Trekking from Turin to the Cottian Alps

From Italy’s car capital into the Cottian Alps – Chris Moss explores the Valle Maira in north-western Italy.

I can think of few cities better than Turin as a starting point for setting off for the wilds. The Italian city, famous for its industrial heritage as well as its footballing genius, is a traditionally hearty place. One of Italy’s coffee capitals (Lavazza is headquartered here) it has a dozen characterful old bars and cafés as well as plenty of pizzerias, pasta restaurants and parks.

After a day taking in the city-centre sites – and the famous former Fiat factory used in The Italian Job (1969), out in the sticks – I drove my own little rental car south along the E717, the Turin-Savona highway.

I was heading for the Cottian Alps (Alpi Cozie in Italian), a mountain range in the Western Alps extending along the French-Italian border. Part of the Piedmont region, the peaks are well known to skiers and hikers. Some are impressively lofty; the highest point, Monviso (3,841m), can be seen from Milan Cathedral on a clear day.

The road to the mountains

The highway took me quickly through the suburbs and then into a patchwork of well-watered farmland. From Cuneo, the landscape began to change, as I entered the Valle Maira – the name is related to mer or mare, and the Maira river is the remnant of an ancient sea that separated two continents millions of years ago.

Mountain with greenery around it

This unique geological history makes for some dramatic landscapes. The further west I travelled, the closer the slopes drew in; lush oak and chestnut forests gave way to deep canyons with vertical walls. The road skirted clifftops, penetrated tunnels, dipped and dived. The world turned green.

Bridge in town with green trees surrounding it

The Devil’s Bridge

I pulled over at Dronero, which has a fortified, somewhat wonky-looking medieval “Devil’s Bridge” – though no one seemed to know what the devil had done. The Occitan language is still spoken in the valley and the handsome town is a sort of cultural capital, avid for its preservation.

Old pillars with names and a farmhouse in the background

From here the road began to climb, passing hamlets, each with a handful of stone cottages and its own pretty chapel. Outstanding among these was the Romanesque church at Elva, with an apse frescoed by skilled Flemish artist Hans Clemer in the early 16th century. The village also has a remarkable Museum of Hair documenting the early-20th-century trade in human locks.

The path to the mountains

I stayed nearby and, the following morning set off on a hike that took me over a series of high passes into a cliff top village, San Martino Superiore – where I found a pretty osteria that served me a good coffee and cake. The region offers a wide range of hikes, climbs, via ferratas and mountain bike circuits.

Mountain pathway with directional signpost

Wherever I walked were handy information boards recounting that the valley had once been busy with river-powered wheat, corn and rye flour mills.

The Valle Maira became depopulated in the 20th century. Machines killed off crafts such as saddle-making; wars and the draw of the cities did the rest. The mills now lie idle, the chapels and churches empty and the only the hotels and hiking lodges in towns like Finello and Allemandi allow people to make a living here.

Town surrounded by green trees on mountains

While many people come for the exercise and landscapes, the border region is dotted with historic landmarks from the Second World War. My favourite hike took me on a lopping trail south led over the Gardetta pass, where I found gun emplacements and a war memorial set among forbidding boulders and arid steppes.

Bunker in the mountains built from stones

Chiappera, at the far end of the valley, was the best-preserved of the villages. It’s stone walls and roofs were neat and looked new. La Scuola, the old village school, is now a smart restaurants-with-rooms. It sits at the bottom of a bowl of jagged mountains, with the arrow-head peak of 2,451-metre Rocca Provenzale at its centre.

Here my walk took me to a real highlight of the Valle Maira. If the lonely buildings had a certain romance, even more wondrous was the Cascate delle Stroppia – one of the biggest waterfalls in Italy, with a descent of around 320 meters.

Colourful plant and green grass in front of a mountain

Here I sat down on a flat rock with a picnic of local salamis and cheeses and fresh bread, and freshly squeezed apple juice, and thought about walking on to France – only a few miles away now – before slipping into a deep siesta under the afternoon sun.