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Sarmassa Valley, the long memory of the Monferrato

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To travel the trails in Sarmassa Valley is to undertake a journey through the heart of Asti territory.

 

The long memory of the Monferrato

Here you’ll find the area’s most characteristic elements: nature’s trees, man’s vineyards, the hills, farmhouses, and personalities that tell the story of their lives in this land.

In this angle of Alto Monferrato, the rugged hills covered in copses of trees are somewhat out of place among the zone’s other areas that are completely dominated by grapevines. Here in 1993, the Regional government instituted the Special Natural Reserve of the Sarmassa Valley, today overseen by the managing authority of protected Asti areas.

The names of places imitate the history they’ve seen. The Valley of the Dead (Valle delle Morte) recalls the hard battle during the reign of Barbarosso, and the Peak of Three Bishops (Bricco dei Tre Vescovi) is where three separate dioceses met and, still today, three distinct communities are gathered in this protected area.

The names of places imitate the history they’ve seen, from the Valley of the Dead to the Peak of Three Bishops

The Reserve is almost completely covered by forests with different roots of history. Some, like oak, cherry, elm, and maple, are especially interesting from a naturalistic point of view. The oak forest of Crova, a noble family of the zone, has plants like the Scotch broom, white Cephalanthera (a multi-bloom orchid), Solomon’s seal, and butcher’s broom. The forest is situated on a south-facing slope and is essential for the Reserve because it conserves the natural memory of how the woods were long ago, untouched. Here is the heart of the Reserve. The winds, insects, and other animals carry seeds from here that, in the future, may bring the surrounding forests back to their own original states and enrich the Reserve with biodiversity. 

The cold, shaded slopes facing north are the homes of chestnut trees, every so often trimmed for their straight, strong poles to use to support the nearby vineyards. Nevertheless, nature has its own space here, too; in March, the primroses bloom together with wild violets and ferns among the huge chestnut leaves that fell the autumn before. Its fruits, like acorns from the many oaks, are essential food for forest animals, from insects to large mammals.

At the end are the non-native Robinia pseudoacacia, black locust trees that originate from North America, nonexistent in the area before 1600. Today, these trees are the most prolific, growing with abandon over the land cultivated after World War II: they have actually colonized the vineyards, orchards, and other cultivated areas. The relatively recent history after World War II can be read along trails throughout the Reserve. With a sharp eye, peer between densely-packed trees to see old wells, containers (trori) for the preparation of pesticides, terraces for vineyards, and equipment sheds.

Watching for animals is difficult but possible with the right approach. Armed with patience, silence, and an observant spirit, take a trip during the quietest hours of the day – early morning or twilight – and you might find foxes, wild boar, badgers, squirrels, and dormice, or the tracks of these critters left on trees, under foot, and in bushes.

One miniature animal makes itself known near small pools, brooks, and swamps hidden in the forest: the brilliantly colored dragonfly. Darting through the air in the summer, the dragonfly snatches little insects, butterflies, mosquitoes, frogs, and even green lizards, the chosen symbol of the Reserve.  

The park’s most ancient history is told through fossils that are unearthed in various parts of the Reserve’s territory, the remains of organisms that lived more than two million years ago.

The park’s most ancient history is told through fossils that are unearthed in various parts of the Reserve’s territory, the remains of organisms that lived in an ancient sea that covered the land and a large part of the Asti territory during the Pliocene period more than two million years ago. In sections along the trail and occasional caves hollowed out in the sandstone, which are locally called tufo, “tuff,” for its compact but easily workable consistency, you can find small figures that were impressed a long time ago: bivalve shells, the remains of crabs and marine vertebrate, and many other millenia-old organisms.

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