Comelico: Architectural Jewels and Tranquil Nature in a Pastoral Setting

The Comelico is a sub-region of Cadore, and it takes its name from the Latin word 'communicans', which literally means "to connect" – this fact giving an instant insight on the nature of the area, historically linking Carnia (in Friuli) with the Val Pusteria/Pustertal (in South Tyrol).

This sub-region covers the upper section of the Piave valley, comprising the territory of the two historical ‘centene’ (for an explanation of the term, refer to Cadore) of Comelico Superiore ('Upper') and Inferiore ('Lower').

Although historically part of Cadore, this area has some characteristics of its own that set it apart too. To begin with, its relative isolation from the main centres means that there is a lot less incidence of the built environment, and more presence of vernacular architecture.

Also, a change in the geology (the rocks here are not crystalline, but schists) implies certain topographical differences, most notably in the mountain relief, which is softer; as a result, the forms of the inhabited landscape are also different, with a predominance of villages following the contour lines half way up the mountain slopes.

The main town of Comelico is Santo Stefano di Cadore, at the confluence of the two valleys that constitute the sub-region: one formed by the Piave, which runs to the north and covers the Comelico Inferiore leading eventually to Sappada while the other is crossed by the Padola, a small river that branches off to the west, crossing the whole of Comelico Superiore.

Santo Stefano di Cadore

Santo Stefano is more of an administrative centre, and does not have a lot to offer in itself – apart from being a good base from which to explore the region.

Given its central location, it is an historical Market Town – a fact reflected by the wide main square, where the old church (bearing the same name as the village, as can be imagined), originally built in the 1200s, presents today a 17th century outlook and a neo-classical façade.

More interesting is what can be found in the two side valleys. A common characteristic of the whole Comelico, in fact, is that the historical villages tend to be built with elongated shapes, and to follow the contour lines half-way up the mountain slopes – which means, as a consequence, that the valley floors are relatively more empty (nowadays, though, the lower valley sections are mostly occupied by a mixture of modern, nondescript architecture and industrial areas).

Some of these villages are connected at a higher level by old routes that only in relatively recent times (since the late 19th century, that is) have been substituted by the faster National Roads, usually running along the valley floors.

The Padola Valley

So, starting with the Padola valley, if you ever want to link all these villages in a row, you would have to branch off at San Nicolò di Comelico.

In this village there is a very interesting church, built in 1475 by Giovanni da Como, that hosts one of the finest cycles of medieval frescoes in the region, attributed to Giovanni da Tolmezzo.

Then, climbing up Monte Zovo (1,944m), you head up towars Costalissoio, and from there you can continue in altitude (without returning to the National Road) all the way to Candìde.

Along this route you may appreciate the most typical Comelico landscape, with tiny wooden working buildings (known locally as 'tabià') scattered around the open meadows. The secenery is dominated by the dark green of conifer forests and the vivid emerald of pastures – both topped by the rocky crags of the Dolomites, even though the shapes are much more rounded here than in nearby Cadore.

Candìde itself is the main township of Comelico Superiore, and it has retained some interesting architecture: there is an ancient church dedicated to Sant’Antonio (Saint Anthony), erected in the 16th century by architect Nicolò Ruopel just beside the much bigger 18th century church, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta; from this location, there is a wide retrospective view on the Padola valley.

But the most enticing sight in Candìde is definitely Casa Gera, a noteworthy example of an old nobleman’s residence dating originally to the time when Cadore was still under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchy of Aquileia (13-14th century). This house can be visited, and it has a very atmospheric interior which does really transport back in time.

As you go around the villages of Comelico, however, perhaps you will notice that a lot of the built environment bears certain characteristics that make it distinguishable: it is neither modern, nor what you would call traditionally ‘Alpine’ architecture – and the reason for that is simple.

Most villages have been rebuilt during the second half of the 19th century following what was then known as ‘Rifabbrico’ – a movement of architectural renovation that swept through the region, and that in fact saw its beginnings right here.

The aim of this movement was to rebuild in stone villages that had been previously – often several times – damaged or even destroyed by fire; but sometimes villages were rebuilt in stone as a preventative measure against fire itself. This was done essentially for safety reasons, but 'rebuilding' also quickly became an aesthetic issue, introducing the concept of town planning to areas that, until then, had grown spontaneously without a specific plan.

Padola and Dosoledo

The first village to be rebuilt in this fashion was Padola (1845), right at the head of the valley that bears the same name. As you enter what today looks like a pretty and orderly small town, you cannot fail to notice the houses: all buildings are three- or four- storey high, religiously built in stone, and were originally painted white (most of them still are, even though today some of the houses have been repainted with much brighter colours).

More subtle, and less easy to notice (unless you know about it), is the design underneath the rebuilding: if you stay in the main square – although it may take some time to adjust – you will realize that it is an hexagonal space, with two main roads conceived as visual axis converging into it (or radiating out of it, depending on the perspective), forming two cone shapes.

The main church (San Luca, built in 1869) is massive for such a small community, and again bears testimony to the grand thinking behind the ‘Rifabbrico’ movement, whose goal was to bring city ideals of rationality and order well into the mountains.

The architect for the whole project (town and church) was Giuseppe Segusini, a household name in Cadore at the time (see Auronzo di Cadore, for instance).

But when it comes to the ‘Rifabbrico’, my favourite place in the whole Comelico is undoubtedly Dosoledo – a village half-way between Candìde and Padola.

Its centre may look similar to those of the other villages, with three-storey, ordinary looking stone buildings and a gracious onion-domed church in the main square (erected in 1844 and dedicated to Saints Rocco and Osvaldo with an altar carved by Bellunese sculptor Andrea Brustolon in the interior).

But if you take the trouble to look more closely, and search for a tiny peripheral road that runs all along one side of the village, then you will be greeted by quite a different view altogether.

This semi-circular road was meant to be a service road, where the entrance to all the stable buildings would have been, as these latter were also lined in a curious, semicircular fashion – almost like a protective belt – all around the village (originally, this was meant to be a full circle, but only half of it was completed).

These are amazingly interesting buildings, built in wood even though they are contemporary to (and in fact an integral part of) the redesigning of the place under the ‘Rifabbrico’ ideals – that as you may remember implied rebuilding in stone.

The reason for this diversity lies in the fact that these were stable buildings; even so, in most other ‘Rifabbrico’ projects the stables were rebuilt in stone too (this was a cultured reference to the traditional use of wood for this type of buildings in Comelico).

As anticipated earlier, a shift in the geology calls for a difference in the shape of the mountains you see all around too: if looking to the west, then, you can admire the familiar, rocky, lunar peaks of the Dolomites, while looking to the east is a completely different sight altogether, and you will notice much more rounded shapes.

This is because the presence of schists (that then further extend into neighbouring South Tyrol) calls for a transition between the Dolomites and another type of landscape within the Alpine space, more typical of crystalline terrains.

You will also appreciate that this side is much more heavily built, its gradient less steep, and therefore more suitable not just for building, but for road construction, animal farming and also last but not least it offers more sunlight than the other side of the valley: a factor that was once highly accounted for.

That is ultimately why there are so many villages in altitude – as the climate there, during the winter, is actually milder and sunnier (because of a phenomenon called thermal inversion, which keeps the temperatures much colder on the valley floors, and makes them rise progressively with the altitude).

This is the case, for instance, of Casamazzagno – a village that displays unusually tall ‘Rifabbrico’ houses, painted in bright colours (furhter up is the tiny gothic jewel of the church of San Leonardo, which lies among open meadows) – and of Danta di Cadore.

This last village is unusually built on the other side of the valley, among dense conifer woods and near very important residual, ancient peat bogs, which are a rarity by now, and therefore have been turned into protected areas (these areas are known as 'torbiere' in Italian, so you should look for the "Torbiere di Danta").

Near Danta one encroaches also upon the Sentiero Frassati, which is a long-distance haul doubling the route of ancient processions, dotted with small religious buildings, isolated capitals, little chapels and churches.

The paths around this area are generally speaking among the loneliest in the Dolomites, and will take you into beautiful scenery, leading eventually (if you care to continue past the Passo di Monte Croce Comelico, 1,636 m an important mountain pass) into the wild and beautiful Dolomiti di Sesto/Sextnerdolomiten, whose territory is protected by a Natural Park belonging to neighbouring South Tyrol.

Just before that, though, the Terme di Valgrande are an old, small but pleasant spa resort whose historical buildings have been carefully restored. The spas have re-opened over the last few years, and they can make for a much-welcomed restoring stop.

Now, if we return to where we started – in Santo Stefano – we can take the other branch of the valley, which is arguably also the principal axis of Comelico, running alongside the Piave.

The Piave Valley

The Piave is one of Italy’s most important rivers, and it forms the spine of Veneto, crossing the region in all of its length, from source to sea – and the springs are very close to here indeed.

To reach the "Sorgenti del Piave", you will have to get to Sappada first, which is a village with a very peculiar and interesting history to tell (see the dedicated page).

Roughly half way between Sappada and Santo Stefano (but actually closer to the latter) there are two more architectural jewels not to be missed: one is the Villa Poli-De Pol, in San Pietro di Cadore – the only specimen of “Villa veneta” (Venetian villa) to have reached so further inland into the mountains (and therefore also the farthest away from Venice too).

This gracious building (now hosting the town hall) was erected in the 17th century by Baldassarre Longhena, and guards in its interior beautifully frescoed rooms.

The other jewel is the hamlet of Costalta, which as the name suggests (in Italian, Costalta literally means “high slope”) has been built in altitude, and following the contour lines (a local building principle that we have already described before).

This atmospheric village presents a very interesting and well-preserved cluster of old vernacular houses, erected in the typical style of Comelico – which, while still displaying an abundant use of wood for structural parts, is already quite different from the style displayed by the houses in Sappada, erected in the much purer 'Blockbau' technique of German derivation.

Many of these houses have recently been cleaned and renovated, and Costalta itself has been turned into a small but fascinating open-air sculpture museum, with works of art interspersed among the old wooden houses, making it for a very suggestive visit at all times of the year – but especially so, perhaps, around Christmas time.

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