Alpeggi are areas where cattle, sheep and goats were traditionally brought to graze in the summer months. This custom, better known as transhumance, often involved huge distances. For example, cattle used to be driven miles from the centre of Tuscany to the Maremma. In our areas of Mediavalle and Garfagnana, too, summer transhumance was a common feature and still lingers on in certain areas.
In Val di Lima, for example, sheep are brought to the Prato Fiorito area known as Albereta (also famous for its excellent potatoes!)
In Garfagnana there were three particularly favoured transhumance areas: Alpe Sant’Antonio, San Pellegrino and Campocatino.
The tradition is remembered in feste Del pastore (shepherd feste) which take place in the summer. Yesterday we attended one at Campocatino, a particularly evocative alpeggio standing under the menacing dragon-toothed Roccandagia Mountain, 5577 feet in height.
The wide pastures are dotted with little shepherd stone houses with original stone roofs, many of which have been restored as summer retreats by a cooperative group. There’s a rifugio, and exhibition centre with some nice painting, and a chapel to the patron saint of the Alpeggio a hermit called San Viviano whose actual hermitage we had visited previously.
Necci (chestnut pancakes) were served with both ricotta cheese and Nutella – a strange but delicious combination and there was also castagnaccia, a cake, again made with chestnut flour and mixed with walnut and pine kernels.
There was also a cheese-making demonstration by an old boy who showed the concentration of forming the pecorino cheese with all the concentration worthy of a Bernard Leach.
We enjoyed walking around the area, also in part to get away from some of the less tuneful karaoke interpreters who, in addition, to a proper singer supplied entertainment to a public anxious to get away from the sultry heat further down the valley.
I first came across Campocatino in the 1990’s when I undertook what I still consider one of my most epic mountain treks in the area. Arriving by train at Piazza al Serchio I walked up the valley containing the beautiful Gramolazzo lake to start my ascent of the Apuans’ highest peak, the Monte Pisanino, height 6384 feet. I don’t know what the most difficult route up this volcano-like mountain is like but the ascent up the incredibly steep canale delle rose to reach the top was tough enough but worth it for one of the most incredible mountain tops views I’ve ever experienced.
From the Monte Pisanino I expected to get to the village of Vagli di sotto on the same day but never did. Footpath 177 was marked as EE (expert trekkers only) and it certainly was.
When night descended I still found myself on the lower slopes of the Pisanino, something which I recalled in this:
Night falls on the ridge like distilled nectar
My fire is out: I huddle into sleep
while myriad stars tend over the vast deep
and the mountain is an immense spectre.
In the dusk a goat’s tinkling bell resounds
across the fast-fading valley while far below
the twinkling lights of the steep village glow
and echo the yelping of hungry hounds.
It turns colder: my thoughts spin round and round
I am quite alone here yet not uncertain:
hidden by earth, the sun will uncurtain
and illumine till the moist sphere is crowned.
The rays touch me and warm my spirit:
heart wakes and leaps to the summit’s limit.
It was only the next day that I finally reached Campocatino and was totally enchanted by it. At that time, few huts had been restored and the way down to Vagli di sotto was via a very rough, unmade road passing some of the most ancient chestnut trees I’ve ever seen.
I remember it as the most recent time (1994) Lake Vagli was drained to reveal the drowned village of Fabbriche di Careggine.
After a cancellation in 2004 due to water shortages we are promised a re-emergence of the ghost village next year. It should be again a very haunting experience, twenty one years after I last saw it.
Campocatino remains high on our list of favourite places and we were so glad to return to it yesterday. It is indeed one of Garfagnana’s most beautiful alpeggi and absolutely enrapturing.
(Statue of old shepherd and his dog)