Italian Lakes – Monte Motterone

LEST any soothing languor or lethargy of the Gulf of Pallanza overtake the visitor and mar the keenness of his enjoyment, it may be well for him to do his climbing into the heights pretty promptly upon arrival, and to attack the noble points of view with ready energy and buoyancy. Monte Motterone and Sasso del Ferro are the giant sign and finger posts of lower Lago Maggiore, pointing from their exalted tops in every direction to the marvels of this region, — northward to the snow peaks, southward to the plains of Piedmont and Lombardy, and close at hand to all the details and the exquisite charms of the subalpine world, clustered profusely at the very feet of these mountains.

For the present let Monte Motterone, also written Mottarone, suffice.

It is early in June. Along the lake-front of Baveno and Stresa the gardens are in their full splendour and richness. Roses are there and camellias ; the myrtle and the pomegranate leaves reflect the light. As we mount the path leads through great chestnut groves and vineyards, by rustic villages and stone barns covered with thatched roofs, up into the open fields, and finally upon the undulating pastures that reach to the summit and make of this whole mountain massif, lying between Lakes Maggiore and Orta, a vast cattle range and dairying district. Up there are real alp., serene, carpeted with the greenest grass and the sweetest flowers and swept by the balmiest of airs.

There are several routes by which the top may be reached. One may start from Baveno and pass by Romanico, Campino, Someraro, Levo, and the Alpe del Giardino to the hotel near the summit; while another favourite path goes from Stresa and joins the former at Someraro.

It is to be hoped that, as you pass through Campino, you may have sight of one of the barns there, built of mountain rubble and mortar, thatched with straw, and curiously primitive from every standpoint. Perhaps the farmer may just be descending by a lad-der, carrying a three-pronged wooden pitchfork, while his young wife stands for a moment holding her baby in arms.

At another village a country festival may have beflagged the principal inn, called the country folk to put on their Sunday best, and is making them revolve on the terrace in the dance to the tune of a brass band. Perhaps another day you may surprise a military society out for an excursion and halting in some village square amid a concourse of boys and girls.

A transition full of delightful surprises marks the ascent of Monte Motterone. For awhile the nightingales sing in the chestnut-trees and the cuckoo calls, then come the larks, soaring and wheeling skyward above the open mountain meadows. The path has barely emerged from the shrubs of flowering rhododendron in the lakeside gardens, when our sweet friend, the wild rhododendron, or alpine rose, is detected in secluded spots fringing rugged cliffs. The daffodils cultivated along the lake terraces give place to the wild narcissus flung broadcast on the uplands, the stately tulip to the modest bell gentian. The beauties of lake and shore at first are seen to come and go through the forest branches, then are temporarily eclipsed as we mount, to reappear again as distant details when the summit is reached. To sum up, Monte Motterone is no ordinary climb, like those on the northern side of the Alps, with brambles and pines below and solitudes above, but belongs to the southern slope, and is distinctively of the Italian peninsula.

The view is justly famous. Although the summit is not quite five thousand feet above the level of the sea, yet from up there the assembly of the Alps seems nearly complete, and the absent ones can almost be supplied from memory. Starting with the Col di Tenda and Monte Viso in the far west, on the borders of France, and extending eastward as far as the Ortler and Adamello groups in the Austrian Crown Land Tyrol, the peaks stand in a semicircle of nearly two hundred miles, solemn and radiant, clad in imperishable purity, and acting as guardians, protectors, and benefactors of the sunny southern lake land at their feet. Monte Rosa, barely a dozen miles away, dominates the northern horizon, towering above them all, queen and centre of a great court of attendants. In fact, her sway is as undisputed in this region as is that of Mont Blanc over the valley of Chamonix.

Among the better known peaks that glisten on the great white line are the Cima di Jazzi, Mischabel, Monte Leone, Jungfrau, and Fiescherhorner; the mountains of the Upper Rhine valley and the Engadine stand farther back, while closer at hand is seen Monte Generoso, acting as a friendly rival with Monte Motterone and Sasso del Ferro in the delightful profession of showing off the treasures of the alpine and subalpine world.

Down in the plain the sheen of silver windings denotes the rivers Ticino and Sesia, and in fair weather Milan is visible with its cathedral and arch of triumph, as well as Monza and Varese, Novara, and Vercelli, while the faint violet tracings of the Apennines close the southern view. In fairest weather, it is said, even Turin can be discovered amid the lowland haze off to the west. Seven lakes can be seen, large and small: Maggiore, Orta, Mergozzo, Varese, Biandronno, Monate, and Comabbio, The Borromean Islands seem to be swimming on Lake Maggiore like great pond-lilies of special pattern and imported from tropical climes, and the quaint isle of San Giulio on Lake Orta looks as though it had been dropped from some mediæval sky.

The eye rests longest on our good friends, Baveno, Pallanza, and Intra, and strays northward to Luino, to the ruins on the islands of Cannero, to Maccagno, and the curve of the shore beyond. Over at Laveno the train is starting for Varese, to run through a country thickly strewn with habitations; tourist-laden steamboats are touching here and there at their landing-places, churning the blue water into white, sending up streamers of smoke, and trailing diverging lines in their wake. Picturesque St. Catherine and the crenelated castle of Angera attract attention. We find ourselves looking down from the atmosphere of the Alps into a populous plain, dotted not only with gar-dens and villas but also with factories, store-houses, and other evidences of industrial and commercial Italy, — showing that even in this lake land of surpassing beauty work has to be done and all is not play all the time.

Should the weather prove variable on Monte Motterone, still the clouds will bring beauties and compensations of their own. Perhaps they will drift superbly in great rolling masses about Monte Rosa, or rise like smoke from the quarried precipices of Montorfano. Possibly they may close in altogether on us, for awhile at least, and spread a gentle stillness over the pastures of Monte Motterone. At such times it is well to look for sudden openings of startling beauty, pictures of a gigantic camera obscura. A rift in the clouds may reveal momentarily one of the Borromean Islands far below, the palace on Isola Bella, or the campanile on Isola dei Pescatori, illuminated by a strong ray of yellow light and surrounded by water of vivid azure; or a mountainside may gleam for an instant in bright vernal green. Before the clouds blot out the scene again, rowboats may appear on the lake like tiny insects threading their way across, a patch of water may glisten silver sweet, or a strip of the gay lakeside may show itself, bathed in an intense blue-black atmosphere. These contrasting glimpses, from an alpine world into the lap of luxury and the pride of civilization, constitute a unique charm of the good mountain.

Both from a geological and botanical aspect, Monte Motterone has its special merits. It stood for ages like a great granite ram-part against the glaciers advancing down the valleys where the Toce and Ticino Rivers now run. Its lower flanks have been sprinkled with erratic blocks brought down from the distant heights upon the backs of these glaciers. The blocks are especially noticeable in the neighbourhood of the village of Gignese.

Today Monte Motterone forms a veritable park of vast pastures, kept as fresh as lawns by an effective system of irrigation. Little channels cross the slopes in long trenches slightly off the line of the horizontal, bringing the water of the mountain brooks to freshen the grazing lands. The result is that to match such a succession of green alps, it would be necessary to travel to the famous Seiser Alp above the Gröden Valley in Tyrol, or to the Pinzgauer Promenade on the borders of Salzburg, or even to the uplands of the Sette Comuni, south of the Valsugana. There are about a hundred of these alps on Monte Motterone, feeding some two thousand cows and many sheep. Ten of the alps, with their rude huts and groups of trees, belong to the family of the Counts of Borromeo. No greater difference in possession can be imagined than exists between these high-placed properties and the better known Borromean Islands below. Their one bond of sympathy seems to lie in their island nature, the former being veritable oases upon the rolling green, the latter bright spots upon the great blue basin of the lake. The family also possesses a little villa at the village of Levo which is passed on the way up from Baveno or Stresa.

The summit of Monte Motterone has been visited by a number of royalties, notably in 1885 by the then Queen Margherita of Italy, well known as a genial and happy enthusiast in alpine matters. In all respects the visit is to be urged upon those who can make time for it on their Italian lakes journey. In a few moments the wealth of a great part of this region in variety, freshness, colour, and form can be quickly grasped and the details studied for a nearer acquaintance. To the Italians of the near-by cities Monte Motterone is a welcome refuge in the hour of persistent heat. All summer long there is the tinkling of cow-bells from the irrigated slopes, the birds soar, and the bees buzz about their business. In their seasons the flowers come, nod to the breezes, and then go, and the morning mist floats off into thin streamers to caress the slopes with kindly fingers.