The Val Cismon: Points of Natural Interest around Feltre & Gateway to the Trentino Dolomites.

The lower section of Val Cismon is the only part of this long valley that belongs to the province of Belluno. It takes its name from a river which in fact flows for most of its course in Trentino.

Its reaches are most commonly accessed from Feltre, from which one has to travel westwards. The initial stretch is along a flat section of territory leading towards the Val Cismon proper.

The first village to be encountered is Arten, where one can appreciate some interesting examples of Venetian villas (as in the Val Belluna); especially noteworthy here is Villa Tonello-Zampiero.

Arten is also the starting point of an interesting old road known as the “Canalet” (literally, small canal), which connects this village with Pedavena while passing several places of traditional religious worship such as old chapels and capitals, as well as some rustic buildings.

The Villas of Fonzaso

In fact, the whole area in and around Fonzaso – which is the main centre of the lower Val Cismon – bears witness of its past affluent status in the number of old villas and religious buildings that can be found dotting the town and its surroundings.

The parish church – displaying a very high and distinctive bell tower – was erected in the 17th century and contains several paintings of Venetian school, but the most striking building in Fonzaso is the white Chapel of Saint Micel (St. Michael), which dominates the small town from the height of a rocky outcrop.

Oddly, the isolated house beside the church was not originally connected to the religious building – as one would naturally think – but it was once occupied by a warden, keeping a watchful eye over the plain on the outlook for fires.

Despite not having a real connection with hermits – at least, not in recent times – the solitary position caused nevertheless the area to become known as Saint Micel Hermitage. The picturesque rock cliff now makes for an interesting walk, and it can be reached with an easy path from the centre of town.

Continuing on from Fonzaso – with the river flowing nearby – two different communities on either side of the Val Cismon can be reached: Lamon and Sovramonte.

Lamon: Interesting Churches and Celebrated Beans...

Lamon is built over a relatively low-lying plateau which was probably crossed by the ancient Via Augusta Altinate (for more information, see Cesiomaggiore).

Perhaps owing to its past strategic location, in Lamon there are two notable churches: San Pietro – probably erected originally on the site of a Roman camp – and San Daniele, with a characteristic slender bell tower recognizable from afar.

But today Lamon and the surrounding area are certainly best known for the cultivation of an ancient variety of beans, which arrived here from South America shortly after their discovery, and immediately found a suitable place to grow.

Cultivation of this crop has been thriving locally ever since, and several varieties of beans – now all collectively known as Fagiolo di Lamon (Lamon bean) – have been developed over time. All of them are protected with an IGP (an Italian acronym that stands for Protected Geographic Indication), thus certifying the provenance of the product. Traditionally, beans are sown at the very end of winter, on May 3rd (Holy Cross Day), while collection takes place between late August and early September.

Some of the little hamlets around Lamon also display interesting examples of vernacular architecture, which in this area is quite distinctive, and very different from that of the Dolomites heartland.

The main building material here is stone, and there are vast open terraces, clad in wood and known as solivi (literally, exposed to the sun), which were once used for drying the precious beans (especially impressive are the so-called Solivi di Fastro, in the nearby municipality of Arsiè).

The Plateau of Sovramonte: Ancient Fruits and... Churches (again!)

The hamlets that form the municipality of Sovramonte lie on another plateau on the other side of the Val Cismon, directly facing Lamon.

On a small, isolated hill in Sorriva is the church of San Giorgio, built on one of the most important sacred locations of the area and testifying a very long continuity of use (the church almost certainly stands on the site of a Pagan place of worship, and the dedication to Saint George supports that interpretation). In the interior, there are important – albeit incomplete – cycles of frescoes, but sadly the building is very rarely open.

The main hamlet of Servo is gathered around the church of Santa Maria Assunta, also erected in an elevated position and originally dating to the 10th century, but heavily remodelled many times over, with traces of frescoes dating to different ages and other important paintings.

The hamlet of Aune displays some examples of vernacular architecture; following on, the road will then take you to Passo Croce d’Aune (1,010 m), allowing for an interesting circular trip around the Vette Feltrine, which will eventually end in Feltre.

The area of Sovramonte is also part of the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park, which has launched locally a project of reintroduction of old varieties of fruits – most notably apple and pear, and above all the so-called “Mela Prussiana” (‘Prussian apple’), allegedly first introduced by emigrants returning from that region of Northern Germany in the late 1800s, who brought some seedlings with them.

There is a trial (or “catalogue”) field – which can be visited – by the Park restaurant AllAntica Torre, while products that make use of the newly reintroduced apple species (such as juices and jams) can be traced with relative ease in the area – especially if you visit some of the farms or agriturismo directly involved with their production (that sometimes also offer accommodation). More details on this project are provided in the section that follows.

The “Cultivated Biodiversity” Project

The Jurassic Park of the Apples

Everyone knows about how the Dinosaurs went extinct; not quite so famous, though, is the extinction of the apples: perhaps you did not know this, but even apples can go extinct! For instance, back in 1906, 3,600 different types of apples were cultivated in France; by 1986, in the same country, only 14 varieties were left. Similarly, in Italy today 70% of the apple production derives from only 4 varieties, while in the US 86% of the 7,000 varieties cultivated during the 19th century have been lost. This wipe-out was not caused by an asteroid but by the industrialisation of agriculture, which replaced the ‘old’ varieties with newer, more productive ones. Fortunately, however, not all is lost. The area surrounding the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park hosts some old surviving fruit trees that are being carefully looked after by dedicated senior citizens. We have sought out these plants (most notably apple), reproduced them (multiplying old plants by grafting them is much easier than bringing dinosaurs back to life!), and then we have planted them in the “catalogue (or trial) field” located by the restaurant AllAntica Torre. Welcome to the “Jurassic Park” of the ancient fruit varieties!

Why Conserve the Old Varieties?

The old varieties of fruit and vegetable are a treasure trove of biodiversity. They are like an enormous ‘genetic bank’, without which it would not be possible to obtain the new varieties. Only in this ‘bank’ it is possible to find characters of resilience to diseases, parasites, drought, climate change, and many other useful characteristics for agricultural purposes. Even the more modern techniques of genetic engineering have to draw to the natural heritage in order to find new characters; they cannot be created out of the blue. For this reason, the loss of old varieties (the so-called ‘agricultural biodiversity’) is a serious often irreparable damage, and the reason why so many projects have been launched in the hope of contrasting this loss.

A New Noah’s Ark

There are two ways to preserve the old varieties: ex-situ and in-situ. In the first case, seed collections (for herbaceous plants) and catalogue orchards (for tree species) are organized. One of the most famous ex-situ preservation projects is the seed bank in the Svalbard Islands (Norway), in which millions of seeds coming from all over the world are kept in an underground, atomic bomb-proof vaulted bunker; equally famous is the Millennium Seed Bank in Wakehurst, England, looked after by RBG Kew. Building such banks is like creating an authentic latter-day “Noah’s Ark”. Preservation in-situ, instead, is the cultivation of the old varieties in their areas of origin, with the help of a network of “agricultural custodians”. This method also has the advantage to safeguard the cultural heritage connected to the cultivation techniques. These two methods, however, are not mutually exclusive; they are, rather, complementary, and ideally should be carried out at the same time. The catalogue orchard (or trial field) located here is a good example of preservation in-situ, and it is also one of the results of the “Cultivated Biodiversity” project, carried out by the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park in collaboration with the Ethnographic Museum of the Province of Belluno (in Cesiomaggiore), and the State Professional Agricultural Institute (in Feltre). It’s really like a small “Noah’s Ark” that gathers ancient varieties of apples and pears from all over the Province of Belluno.

Ancient Varieties: A Babel Of Names

Being able to collect, classify and manage the ancient varieties of fruit is no easy feat. An identical variety can have different names (depending on the dialect) or, vice-versa, the same name could be applied to a completely different type of fruit or ‘cultivar even in areas that are geographically not so distant from one another. It is for this very reason that agronomists and ethnographic specialists (ethnography is the science that explores cultural phenomena through observation and direct interviews) have worked side-by-side on this project. Agronomists have identified the different varieties from a pomological standpoint (pomology is the scientific study of fruit tree cultivation; there are various national or regional Pomona collections: even if for this area there isn’t one, you can still refer to the publication dedicated to this project by the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park), while ethnographic specialists have interviewed dozens of old farmers to learn about the names of these varieties, their origin, the cultivation techniques and the use of their fruits. These specialists have identified over 40 different varieties of apple; in the “catalogue orchard” (trial field) you will see seven of them: 1) Pòn Prussiàn (Prussian apple); 2) Pòn Prussiàn giallo or Pòn di San Paolo (Yellow Prussian apple); 3) Pòn Rosetta (Small Rose apple); 4) Ferro Rosso (Red Iron apple); 5) Ferro Cesio (Iron apple from Cesiomaggiore); 6) Mela Rudèn (Rudèn apple); 7) Melo Dell’Oio (Dell’Oio ‘oily’ apple).       

The Devil’s Pear

By interviewing the old farmers, the ethnographic specialists have also come upon forty varieties of pear, featuring the most diverse characteristics. The Pér Butiro (Butter Pear), for example, has a soft, yellow pulp like butter , while Pér Path (Path Pear) would not be picked from the tree until fallen, and it would be gathered only after it had hit the ground. The Pér Dale Tharpe (Marc Pear) was ripened precisely among marc hence its name while Pér de l’Inguria (Watermelon Pear) was called like that because of the fruit’s resemblance to a watermelon (‘anguria’ is the Italian word for watermelon), with its white edge and red pulp. The juice of Pér Verteiùs (Green Juice Pear) was used to obtain a ‘fruit wine’ (an alcoholic beverage similar to cider), while Pér del Diàol (Devil’s Pear) had that name as it was so hard that it could not be eaten raw, and had to be boiled or baked first. This pear like Pér del Gnòc was traditionally eaten with beans, while Pér Spada (Sword Pear) would be consumed with polenta. As with apples, in the “catalogue orchard” (trial field) you will see seven types of pear: 1) Pér Butiro (Butter Pear); 2) Pér del Gnòc; 3) Pér del Diàol (Devil’s Pear); 4) Pér Moscatel (Muscat Pear); 5) Pér Budèl; 6) Pér Path (Path Pear); 7) Pér Spada (Sword Pear).

The Pòn Prussiàn (Prussian Apple)

During the second half of the 19th Century, some emigrants from Sovramonte returned from Prussia, where they had gone to work in the iron and coal mines, and they took with them a few small branches from several apple plants. The climate in Prussia must have been somewhat similar to the one in Sovramonte, and upon return those apples managed to take root. The cultivation of the Pòn Prussiàn (Prussian apple) thus became widespread and thrived throughout the Sovramonte plateau. The twine uniting the story of the Pòn Prussiàn with that of the local people is a significant example, but only one of many, and indeed this could be applied to any ancient variety in cultivation. Preserving those ancient varieties, therefore, is very important not only from an agricultural and botanical standpoint, but also from a cultural point of view. Agronomists and local farmers have worked together to individuate three types of Pòn Prussiàn: the ‘classic’ type, the yellow type (aka Pòn di San Paolo) and the striped variety (Pòn Prussiàn Rigato). Today, after many years of decline, the Pòn Prussiàn is a success story: this ancient variety is being cultivated again, and its fruit is being processed into juices, jams and preserves under the Parks’ brand name.        

Seren del Grappa and Monte Grappa

Another interesting deviation from Fonzaso reaches Seren del Grappa through the hamlets of Tomo and Porcen (in the former, the 17th century Villa Fabris-Guarnieri is visible; in the latter, an interesting parish church displays works of art dating to the 15th and 16th century).

Seren del Grappa is situated at the foothill of a mountain (Monte Grappa, 1.775 m) whose name is closely associated with bitter fights during WW1.

In fact, many itineraries departing from here bear a connection with those wartime events; most notably, a section of the Alta Via (Alpine Highway) No. 8, known as degli Eroi (of the Heroes), which runs from Feltre to Bassano del Grappa and will take you all the way up to Cima Grappa, the highest point on Monte Grappa (1,775 m), where a monumental sanctuary dedicated to all WW1 unknown victims dominates the landscape, commanding also impressive views over the Venetian plains.

All in all, the Val Cismon – even in this relatively short section – offers several motives of interest, from old churches to long forgotten fruits; from verdant plateaus where ancient varieties of beans are grown to rocky crags where it is still possible to walk in relative solitude.

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