Friday, July 11, 2014

Western Italian Alps

Dr. Renzo Motta was kind enough to take me on a day tour through the Western Italian Alps to see the forests and some of their field sites. It just took less than two hours to drive from Turin to the western border of Italy where we could look over into France. Apparently this area has changed hands many times during the past world wars and other skirmishes between the countries.

The valley was quite full of dust and pollution making the sky hazy, although that cleared away as we went up higher into the Alps.

Starting near Turin (and around much of northern Italy as well as Switzerland, Germany, United Kingdom, Austria, and the Czech Republic) we saw many canola (or rapeseed) fields flowering yellow. This was a constant site in all of the countries that I visited. Worldwide production of rapeseed has increased 12 times from 1965 to 2012. It has been increasingly incorporated as a food oil but its main growth has been due to its use as a biofuel. Canada and China are the clear leaders in the production of rapeseed oil, but I saw these fields flowering throughout my travels.

We drove past the Fenestrelle Fortress (called the Great Wall of the Alps) which is two miles long, covers 320 acres, and climbs 2000 feet in elevation along the ridge top of the mountain in this picture. You can just see the fortress along the crest of the hill.  It is most obvious in the bottom right hand corner which is the main structure and the rectangular structure at the very top of the hill is clear. It is the largest fortified structure in Europe. Victor Amadeus II commissioned the fortress and work was started in AD 1728 and completed in AD 1850. Victor Amadeus abdicated his throne in AD 1730 to his son King Charles Emmanuel III who was the main leader to use the fortress. It remained in use until it was decommissioned in AD 1947. By that time the fortress was used to detain high profile prisoners.

Larch is a dominant part of the vegetation in the Western Italian Alps. Since it was spring time, it had leafed out in the lower part of the mountain but was still brown at higher elevation.  The mountain itself is made up of metamorphic rocks including calc-schist which developed along the subduction zone between the African plate and the Tethys Oceanic Plates from 115 to 44 million years ago (Takeshita et al. 1994). This rock showed very complex folds and strong mineralization.

We visited some field sites near an old small village that included a recently renovated chapel to San Giovanni (Italian for Saint John, which could apparently refer to twelve possible saints in this area). This structure had some very nice carved wooden beams that supported gutters made from whole tree stems that were carved out.


Many castles where established on prominent hill tops throughout this region which shows a long history of habitation and conflict.  

The greatest of these structures is the Sacra di San Michele (also known as Saint Michael’s Abby) which was situated on the top of the tallest mountain at the break between the Alps and the valley containing Turin. Part of this monastery was first constructed in the late 900s AD (the date is not precisely known) by the hermit San Giovanni Vincenzo at the request of Michel the archangel (according to oral history). This is possibly the same San Giovanni with the small chapel dedicated to him mentioned above which is further up the valley in the Alps. This monastery was under Benedictine rule until AD 1622 when it fell into disrepair. It was renovated and reinvigorated by the Rosminians in AD 1850. The monastery was the inspiration for the book The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco in AD 1980.

The Sacra is built into the rock itself with outcrops evident around its foundation. This is truly an amazing site. It was closed for tours when we were there, but just seeing the outside of the monastery was impressive.

The ruin in the foreground is the Monks' Sepulchre which was constructed in the second half of the 11th century.

This is very beautiful country and I noted that I would like to come back with my family to stay near the Lago Grande di Avigliano which is one of two glacial moraine lakes at the base of the mountain where the Sacra di San Michele is located.

Takeshita, H., Shimoya, H., & Itaya, T. (1994). White mica KAr ages of blueschistfacies rocks from the Piemonte ‘calcschists’ of the western Italian Alps. Island Arc, 3(3), 151-162.

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