Santa Giustina: Nature and Heritage at the Foot of the Dolomiti Bellunesi.

The Old Mill of Santa Libera in Santa Giustina

The old mill of Santa Libera, situated in the hamlet of Salzan, has recently been bought and restored by the municipal administration of Santa Giustina, who set up a small museum there and destined it to cultural activities. The building, after the last miller left in 1981 (after having worked there for over 80 years), had been left idle, and was in a state of advanced degradation.

The mill is now in perfect working conditions again, and the destination of numerous visits – especially from school groups – since when, in spring 2004, the municipality – after seeing to its renovation  – has inaugurated its reopening. This building represents the terminal section in a row of houses that face onto an old farmyard. It consists of two floors, of which the ground floor hosts the pieces of machinery and the equipment for the milling activity, while the upper floor – already set up as a granary in the past – now serves as exhibition space. The wheels of the mill – originally three, now two – are fed by a nearby conduit (or millrace).

The restoration work was carried out in such a way as to recuperate as much as possible of the preceding structures, both external and internal, including the mechanisms for grinding, as well as presenting a faithful reproduction of those tools that had irreparably been damaged by the passing of time and use. The Zanandrea family has excercised the milling activity (both wheat and corn) here for several generations; some of them had even worked for the Austrian during the occupation. This mill was the last one in the area where it would have been possible to find freshly ground flour, and people would travel long distances to come and buy it. The last grindstone was taken here from Brescia around 1888, when the railway arrived only as far as Cornuda; from there, it had to continue its journey on a cart waggon, draught by oxen.       

Since then to the moment in which the mill ended its activity, the grindstone was consumed about 20 cm; every two months the miller would have had to take it apart to redo the small channels – an operation that required, roughly, a day of work. The miller’s typical day was long: it started at around 4 am and would continue – except a break around lunchtime – until about 4 pm. In all the years of the mill’s long activity, the conduit (millrace) never ran out of water, and in periods of drought the Mulino di Santa Libera would also do the work of other mills. We still have old pictures that represent the last ‘historic’ miller, Leandro Zanandrea, intent at gathering in the tub the flour that came out of the millstone’s small channels.

According to the statistics of 1947, the daily capacity of this mill amounted to 1200 kg of wheat and as many of corn; the wheels were activated by water, with a leap of about 4,29 meters. The wheels were protected by a vine plant, so to prevent exposure to the sun, which could bend them. Leandro had inherited the mill, together with his brother, from his father, but since 1976 he was left running the activity alone. He was the last in the Zanandrea lineage to exercise this trade, that had been initiated here by his ancestors in 1852. The mill, however, is documented already since 1529, when it had two wheels, a stable and a yard. During the course of the 1500s and 1600s the mill underwent several changes in property and management. Some documents of 1625 attest to a first change of ownership (but the keeper would be a different person), while at the beginning of the 1700s the mill became part of a property-estate of a Venetian family, who kept it until the mid-19th C. In 1849, the ownership changed again; some years later, the Zanandrea family succeeded.

The Altanon Hostel near Cergnai, in the Municipality of Santa Giustina.

The mission of the Altanon hostel is to encourage eco-friendly, responsible tourism through an experience of relationship with the environment and the people who inhabit it. The hostel is part of a constantly evolving project, which discusses the theme of sustainability and puts it into practice too, paying attention to the products used and the consumption of energy resources. For its commitment on these issues, the Altanon hostel has been rewarded with the Quality Mark of the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park.

At the hostel, the table becomes an occasion where to share knowledge as well as conviviality! The hostel is the ideal place where to spend a few relaxing days surrounded by an all-embracing nature. It hosts cultural initiatives and aims to divulgate a commitment to sustainability issues, as well as promoting environmentally-aware hiking, trekking, geo-tourism, guided nature walks – and more. The guests are asked only to bring along curiosity, an open mind (and spirit) – but proposals too, as the hostel is also a place of exchange, where relationships and new visions can arise.

About the hostel. Number of beds: 24. Two dinner rooms, also suitable to spend some time reading and relaxing; a lovely wood-covered terrace facing directly the Veses creek. Two bright and spacious lofts are suitable as multifunctional workspaces and perfect for courses, workshops, meetings, small conferences, projections or other activities. Outside, the hostel is surrounded by woods and meadows where to walk, and other places where to relax – such as the hostel’s “organic garden” and the banks of the stream. Services: B&B (full or half board), with seasonal and local products; services for cyclists include covered boxes, workshop, bike info point and specific discounts. Discounts are available also for children, large groups and long stays; pets are welcome. Free wi-fi, small thematic library, conference room; events can be organised on request too. Opening times: every day from April to the end of October; in other periods open upon request, and for groups only.

The Water Trail Along the Veses Stream

Along this section of the Water Trail we progressively enter the protected area of the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park, and we are also among the areas included within the Dolomites’ UNESCO World Heritage Site (described below). Here we can observe the marks left by water over the landscape – at present times but also in the past, from the retreat of the glaciers up to today. Nowadays, water still permeates these environments; it flows inside the rocks and between the sediments, but we can find it among the vegetation too: over the leaves, in the mosses and over the wood. It spreads along, but then it also concentrates in streams to converge into the creek; in short, water favours the presence of life in its manifold forms.

This valley is indeed a magical place, full of small rural settlements located near the area of the springs (the so-called ‘Acque More’; that is, literally, ‘dark waters’), from which also the aqueduct of Santa Giustina draws its water. It is a rich cultural landscape, which can express itself through fascinating stories based on myths and legends of ancient derivation. It is a territory that has in fact received a huge inheritance by water; and so, we will follow the ‘Trail of the Water’….

Take-home message: along this trail we will be able to understand how man can obtain electricity from water (at the hydroelectric plant “Centrale dell’Altanon”, just beside the hostel), and we will also dive into the balanced presence of water in nature, understanding how it accompanies both flora and fauna “by the hand”. We will progressively immerse ourselves in sensations of deep nature as we delve more and more into the woodlands of the Valscura (literally, the ‘dark valley’).

Birds of The ‘Water Trail’

Aquatic environments are important feeding sites for insectivorous birds that seek their prey near water (in correspondence of streams, ponds, lakes, etc.); robin, for instance, sometimes chooses these habitats as hunting ground. Birds do not use water only to drink, though: in fact, with a little luck, they can be observed as they wash themselves in pools of water, shaking their plumage in order to get rid of pests and mites.

Two Showy Subjects: Among the birds specialised in the capture of aquatic insects there are Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) and White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus). Grey Wagtail lives near wetlands and feeds on aquatic insects, larvae, small molluscs, tadpoles and – occasionally – small fish too. This bird has a striking plumage: you might see it while resting on a rock, or performing a dance by moving its tail up and down. White-throated Dipper is the ‘diver’ of our rivers; it feeds on small crustaceans, fish eggs, larvae and aquatic insects that it catches at the bottom of the streams: it dives into the water and walks against the flow, along the stream bed, moving its wings like oars. When walking along the Veses creek, if you catch sight of a bird flying straight, fast and low over the water, then most likely you have spotted a White-throated Dipper!

The Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) is a nocturnal bird of prey that animates the nights of these Pre-alpine regions. It defends its territory all year round by emitting a deep whistle similar to a flute note, which scares some people, but – contrary to popular belief – the nocturnal birds of prey are not harbingers of bad luck; indeed, if we are lucky to hear their song, we should consider ourselves privileged for having been so close to these extraordinary animals! This bird shows some special adaptations in order to hunt mice and voles at night: an exceptional sight, a fine hearing, and a plumage that makes it extremely silent when in flight. As opposed to Little Owl (Athene noctua) and Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) – also present in these areas, but which prefer agricultural environments – the Tawny Owl lives in mature broadleaved woodlands, where the abundance of trees of large dimensions favours the presence of holes in the trunks, where it can nest. This small creature observes and accompanies us: despite being among the birds with the most nocturnal habits in the area, one can occasionally spot its presence even in broad daylight, as it rests; sometimes, in fact, Tawny Owl has been seen while resting over the chimneys of the Altanon hostel – and for that reason it has been chosen as its symbol!

When Water Was Ice

During the last Ice Age (the so-called ‘Pleniglacial’ – about 22,000 years ago) the valley of the Piave river and the val Scura were less deeply incised than today, and filled with ice; only the tops of the mountains came out of those ice sheets. When the glaciers retreated, they left many signs – especially thanks to the action of water, slowly freed over time by the melting of ice; then, during the last Ice Age or ‘Late glacial’, the ice tongue that occupied the val Scura suddenly broke away from the main Piave glacier.

And the Ice Became Water Again. This separation took place progressively, through a phase where the tendency was that of a general retreat, alternated however with phases of advancement that saw the front of the Veses glacier come close to the Piave glacier again. The icy water and the melted ice, alternating for a long time, allowed erosion and depositions to reshape many forms of the landscape.

Glacial Signs. An important evidence of this story is a deposit made of stones of different sizes cemented together (a frontal moraine deposit), two sections of which are preserved in the valley. We can observe one of these along the trail, the other being placed at the same height on the opposite side of the valley, in the highest part of the Burbai meadows. The deposit was originally a whole, single arch; this deposit, released during a retreat pulsation of the Veses glacier, was eventually smashed and partly eroded by the water of the stream that has carved its way through the valley over the millennia, until giving it the actual shape.

Waters of the Past

Some sections of the route are characterised by a less steep incline than the rest of the mountain slope where the trail develops. Some very elongated terraces are arranged in an east-west direction, and characterised by meadow clearings bordered by woods. These forms are due to water erosion and the consequent deposition that took place about 15,000 years ago – in the Late Glacial Period. These ‘waters of the past’ have shaped the abundant deposits left by the retreating Piave glacier – and by other secondary glaciers (including the small one that descended through the val Scura), which flew down from the side valleys and joined the main Piave glacier. These waters were produced by the melting ice, channelled at that time into fluvio-glacial systems extending over a broad plain on the valley floor.

The Ancient Piave River. The rambling and flowing of these waters – regulated by winter drought and summer floods – occurred along the fluvio-glacial plain (‘sandur’), which can be considered the ancient bed of the Piave river (or ‘Paleo-Piave’).

The Anguane

In these valleys also live the Anguane: they are elf-like women similar, in all respects, to nymphs. Some say that they are really beautiful; others assure that they are ugly and elusive; in either case, these beings of the forest are able to transform themselves into aquatic animals or into impalpable, ethereal shadows or sighs. Sometimes the Anguane make their appearance near ponds and streams – even at the town margins – to celebrate with music, singing and magic rituals; at other times, they just dive silently.

The Spirit of the Anguane. Whoever was discovered to spy on them in order to steal their secrets, could incur into severe punishment; woes also to those who unwisely dared to go to the washtub at sunset. The Anguane are usually associated with the act of “doing the laundry” – although they are never good at it! Some swear to have seen them, beautiful and dressed with long skirts that cannot entirely hide their goat-like feet; others have even married them, and brought them down to the villages – but be aware: never call them ‘goat’s feet’, if you do not want to see them vanish in thin air! The symbol of their breasts, however, always accompanies them, depicting them as perfect mothers, naturally made to nurse: at night-time, they always discretely return to care for their beloved children. If you want to know more about the Anguane, also visit the page on the Legends of the Dolomites.   

And The Water Gushes Forth..Water falls from the sky in one of the passages of its perennial, cyclical rambling into the environment. When it falls, it glides, naturally slipping under things; if it meets fractured limestone, water enters between the rocks and into them through porosity, and it can travel for miles within the fractures. When it meets a less permeable substrate, or a cut in the rocks, however, it returns back to the surface, where it starts to flow again.

Why is This Water Gushing Here? Let’s find out the reasons for the numerous springs or ‘risorgive’ (resurgent pools) present in this area: 1) upstream, there is a broad alluvial fan, made mainly of permeable deposits (gravels, pebbles, sand), which lays on less permeable, marly rocks (‘molassa’); 2) further upstream still, along the mountain slope, the rock substrate is permeable and can contain – and convey – water (this is mostly limestone and marly limestone of Jurassic and Cretaceous age). The proximity of the so-called ‘Linea di Belluno (Belluno fault – a strong tectonic disturbance) leads to the assumption that part of the water from these springs may come from deep sediments, and be transported by pressure along the tectonic discontinuities. This is why water can gush abundantly only here, consistently feeding the Veses stream.

Dragonflies: Strange Inhabitants of These Waters

As A. N. Cibele points out in her “Venetian Popular Zoology” (1886), dragonflies are insects that intrigue one – and especially so the children; here they have different dialect names, such as ‘balanzette’ (literally, ‘little scales’), ‘anzoletti’ (‘little angels’) and ‘cavaoci’ (similar to the popular English expression ‘eye snatcher’, because they usually fly fast – and with sudden dodges – straight in front of people’s faces), but don’t worry: for humans, dragonflies are harmless insects altogether! Male dragonflies are easier to take notice of because of their bright green, blue and turquoise colours, and because they usually fly close to us, to warn us that we have entered their territory. Females, on the other hand, display less flashy colours – mostly brown tones – and they show a more reserved behaviour too, as they spawn on the submerged stems of aquatic plants.

The Dragonfly Larvae. The one- to three-year-long larval stadium of dragonflies is extremely interesting, since the nymphs spend this entire period swimming under the water surface, breathing with gills. After a delicate metamorphosis, the adults start to breathe air instead, and will fly. The dragonfly larva is an exceptional predator – not only on other water invertebrates, but also on tadpoles and fry. It is equipped with a deadly snap-mouth, and it would almost seem that special effects’ creators have been inspired by the very system of predation displayed by the dragonflies’ larvae in order to invent the dynamics of the monsters’ mouths in some famous scary movies. Also, when present, these insects indicate – like many others, in fact – the good quality of water and air.

ActivityUse your Hands and Imagination. In order to build a dragonfly – usable as a hair clip, pendant, or as a lucky charm – all you need is a clothes’ peg to be coloured, and four oval wings of tissue paper to be glued on it, two on each side: it only takes a bit of imagination, and it will fly!

The Small Church of S. Vittore Veses

Situated in a location of great charm, the church dedicated to Saints Victor and Corona is immersed in the silence of nature, and is an ideal place where to relax, read, meditate or… sleep! Its coolness in summertime, the scents of spring, the mosaic of colours in the autumn and the magical atmosphere of winter make this location an enchanting place in every season. The church of S. Vittore Veses is one of the numerous buildings that witness the felt religiosity of the local communities, as well as the widespread diffusion of small places of worship in this territory. Saint Vittore was a Christian legionnaire, at the times of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who never gave up on his faith – not even under torture; for this reason, he was beheaded. The cult of the saint is linked to that of St. Corona (or St. Stephania), who was also subject to martyrdom for having supported and encouraged Vittore to withstand torture. The remains of the two martyr saints are preserved in the magnificent Sanctuary of St. Vittore and Corona, near Feltre, dedicated to them.

The small church here, instead, was first mentioned in 1587, in the minutes of the pastoral visit of Bishop Rovellio. In his successive visit of 1595, finding the church in a state of disarray and near abandonment, he would order its demolition; luckily, the order was not carried out. Also Bishop Gardenigo, in 1611, took notice of the absence of flooring and the general neglect of the structure – so much so that he defined the building ‘est stabulo similis’ (similar to a cowshed). The chapel was renovated before 1760, and then utterly rebuilt around 1870, as it had collapsed following an earthquake. In 1905 the ‘Altanon society’ built the power plant (described above); five years later, it offered a substantial contribution to the church’s restoration. Three wooden statues were kept in the interior: a statue of the titular saint, St. Victor, one of St. Corona, and a Virgin Mary with a child; in 1979, however, the statues of the two saints were stolen, and only that of the Virgin Mary remained, now located in a safer space. Even today, on May 14th each year, the local parish gathers the faithful on the occasion of the celebrations for the two patron saints.

Monte Pizzocco and its ‘Heart of Stone’

Monte Pizzocco (2,186 m) is part of the Dolomites UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it displays some very specific forms due to its peculiar tectonic structure. The southern aspect of Monte Pizzocco is cut by a huge plane dipping to the north (the so-called ‘Linea di Belluno’ – or ‘Belluno fault line’). This plane allowed the oldest rocks (belonging to the Main Dolomite Formation – Upper Triassic, about 210 years ago) to thrust over some younger rocks (Jurassic limestone and Cretaceous formations – dating from about 200 to around 65 million years ago), when Africa and Europe collided. Monte Pizzocco responded to the compressions also with other evident structures – such as folds, faults and fractures. Surprisingly, water accompanies these rock formations – which were deposited in marine environments – since millions of years, and  with a little fantasy we could say that these mountains are now witness to ‘fossil seas’ (or, more precisely, to ‘fossil marine waters’).

Main Dolomite. This is a powerful sequence of rocks, stratified in regular layers, which testifies how the Dolomites – during the Late Triassic – were an extended shallow lagoon (‘tidal flat’), periodically covered by the sea. In this tidal flat, a large amount of white carbonated mud accumulated, thus recording the cyclic variations of the sea levels for millions of years. The first dinosaurs would have walked over these muddy plains, leaving some fossilized footprints behind. 

Jurassic Limestones and Other Tertiary-Cretaceous Formations. During the Jurassic the Dolomites region quickly sank, because of the opening of a gulf in the northern Atlantic Ocean. The southern portion of the Dolomites, therefore, recorded a gradual shift from shallow-sea conditions to a deeper marine environment – a veritable ‘oceanic tongue’; part of this ocean developed along an axis which is now the Valbelluna (namely, the Belluno basin). During the Cretaceous period, the clash between Africa and Europe triggered the lifting of all the aforementioned rocks, thus raising the Alps and closing the ocean that had previously opened. The Cretaceous sediments – which were deposited in what remained of the Jurassic ocean, by now a shallow sea – record the presence of materials eroded from the first, ‘young’ Alpine mountains. Moving on to the Tertiary period, the residual seas became progressively narrower, and were filled by more sediments; thus, emerged lands began to dominate the region. 

Woodland and Water

On periodically flooded river banks, where the humidity is always higher than in the surrounding areas, and plants are often in contact with water, you will find species that do not run the risk of rotting, even if submerged: these are trees like Black Alder, and shrubs such as different species of willow.

Colour Shots. The bushes of the oriental Buddleja davidii – a non-native plant that has spread abundantly along the shores of streams, thanks to its ability to root even in difficult deposits like rock and gravel – are really eye-catching. Buddleja is also known as ‘butterly bush’, since these are attracted in droves by its fragrant, fuchsia-coloured flower clusters. During springtime, instead, the bright yellow flowers of Caltha palustris stand out above the large bright green leaves, as well as the blooms of the many wild orchids that show up in these cool and damp places. In this area, the yellow Caltha grows along abandoned grooves, following the light tracks left over in the woodland by streams fed by invisible springs that have now disappeared: these are the very moist habitats that Caltha prefers.

ActivityListen and Discover. Sit by the trees, and wait patiently. What sounds do you hear? Is there something fleeing from us, scared? The animals living into the woods and in the meadows always notice our presence, however discrete we try to be. If you are close to the Veses creek or to some springs, the sounds will be richer, stronger and  louder; the encounters will be easier too. Water hides us, and helps us to see the wild animals better: look for the tracks left over by deer as they come close to the stream, every day, to drink some fresh water.

Mosses, Lichens and Ferns

Between drystone walls, among the roots of trees, over outcropping boulders, between rock fractures or on the walls of some houses, we usually find a type of pioneer and versatile vegetation that prefers the most awkward places – in the shade, with high humidity and a cool climate.

Water BornMosses are the most ancient terrestrial plant forms, which – together with the even more ‘strange’ lichens – have been the first colonisers of mainland that managed to survive out of water.

Plants Without Roots. Mosses and lichens do not have roots: they can simply lean and anchor themselves to something. Their reproductive cycle depends on water, which is like a ‘womb’ to them; they reproduce by releasing clouds of impalpable spores – exactly like mushrooms and ferns.

Ferns – Happy to Have RootsFerns can be described as ‘fossil plants’, as they have crossed millions of years intact – probably being amongst the typical food of dinosaurs; they are still present today, virtually unchanged, in many ecosystems. Ferns were the first plants to develop roots, thus marking the transition from ‘plants being accustomed to lean anywhere’ to ‘plants that stopped in a specific place’ in order to complete their life cycle. In the val Scura, ferns are usually found near rocky areas characterised by the phenomenon of dripping: a continuous flow of water from the overhanging rocks that creates ideal growing conditions – as well as atmospheric reflections and iridescent mists.

ActivityLook, Discover and Document. Without picking them up (because they are protected, just like lichens and mosses), approach ferns to admire and photograph their immense variety, and describe them in their typical environment. 

The ‘Signs of the Woods’

The increasing abandonment of forestry practices and of mountain agriculture imposes a limit to the possible improvements to the biodiversity of these environments: one of the most noticeable effects of this abandonment is the expansion of the forest. Nowadays, interest in the cultivation of Norway spruce is dwindling, after having been subsidised in the first half of the 20th century; this results in a reduction of those unnatural presences and in the reappearance of the more typical mixed deciduous forest. In these young and fresh woodlands grow Hornbeam, Maple, Oak, Ash and Beech; in autumn, these trees decorate the woodland with very showy colours. Many animals – because of the abundance of seeds and fruits – inhabit the deciduous forest: to them, this is a real ‘pantry’ provided by nature, where sometimes they choose to find refuge amongst roots, trunks and branches.

The Forest Takes Its Space. In the meadows and in the woods, where there is enough light for them, Hazel and Bramble shrubs live their precarious existence, with fruits appreciated by man and animals alike, being also perfect hiding places for small birds that take shelter from predators. There are plenty of other fruit trees too, which once lived solitary in the middle of large meadows, or near houses and farmsteads, and that today seem absorbed by the woodland: these are Cherry, Walnut, Chestnut, Apple and Pear.

ActivityRebuilding the Scene of Biodiversity. Among the roots of the trees, you can observe the many forms of the fallen leaves, seeds and fruits that sometimes look gnawed or eaten by squirrel and mice – or even inhabited by tiny snails and insects. Even if you are not an expert in botany, you can still appreciate the quality of the biodiversity of these forests: the shapes, the colours and the intrinsic differences that each species display, and the story they tell.

Return from Santa Giustina to Dolomiti Bellunesi

Return from Santa Giustina to Home

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.