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Sometimes it happens in Italy that you’re walking down a street, a lane, or a path in the country, and you come upon something that sends you back, in your mind’s eye, a few hundred years. “I can just imagine,” you say to yourself, “what it would have been like to be alive when this place was new and bustling with life.”

It happened to me not long ago when I took a walk with a friend. We came to the old and interesting Complesso Molitorio (Mill complex), which lies on a sentiero (walking path) that connects San Maurizio di Monti to Rapallo along the San Francesco torrente (fast flowing stream), on the opposite side of the narrow valley from the paved road.  The sentiero is not particularly well known, and does not appear on the trails map for this area. To reach it from San Maurizio you walk down what begins as an ever more narrow residential street, which finally turns itself into a path. From Rapallo the route begins on a paved street but soon takes the form of an old mule path which climbs and winds through the forest. According to the website lacipresse.it, the path is known as “Strada Antica di Monti,” a part of the “Antica Via del Sale” (The Old Salt Road – why there was a Salt Road here I have not been able to learn).

The Mill complex is comprised of four buildings, three of which you can see in the photo above. The large building in front was constructed in the 17th century and was an olive mill. A wheat mill was housed in the smaller building on the left; and the small building up above the others was a chestnut mill. The fourth building, not much more than a room really, is behind the large main building, and was used for collecting the refuse of the olive pressing.

The San Francesco feeds a mill pond above the highest building:

The water can be directed down an earth and stone canal to tumble into the waterwheels that powered the various milling operations:

The oldest structure in the complex is the old stone bridge that crosses the San Francesco, built in the Roman style, quite possibly during Roman days.

The little chapel on the bridge, a recent addition, honors the Madonna of Montallegro and is called Nostra Signora della Cipressa.   According to the story, there was a chestnut tree that stood nearby. One day, during the plague years, the tree suddenly died – in just the one day! The belief is that the tree, through the intercession of the Madonna, absorbed the deadly disease and rendered it harmless, thereby saving the citizens of San Maurizio di Monti. (For more about the Madonna of Montallegro and the plague, see here).

There have been several re-structurings of various elements of the complex, including one in the early 18th century, one in the 1920’s, and another in the early years of this century . During the recent renovations the large building was turned into a museum, Il Museo della Civilta’ Contadina “Cap. G. Pendola” – the Museum of Rural Culture (named in honor of Giovanni Pendola, a heroic Captain in Garibaldi‘s Army). In it you will find old implements that farmers employed to wrest a livelihood from these steep hills, as well as accouterments of the mills themselves. It is open on the third Sunday of each month from 3 – 5 p.m., at which time a very well informed docent can explain the uses of the various tools, and tell about each of the buildings. (The renovations in 2001 won Second Prize in the 2003 Concorso  “Ama il nostro paese” – love our country – sponsored by the City of Rapallo and the Rapallo Lions Club.  In 2006 the Complex was designated a National Monument.)

Some centuries before our mill, but I like the image!

Although the mill was still functioning as late as 1940, it is much more fun to imagine what it would have been like in, say, 1750. You’ve gathered all the chestnuts in your part of the woods, have dried them over a smoky fire and have thrashed them out of their husks.

Now you put them in barrels that are firmly strapped, one on each side, to your mule. Slowly and carefully the two of you make your way up the path, your mule finding a careful foothold between the upturned stones on the steep parts of the road. You hear the mill before you see it; the water is rushing down the canal and the big wheel is squeaking a little as it turns. When you get a little closer you can hear the big gears groaning and clicking as they engage. There are a lot of other people there with their chestnuts, too. Chestnut flour is a staple, and a good crop might form the basis of your family’s diet for much of the year. (For an interesting article on historical food uses of chestnuts, look here.) While at the mill you have a chance to exchange gossip with neighbors you haven’t seen for a while and to catch up on the news of the town below. After you’ve left your chestnuts to be ground into flour, you might continue up on the mountain to give thanks at Montallegro for a good harvest, and to ask the Madonna to protect you through the short winter ahead.

There’s another great story associated with the mills. The present owner’s grandfather, the  Giovanni Pendola for whom the Museum is named,  was the owner of the mill in 1907 when he went to Genova to take aid to the victims of a cholera epidemic there. He contracted the disease himself, and died soon afterwards. His true love, a lady named Caterina who was, they say, still beautiful, lost her will to leave her house when she received the news of his death. Then, taken by an irresistible urge for freedom, she became a wild creature of the woods.

Painting by Patrick Soper, soperstudio.com

Still today, disguised as a fox with a soft tawny tail, she wanders during the coldest days, “those of winter when the cold north wind blows, or when windy gusts blow the last dry leaves, and the bare, rattling branches of  trees reach to the sky like imploring arms.” The tradition says that if you meet this fox and look into her eyes, you may lose your memory or be swallowed up by the woods.

If you’d like to see some more pictures of the mill, click here.  Click on ‘slideshow.’

Many thanks to the website lacipresse.it, from which I learned the content of this post.