Discovering Moncenisio, Valsusa's treasure

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Author Alessandro 23 June 2023
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By following the Royal Road of Val Cenischia, you arrive at one of the most historically traversed places in Europe: Moncenisio, a crossroad for armies, pilgrims, and travelers.

Located beyond the French border at an altitude of 2083 meters, Moncenisio is a privileged destination for two-wheel enthusiasts and outdoor lovers.

Its thousand-year history, diverse fauna and flora with a lunar-like landscape, colorful rocks covered in lichen, fortifications, the lake with its coves, and the hairpin bends of the Gran Scala with ancient stone guardrails make Moncenisio a feast for the eyes and a fulfillment for the spirit.

A bit of history

The entire Moncenisio area holds immense historical importance and is now a protected zone.

For a long time, it was believed that in 218 BC, Hannibal traveled from France to Italy through the Colle del Piccolo Moncenisio and the Colle Clapier, west of the present-day Colle del Moncenisio.

In reality, although not certain, it seems that the commander actually used the Colle dell’Autaret, which connects the Valli di Lanzo with the Haute Maurienne.

However, the pass was definitely crossed by Pepin the Short in 754, by Charlemagne, by Henry IV in 1076, and by Frederick Barbarossa.

The Via Francigena

via francigena Val Susa
via francigena Val Susa

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, the practice of pilgrimage gained increasing importance. Highly significant Christian sites were the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, and the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul in Rome.

A series of routes, called the Via Romee, from Western Europe, led to Southern Europe and Rome, then continued to Apulia, where the ports for the Holy Land were located, attracting pilgrims and crusaders.

The Via Francigena is part of these routes and became the central hub of the great paths of faith.

Pilgrims from the north traveled it to reach Rome and, eventually, continue along the Via Appia towards the port of Brindisi.

Conversely, Italian pilgrims heading to Santiago traveled it northward to reach Luni, where they embarked for French ports.

The original route involved entering Italian territory through the Colle del Gran San Bernardo, descending into Aosta Valley, then reaching Ivrea and Vercelli.

However, a written testimony from 1273, the Iter de Londino in Terram Sanctam, mentions a second route that entered Italy precisely through Moncenisio, traversing the Val di Susa before converging towards Vercelli, stating that in the 12th century, this route was more prevalent than the traditional one.

In the 16th century, the pass became part of the Via Francigena, of primary importance for trade relations between Italy and France.

Napoleon’s Carriage Road

From 1803 to 1811, the Napoleon Road was built by order of Napoleon I Bonaparte, bypassing the town and rendering the services provided by guides and porters useless.

Under the direction of engineers Derrien and Ducasse, the great international connection road was created, still existing today between Susa and San Giovanni di Moriana.

These were significant infrastructures for the rapid movement of armies and were used during the War of Independence in 1859.

In 1812, Napoleon arrested Pope Pius VII, who, as his prisoner, was brought to France through the Passo del Moncenisio.

Napoleon’s carriage road, from Susa to the Colle de Moncenisio, now narrowed due to the installation of the Fell Railway and modified for the construction of the dam, constitutes the final part of the State Road 25 del Moncenisio.

On May 5, 1859, the 2nd division of General Joseph Vinoy, belonging to the French army’s IV Corps, reached Piedmont through the Moncenisio Pass.

With the transfer of Savoy to France in 1860, Moncenisio became the border crossing between the countries, leading to the construction of extensive fortifications to defend the pass from potential enemy action.

Moncenisio in the 20th Century

In the 1930s, numerous bunkers were built for the cave works of the Alpine Wall.

In 1940, the Colle and its surrounding areas were involved in the Battle of the Western Alps. The last military episodes took place between 1944 and 1945.

With the border rectifications of 1947 established by the Treaty of Paris, all Italian fortifications passed into French territory. However, many remains still exist, although visiting them is not recommended due to the risk of collapses.

Marrons and Ramasses

For centuries, most of the inhabitants of Moncenisio worked as guides for travelers, offering transport using mule stretchers called ramasses, constructed with a bundle of branches.

The carriers were called marrons. Their activity continued even in winter, making the Moncenisio route preferable to others crossing the alpine passes.

What to see at Moncenisio

The village predominantly extends along the course of the Torrente Cenischia, with two small natural alpine lakes nearby.

Generally overlooked by mass tourism, it offers interesting and rare summer blooms and is one of the starting points for the ascent to Lac Roterel and Lac de l’Arpon.

Further upstream, there are interesting remains of military installations and a stone quarry.

In all seasons, you can retrace the Ancient Via Francigena with a beautiful hike, marked as the Royal Road, both upstream towards the pass and downstream towards Novalesa.

Excursions at Moncenisio

As a starting point for interesting excursions along numerous trails crossing the mountains in both summer and winter, the Valle del Moncenisio boasts an extraordinary concentration of high-altitude paths and roads that have no rivals in the Western Alps.

Cross-Country Skiing at Moncenisio

If the snow is well settled and there is no risk of avalanches, taking care when crossing streams and roads and being aware of snow-covered icy slopes, it is possible to cross the 10-kilometer perimeter of Lake Moncenisio on cross-country skis in about 3 hours.

The Village of Moncenisio

The Village of Moncenisio develops along the course of the Torrente Cenischia, which divides it in two, creating a very distinctive setting.

We recommend walking through the alleys and houses that have remained unchanged over the centuries, which bear witness to the life and customs that once united the families of the village. Some examples of another era are the mill, the washhouse, and the oven: the latter was restored in 2014 and is still used on special occasions.

Just before the Village of Moncenisio, you will come across two small alpine lakes of glacial origin with clear waters: Lago della Ferrera and Lago Foppa.

Ecomuseum “Le Terre al Confine”

The ancient town hall houses the Ecomuseum “Le Terre al Confine”, one of the 25 ecomuseums recognized by the Piedmont Region, where the history of the territory is narrated through everyday objects of the mountain tradition.

The exhibited objects offer a glimpse into the daily life of a past linked to mountain professions. A section is dedicated to the fauna and flora of the meadows and forests surrounding Moncenisio.

During the Christmas period, the village of Moncenisio comes alive with the Historic Nativity Scene of Moncenisio, while on April 23, the patron saint festival dedicated to Saint George, women in traditional costumes accompany the procession with the statue of the patron saint.

Flora

La flora, Viola Cenisia, Moncenisio
La flora, Viola Cenisia, Moncenisio

The particular climatic and geological conditions have allowed the preservation of multiple plant species here, granting this alpine pass the privilege of hosting species of great interest at the European level, observable in few other locations in the Western Alps, such as the yellow saponaria, the widespread carex glacialis, found only in arctic areas and Moncenisio, the campanula cenisia, and the viola cenisia that grows and blooms among alpine rocks between 1700 and 2700 meters.

To preserve the extraordinary flora, the site has become a biotope: The 6,250 hectares surrounding Lake Moncenisio, including the Vallone delle Savine, are protected by the French state. Plant collection is prohibited.

The Ancient Ash Tree of Moncenisio

In the small square in front of the parish church, between the ancient church of San Giorgio and the stream, there is an ancient ash tree that is over 3 centuries old, one of the oldest monumental trees in Piedmont, linked to the oral tradition of a curious custom.

After baptisms, the children of the village were hung from a branch of the ash tree that slightly leaned toward the Torrente Cenischia. If the child held on, they were considered worthy, but if they fell into the Cenischia, they were destined to go downstream carried by the waters and, if they survived, become inhabitants of Novalesa.

It is believed that the ash tree was planted during the French Revolution as a tree of liberty, a manifestation of popular jubilation for the fall of absolutist regimes in the late 18th century.

Sundials of Moncenisio

A characteristic of the Village of Moncenisio is the presence of numerous sundials with inscriptions in the Franco-Provençal language.

Fortifications of Moncenisio

Despite the atmosphere of peace that envelops the visitor, Moncenisio bears the traces of the conflicts between Italy and France that marked the period between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, particularly evident in the 6 19th-century fortifications of Moncenisio, which are now popular destinations for hikers.

Piazza del Moncenisio

Since the unification of Italy, when Moncenisio became a border area with France, it was the subject of significant fortification works that continued until 1943.

Between 1874 and 1880, the Savoy Army built the Military Square of Moncenisio, consisting of a series of stone fortifications, supplemented by armored batteries.

In the 1930s, the defensive line of the Colle was further strengthened with bunkers for underground works.

During World War II, Moncenisio was the scene of several military episodes, such as the Battle of the Western Alps.

During the Italian attack in June 1940, the Moncenisio positions engaged in heavy artillery battles with the French works in the sector and supported the Italian advance, which was halted by strong French resistance.

However, during the clashes, no works fell into the hands of the attackers, demonstrating the effectiveness of the defensive system in the sector.

In 1943, the major works were occupied by German troops and RSI troops and became the subject of heavy clashes with partisan formations in April 1945.

At the end of the conflict, all the fortifications and the surrounding territory came under the control of the French Government, as stipulated by the Paris Treaties of 1947.

Despite the systematic destruction of Italian fortifications by the French that followed the peace, many ruins are still in existence and have become popular excursion destinations. However, France advises against approaching them due to the risk of collapse.

Works of the Piazza del Moncenisio

Fort Varisello, Moncenisio

Fort Varisello, Moncenisio
Fort Varisello, Moncenisio

Built between 1877 and 1883, the Forte Varisello, located on the Altura del Varisello, was the command center and the largest of the 3 forts of the First Barrier of Moncenisio: Forts Cassa, Varisello, and Roncia.

It has a pentagonal shape with a protective moat and is equipped with two floors with overlapping firing orders, like the nearby Forte Roncia and Forte Cassa.

Given its functions as the command center of the area, it had a large ammunition depot for the 420 garrison soldiers and the mobile infantry operating in the area, an infirmary, warehouses for supplies, bread ovens, and an optical heliographic station that connected the fort with other works in the area and with Forte Pampalù.

The electric projectors that allowed the nighttime illumination of the Moncenisio plateau area since 1883 were the first experiments of nighttime lighting in a military operational field in Italy.

The fort could be accessed through a drawbridge over the moat in front of the entrance gate.

Fort Varisello, Moncenisio
Fort Varisello, Moncenisio

In the 1880s, the External Battery of Varisello was built, a support work for the fort located along the access road, with storage rooms and loading halls in a tunnel along the Military Road of Pattacroce.

The fort’s operational capabilities were gradually reduced over time. In the early 1900s, it was partially disarmed as its masonry structures were not able to withstand the impact of torpedo shells.

Between 1909 and 1910, it was used by the Italian Royal Army as a target for artillery tests of the new 149 A cannons. As a result of the bombardment, the western side of the fort suffered severe damage, with the casemates collapsing almost completely.

Due to the poor resistance of the masonry fortifications to the new types of artillery weapons, on January 10, 1910, the Forts Varisello, Roncia, and Cassa of Moncenisio were decommissioned and were only used as warehouses and quarters for the troops stationed in the area.

Following Italy’s defeat in World War II and the conditions of the Treaties of Paris, the Moncenisio plateau area was ceded to France, including the fort, which remains in good preservation despite the damage caused by shelling.

Fort Cassa, Moncenisio

Together with Forte Varisello and Forte Roncia, Forte Cassa, built between 1877 and 1882 in a strategic position northeast of the lake (which was present on the Moncenisio plateau at that time), was one of the 3 major forts of the first barrier of Moncenisio. Like the other 2 forts, it had a moat structure with a polygonal plan and two firing orders.

It was served by the Military Road Forte Cassa, which started from Borgata Gran Croce di Venaus and climbed along the slopes of Monte Lamet for about 1200 m.

In 1968, after the war, the fort, located at the northernmost point of the construction of the new dam for the Moncenisio lake, was demolished and incorporated into the containment wall. The cut remains visible.

An entrance gate located beyond the drawbridge allowed crossing the 7-meter-wide and deep moat.

The powder magazine of Forte Cassa, like that of Forte Varisello, was located under the esplanade in front of the entrance and was reached through a gallery that started from the caponier at the southwestern corner and passed under the moat.

After 1885, downstream of Forte Cassa, the Occasional Battery of Cassa was erected to defend the left flank of the fort.

In the last decade of the 1800s, to protect the right flank of the fort, the Tagliata del Cassa was added, a barrier structure about 400 meters long that started from the northwestern corner of the fort and reached near Piano delle Fontanette, also equipped with a protective moat.

The main entrance of the battery of the fort was located at the top and was reached by an internal road along which the reserve and quarters for the 120 men guarding the Tagliata were located.

At the northern end of the work, there were avalanche barriers for protection.

The fort’s operational period was short. Already in the early 1900s, it was disarmed and used like the other two forts of the First Barrier of Moncenisio as a storage and accommodation for the troops stationed at the pass.

It was never rearmed, not even during the Second World War, nor was it ever hit by enemy fire, and it remained in good preservation even after being ceded to France.

In 1968, as a result of the expansion works of the Moncenisio Lake involving the construction of a new larger dam, the fort was completely demolished as it was located at the northernmost side of the new barrier.

The Tagliata del Cassa and the front moat are still visible, located further north of the dam.

Roncia Fort, Moncenisio

Fort Roncia, Moncenisio
Fort Roncia, Moncenisio

The smallest fort of the First Barrier of Moncenisio is Forte Roncia.

Located on a plateau of Monte Lamet, a few meters from the Roncia Stream, it overlooks the Piano del Lago del Moncenisio from the north, with armaments aimed at the Colle del Moncenisio and the Colle del Piccolo Moncenisio.

It was served by the Military Road Forte Roncia, which branched off from the Strada statale 25 del Moncenisio.

Built between 1877 and 1880, it had a circular plan and the same technical features as the neighboring Forte Varisello and Forte Cassa. It had two firing orders, with the lower one intended for riflemen and the upper one fully casemated.

Entrance Forte Roncia, Moncenisio
Entrance Forte Roncia, Moncenisio

The work is entirely surrounded by an embankment beyond which there is a moat: to access the fort, there is a notch in the embankment and a drawbridge that, crossing the moat, allows access to the main entrance.

The fort was disarmed in 1915 to transfer its armaments to the Eastern Front and was no longer used as a defense fort.

In 1937, it was reactivated as a barracks to accommodate the 180 men serving in the strategic works in the area, and the upper-level casemates were converted into dormitories.

The military functions of Forte Roncia during the construction of the Western Alpine Wall were taken over by the nearby Battery B4, completely underground and more modern in design than the 19th-century fort.

Like the other forts on the Moncenisio plateau, it was ceded to France after Italy’s defeat.

Currently, the structure is in good condition, thanks to restoration work carried out in the early 19th century, and it is open to visitors.

The current access is from the Piano delle Fontanette, next to the lake.

Paradiso Battery, Moncenisio

The Batteria Paradiso is a fortification in the Colle del Moncenisio Alpine Pass, built between 1904 and 1908 on top of the Paradiso rocky massif, located at the southern end of the Moncenisio plateau, just north of the Piana di San Nicolao.

Initially on Italian territory, after the French Treaty of Paris, only a few ruins remain.

It was the first of the two armored batteries to be built on the Moncenisio plateau along with the Batteria La Court, following the construction of the 19th-century Forts Cassa, Roncia, and Varisello, as it was realized that these works would no longer be suitable to counter a possible attack by France against the Susa Valley.

It was a two-story armored battery, like the nearby Batteria La Court, equipped with a fortified gallery for close defense about 600 meters long along the western rampart, which was accessed through a tunnel from the ground floor.

There was also a guardhouse located at the end of the connecting road to the lower Piana di San Nicolao.

It was served by the Military Road Fort Cassa-Batteria Paradiso junction, which connected it to the lower Forte Cassa and the Batteria La Court (more exposed to enemy fire), and by the Military Road Batteria Paradiso, which connected it directly to the Piana di San Nicolao (more winding but protected from enemy fire thanks to the rocky salient of the Moncenisio Steps).

One of the only 4 armored batteries of the Western Alpine Wall, along with the Batteria dello Chaberton, Forte Pramand, and Batteria La Court, it was little used until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Its armaments, along with those of the Batteria La Court, were not relocated to the Eastern Front during the First World War, but during the Second World War, they were among the most active in the Western Alpine Wall, used for bombings in both the June ‘40 Battle and, once captured by the Germans, in the 1944-1945 battles.

Following Italy’s defeat and the transfer of the area to France, it was completely disarmed and dismantled. The remains were then used as fill material for the Dam. Only the guardhouse remains.

Battery La Court, Mont Cenis

Battery La Court, Mont Cenis
Battery La Court, Mont Cenis

The Batteria La Court, part of the Fortifications of the Moncenisio Alpine Pass, was a two-story reinforced concrete armored battery, like its twin Batteria Paradiso, built between 1905 and 1910 on top of the La Court rocky massif.

It was served by the Military Road Fort Paradiso-Barracks junction, which connected it to the nearby Batteria Paradiso through the Colle delle Finestre.

From Batteria Paradiso, one could reach the lower Forte Cassa via the Military Road Fort Cassa-Batteria Paradiso, or the Piana di San Nicolao via the Military Road Batteria Paradiso.

Destroyed by the German army at the end of the Second World War to prevent it from being captured by the Allies, only a few ruins remain.

Pattacroce Battery, Moncenisio

The Batteria Pattacroce, built on the summit of Monte Pattacroce between 1887 and 1889, at an altitude (2395 m above sea level) that overlooked all the other fortifications in the area from both the Italian and French sides, which were completely devoid of stable defenses at the time.

It was built after the Forts Cassa, Roncia, and Varisello to counter a potential enemy advance from the Colle del Piccolo Moncenisio.

It was a polygonal protection battery with a 3-sided protective moat, while the fourth side was protected by the underlying cliff.

At a lower altitude than the main battery, the Batteria Bassa del Pattacroce was built as a semi-permanent support work to the battery itself, which could be armed if necessary.

Its shots could sweep from the Colle del Piccolo Moncenisio to the Colli Sollieres and Beccia, supporting the shots coming from Forte Roncia.

However, the life of the battery was very short: a few years after its construction, the French army, by building the Mont Froid and Petit Turrà Forts at a higher altitude, made it vulnerable.

The two forts could destroy it in a few hours of bombardment. For this reason, between 1904 and 1905, the Italian army dismantled its armament and transferred it to the Batteria Paradiso.

The site of Batteria Pattacroce remained militarily occupied for troop shelter, and in its place, within the Fortifications of the Western Alpine Wall, the cave battery B5 was built, excavated beneath the original battery.

Already in a state of abandonment during the Second World War, it is currently in very poor condition: the spaces between one position and another can still be recognized, while in the various emplacements, once intended to house the cannons, one can see the anchor pots for the same.

Malamot defensive barracks, Moncenisio

Malamot defensive barracks, Moncenisio
Malamot defensive barracks, Moncenisio

The Malamot Defensive Barracks was built in 1889 on the summit of Mount Malamot to counter potential enemy attacks from the area of White Lake and Mount Pattacroce.

Until the construction of the Chaberton Battery, which began in 1898, it was the highest military construction in the Italian territory at an altitude of 2914 meters above sea level.

It was a two-story stone masonry construction with reinforced concrete beams supporting the steel girders that held the floors and roof. It consisted of three separate buildings that followed the mountainous terrain and had telephone communication with the Pattacroce Battery, located at a lower altitude, and with Forte Varisello on the Moncenisio Plateau.

To the northwest, there was a partially protected staircase that led to the observation post on the top of Mount Malamot, just a few meters from the border at that time.

Simultaneously, the Malamot Barbette Battery was built on a hill northeast of Colletto del Malamot to support the cannons of the defensive barracks and cover the entire area of Colle del Piccolo Moncenisio.

Additional support batteries were built at lower elevations near the top of Mount Malamot.

The building and its surroundings were served by the military road Bivio Varisello-Giaset-Malamot, which is no longer accessible by motor vehicles.

Along the access military road, the Frassere Alte Supporting Batteries and the 3 Giaset Shelters were also built in 1891. These masonry buildings could accommodate 20 soldiers and 5 officers each and were strategically located on the Colle Giaset, a border crossing between Italy and France, an important communication route between the area of White Lake and the Upper Val Savine, which allowed bypassing the existing fortifications at Moncenisio.

Following Italy’s defeat, the area was ceded to France. The barracks, already in a state of abandonment, fell into disrepair. The remaining walls with window openings and loopholes, the staircase to the observation post on the mountaintop, and the observation post itself, protected in the 1930s by a reinforced concrete turret, were reused as an observation post for the underlying underground structure.

There are plaques on the barracks’ walls commemorating the year of opening, construction altitude, the construction company, and the name of the structure. Numerous engravings left by the garrison soldiers can be found on the surrounding rocks.

The same fate befell various auxiliary batteries and the Giaset Shelters, of which only the perimeter walls, decorative stones around doors and windows, and little else remain.

Fort Pampalù, Mompantero

Fort Pampalù, Mompantero
Fort Pampalù, Mompantero

The Forte Pampalù, built between 1891 and 1894 at the mouth of the Val Cenischia on the slopes of Mount Rocciamelone, served to reinforce the eastern margin of the Colle del Moncenisio and intervene in case of enemy troops crossing it.

For this reason, despite the more modern Batteries Paradiso and La Court already being constructed at Moncenisio, the role of Forte Pampalù in defending the southern passages of the Val Cenischia remained significant.

The fort consisted of 2 batteries at different altitudes. The Upper Battery was positioned so that its shots covered the upper area of the Val Cenischia and the intermediate section of the Statale del Moncenisio.

The Lower Battery approximately 200 meters below the first one, had its field of action in the lower Val Cenischia between Giaglione and Ferrera.

In 1893, along the military road that led to the main fort, the Pian del Paradiso Battery was built to cover the lower section of the Strada dei Moncenisio.

Fort Pampalù played an important role in the communications between the military structures in the area. With its optical station, it maintained constant communication with Fort Varisello al Moncenisio, Exilles, Susa, and Guglia del Mezzodì.

It was served by the military road Susa-Monte Pampalù, which was approximately 15,000 meters long and classified as a minor drivable road, still passable today.

Like many fortifications in the area, it was stripped of its armaments in 1915 as the cannons were sent to the front against the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I. Disarmed, it only maintained a garrison of soldiers inside.

Its structures were used as a depot for “cheddite,” an explosive powder used for roadblocks. It was this material that caused the violent accidental explosion that almost completely destroyed the fort’s structures on June 4, 1920, resulting in 2 deaths and 5 injuries.

In June 1940, the 208th Border Guard Battery engaged in the June Battle against France took over the ruins of the fort.

The entrance portal to the fort, still bearing the battery’s name, remains clearly visible.

Within the Upper Battery, whose platform is currently occupied by television repeaters, the gun emplacements can still be clearly distinguished, alternating with traverse platforms where ammunition reserves were located. Between the gun emplacements and the powder magazine, there were rooms for projectile packaging.

Better preserved is the Lower Battery, where the two firing positions are still clearly visible around the inner courtyard.

Forts of Moncenisio: conclusions

To date, the best-preserved fort in Moncenisio is the Forte del Roncia, the only one accessible to the public.

Another fort, still in good condition, overlooking the lake at its southeast end and easily accessible by car, is the Forte del Varisello, reached by a few hundred meters on foot.

In the same plain, there are ruins of various military installations dating back to the 1930s as part of the Vallo alpino, such as the defensive structure in an artificial cave at the entrance to the plateau.

The Forts of Monte Freddo (towards Piccolo Moncenisio), the Forte della Turra, del Malamot, and di Pattacreuse are now in ruins.

The military roads that served Forts Malamot, Pattecreuse, and Roncia are closed to traffic and require a considerable amount of time to be traversed on foot.

On the Italian side, the Vecchia dogana francese (Old French Customs) remains perfectly preserved.

The Ancient Moncenisio Railway: The Fell System

The Ancient Moncenisio Railway: The Fell System
The Ancient Moncenisio Railway: The Fell System

As you ascend to the Colle del Moncenisio, you will come across a well-preserved tunnel that can be traversed without special equipment. This tunnel is a remnant of the Moncenisio Railway or Fell Railway, which operated from 1867 to 1870.

Fell System: The Central Rail System

The Fell Railway System or central rail system was devised by the English engineer John Barraclough Fell to increase the traction of locomotives, allowing them to traverse particularly steep and winding sections.

This technology facilitated faster communication between Italy and France through the Moncenisio Pass during the construction of the Frejus Railway Tunnel.

After about nine and a half years since the start of the Frejus Tunnel excavation, the work had only progressed a little over halfway, causing concern among the public. A quartzite bank made progress difficult from the Modane side, and it was feared that it would take another decade to complete the project.

Within a few years, the traffic between Italy and France more than tripled, and the Strada del Moncenisio, which was difficult to use during winter, became excessively congested.

The British company Brassey proposed and obtained permission from the Italian and French governments to temporarily install a railway with the system devised by John Fell along the Napoleon Road. On May 1, 1866, the laying of the tracks began, proceeding quickly and finishing on schedule.

The City of Susa Administration had not viewed the project kindly as the population of Susa relied on transit. Indeed, after the construction of the railway and the replacement of regular transportation of goods with rail transport, most of the inhabitants left the town.

The construction was completed in a little over two years, during which 77.8 kilometers of single track were laid, 46 of which included a third rail. Seven rock galleries and three masonry galleries were excavated, along with 8 kilometers of wooden and sheet metal shelters, all the stations, and some viaducts.

The line, spanning a length of 79 kilometers, was opened to traffic on June 15, 1868, and at least four trains per day traversed the pass.

With its inauguration, the historical horse-drawn coaches and Marrons, who accompanied travelers along the Moncenisio road even in winter, disappeared.

While the Fell Railway was in service, the tunnel works were rapidly approaching completion. On December 26, 1870, the explosion brought down the last layer of rock. The Moncenisio trains stopped forever on November 1, 1871.

With the closure of the Fell Railway, the entire rolling stock was dismantled, and the materials were used in other railways, including locomotives and carriages in Switzerland between Lausanne and Escalleur and in railways using the same technology in Brazil.

Due to technical limitations that affected its speed, the Fell Railway would not have been beneficial for international traffic.

However, during its few years of operation, 320,000 kilometers were covered, transporting 100,000 passengers, including notable figures such as French Empress Eugenia de Montijo (wife of Napoleon III), the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, and the mountaineer Edward Whymper.

After the closure of the Fell Railway, the tunnels, especially in the Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis area, were initially used as ice storage and for transporting ice to French locations such as Chambéry and Aix-les-Bains. The toll booths are currently used as storage by ANAS.

A steam engine, the IH 199 Moncenisio, is currently preserved in New Zealand at the Fell Engine museum.

Following the Moncenisio Railway, the Fell System was adopted worldwide, including in Brazil in the province of Rio de Janeiro, Peru, New Zealand, and France near Clermont-Ferrand. The only active railway still using the Fell System is on the Isle of Man in England.

Functioning of the Fell System

The Fell System allowed for increased traction on the railway by using two additional pairs of horizontally positioned driving wheels pressed against a central rail by powerful springs, enabling the train to overcome steep gradients and maneuver tight curves without the risk of derailing.

The elevated central rail, 20 cm higher, was only necessary in sections with steeper gradients or more winding tracks, while the rest of the line operated similarly to a traditional train.

The train consisted of three passenger cars with 16 seats each arranged longitudinally, and three cargo cars. It could transport a total of 48 passengers at a speed of 25 km/h uphill and 17 km/h downhill. The travel time was 5 hours compared to the 12 hours of the horse-drawn coaches, and the line was served by 4 trains per day, making round trips.

The Route of the Fell Railway

Starting from Susa, the line ascended, serving the localities of Giaglione, Moretto, and Bard until reaching the border with Savoy. The route descended following the path of the Napoleon Road.

The stations along the line were Fourneaux, Gran Croce, and Lansleburg, where a locomotive depot similar to the one in Susa was present.

Today, few traces remain of the Moncenisio Fell Railway, such as some tunnels along the state road, a section in front of the shelter, the upstream wall of a gallery further up, other remnants near the stairs, and some ruins beyond the pass.

Lake Moncenisio

Lac du Mont-Cenis
Lac du Mont-Cenis

Near the Colle del Moncenisio, you will find Lake Moncenisio or Lac du Mont-Cenis.

Although geographically located in the Val di Susa, it falls under French territory politically.

Originally, there was a small natural lake in the area. In 1921, the first containment dam was built, followed by the current one in 1968 using natural materials.

Lake Moncenisio feeds the Italian hydroelectric power plant in Venaus and the French one in Villarodin.

Within the lake’s waters, you can find the remains of the Ancient Hospice of Moncenisio and some older dams that resurface when the lake’s water level is low.

Every 10 years, the lake is completely drained to facilitate dam maintenance, allowing visitors to walk on the lakebed and experience a forgotten past.

The Cenischia Stream, a tributary of the Dora Riparia, originates from the lake.

Moncenisio Pyramid Chapel

Next to Lake Moncenisio, in the locality of Plan des Fontainettes, you will find a pyramid-shaped chapel, designed to commemorate Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign.

Every third Sunday in July, the Alpage takes place in front of the chapel, serving as a festive gathering between the municipalities of Novalesa and Lanslebourg.

Moncenisio Botanical Garden

Near Lake Moncenisio, you can visit the Moncenisio Botanical Garden, which offers breathtaking views of the lake and houses over 700 plant species. Entrance is free.

Moncenisio Hospice

In the 19th century, Emperor Louis the Pious built a hospice as a resting point for travelers. Napoleon later refurbished it in the 1800s as a support point for armies crossing the pass.

In the second half of the 20th century, with the flooding of the Moncenisio Basin by the lake’s waters, the hospice was submerged.

Ancient Hospital of Malabaila d’Asti and Romanesque Chapel

Located in the Piana di San Nicolao, which became French territory in 1947, you will find the Ancient Hospital founded by the Malabaila of Asti in the 14th century to assist travelers. Adjacent to it is a Romanesque-style chapel dating back to the 12th century.

Lake d’Arpone and Lac de Roterel

Just a few steps from Moncenisio, at the foot of the Bard Glacier, at an altitude of 1821 meters, you will find Lake d’Arpone: a magnificent body of water.

Until the 1950s, it was used to power the hydroelectric plants in Novalesa and Saluroglio, but it became unproductive and was subsequently abandoned.

The entire Arpone area was an important strategic point for accessing Susa from the Moncenisio Plateau, although there seems to be no trace of fortifications today.

The panoramic trail that takes 1 hour and 40 minutes through the woods leads to the lake and is perfect for winter walks, hiking, and mountain biking.

Starting from the end of the village of Bar Cenisio, follow the signs for the Rifugio Vacca and take the Strada Reale, the unpaved military road that was used to transport goods and people on sleds across the Moncenisio Pass before the construction of the Strada Napoleonica.

From Lago di Arpone, you can continue to Lac de Roterel by following another 30 minutes of the military road.

From here, the descent begins towards Forte di Variselle, above Lake Moncenisio.

After another 2 kilometers and taking the small road that descends to the right, you arrive at the Vecchia cava, where you can find some buildings and remnants of machinery, evidence of industrial archaeology.

Just above the quarry, the road has collapsed, requiring a deviation onto a small trail to the left.

Bar Cenisio owl trail

In 2016, the first owl trail in the world was inaugurated in the small and characteristic village of Venaus, offering a pleasant walk through the forest on two easily accessible paths. Both paths can be walked during the day and at night (with the aid of torches) in all seasons, but snowshoes are necessary in snowy conditions.

In the lower trail, you can admire barn owls, while in the upper trail, you can see owls, little owls, and black woodpeckers. Both trails have numerous informational signs.

Since it is not a zoo, owl sightings are not guaranteed; it requires patience and silence!

Lower Owl Trail

The Lower Owl Trail (Il sentiero basso dei Gufi) is a well-marked path that can also be traversed in moonlight, starting from Venaus and reaching Bar Cenisio. It passes through a traffic-free dirt road that crosses the Venaus cemetery, vegetable gardens, clearings, streams, chestnut groves, and forests.

On rainy days, it is easy to encounter the fire salamander and the common frog. Birdwatchers can observe the sparrowhawk, great spotted woodpecker, green woodpecker, and buzzard. Especially at night, you may come across foxes, badgers, deer, roe deer, wild boars, and, with luck, wolves.

Upper Owl Trail

The Upper Owl Trail (Il Sentiero dei Gufi Alto), on the other hand, starts from Bar Cenisio. From here, crossing a wide meadow, you reach a forest with larches alternating with beeches and birches.

During the day, you can hear the call of the great spotted woodpecker, while at night, you can hear the calls of the tawny owl and the long-eared owl. Deer are very common here, while wolf sightings are sporadic. In winter, chamois can come down to the larch forest.

Owl Trail Rules

The Owl Trail, accessible to everyone, requires respecting some rules to protect the natural environment: no loud noises, keeping dogs on a leash, not disturbing animals, not damaging plants, not leaving trash, and not straying from the main trail.

Curiosities about Mont Cenis

The name Moncenisio seems to derive from “Monte delle ceneri” (Mount of Ashes). According to tradition, following a forest fire, ashes would have accumulated on-site, and traces of them were indeed found during the construction of the Napoleon Road.

Since 1902, one of the oldest road hill climbs, the Susa-Moncenisio automobile race, has been held on the Italian side of the Moncenisio Pass.

Susa-Moncenisio automobile race
Susa-Moncenisio automobile race

With only 37 inhabitants, Moncenisio is currently the fourth least populous municipality in Italy.

Moncenisio by camper

Whether you are just passing through or decide to have a real vacation, if you are traveling by camper or van, I recommend adding the Colle del Monceniso to your destinations!

Along the shores, there are several points for parking, and on the north side of the lake, there is a parking area where overnight stays are currently allowed.

How to get there

Moncenisio is located in a side valley of the Val Susa, the Val Cenischia, which connects the Val di Susa with the Maurienne and the Valle dell’Arc in France.

To reach the Colle del Moncenisio, the Napoleon Road is still used, starting from Susa: the SS25 state road, which becomes D1006 in French territory.

The final stretch with the zigzag switchbacks along the dam, called the “Gran scala del Moncenisio” (Grand Staircase of Moncenisio), and the stone and wood guardrails faithful to the early 19th-century originals make the route unique and spectacular.

After the switchbacks, you arrive at a large plateau surrounded by mountain peaks, with Lake Moncenisio at its center.

The Colle del Moncenisio is not served by public transport, but if you can reach Susa by train, you can conquer the Monceniso Pass by cycling.

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Alessandro Gemscovery Travel Blog
Alessandro Lussi
Computer scientist, electrical engineer, mechanic and jurist, traveling on the road since birth.
Passionate about off-grid life and self-production, I write for passion.