«It really is high time I wrote something about the land of my birth. I’ve had the desire to do so for ever so long, but I’ve never actually got down to it. And that may just be because of a very peculiar phenomenon: for some strange reason, when any other Italian, from any other region, says how superb his area is, what marvellous monuments it has, what wonderful landscapes, no-one is at all surprised or puzzled. But if I describe my homeland as one of the most beautiful places, not just inItaly
, but in the whole wide world, everyone seems taken aback, and looks at me with a bemused expression. My homeland is called Belluno; and although it is the capital of a province, I’ve come to realise over the last few dozen years that no-one but the locals seems to know where it is (or have ever even heard of it at all). For a start, those scant few who think they know something about it invariably get two things wrong: “Ah, Belluno! - they say - it’s in Friuli
, isn’t it?”. No, it is NOT. First of all, they’ve got the wrong pronunciation, because it isn’t Frìuli, but rather Friùli, with the stress on the “u”. And, more importantly, Belluno isn’t situated in Friuli
(which is in the valley of the River Tagliamento, while Belluno is on the banks of the River Piave). Another disheartening thing is that in the rest of Italy Belluno is famous above all for producing excellent serving women: wet nurses, nannies, waitresses, housemaids, servants - these are the pride of my homeland. Of course the area has produced famous sons, such as Gerolamo Segato, who invented a technique for petrifying corpses; Dr. Pagello, the lover of George Sand; and Pope Gregory XVI; but they are rather few, and their fame is limited to the ranks of the so-called well-educated, and thus, to the average Italian, when Belluno is mentioned, two things spring to mind: Frìuli, with the stress on the wrong vowel, and serving women. And that’s it - nothing else».
As we travel briefly through the province, we might like to be guided on our journey by the words of the writer Dino Buzzati
, who was born in Belluno and maintained close links with the land of his birth throughout his life; Buzzati has certainly played an important part - along with Segato, Pagello and Pope Gregory XVI - in rendering the city and the surrounding area better known, although, even today, forty years after the author wrote the words quoted above, Belluno has yet to emerge from the shadows.
The province of Belluno, the largest and the most sparsely populated in the Veneto, is characterized by an entirely mountainous environment which is spread out along the longitudinal axis of the River Piave, from the source in the Peralba group near Sappada to the mouth of the river in the plain, in the south of the Feltrino area. «The bottom of the valley, » writes Buzzati, «which is fairly wide and quite a convenient, easy place to live in, soon gives way to a series of rises, hills, increasingly steep escarpments. Then strange, wild mountain chains shoot vertiginously up, their Dolomite spine covered, except at the very highest points, with bushes, woodland, pastureland and lithe fir trees. ». The huge variety of environments and landscapes, the presence of majestic mountain groups with the Dolomite massifs and the vast expanses of woodland (which covers over 50% of the area!) make the province of Belluno a truly fascinating place. This is a various, contrasting, yet at the same time harmonious environment, where the stark, harsh silhouette of the Dolomites blends effortlessly with the rolling hills of the valley; where tilled fields alternate with wild, shadowy woodland and rushing waterfalls and mountain streams with tranquil lakes.
This variety is also reflected in the people and the culture of the area, strengthened by the links established down through the centuries between Venice on one side and the lands beyond the Alps on the other. It is made strikingly clear by the presence in the area of a number of linguistic minorities, protected by law: the Ladin minority situated in the area which includes the Agordino, the Val di Zoldo, Cadore and Ampezzo; the German dialect-speaking minority of the municipality of Sappada/Plodn (originally from the Villgraten valley); and the Cimbran people of Farra and Tambre d’Alpago. «Belluno and its valley », Buzzati points out, «have nonetheless a special personality, which gives them a particular, extraordinary charm, although few are actually aware of this. Why? Because in the “Valbelluna” there is a wonderful, almost incredible symbiosis between the world of Venice (with its serenity, its classic, linear harmony, its age-old sophistication and its unmistakable, trademark architecture) and the world of the North (with its mountains shrouded in mystery, its long winters, its fairytales and myths, the spirits which dwell in its caves and woodlands, that indefinable sense of distance, of solitude, of legend.)».
The first documentary evidence of life in the Belluno area goes back an extremely long way. At the foot of the Pelmetto, which can be reached from the Staulanza Saddle, on a boulder which came down from the rock walls above, you can clearly see around a hundred footprints of three different species of dinosaurs.
There are numerous traces of the presence of Man dating back to prehistoric times in various areas of the province: just two examples are the tomb found in the Val Cismon (between Feltre and Primiero), which can be dated back to the Upper Palaeolithic Period, and is on display with the burial objects found together with it in the Civic Museum of Belluno; and the hunter from the Mesolithic Period known as Mondeval Man (after the place at an altitude of 2145 metres where he was found), which you can see in the Civic Museum of the Val Fiorentina in Selva di Cadore.
Visitors particularly interested in history can follow at close quarters the traces of human settlement in the Belluno area by visiting the Palaeovenetian necropolis at Mel, where around eighty stone box-shaped tombs can be seen. The historic centre of Mel (awarded the Orange Flag of the Italian Touring Club), in a dominant position and with a wealth of elegant buildings, is undoubtedly worth a visit, as is the nearby Zumelle Castle, one of the two best-preserved castles in the province.
In Feltre, as well as the historical Old Town perched atop a hill, the castle and the frescoed buildings along the central Via Mezzaterra, you can visit an important archaeological area (a residential quarter with paved streets and the remains of houses and shops) which testifies to the period of Roman domination. The age of Venetian domination is represented by around two hundred villas spread out mostly along the axis of the Valbelluna. «Here and there in the countryside and on the surrounding hills », writes Buzzati, «you can spot the old villas, and it is of little importance whether they are triumphantly noble villas such as those along the Terraglio Road. Just as the other more famous Venetian villas, they are an expression of a civilization and a serene approach to life which survive to this day, albeit in a minimal form. ». But other dwellings and buildings, in the main towns and villages, also «have that classic Venetian look », continues Buzzati, «that same air that you find in all the ancient towns which were once part of the Serenissima Republic . Small-scale imitations and more or less distant echoes of the famous buildings along the Grand Canal. The central balcony with the three light window, the two little lions at the corners of the balustrade, the shutters closed in on themselves, the stone edges on the windows, that cordial, dignified, gentlemanly expression. But just outside the city you will find large country houses, with wooden balconies and the large square hearth jutting out from the main body of the construction, on the bench around which the families would sit in the winter evenings and tell generations-old stories. Some houses have come up from the sea, others down from the mountains, and they coexist just a few hundred metres from each other, creating a strange, rather wonderful effect.».
This “minor” architecture is a testament to a different sort of culture, a culture which does not come from books, a culture which is deeply rooted in the experience of day-to-day life and an extremely close relationship with the environment and with nature; and it is nature which is the true star of the show in the province of Belluno .
As well as the Valbelluna, with the striking backdrop of the Veneto Pre-Alps (Schiara Group, Monti del Sole, Vette Feltrine, Grappa Massif) and where you will also find the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park, the province includes the Feltrino, Alpago, Val di Zoldo, Cadore, Agordino, Comelico and Ampezzano areas. Famous for Dolomite peaks such as the Tofane, Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Monte Pelmo, Monte Civetta and Marmolada, and for elegant tourist resorts such as Cortina d’Ampezzo, today the Belluno area offers the visitor a huge variety of opportunities, some well known, others less so, to satisfy all kinds of tastes and interests. From simple walks, perhaps trying out nordic walking (particularly recommended for those who have a few excess kilos to get rid of!), to treks along the Alte Vie high mountain trails for the more experienced and better trained, to climbing, cycling routes and horse riding trails. There are also numerous stretches of water where you can have a go at canyoning, a new sport which consists of descending the mountain torrents on foot, with the aid of various means. Thrill-seekers will find plenty of opportunities for going free flying (hang-gliding, paragliding...), or to learn how to do it at one of the free flying schools, while golfers will find one of the finest golf courses in Europe in Cansiglio, in a splendid natural environment.
And since intense sports activity must necessarily be followed by a tasty lunch, let’s not forget that traditional local Belluno cuisine, closely linked to the mountains, is based around genuine, tasty products. A slice of piping hot, golden polenta, mushrooms, potatoes and boiled beans (the Lamon variety are particularly well-known), served with a wide range of types of fresh or mature local cheese, grilled chops or spare ribs, or perhaps some superb game meat: you will find polenta and roe deer on a host of menus in the local restaurants! One of the particularly delicious local specialities is pastìn, made with high-quality minced pork, flavoured with a mixture of spices and cooked on a griddle: a simple dish, yet with an inimitable flavour. And then there is schiz, an extremely fresh cheese, cooked in the pan and served with the ubiquitous polenta. Among the finest local first courses are canederli, particularly common in the north of the province (little balls of stale bread mixed with egg and pieces of lard and then cooked in stock), and casunziei, a kind of “ravioli” filled with potatoes and other ingredients, served with melted butter and poppy seeds.
For those less enamoured of sporting challenges, and those who prefer to nurture the spirit rather than the stomach, Belluno offers the opportunity to spend some time at one with nature, discovering the extraordinary wealth of flora and fauna in the valleys. Particularly unmissable are the visit to Pian de Coltura, near Lentiai, in May, to admire the spectacle of the narcissus in bloom and the equally splendid visit to the beech woodland of the Cansiglio in autumn.
And finally, we recommend that each and every visitor should lie down at least once in the grass and admire the passing clouds, those clouds of Belluno that Dino Buzzati described as follows: «Such splendid clouds cannot be seen even above the great deserts of Africa, extremely famous for such phenomena. These clouds rise magnificently up in airy castle shapes, and shimmer magically in the sky long after dusk has settled over the valley. It would be no surprise if tourists were to come purposely from Australia or Brazil just to see them. They are not made of that coarse matter of the clouds which form above the oceans; they are fine, dense, almost sensual. Their purply-blue hollows offset and magnify the fantastic views of the mountains which rise up all around. The snowy-white pinnacles sweep around the peaks, ever-changing, and tell tales of long-gone ages, of horses and riders, pennants and flags, palaces and bishops, elephants and dragons, courtesans and lovers, battles lost and won. Sometimes, just for fun, they mimic the Dolomites themselves and remain perfectly still for a few minutes. Just as if they were made of stone. Vast forests of overhanging towers, with walls thousands of metres high, walls which sadly have no equal the world over. It is such a perfect illusion that for an instant you wonder if they really have miraculously sprung up from the earth, these peaks as high as the Himalayas. And just as your eye sweeps across these terrifying precipices in search of a way out, the crags bend down to one side and melt grotesquely away into silent ruins». [C.A.N.]
The quotes are from “La mia Belluno” by Dino Buzzati, Comunità Montana Bellunese, Culture Department, published by Grafiche Antiga, Cornuda 1992 (written in 1959-60 for a medical magazine and in 1970 for Il Corriere della Sera newspaper).