If you are in Piedmont or you simply love nature, I suggest you pay a visit to Varaita Valley, called Smeraldina (little emerald) for its luxuriant vegetation thousand of green shades.
Fascinating land of lakes, ancient villages and silent prairies.
Very different from the usual Italian mountain resorts and still far from the mass tourism light, Varaita Valley will amaze you with its natural landscape and cultural variety.
Among the most precious heritage of Piedmont Alps, From 400 to 2748 m asl, Varaita Valley is enclosed by the Val Maira on south, Valle Po on north and by the Valle del Guil on west and dominated by the Monviso group.
The Monviso, named the King for its almost 4000 meters, is in fact the real lord of the area. Rock pyramid praised by Dante, it looms over the valley and disappears during the climb to reappear only at high altitude, offering breathtaking views.
Wide, shaded and luxuriant, Varaita Valley extends for about 70 kilometers from Costigliole to Colle dell’Agnello, where a panoramic road that culminates at 2744 meters connects it to the French Queyras valley .
The Varaita Valley is the greenest valley in the province of Cuneo and its territory includes the largest stone pine forest in the Alps: the Alevè.
Sweet and fertile slopes alternate with alpine landscapes, green pastures, vast meadows, broad-leaved forests and pine forests of larch and stone pine.
A valley full of natural attractions from the valley floor to the small towns that follow one another up, such as Piasco, Rossana and Melle with their architectural treasures and tasty gastronomic specialties.
A magical place in every season, it is heated even in winter by those who go here to practice cross-country skiing.
A beautiful and unspoiled nature that has few equals in this region.
Its traditions contribute to making this place so special, with an artistic and cultural heritage born from the fusion of the Alpine and Occitan cultures.
You can see it in the sanctuaries perched on the mountains (Becetto and Valmala), the sundials of Bellino, the churches (Isasca, Rorà, Frassino, Chianale), the small chapels and castles of Costigliole Saluzzo, Verzuolo and Casteldelfino.
But also in the small mountain stone and slate roofs villages of Sampeyre, Bellino, Casteldelfino, Pontechianale and Chianale where the authentic traditional architecture evoke the history of frontier lands proud of their autonomy.
Walking through the villages and visiting sanctuaries and chapels you will feel catapulted to another place and another era.
You will certainly be fascinated by how the culture of Occitania, a historic region that extended in southern France from the current province of Cuneo to the Spanish borders, is still incredibly alive in these valleys.
And among the Occitan valleys this one, even more than the others, has been able to preserve its cultural and linguistic heritage. To realize this, just attend the Sampeyre Bayò Sampeyre Bayò, the most representative festival of Occitan culture in Italy.
A thousand years old, the Baío is celebrated every five years - those ending with 2 and 7 - to commemorate the definitive expulsion of the Saracen looters from the Alpine valleys.
But the Varaita Valley with its workshops scattered throughout the villages, is also a land of wood craftsmen, Rore ceramics and Piasco harps, famous all over the world.
In short, Val Varaita is a world unto itself.
The last Varaita Valley municipality, immediately before the French border is Pontechianale, a scattered municipality, that is, made up of several centers.
A summer resort and winter sports center, Chianale is in “I borghi più belli d’Italia” (the most beautiful villages in Italy) circuit.
Pontechianale in the past
The first widely documented story of Pontechianale municipality dates back to the Lombard period, when was subjected to the powerful San Colombano di Bobbio abbey monks.
After the eighth century the management of the valley passed to the Pagno abbey.
From the 12th century it became the domain of the Bishops of Turin, a fief of the Lords of Pont.
From the thirteenth century it was united in the Castellata together with Casteldelfino and Bellino. With Queyras, Val Pragelato, Oulx and the Brianzonese, it becomes part of the Escartouns, an Alpine confederation linked to France.
In 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht the Castellata was ceded to the Savoy and a period of wars began. The mountains that surround Casteldelfino thus become the scene of frequent battles between Savoyard and Franco-Spanish troops.
Despite the wars, the position allows it to maintain a continuous economic relationship with the populations beyond the Alps, thanks to which in the 1800s it accentuated its importance in marketing and artisanal production.
Modern era: Pontechianale dam and lake
In 1942, in the territory of Castello faction was built a dam for the production of electricity. It forms a lake: the lake of Castello (also know as Lake of Pontechianale).
To allow the construction of the dam, the hamlet Chiesa di Pontechianale was submerged, which stood where the lake now stands. Some remains of the houses are still visible on the bottom in lean periods. Until a few years ago it was possible to see the bell tower of the old church, now collapsed, emerge.
What to do in Pontechianale
Excursions in the Alevè woods
In Varaita Valley, lying along the slopes of Monviso between 1500 and 2500 meters, lies the Alevè, the largest stone pine forest in the Alps.
If you want to take an excursion in the Alevè woods and its Bagnour and Secco lakes, I recommend that you park in Castello or Villaretto: there you will find directions for the paths.
Excursion around Lake Castello
The left bank of the lake is bordered by the asphalted road that leads to Colle dell’Agnello, the right one has a dirt road that follows the right orographic bank of the lake, trespassing at times into the Alevè wood.
The excursion, suitable for adults and children, but not for those who suffer of serious walking problems, covers about 5 km in total and has a minimum difference in height. It has lampposts all along the path that illuminate the path even at night.
Historical woods walk around Castello lake
A historical walk has recently been inaugurated on this path: 13 information panels that retrace the history of the Pontechianale dam comparing the landscape of yesterday and today, allow you to discover anecdotes and curiosities of the place.
Sport in Pontechianale
Other sports practiced at Pontechianele lake and its surroundings are trekking, Nordic walking, kayaking, windsurfing, climbing - there are several via ferratas and rock gyms -. In winter this locality becomes the destination of many cross-country skiers.
On the occasion of the patronal feasts you can admire men, women and children in traditional costumes. The most important and characteristic celebration of the surroundings is the Sampeyre Baiò.
Worth a visit
- The ancient Romanesque-Gothic Sant’Antonio church in Chianale with its splendid bell tower and its 15th-century frescoes.
- The San Lorenzo Church in Chianale with its polychrome wooden altar.
- The Forest village oven, the only still existing, dating back to the fifteenth century
- The Museum of Costume and Textile Crafts of the upper Varaita Valley, within the ancient Chianale Capuchin Mission
How to get to Valle Varaita
For those traveling on the Turin-Savona A6: take the Marene or Fossano exit, then continue towards Verzuolo-Costigliole. For those arriving from Colle di Tenda: in Cuneo continue towards Busca and Costigliole.
Where to stop en plein air
Next to the lake, in the hamlet of Chiesa there are two large car parks, one of which is equipped with a barrier to limit the height of the vehicles. Next to the parking lot there is a large campsite.
For now it would seem that the municipal administration tolerates free camping, as there were numerous tents, but I recommend trying to limit yourself to a few nights, not to stop during events and weekends and to use moderation to allow the place remain usable for all.
45 Località Chiesa 12020 Maddalena Italy
N 44° 37’ 13” E 7° 1’ 53”
How we discovered this gem
We discovered this valley thanks to a friend.
It was a Saturday afternoon and it was very hot, I was in the parking lot of a well-known sports shop with my wife to collect our two kayaks ordered online an hour earlier.
While I was waiting in the car for Hila to come out with her Kayak I decided to take a look on the internet, looking for a sink with stove for a camper to finish setting up our equipped van.
I called the first authorized dealer that appeared in the search results. It was in Lombardy.
Even though I live in Piedmont, the last lockdown had just finished and moving even if just to buy something didn’t bother me at all. But the dealer’s response that the shop was closed and would not reopen until Monday.
I thanked and went in search of someone who didn’t observe closing hours.
After a few moments I founded an old camper for sale for spare parts in the province of Cuneo.
In two hours my half and I were in Busca, buying a vehicle for a handful of euros that I would have partially disassembled to reassemble on our Ducato van.
Being from Turin I was expecting a fast transaction, with payment and collection. But things turned out differently.
The counterpart, Bruno, a man of eighty years old, who became a direct farmer once retired, former owner of equipped vans and car enthusiast, immediately amazed me for his strength, good looks, and for his deep kindness.
Together with his wife they invited us to their house to drink and they offered us some freshly baked bread in their wood-burning oven.
We started talking about engines. They showed us photos of the cars they owned in the past and told us the story of each one.
Not accustomed to this type of treatment we were extremely surprised and pleasantly fascinated.
Bruno and Rosy, his wife, became our friends. We often come back to see them. We met several of their friends, their children and their granddaughters. All incredibly kind people.
It was during one of these visits that a fisherman visited them, a friend of theirs who came to bring them some fish caught the same day, and who received from them freshly baked bread and a basket of delicious red cherries.
We all drank together. The fisherman spoke very close Piedmontese dialect. I was trying to catch a few words, but I couldn’t even make out the meaning of what he was saying. I understand almost nothing of this language.
But Hila do, being half from Turin. He understood that they were talking about the lake where the man had gone fishing.
When he was gone, Bruno explained more about how to get there, where to stop and what to see, talking at length about the Pontechianale lake and its attractions.
From our travel diary
** Thursday 22nd July 2021 **
We left home at 10 pm to sleep on the Lys pass with the intention of continuing tomorrow towards Usseglio and spending a few days in the Lanzo valleys.
As soon as we left the town of Rubiana, the van started leaking gasoil, forcing us to stop immediately near a parking lot restaurant.
Ale replaced the leaking pipe by cutting part of what comes of the diesel pump line and we waited for Vittorio who shortly after midnight brought us some spare pipes.
We traveled the last 7 km that separated us from the Lys parking lot and spent the night there.
** Friday 23 July 2021 **
We took a short morning walk in the Colle del Lys park to take some photos.
Back in the van, we checked the weather and found that it would rain after a few hours. The decision on the next stage fell on the Cuneo area, the only place in Piedmont where it would not rain until Sunday evening.
We started heading towards the Varaita valley, which a couple of friends talked us about some weeks before, stopping briefly to take some photos in the towns of Rubiana and Trana.
We arrived at the parking lot near the Pontechianale lake around 5pm.
The surroundings of the lake were particularly noisy due to the presence of many boys and children from a summer camp in Saluzzo who, however, left shortly after.
We walked by the lake and played with the dogs.
Towards evening, several cars arrived with boys who camped with tents on the lawn in front of the parking lot.
After us, many campers arrived who could not find a parking space or place in the campsite next to us, which was fully booked.
** Saturday 24th July 2021 **
We woke up early in the morning under unpromising skies.
In the middle of the morning the sun came out and we went for a walk in the forest path of the Alevè, reaching the dam and coming back.
At the end of the path, towards the dam, we noticed two bunkers on which unfortunately we didn’t find anything about.
The path was very crowded making it difficult to walk with two dogs.
We walked back around 2pm, just in time before it started drizzling.
We took advantage of the bad weather to finish watching a movie we had started days before, Carpenter’s “someone’s watching”. As it continued to rain we watched a second film, Almodovar’s “Dark Habits”.
The campers kept coming and even the lawn in front of the parking lot was filled with campers, vans and tents by evening.
Towards evening we walked in the hamlet of Maddalena.
** Sunday 25th July 2021 **
We woke up and took a walk towards the town to take some photos and thought of walking again towards the wood of the Alevè, which however turned out to be even more crowded than the previous day, forcing us to give up after a few kilometers.
In the meantime, many cars had arrived and there were people everywhere.
We thought about going home, both for the crowd and for the forecast of thunderstorms in the evening and we left around 1pm.
We stopped in various villages in Varaita valley, stopping, but only quickly due to the scorching heat (they deserve a visit: Sampeyre, Frassino, Melle, Venasca).
We got home around 7pm.
Do you know any curiosities or interesting anecdotes about Pontechianale and Varaita Valley ? Do you know anything about the bunkers near the dam? Let us know with a comment!