If the setting for a real-life fairy tale exists, I found it in Canova.
I was in Domodossola, the part of northern Piemonte called Alto Piemonte, to see the vineyards of Cantine Garrone and the Nebbiolo clone, Prünent. The son of one of the winery owners, Matteo, showed me around the mountainsides and towns in the Ossola Valley, or Val d’Ossola.
August in Piemonte is notoriously misty (it’s where the name for the grape Nebbiolo comes from – nebbia means “fog,” and this grape is harvested when the fog starts to roll in). In Domodossola, the constant drizzle of rain weighed down the mist and fog, and I couldn’t see the mountains that surrounded me. I knew I had to be in a magnificent landscape; I caught tantalizing glimpses of sheer cliffs that appeared and disappeared silently in the grey, or terraced vineyards that dropped into a sea of grounded clouds. But I couldn’t see much at all.
To Italians, Domodossola is known as “’D’ as in Domodossola.” If I were spelling my name, I could just say, “Domodossola, Imola, Ancona, Napoli, Ancona.” But in Piemonte, at least, this town tucked into the valleys of the northern Alpine foothills is known for its spectacular natural beauty and hiking trails – apparently (I’ve got to go back one sunny day and add on to my Hiking in Piemonte series).
But the mystery created by the damp shroud of mist was the perfect setting for a tiny village called Canova. Canova, located in the valley below Oira, is a cluster of just about a dozen medieval stone houses. In centuries past, Oira and Canova sat along the Via Francigena (an ancient pilgrim’s route running from France to Rome). The stone houses were built in a time when walking on foot suited everyone just fine; they’re laid out organically, with stone walkways winding through steps, terraces, and by front doors.
Over the years, though, these beautiful medieval houses fell to ruin – particularly after WWII, when much of the population left their tough farm jobs to work in nearby Novara, Turin, or Milan.
The houses would have been condemned to piles of stone had it not been for an American couple of architects and preservationists, who took it upon themselves to restore the homes.
Mr. Ken Marquandt and his wife Kali bought one house, restored and renovated it to be modernly equipped yet still faithful to its heritage; sold the house, and used the money to renovate the next one. They restored the whole village this way.
But wait a minute. Isn’t it impossible to do anything official in Italy? Aren’t there miles of documents and red tape to wade through? Plus, after following along with the renovation adventures of Living in the Langhe, I imagine how difficult it is to do something as simple as nailing down contractor prices (on the other hand, Tamar from the Villa San Lorenzo says she was surprised by how quickly and easily renovating their place went).
The Marquandts didn’t have it easy. Old houses like those in Canova are especially difficult to deal with. Over the years, inheritances have broken up the properties into multiple owners, fracturing even a small piece of land like a piece of broken glass stamped on over and over. The Marquandts, according to the CS Monitor, had to get all 44 owners under the same roof to sign the deed. The last one was helicoptered in from sheepherding in the Alpine pastures.
As with all things in life that are worth the hard work, renovating the homes took perseverance in the face of Italian laws and regulations adversity. Today, Canova is an idyllic setting.
Matteo pointed to a spot on the hill (or a mountain? Couldn’t see the top…or the bottom, for that matter) across the road from Canova. “Ghesch will be the next renovation project,” he said. And if I hadn’t seen the results of the first, I’m not sure I would have believed it possible.