While studying at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piemonte some classmates and I took a day trip to the Maira Valley in the western alps. It was April, and it was a very interesting experience to see how from the bottom of the valley ascending up the road, we would not only travel a few hundred years back in time but also back to the last winter season. It was spring at the bottom of the valley and the end of the road it seemed we were back in January.
The Val Maira is an alpine valley that stretches about 60 kilometers from east to west in the Italian province of Cuneo in the region of Piemonte. It is also part of the Alpi Cozie in the border region of France and Italy. Settlements as far back as 4.000 years have been found in the valley, however, today it has the highest rate of rural depopulation in the whole alpine region.
From Dronero at 622 meters the valley climbs aproximately 60 kilometers following the Maira river up into the mountains. At the end of the valley in the east are the 3,389 meter high Chambeyron and the 3,166 meter high Sautron peaks. Because the lower valley is extremely narrow, the upper parts of the valley are only accessible on foot paths during summer. Hiking trails from the French side over 2,600 meter high are practically the only way to access the upper and wider glacially formed parts.
Many of the inhabitants of the Valle Maira speak (besides the official Italian language) a dialect of occitan, a gallo-romance language that formed in the medieval times. Originating from the south of France, occitan is still spoken in several Piemontese valleys, the Val d’Aran in Spain, and the south of Italy.
Mid-Valley in Stroppo: Lunch at Lou Sarvanot
Featured in the Slow Food Guide, Lou Sarvanot offers traditional occitan fare from largely local suppliers. The valley is especially famous for its high quality cheeses from raw milk.
Chippera: End of the Road
Chiappera is the highest part (1,600m) of the commune of Acceglio and the end of the paved road up the valley. The whole commune has a total population of 160 inhabitants and many of the buildings are neglected due to the migration into the cities over the past century. Already in early November the snow starts building up and usually does not start to melt until March or April, which makes for an extremely short growing season.
Elva: Above the Valley
Elva is a commune in a side valley of the Valle Maira at an elevation between 1,100m and 3,100m above sea level. The total population was 97 in 2015. The first settlement was Roman, as is proven by an engraved stone in the village’s church wall. This church is particularly important to the whole region because the frescoes in the choir are among the most important works of clerical art in the Piemonte. The œuvre depicts the life of Mary and originates from the end of the 15th century and is attributed to the French-Flemish wall painter Hans Clemer .