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Il Secolo XIX calls the transumanza ‘the most spectacular event of the year in the val d’Aveto.’  Not having seen other events there I can’t say if I agree, but this festa, held when the cows are brought down from the high pastures where they’ve spent the summer to the barns and lower land of the valley is charming and fun.

Friends took me with them to Santo Stefano d’Aveto to see the transumanza on a rainy Sunday.  The arrow on the map below points to Santo Stefano; at an elevation of about 3200 feet, ‘low land’ is a relative term.

map of Santa StefanoArrow

We arrived in plenty of time to walk through the small village (population about 1200, probably double that the day we were there) and savor the anticipation. When would the cows arrive??

Not being able to stand the suspense we started walking up the street down which they would come, a walk which provided a sweet view of the town from above.

Santo Stefano from above

We met and chatted with others whose level of excitement matched our own. When would they arrive? When would they arrive? Finally the first outriders appeared, and it quickly became evident that this had as much to do with costume and play-acting as it did with herd movement. All to the good! The horses were buffed, fluffed and bedecked:

be-ribboned horse

well-trimmed horse

The riders, dressed as gauchos, gave the impression they had spent the summer keeping order among the vast herds on the mountain side:

gaucho

more advance riders

a real gaucho

rider

Then the first cows arrived, festooned with flowers and accompanied by a pair of flowery goats.  Many of them moved to the music of their cowbells, a sound we associate much more with Switzerland than with Italy.  Each bell has a slightly different pitch, making the herd an orchestra of happy random dissonance. With them was a group of people dressed as old-timey farmers, brandishing the antique tools of high meadow agriculture.

cows festooned

people in peasant dress

the cows arrive

cows-001

longhorn

And then it was over:

cows-003

The fact that there were perhaps 50 head of cattle made me suspect that those handsome gauchos had not, in fact, been tending the herd all summer.

The cows continued their procession through the village and disappeared up a winding road on the other side of town.  We did what all sensible people do after so much excitement and activity:

Locanda dei Doria menu

At E18 this huge mid-day meal was a real bargain.  I enjoyed the anti-pasti, followed by the squash stuffed ravioli, veal scallopini with fresh porcini mushrooms and a killer plum tart.

ravioli with pumpkin

Such a large meal calls for a post-prandial stroll, which we took, admiring the shops (closed at that time of day) along the narrow streets of the old part of town. (Santo Stefano, with a rich history, has been inhabited for centuries. Its first written mention is from the 2nd century BCE at the time of a battle between the Romans and the Ligurians. The castello in the center of town dates from 1164.)  At a time when many small towns are dying for lack of occupation, Santo Stefano has cast itself as a center of ‘bio’ food – what we would call organic.  People from a wide radius make the long windy drive up the mountain to buy fresh locally produced cheese (San Sté cheese has been made in the same way by the same families for several centuries), yogurt, eggs, vegetables and at this time of year chestnuts.  My friends staggered out of a small food shop we found open with bags of locally ground flour, fresh ricotta and other delectables.  I brought Speedy a small basket of ricotta, and I have to say, it is the best either of us has ever eaten.

other chestnuts

garlic in market

You can’t have a good festa without some live music.  A trio of musicians was performing (and clearly enjoying themselves) under the covered arcade in front of the shops on the main street.  If you want to see and hear them you can do so here and here.

Is life in a mountain all fun and games?  I would say not. Farming in what is one of the wettest parts of Italy comes with its own particular set of problems, exacerbated by long cold winters.  But we saw plenty of indication that people still farm there, in spite of the influx of holiday homes.

he took goats up the mountain
Maybe you could call this man ‘before.’  He’s clearly serious about his farming – he was just returning from taking the festive goats up the hill to march with the procession of cows.

Then you could call this man ‘after.’  Giorgio Carpanese has lived all of his 84 years in Santo Stefano d’Aveto.  When I asked him if he had seen an awful lot of changes there in his life he just shook his head with a whimsical look and said, ‘Si.  Si.’

Giorgio Carpanese