Fregona: Atmospheric Caves and Mountains at the Foothills of Cansiglio.

The Territory of Fregona

Historical Notes

The municipal territory of Fregona extends mainly across the Cansiglio foothills and a small section of the plateau known as Pian Cansiglio, and it includes the peaks of Monte Pizzoc (1,565 m) and Monte Millifret (1,581 m). The town centre, however, is located at a lower altitude, along the Pre-alps’ southern slope, where the more favorable climatic conditions have contributed to the development of settlements. In addition to traces of the Palaeo-Venetian civilization, the first documented inhabitants that settled in this territory date to the Roman age.

Around year 1000, after a long period characterized by the Barbarian invasions of the Langobards and the Hungarians, Fregona became a fiefdom to the Bishop-Counts of Belluno, to then pass to the Da Camino family (‘Signori’ of Serravalle; now Vittorio Veneto). During the domination of the Republic of Venice (13th-18th C) – as it is witnessed by the ‘Ducale’ (a document) of 1628 – the territory obtained particular privileges, for its significant contribution to the reconquest of Serravalle against the Emperor of Austria. After the fall of the Republic of Venice (1797), the town followed the same destiny as the rest of the north of the Italian peninsula, with the advent of the Napoleonic and Austrian rule, until the unification of Italy (1866).

Artistic Aspects

From an artistic point of view, Fregona stands out for its rich historical heritage, represented by significant works in the field of architecture and art in general. The parish church in the hamlet of Osigo contains a famous altarpiece painted by Francesco da Milano, and dedicated to Saint George. Many noteworthy sculptures and canvases are kept in the Chiesa Arcipretale (main church); furthermore, the town is especially renowned for the original bell-tower (campanile’) that stands beside the main church. This mighty Neo-Gothic construction was started in 1881, and it features inside a wide spiral staircase with stone steps – a notable masterwork of the local stonemasons. Among the great number of villas, which witness the long period of Venetian domination, it is worth mentioning Villa Trojer-Lucheschi – an impressive building situated alongside the main road, as it leads into the town centre (the villa can be seen on the right when coming from the south).

Naturalistic Aspects

Besides the well-known forest of Cansiglio (succinctly described below), particularly fascinating – in the territory of Fregona – is a visit to the Caglieron caves (‘Grotte del Caglieron’, near the hamlet of Breda). This site offers a unique environment, consisting of caves which have formed over the centuries thanks to the combined work of water and man. A deep natural gorge has been carved by the action of the Caglieron stream, and the rocky walls are pierced with large artificial cavities. From these holes, a local sandstone has been extracted for centuries (the typical ‘pietra dolza– or soft stone), used in several historical buildings, amongst which is the bell-tower mentioned above.

The Cansiglio Forest

General Features

The Cansiglio plateau (average altitude 1,000 m) consists of a central flat area, in which three minor depressions Pian Cansiglio, Cornesega and Valmenera meet, encircled all around by mountains covered with a thick beech forest and, to a lesser extent, conifer. The so-called ‘Foresta’ (or ‘Bosco’) ‘del Cansiglio’, which extends for about 60 sq. km, has been known since 1548 as ‘Gran Bosco da Reme di San Marco’ (‘St. Mark’s Great Forest of the Oars’): it was owned by the Republic of Venice, which harvested wood from this forest, carrying it along the river Piave to the lagoon, where it would be used to build the famous Venetian galley ships (‘galee’ or ‘galere’).     

Historical Aspects

The area of Cansiglio does not have significant permanent settlements, except for the villages founded by the community of the Cimbri in the 1800s (described in more detail below), and some other sparse buildings, either rural or destined for tourist use. The limited presence of inhabited settlements depends – apart from the little favorable climatic conditions – also on careful management of the territory, which has been handed down from the period of the ‘Serenissima’ (Republic of Venice) until now. With the Republic of Venice, the Forest of Cansiglio had become a strictly regulated area, and took over the status of ‘banned wood’ (that is, destined to the exclusive use of the Arsenal). Later, with the unification of Italy, it was declared ‘Inalienable State Forest’, managed first by the State Agency for the Public Forests and later by the Veneto and Friuli regions, on behalf of the ‘Corpo Forestale dello Stato’ (Italian Forestry Commission) – as it still is today.   

Climatic Aspects

From the point of view of the vegetation, the area of the Cansiglio plateau presents peculiarities due to its climatic conditions, which are affected by temperature inversion; this phenomenon causes, as a consequence, an inverted distribution of the vegetation as well: the bottom of the basin is occupied by meadows and pastures, delimited by a first band of conifers (mostly Norway Spruce Picea abies or P. excelsa), followed by a mixed woodland, up to a pure beech forest, which is encountered at the higher altitudes.

Naturalistic Aspects

Furthermore, thanks to the low anthropic levels, there is in Cansiglio – even to this day – a large presence of diversified and almost fully intact natural habitats: these include, for instance, a small area covered by high mountain (or montane) beech forest on Monte Croseraz (1,694 m), and the wetlands (‘lame’) on Pian Cansiglio and in Valmenera. The particular vegetation surrounding these standing bodies of water consists mainly in specimens of Eriophorum sp., Sphagnum sp. and species such as Viola palustris, including a rare carnivorous plant, Drosera rotundifolia; moreover, the whole area is home to many wild orchids.

Geological Aspects

The main feature of Cansiglio, formed by sedimentary rocks of marine origin, is the presence of many caves and natural swallow-holes, due to the calcareous composition of the soil, affected by Karst phenomena; the only presence of water is limited to the ‘lame’: small standing bodies of water, originated by the filling up of the ‘doline’ (sink-holes), and generally used by the animals grazing the meadows.

The Cimbri of Cansiglio

The Cansiglio plateau, besides being an area of great naturalistic interest, is characterized by the presence of an ancient ethnic community, the Cimbri, still represented today by the remains of their villages. These people, of German origin, had already settled in many mountainous territories between the Adige and Brenta rivers by the Middle Ages (Lessinia, Sette Comuni of Asiago). With the arrival of Napoleon and the downfall of the Republic of Venice, some families of Cimbri from Roana (one of the seven municipalities of the Sette Comuni) moved to Cansiglio. The forest represented a very rich source of beech timber for them, which they used for their main handicraft, the production of ‘scatoi’ (cylindrical cases); in fact, the term ‘tzimberer’ itself – with which the Cimbri were sometimes designated – means precisely ‘woodsman, wood craftsman’.

The first settlements date back to 1800 and were identified in the following areas: Pian dei Lovi, Valbona, Pich, Canaie Vecio, Vallorch and Campon; subsequently, after the construction of the Osigo-Spert road (1887), accessible to vehicles, new villages were built in Pian Osteria, Le Rotte and Pian Canaie. The typical house of the Cimbri (‘cason’ or ‘huta’) had a very simple structure, made of a low, external dry-stone wall, with a rectangular base. Upon it, wooden logs were laid horizontally and joined at the corners (with the nordic system known as ‘Blockbau’), or fixed together in square boards. The double-pitched roof consisted of beams, branches and woven twigs, and it was covered by shavings and wood production waste, or by wooden shingles (‘scandole’) – small larch or spruce tiles placed one on top of the other. During the two world wars, the villages were almost entirely destroyed, and the new houses of the Cimbri were rebuilt in stone.

When the forest of Cansiglio became state property (in the second half of the 20th C) there was a progressive emptying of the villages, and many people moved to Osigo or Fregona; nowadays, the only villages that are permanently inhabited by the Cimbri are Campon and Pian Osteria. The “Ethnographic Museum of the Arts and Crafts” is also located in Pian Osteria, and it gathers material related to the habits and customs of the Cimbri of Cansiglio, whereas some traditional wooden ‘casoni’ can still be seen in the villages of Vallorch and Le Rotte

Mountains in the Surrounding Area

Monte Pizzoc

The Cansiglio plateau is delimited to the SW by Monte Pizzoc (1,565 m). From the summit of this mountain, the panorama that opens up is very vast, and – in clear days – it roams at 360° from the Venetian plains all the way to the sea; on the other side, looking towards the north, it sweeps from the Cansiglio plateau to Monte Cavallo (2,251 m; described below) and beyond – to the Julian Alps in the background; from the mountains of Alpago it reaches the peaks of the Dolomites; from Col Visentin (1,763 m), it covers the line of hills interposed between the Val Belluna and the Venetian plains, all the way to Monte Cesen (1,570 m). 

By circumnavigating the summit of Monte Pizzoc to the south one reaches the Rifugio ‘Città di Vittorio Veneto’ (1,520 m): once a CAI mountain hut, today it is property of the municipality of Fregona and a tourist destination in its own right; it hosts a restaurant, and it also offers overnight accommodation. The building had been erected in the years of WW1 as terminus of a zip-line that was used for the extraction activities in the area. On Monte Pizzoc, composed for the most part of marl limestone, in fact, was once active an ancient quarry out of which, until the period after WW2, was being extracted material for the production of cement and quicklime. The transformation of the material would take place on the valley floor, in a plant situated in the locality of Sant’Andrea, just outside Vittorio Veneto.

The summit of Monte Pizzoc was connected to the plant by a 6-km long zip-line which, by means of long cables – supported by as many as 49 masts – transported the material downhill, in iron wagons. The quarry was abandoned in 1946, for the exhaustion of the vein. During the years of the cold war, a radar base was erected on the mountain; this structure was part – together with the barracks in Vittorio Veneto and a launching base on Pian Cansiglio – of the Italian Air Force. The base was operative between 1967 and 1977, then it was abandoned and finally dismantled; the site was reclaimed in 1997, when in its place was created (in year 2000) the current ‘Piazzale della Pace’ (Peace Square).

Monte Cavallo

The name of
Monte Cavallo (2,251 m) – the highest mountain in the area – does not seem to recall the homonymous animal, as it would intuitively appear, but to derive rather from the Celtic root “Keap-al” (‘high peak’): a name that would refer to the fact that this mountain is rather well observable from the surrounding plains of Veneto and western Friuli; a fact that has – most likely – influenced the people living in sight of the mountain since time immemorial.       

It is interesting to notice that the summit of Monte Cavallo
was conquered for the first time in 1762 by two botanists: Giovanni Girolamo Zannichelli and Domenico Pietro Stefanelli – a fact not so unusual at the time. From the chronicles one can read of how the two aimed first towards Aviano, then they started climbing the mountain with the help of donkeys, until a ‘casera’ (dairy pen) at the foothills of
Cansiglio, where they spent some time looking for plants and exploring the area. The ascent was described through rugged places and precipitous cliffs, often on hands and knees, while passing the “external part of the mountain” to then reach – “after 7 miles”, as they write – the summit. In any case, the report of the ascent remains well centered on the botanical aspect, without considering at all other aspects that would be quite meaningful to us today – such as mountain-climbing – but still not contemplated at the time.

Trails Around Monte Pizzoc

1. The Direct Route to Monte Pizzoc  (“Direttissima del Monte Pizzoc”).

Starting point: Rifugio ‘Città di Vittorio Veneto’; Arrival point: Sonego, locality La Briglia (600 m a.s.l.); Time: 1 h 30’; Distance: about 3,2 km.

From the Rifugio ‘Città di Vittorio Veneto’ (1,520 m) one takes the underlying trail, and after passing some ruins, one enters the woodland. One continues by following the masts of the old zip-line, which - at one time - transported downhill the blocks of limestone (calcareous material) extracted in this area. The track is quite steep, and it crosses - at times - some demanding sections among rocks, cliffs and patches of woodland. The trail ends on a tarred road, in the vicinity of locality La Briglia

2. The ‘Trail of the Black Earth’ (“Sentiero della Terra Nera”).

Starting point: ‘Strada del Santo’ - Cadolten; Arrival point: Sonego, locality La Briglia (600 m a.s.l.); Time: 1 h 30’; Distance: about 3,9 km.

From the capital of San Floriano, in the locality of Cadolten (1,190 m), one descends along the so-called ‘Strada del Santo’ and, after about 200 m, one enters trail No. 981A to the right. Once passed the Val Armada, one reaches a pleasant section of trail, which is almost flat; by descending in altitude, the majestic beech and conifer woodland - mostly composed of Norway Spruce (Picea abies or P. excelsa), which characterizes large part of the trail - gives way to Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia). After having travelled a steep section of mule-track, one rejoins the tarred road that leads to locality La Briglia.

3. The ‘Trail of Lieutenant Barry’ (“Sentiero del Tenente Barry”).

Starting point: ‘Cima Pizzoc’; Arrival point: “Casa Forestale di Cadolten” (‘Cadolten Forest House’, 1,270 m a.s.l.); Time: 1 h; Distance: about 3,5 km.

The trail of Lieutenant Barry, inaugurated a few years ago, has been traced in honor of an American officer who, during WW2, fought over these mountains alongside the Partisans. From the ‘Piazzale della Pace’ (Peace Square), one first descends along a tarred road to then turn right on the proper trail. Once past the dip of Pian de Gesia, one continues by crossing a highly atmospheric landscape, characterized by the geo-morphologic phenomenon of the Karrenfelds (’ridged fields’) and other Karst features (such as ‘block Karst’). Once reached the meadows of Monte Cros, one enters the ‘Sentiero del Bracconiere’ (No. 981), which in its final stretch coincides with the trail of Lieutenant Barry. From the junction, one then takes to the left and continues inside the woodland. The trail ends on the ‘Strada del Santo’, from where one can keep climbing until the “Casa Forestale di Cadolten” (‘Cadolten Forest House’; 1,270 m a.s.l.).

4. The ‘Trail of the Poachers’ (“Sentiero del Bracconiere”). 

Starting point: ‘‘Piazzale della Pace’ (Peace Square) - ‘Cima Pizzoc’; Arrival point: ‘Cima Pizzoc’ (1,565 m a.s.l.); Time: 3 h; Distance: about 6,5 km.

From the ‘Piazzale della Pace’ (Peace Square) one descends along the tarred road to then turn right on the “Sentiero del Tenente Barry”. Once reached the meadows of Monte Cros one enters the ‘Sentiero del Bracconiere’ (No. 981) - a highly panoramic trail that cuts transversally the south-western slope of Monte Pizzoc. From the junction, one takes to the right and continues along the ridge crossing the slope almost horizontally. Once past Casera Mandre, one meets the “Sentiero della Direttissima del Monte Pizzoc” and crosses the last stretch of woodland, to finally reach Casera Taffarel, where the track passes the “Alta Via” (‘Alpine Highway’) No. 6, which leads to Cima Pizzoc.

5. The ‘Trail of “Madonna dell’Agnelezza” (“Alta Via” No. 6).

Starting point: Rifugio ‘Città di Vittorio Veneto’; Arrival point: Sonego, locality La Briglia (600 m a.s.l.); Time: 1 h 30’; Distance: about 5,3 km.

From the Rifugio ‘Città di Vittorio Veneto’ (1,520 m) one proceeds westwards, descending first along the ridge of Monte Pizzoc. After crossing the meadows of the Agnelezza, where the gaze can sweep above the flatlands towards the Dolomites, the track continues inside the woodland. Along the itinerary one passes the “Grotto of the Madonna dell’Agnelezza”, destination of several pilgrimages. The trail then descends with a variable - but never excessive - inclination, until reaching a crossroads. From there, one takes to the left, entering the road that follows the Rio Corghe, and after about 1,300 meters one arrives at locality La Briglia.

Other Noteworthy Areas

The Valsana: General Features
The area that stretches west of the Cansiglio plateau, close to the Pre-alpine range, is represented by a territory known as Valsana – a large strip of land extending from Vittorio Veneto to Miane. The whole sector is characterized by an articulated morphology, where a level valley floor and other short stretches of flatland alternate with gentle hills. This area has been influenced by the action of the ancient Piave glacier, which has shaped the territory over the centuries, thus forming – with the deposited rock debris and rubble – the typical frontal hill of Gai and the moraine amphitheater of Vittorio Veneto. As a result of the ice retreating, many moraine deposits came into being, as well as the two lake formations of Tarzo and Revine Lago – known precisely as the Revine lakes (described below). Much more evident is the so-called “string-patterned landscape”, characterized by long and narrow hogbacks (known as ‘corde’). This orographic system has been originated by the tectonic movements of the African plate, which has ‘pushed’ the alluvial soils of the plains against the calcareous Pre-alpine rocks, causing an uplifting of the relief. The erosive action on less solid rocks has then shaped a unique landscape, where steep crags and sinuous water streams follow one another.

The Revine Lakes

The Revine lakes – more specifically, the Lago di Santa Maria and the Lago di Lago (or Lago di San Giorgio) – extend at the feet of the Pre-alps, and characterize the landscape of the valley known as Valsana (or Vallata). The two basins – resulting from a larger lake originated after the retreat of the ancient Piave glacier – are connected by a channel known as ‘stret’ (literally, ‘the narrow’), which runs across the thin strip of marshland (an isthmus) located between the two lakes. The lake of Santa Maria is fed by underground springs and by small seasonal water streams, whereas the lake of Lago is fed by the Karst spring of the Piaveson. Its outflow is ensured by an artificial canal known as ‘Tajada’ (literally, ‘the cut’), built in 1878 in order to contain the overflow above the surrounding plains. This canal drains eventually into the Soligo river, after meandering across the plots of land west of the lakes. At the western extremity of the lake of San Giorgio – near the ‘Tajada– also lies (since 2007) the educational facility of the “Archaeological Park of the Livelet”, which consists of a small pile-dwelling village (reconstructed) and an open-air laboratory that reproduce the prehistorical settlements, as documented by the finds discovered in the area surrounding the lakes.

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