Sunday, November 10, 2013

Parco Alta Valle Pesio

Gias Funtena, Valle Pesio, Italia (July 1, 2004)

San Bartolomeo is the entrance point of the Park of the Marguareis, a regional park developed around the Marguareis massif, the highest peak of the Ligurian Alps. The park straddles the mountain, extending in the two valleys on either side of the massif: the Pesio and Tanaro valleys. Its location at the southern tip of the Alps and the influence from the sea gives it a unique micro-climate, sustaining a very rich ecosystem: within the confines of the park there are as much as 1/4 of all the vegetal species of Italy. The park supports a very rich and varied fauna, that includes a large presence of ungulates (chamois, deer, roe deer, wild boars). A pack of wolves has also settled in the park in recent years.

San Bartolomeo
The two sides of the park are very different. The Pesio valley is lush and green, covered by a dense forest that goes all the way up to the feet of the Marguareis (you can see the characteristic vertical "wall" of the mountain in the photo at the bottom). The large photo above shows instead the "Pis du Pes" (literally, the "piss of the Pesio"), which is the spring of the river that gives the name to the valley. For most of the year the waters of the pesio seep through the gravel at the base of the rocky wall shown above. With the spring snowmelt, however, a vast system of underground lakes fills up, until the water level reaches a series of holes in the middle of the wall, from which it escapes in a magnificent waterfall: the "Pis". The phenomenon happens every year, but doesn't last very long. I have seen it a few times but I don't have any photo to show for it. The Tanaro valley side of the park, on the other hand, is very dry. The Marguareis is made of the same kind of calcium magnesium carbonate as the Dolomites, which is very porous and easily infiltrated by water. The massif hides a vast system of caves, which collect all the water in the high valley feeding the underground lakes from which the Pesio is born. This is one of the largest and deepest system of caves in Europe, with over 43 km of extension and 1,000 meters of depth for just one of the many cave complexes in the area, the Piaggia Bella system. These caves are not accessible to the public (you need serious training and climbing equipment to access), but when I was in graduate school I was part of a speleological team and I had the privilege of spending a few hours in the belly of the mountain visiting the caves (didn't find any ring or dragon, though).

The road to Mascarone
Despite being a protected area, the park pastures are still used by the villagers to raise their cattle and sheep from spring to fall. The network of hiking trails criss-crossing the valley is used to connect a system of "gias" (like the two in the large photo above). Made of stone, they are used as temporary housing for the herders and to keep the cheese as it ages, until it is ready at the end of the summer. The gias are only accessible via the hiking trails: there are no roads entering the park. This means that twice a year, in the early hours of a day of spring and in the wee hours of an evening in the fall, a noisy procession of cows pass through San Bartolomeo on their way to, or coming from, the high pastures in the park. Until I came to the US I spent most of my summers in valle Pesio. While there, I was spending most of my time hiking the trails in the park, mostly alone, sometimes going out for a whole day-long walk several times in a row. I think I have been to all gias and reached the end of most trails in the park, on foot in summer and on sky in winter, and I came to know the area quite well. When I say that I miss mountains, these are the mountains I miss.

Marguareis from the Gias Sutan d'Sestrera (October 3, 2008)

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