Almost exactly as it was 800 years ago, the northern built-up area of Pietre Gemelle (Twin Rocks) is where the wooded plane of the Sesia river widens. Further along, the woods are replaced by gentle pastures and fields, which are today, part of Riva Valdobbia. Historically this area was considered the most wild and extreme part of the Sesia Valley since it looked to early settlers impossible to inhabit, and the mountains were exploited only as temporary pastures, and only in the four main hamlets of Otro, Mud, Bors and Olen.
The severe climate kept early farmers from this area, until the very hardy peoples known as the Walser people, who originally came from Vallese (Switzerland) at the end of the 13th century. These hardy and very wise souls colonized this area in a very unobtrusive way, as they realized the best way to live in the area was to always respect and preserve the nature of this harsh but beautiful landscape.
Starting around the 5th century (in and around the village now known as Alagna) the Walser people lived successfully on the high mountain slopes, gaining the knowledge that enabled them to find all they needed to survive from this harsh region. Instead of becoming isolated from each other as they spread out to find new resources, throughout the valley the Walser people worked hard to maintain communication, business and community ties with each other, enabling them to maintain their culture and language. These inhabitants were amazing village planners with tremendous foresight and very strong community and environmental values, especially for those times! Every settlement was provided with a public oven to make bread, a fountain and a chapel; not far from these areas were built mills- a flour and timber-mill. The utilization of the territory was regulated by very specific statutes written in the registers of each hamlet, which prescribed specific acts that prevented any overzealous exploitation of the surrounding environment.
Travellers to the area today can see the Walser traditions, habits and language, (which is an old version of the Alemannic dialect), are still evident in the village and in its inhabitants. Tourists will notice the Walser influence all around them, particularly so in many of the houses. The Walser people built them so close together that the roofs could touch. This was intentionally done to keep the paths between the houses clear from the heavy snowfall typical of the long winters, which also helped prevent natural catastrophes (avalanches, mudslides) common to the area. The wonderful harmony of the houses is evident in the symmetry of certain characteristics, building materials, roof lines, and unique distribution. The placement of housing enabled everybody equal access to sunlight, a very important necessity in the time before electricity. The incredible heritage left behind by the Walser people still demonstrates today, their deep commitment to art and beauty, balance and order, of this old population.
In Alagna visitors will see many religious buildings including the main church, in addition, and still standing today, are 10 oratories and several chapels sprinkled around the village. These buildings are imbued with the Walsers’ quest for spirituality, beauty and the need to elevate one’s soul in such a precarious period, where life was rife with the multitude of risks faced by early settlers.
Inhabitants of Alagna have always raised their eyes upward, wanting to climb and conquer Mount Rosa. Its ruggedness prevented even the most experienced and foolhardy souls from accomplishing this, that is until the year 1800, when several seasoned mountaineers and early explorers, (mostly English), finally succeeded in climbing many of the peaks of the Alps. This accomplishment soon led to a steady stream of tourists, and the mountain villagers soon realised there were many advantages in welcoming these visitors. A burgeoning tourist destination was born, and this soon led to the building of a state-of-the-art tourist centre. This attracted the world’s rich and famous, including members of the royal family, among them Queen Margherita, after whose name the refuge on Gnifetti Peak (4559 meters a.s.l.) is named.
In 1872 the Mountain Guide Association was founded (only the second in Italy after Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley) The sheer beauty and ruggedness of glaciers and surrounding landscape continued to attract tourists, but it was only the very hardy and intrepid explorer that made it to the breathtaking vistas found at the top peaks of the Monte Rosa.
After the second world war, Alagna native and building contractor Enrico Grober, envisioned a new and modern lift, one that would start from the village, take visitors up and through the Otro Valley and on to the panoramic top. So the new lift (foto storica 10) was inaugurated in 1948. Even so, this lift still wasn’t able to take people up to the summit of Mount Rosa, and new plans were formed to build bigger and better lifts, ones that would ultimately enable tourists to reach the beautiful peaks. To further this dream a society was formed in 1948 called the “Funivia del Monte Rosa society” and it immediately started collecting funds.
Long hours of fundraising and planning ensued, but it wasn’t until 1965 when all the effort came to fruition; much to the credit and vision of one engineer named Giorgio Rolandi. This new cable car was divided into three sections which enabled it to take visitors directly to the Punta Indren glacier (at 3260 meters a.s.l). It was, for its time, considered a very advanced engineering feet as the lift was 7300 meters long and with a total rise in height of 2000 meters (foto storica 11 e 12). In 1971, two ski lifts were added to the mountain and in the following years a ski school was established as the red and white cable car lift took enthusiasts up Punta Indren and Borsand to the hut called Margherita, and then on to the Mount Rosa peak. For over 30 years the cable car lift and its partner ski lifts enabled year round utilization of the glacier for alpine pursuits. These changes caused a shift in the social end economic reality of the entire valley and of the village itself- a shift away from a mainly rural culture to a popular and very successful tourist destination.
More recently, two new cable car lifts have been built which follow the existing path to Col d’Olen, additionally, there is a new middle station in Pianalunga, making the runs of Gressoney easier and faster to get to. Thus, the Monterosa ski resort was born. Monterosa is a vast area crossing Alagna (Piedmont), Gressoney and Champoluc (Aosta Valley). Thanks to the new link between Piedmont and Aosta Valley the tourist is offered a unique and multi-faceted alpine experience- aimed at all levels of competency- from beginner to expert, from alpine, downhill to the freerider- Monterosa offers something for everyone.
And even the most experienced snow sport enthusiast will be pleasantly surprised by the variety of activities that mountain guides and ski instructors have on offer- heliskiing, cross-country skiing, ice climbing, excursions, and more are all waiting for you.
Best of all, Alagna and Monterosa are not just Winter resorts, in the summer you can take advantage of wonderful weather to hike among the valleys, rest in pleasant alpine meadows; you can try the rock climbing or spend your time discovering the rich and layered cultural side of Alagna, through the arts and theatre, museums, historical and religious buildings. Alagna has something to offer tourists from all walks of life, so come and enjoy!