Back last summer we revisited a favourite place – the Val Gardena in the Dolomites (northern Italy). It’s a fascinating and very beautiful place, and one I go back to time and again to walk and rewind.
Historically it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but in the post First World War settlement it became part of Italy, so both German and Italian are spoken by most people. The town I visit (St Ulrich / Ortisei) also has another language – for many people Ladin is their first language. Everywhere signs are in three languages – not for the benefit of the many tourists who come to walk, ski or just relax, but to respect the various cultural inheritances of the local people.
One of the fascinating things about this area is the continuing practice of transhumance, and the importance of this to preserving the landscape. On the whole, settlements are confined to the few valley and flatter spaces. Dotted around here and higher up are traditional farms – the solid house, and beside it the wooden barn, with space at the bottom for cattle, storage above, and higher still the hay crop for feeding the cows during the winter. Through the summer the cows graze the high pastures, on flower meadows and under the trees. As you walk, the sound is of munching, mooing and cow bells.
Through the summer the grass both high up and on the lower slopes grows, the flowers bloom and go to seed, then a hay crop is cut, dried, collected and stored for later. Occasionally you still see people cutting it by hand, the old way using a scythe. It is raked, often by hand, left to dry for a few days, then driven down to be stored in the barn. Sometimes, though not so often now, it is still collected on large white sheets and carried on the back in a big bundle.
For many years now some of the farmers with high pastures have diversified and provide food drink and shelter for tourists – not something new, because here tourism flourished in the 19th century. Milk fresh from that day, homemade yoghurt cheese smoked sausage and smoked ham (speck), with good bread. Unbeatable , especially when followed with hausgemacht apfelstrudel.
And that wood from a stone? It seemed to perfectly illustrate the idea that life can flourish in harsh conditions that seem altogether unlikely. And if only I could find the picture…. Maybe I will soon. I saw a tree which seemed to be growing directly out of the rock.