuge for coastal inhabitants during Saracen raids and by 1385 it was under the dominion of Genoa. Its Festa della Transumanza celebrates the joys and hardships of this pastoral heritage as well as its cucina bianca (white cuisine), which refers to the ingredients typical of this alpine area: potatoes, turnips, garlic, leeks, cabbage, several pasta shapes, and various cheeses. It's held at the end of September and begins on Friday morning, when tourists and 500 school kids make the rounds at booths where villagers demonstrate typical activities related to the transumanza. These include making cheese, especially the local Brusso, a creamy, fermented ricotta.
The highlight of the day is the late afternoon arrival of the shepherds and the sheep, about 1,000 of them, but a few hours before I had the opportunity to meet some of the shepherds thanks to the kind assistance of the young and dynamic staff at Brigi Cooperativa, especially Maria, Chiara, and Paola (Brigi -- named for the Brigasca sheep that produce three cheeses endorsed by Slow Food -- organizes the festa with a few other regional groups). The photos below were taken at one of the six seasonal communities (known collectively as the Malghe) above Mendatica on Monte Saccarello, the highest peak in Liguria. These bungalow colonies (Il Lago, Monesi, Piolarocca, Le Salse, Valcona Soprana, and Valcona Sottana) were home to the shepherds and their families during the warmer months of the year. Today very few shepherds are married with children, and most of the Malghe are now uninhabited (though they were all thriving as recently as the 1960s). Some of the photos were also taken as we walked along the trail descending to Mendatica.
(Yes, in the second photo the shepherd is speaking on his mobile phone, so the shepherds have adapted to the modern world.)
What I never knew about sheep is that lots and lots of flies follow them everywhere and that they never stop looking for something to eat. All they do is roam and eat. And with a few goats, they can pick a small plant clean in about ten minutes.
The life of a shepherd today hasn't changed drastically from what it was many years ago, and it's not a life for everyone. Many shepherds have followed in the footsteps of fathers and grandfathers. One young shepherd who was pointed out to me later in the weekend didn't look older than 15 -- he'd decided to drop out of school to take up this unorthodox life.
There are community dinners on Friday and Saturday nights that are great fun, with a variety of cucina bianca dishes served, and on Saturday afternoon the Palio delle Capre (goat race) is held. This is hilarious as goats from the Malghe compete in an obstacle course and as they have no interest in completing the course, handlers do whatever they can -- such as literally pulling them along by the horns -- to force the goats to make it to the finish line.
The Fiera di San Matteo -- a street fair held in the same spot as a former market where shepherds met to sell products and animals -- is set up in the morning before the palio begins, and there are some local wines (such as the Pigato white wine, made from grapes originally from a Genoan colony in Greece, and the Ormeasco red wine) and foods to taste as well as nice craft items. Among the culinary specialties is garlic from nearby Vessalico, recognized by Slow Food -- this particular garlic has been celebrated for the past two centuries at a festival held every year in July, and it grows in miniscule plots that cling to mountain slopes; the garlic heads aren't cut or trimmed of its roots but are woven into long braids called reste. Mendatica is happily free of souvenir shops and retail stores in general (though the Alimentari Ascheri, on piazza Roma, carries some local wines and Ligurian specialties to enjoy while visiting or to bring home), and the Fiera provides one of the few opportunities to purchase handmade crafts and culinary items that are not exported outside of the region.
A number of the 21 dishes that represent the cucina bianca are served at the community meals during the transumanza festival, and the Ristorante La Campagnola (just outside the village center at a bend in the road, on via San Bernardo at number 28) serves a number of cucina bianca dishes year round as does the restaurant at the Il Castagno agriturismo (via San Bernardo, 39; telephone 018.332.8718, no dedicated website); but even more are available at the official cucina bianca festival that Mendatica hosts every August, and among these are:
(Cuxe in Ligurian dialect).
fresh mint -- every family has its own recipe.
When I visited, I had the pleasure of meeting a local area celebrity, Giulia Gorlero (pictured at left) who was the goalkeeper on the Italian women's water polo team in the Rio Olympic Games. Though Giulia entered the final match against the U.S. with the highest save percentage of any goalkeeper in Rio, and though the Italian team had been averaging just over 10 goals a game, the U.S. did win the gold with a 12-5 victory. The silver went to the Italian team, and Giulia is a warm and personable young woman who is a great ambassador for Liguria.
Staying at Ca' da Cardella (via Giardino), a rifugio escursionistico in the heart of Mendatica, is an immersive experience -- the beautiful, stone building has been recently renovated to accommodate guests in four bedrooms (some with bunk beds), each with its own bathroom. The bedrooms are all downstairs while upstairs is a large, open space that is a combination kitchen and living room. It's rustic but comfortable, and there is an outdoor picnic area with a grill that's connected to the kitchen by a bridge over cobblestoned via Giadino -- this is the street that the sheep walk down during the festa, so the vantage point from here is unique. There are lovely views out over the valley and the rate per person is 15 euros per night.
Aside from its two festivals, Mendatica's parish church of Santi Nazario e Celso is of interest -- it's Romanesque in origin but was reconstructed in the 18th century as Baroque; only the bell tower is original, and there is a lovely Madonna carved by Anton Maria Maragliano (1664-1739), a sculptor of some renown for his wooden carvings, inside -- as well as the old mill and La Casa del Pastore, an ethnographic museum depicting a shepherd's house. Visitors may also walk ten minutes outside the village to La Chiesa di Santa Margherita, a 16th century church with a very fragile fresco cycle by noted Ligurian painter Pietro Guido da Ranzo. The chiesa is in a very serene spot, which may be one reason why it appealed to Thor Heyerdahl, who wrote Kon-Tiki here (Heyerdahl lived until 2002 in Colla Micheri, just above the Ligurian coastal town of Laigueglia, designated uno dei borghi più belli d'Italia, one of the most beautiful villages of Italy). In addition to a grand cascante (waterfall -- Mendatica's name means "bring water"), all of this makes Mendatica a good base for exploring the rest of the Arroscia Valley, where there are other small villages worth visiting as well as lots of outdoor activities to pursue: biking is especially popular (on the pretty winding roads and mountain biking in the hills), and there are hiking trails, donkey treks, skiing, and snowshoeing. In Vendone, there is an open-air installation with more than 35 stone sculptures by German sculptor Rainer Kriester (1935-2002), who was made an honorary citizen in 1999. The blocks of stone -- I megaliti del terzo millennio (the megaliths of the third millennium) -- are from the nearby coastal town of Finale (halfway between Albenga and Savona) and are about 12 feet high From many spots throughout the Arroscia valley there are panoramic views of the surrounding forest trees seemingly stretching all the way to the sea.
As Mendatica is not far from the coast, it's also a great day trip destination. An absolutely wonderful (and not-well-known-among-Americans) place to stay is the Villa della Pergola in Alassio, but as there is so much to say about it I will save its description for an upcoming post. I will close this one by saying that travelers who want to find an authentic corner of Italy need look no further than the Strada Statale 28 that leads from Imperia up into the Ligurian hills.
Mendatica Tourist Office
piazza Roma, 1 firstname.lastname@example.org
Brigi Cooperativa di Comunita