The Earth Pyramids of Segonzano: an Eerie, Fascinating Sight

The Curious 'Omeni di Segonzano' Are Located in the Cembra Valley

The earth pyramids at Segonzano (locally known as 'Omeni' – literally, 'homunculi' or 'Little Men', because of their peculiar shape) are without a doubt one of the strangest sights not just in Trentino, but probably in the whole of the Alps. They are the product of an erosive phenomenon which has 'sculpted' these long pinnacles that popular imagination has compared to pyramids or to... men, as suggested by their local name – and this is because of the flat stone at the top, resembling a head or a hat.

The earth pyramids take part of their name from the village near where they are located, roughly half-way up the Valle di Cembra (Cembra valley) – a deep valley cut by the lower section of the Avisio (the same river that, higher up, forms the more famous valleys of Fiemme and Fassa, the latter one entering into the Dolomites’ heartland).

But the Cembra valley is like a small microcosm to itself, for geologic and climatic reasons – these impacting in turn on its vegetation. You will easily notice – especially if you enter the valley from the south – that you are surrounded by a characteristically dark stone, varying in colour from dark ochre to a sort-of-deep, opaque crimson: that is porphyry – a hard stone which owes to the volcanic origins of the area. The mountains here also bear several scars from the quarries that are still being used to obtain the material, but given the importance of this industry, the impact could in fact be much greater than it actually is.

Despite the fact that the Avisio riverbed runs quite deep, the middle section of the valley opens up, and this is where the most important villages – Cembra, Faver, Lona-Lases and Segonzano itself – are located.

You will also notice that all the hillsides are covered in vineyards, as this is quite an important area for wine production, and the painstaking efforts of generations of winemakers is reflected in the ancient, orderly pattern of terraces where the vines grow.

The Visit to the Earth Pyramids

The departure point for a visit to the earth pyramids is by the bridge on the Regnana stream, on the provincial road that links Lona-Lasès to Segonzano itself. It is true that the tourist can get a glimpse of the pyramids from various points in the valley, but for a complete visit it is best to follow the path that leaves from the small visitor centre by the main road.

The trail follows a route that enters at first in a mixed conifer/broadleaved woodland, which offers shelter and shadow during the summer months, and reaches the first three groups of pyramids, touching them in sequence (but with two different path branches that do not connect).

A fourth group – a bit more distanced away to the east – cannot be reached with the path; this latter group can be admired from higher up instead, from the minor road that connects Segonzano to the hamlet of Quaras. A visit to the pyramids is a fulfilling easy experience, and it is possible at all times of the year, apart from periods with heavy snow and ice.

Geologic Base

In the Quaternary period, glaciers in what is today the Avisio river valley left a lot of material in the smaller Regnana stream bed, which went on to form huge moraine deposits, made up of a mixture of materials consisting of very fine pebbles and large boulders. This accumulation of material was due to the disintegration and collapse of the mountainsides and of the thin ridges, caused by movements of the ice. Over the course of several millennia, the erosive action of water has created deep cuts and formed small side valleys that eventually gave rise to the earth pyramids.

Formation

The drops of rain, as they hit the ground, churn and remove various tiny particles, exerting also a corrosive action that increases with soil steepness. The ground is not completely removed because of the mixed composition of the material that was disposed chaotically by the ice: this shows how the soil can protect itself against the mechanical and erosive action of water. In 1932, some scholars suggested – and later totally dismissed – the hypothesis that the pyramids existed as already formed structures underground, and that the water would have had no other function but to unearth them and ‘set them free’ – so to speak – thus rendering them eventually visible.

Shape of the Stone (the ‘cap’)

The presence – and moreover the shape – of the ‘cap’ is essential to the formation of the pyramids, because it determined their existence and age in the first place. Even more importantly, the square-shaped slabs, slightly tilted towards the valley, form a natural ‘roof’ to the pyramid. If a stone falls, the pyramid will quickly take on a pointed shape, easily permitting an attack from water which thus seals its fate – unless there is another rock along its base which will, over time, become the future new ‘cap’. A pyramid located within the second group has a really noticeable ‘cap’ for its substantial weight, estimated at approximately 100 tons!

Vegetation

The vegetation covering the pyramids is of notable importance to their conservation, because it alleviates the erosive action of water: roots, moss and leaves effectively retain the soil, thus preventing erosion. The presence of vegetation in the gullies also indicates that the erosive action of water has been considerably reduced. At the summit of some of the pyramids there are bushes and trees that keep the vegetation intact, which therefore acts as a further protection to the earth pyramid itself.

Deterioration

The violent earthquake that struck Friuli on May 6th, 1976 sent a warning to Segonzano with a reading of 5 on the Richter scale; as a result, many pyramids lost their stone protection (their ‘cap’), whereas others – taller and leaner – survived, oscillating without damage. Human activity may also have contributed to the harming of these wonderful formations: it is said that during the First World War, for example, a gun battery in training shot against the cover blocks nearest to the road, and without their protection these pyramids quickly deteriorated and eventually collapsed.

Bridle Retaining Walls

In the autumn of 1882 there was a big flood in Trentino, which caused considerable damage in the Cembra valley too; the Regnana stream devastated the valley of the pyramids, and in the vicinity of Piazzo it swept away windmills and houses. Some years later, owing to the initiative of the Austrian civil service, stone bridles were built in the shape of huge walls with the intent to contain the destructive power of water, and going up the old beaten tracks it is still possible to see some examples of these works.

Evolution

In 1959, photographic documents – probably taken at the end of the previous century – were found in the deposits of the Museum of Natural History in Trento. In October that same year the area was photographed again, and it was noticed that in fewer than 60 years many of the pyramids had disappeared. The erosion had affected not only the pyramids without the huge slabs (‘caps’) as protection, which were the most vulnerable, but also others.

Another historic record is that of the famous painter Albrecht Dürer, who – as he passed through the area in 1494 – painted a castle with the glimpse of an earth pyramid in the middle of a forest: certainly the oldest representation of this peculiar and captivating natural phenomenon.

The 'Val Pomara' Panoramic Trail

An interesting panoramic viewpoint can be reached with a new path, recently traced in the small Val Pomara (Pomara valley) as an alternative to the ‘historical’ trails and mule tracks that take one near the actual pyramids. This new path connects the area of access to the pyramids (where the visitor centre is) to Prada (a small hamlet near Sevignano), through the Val Pomara panoramic road.

After crossing the stream, and keeping to the right, one quickly rises to reach – at a medium altitude – the locality of ‘Val Pomara’, where the view opens up on the different groups of pyramids, the surrounding hills covered by vineyards and the villages all around. Descending slightly, one then reaches the hamlet of Prada and a small equipped area.

For a less demanding option – but an equally pleasant walk suitable to all abilities – it is advised to leave directly from this latter location (Prada), which will shortly take to a panoramic viewpoint, from which one can then return to the starting point (bear in mind that the stretch connecting the Val Pomara to the pyramids’ visitor centre is a forestry road which is quite steep at times, and it is also necessary to cross the little stream on a ford).

Segonzano Village and the Cembra Valley

The village of Segonzano is interesting in its own right especially so the hamlet of Piazzo, where there is an old church and some vernacular houses. From the main village, however as it lies on an elevated position it is possible also to enjoy wide views over the whole central section of the Cembra Valley, as well as to enter the area of the earth pyramids with alternative, flatter paths.

As anticipated above, the Cembra Valley is interesting especially for its historical landscape of terraced vineyards, contained by ancient dry-stone walls. It is mostly Muller-Thurgau being cultivated here, giving out a small but precious production, and the painstaking tradition of cultivating vines in this way goes back many centuries.


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