• Categories

Rhododendrons, mountain passes, syenite: three trails in Oasi Zegna

Three different facets of a uniquely marvelous landscape

  • share on:
  • twitter

Contrary to what many think, Oasi Zegna is not the Zegna family’s private garden. Nor do you have to buy a ticket at the entrance. It doesn’t even have an “entrance” in fact. It’s a marvelous spectacle of nature that’s there for anyone who wants to enjoy it, even by just driving through it. An explosion of flowers and colors up in the mountains, especially in May and June when the Conca dei Rododendri (Rhododendron Bowl), the first scenographic stop-off along the Panoramica road, comes into its own.

The rhododendrons in question, after whose infinite variety of species, forms and colors the first part of Oasi Zegna is named, originated in the Himalayas but find an ideal habitat here on the slopes of the Alpi Biellesi (Biella Alps). “For someone who’s never been here, I’d say it was a valley, a bit steep and wild, where at a certain time of year everything blossoms at once. An enormous, natural coup de théâtre,” in the words of architect Paolo Pejrone, designer of the recent landscaping upgrade.

The Conca dei Rododendri was given its current aspect in the ‘60s by the illustrious Florentine landscape architect Pietro Porcinai, who worked at Trivero from 1959 to 1979. Son of a highly esteemed professional gardener whom everyone referred to as the “Professor”, Porcinai was engaged in the process of “designing” the mountain for Ermenegildo Zegna, above all the new plantations. He designed the Conca dei Rododendri literally “on the ground” (without using plans drawn up in a studio) and issued instructions for preparing the soil and laying out the plants on the basis of their sizes and nuances of color, thus creating a green space open to everyone, a veritable garden in the mountains, something that leaves an indelible mark on visitors’ minds. Porcinai was the first to enter this ecosystem and modify it, with all due humility and respect, without sacrificing its essence.

“A new order,” as the Florentine architect liked to call it, that didn’t distort the existing landscape or presume to express the style of the designer, let alone that of his client. Porcinai found himself in a “workshop” in Trivero in fact, in a large garden that offered him a new idea of landscaping, no longer a simple “project” but an ongoing process that a visionary industrialist had understood and supported. At a time when many sought to leave the land, the architect looked at the woods planted by Ermenegildo Zegna and found in himself a deep conviction that led him, as early as the ‘30s, to entitle one of his articles for Domus “The entire nation should be a garden”. Porcinai analyzed the ecosystem in terms of numbers and species of plants, their spatial relationships with one another and with their environment and the morphology of the terrain. In doing so he applied the criteria of phytosociology, a science that deals with relationships within the plant community. 

“This aspect was constantly in our minds in our recent work,” explains Pejrone. “For example, we planted a whole “forest” of royal fern, which is unique, in an out-of-the-way corner full of water. We put the right plants in the right places, continuing the work that Porcinai started.” Because plants shouldn’t be thrown together at random but in certain associations of species in harmony with one another and their host environment, which in this case, as Pejrone stressed, “offers us a Himalayan valley microclimate with constant humidity, albeit cold: exactly what these plants need”. “Porcinai’s work,” continues the architect, “created an environment with a high aesthetic impact and with admirable foresight he chose plants that would require as little tending as possible. And for years in fact, very little work needed doing: Oasi Zegna “reacted well” because it had been well designed. Our aim was to improve its quality, especially that of the avenues that Pietro Porcinai built almost exclusively for the gardeners’ cleaning and maintenance work. These we made suitable for visitors, including the disabled, who can now come and immerse themselves in this magical jungle of blossoming rhododendrons”. 

Pejrone studied under Russell Page, one of the greatest British landscape architects of the 20th century. Is there any particular lesson to be learnt from the great Porcinai in Oasi Zegna? “Oh yes,” says the architect, “rigor. An achievement like Porcinai’s has to be perpetuated, nourished, with no fear of overabundance of plants. It’s the only way to leave posterity something that can look after itself. It’s not a difficult task like building a tower of trees in the middle of a city. It’s a natural, simple process that pays off in the long term, it needs a light touch and doesn’t create work, just wonderful results and satisfaction. Awareness of the landscape is stronger now than it used to be. And Oasi Zegna is a case worth studying, and adopting as a model. Though it continues to be unique in this country”. 

As Anna Zegna is fond of repeating, “the landscape is our present but also the memory of our future, because we shape it everyday with our lives, whether we know it or not”. 

Andrea Bertuzzi


Road maps give a distorted view of the landscape. Where there’s no road, there’s nothing else either, just a blank space that could even be imagined as wilderness. But in a country like Italy the mere idea of a “wild” area without any history or vestige of the past would be absurd. It would be an affront to all the people that have passed through these blank spaces, to nature that has silently filled them and to the interaction of humankind and nature in creating unique and surprising environments. 

The Upper Valsessera is a case in point. There are no roads, except for some forest tracks closed to normal traffic. No one lives here any more, except for a handful of shepherds in summer and skiers in winter. Yet it’s an exceptionally beautiful valley, thickly wooded and rugged, with a rich network of paths, so you can spend hours amidst alpine pastures, old mines, panoramic view points and ski slopes. The most convenient access is by car to the top end of the Panoramica Zegna, as far as Bocchetto Sessera (coming from Biella) or Bocchetta di Margosio (coming from Trivero). And then walk.
Nature here is harsh, yet abundant, a wilderness only apparent, for if you look at Valsessera’s thick beech woods you might think it’s natural terrain, whereas it’s been deeply affected by human hand, by centuries of “landscaping”, no less contrived than a Tuscan hillside. Forests were cleared to create pastures, paths and tracks were opened, bridges built, mines dug. A hive of activity, from the 12th century on, that’s left a veritable monument - historical and environmental – that was also closely connected with industrial development in the Biella area. It provided wool for weaving and wood (charcoal) and water for the steam driven machinery in the industries farther down the valley. No better way to get an overview of this wild but deeply anthropized world than a walk along what’s known as the Via delle Bocchette (trail of the mountain passes). 

One option is to take path F7/F3, well beaten and never difficult, that follows (just beneath) the crest linking Bocchetta Margosio and Bocchetto Sessera via Bocchetta di Luvera, and then passes below Rocca d’Argimonia (the most rugged peak on this side of the valley) and Alpe Moncerchio. At the valley passes there are places to stay and info boards providing geographical details about the landscape in view. And those interested in geology will be pleased to know that the valley is cut in two by the Insubria Line, the fault marking the ideal “border” between the African and Eurasian continents. From the Valsessera side of these passes, on a clear day, it’s possible to see the imposing massif of Monte Rosa, with its 24 peaks over 4,000 meters. Knowing where to look, you can even see the Capanna Margherita, while farther east the arc is closed by the peaks of the Mischabel massif (wholly in Switzerland). 

Perhaps the most impressive view is from Bocchetta di Margosio, which dominates the alpine grazing ground of the same name. Alpe Margosio in fact has one of the few dairies still operating in this part of the valley. Elsewhere the pastures have been overgrown by the woods, which have reclaimed the considerable land taken from them centuries ago (before the textiles boom there were over 150 of these “alpeggi”). Hundreds of people used to live up here throughout the summer: whole families of cattle farmers, charcoal burners, miners and woodsmen. Only a few of these alpeggi are left now but they’re highly active. Alpe Margosio is one of the cells in the Biella Ecomuseum and the ideal place for trying goat’s cheese and seeing what life in an alpine pasture is really like. 

There are no alpeggi, on the other hand, around Bocchetta di Luvera, whose name alludes to the practice of killing wolves by putting bait in a hole (“luera”) covered with brush. An old method that seems to have worked, as in other parts of the Alps, given that wolves disappeared decades ago. It’s said there is now a lone specimen heard howling now and again, a highly discreet comeback. Also discreet are the large mammals inhabiting the solitary valley (chamois, roe deer and a few fallow deer). There’s another alpeggio (this one offering accommodation) at Alpe Moncerchio, downhill from the ski slopes and the chairlifts from Bielmonte up to Monte Moncerchio and down into Valsessera. It can also be reached on foot on a wide path (with hardly any height gain) through the reforested area where the Carabus Olympiae lives. Endemic to the Biella Alps and the emblem of Oasis Zegna, this beetle is nocturnal and cohabits nicely with the local breed of cow (pezzata rossa), whose bells once accompanied the silence of the valley and now also signal the survival of certain old trades and crafts. 

The trades associated with the dangerous occupation of mining, on the other hand, haven’t survived. True as it is that exploring this wild place takes us back in history, many records of the past have simply evaporated like old ink. As in the case of the mines that characterized life in the upper part of the valley (closed to the west by Monte Bo, 2,556 m, the highest peak in the area). Iron, lead and silver mines and foundries were active, more or less successfully, for centuries. To discover the proto-industrial archeology in the Upper Valsessera mining geopark there are four routes (loops) starting from Bocchetto Sessera or Artignano. These paths are well signposted and have rope bridges crossing the streams and plenty of info boards about places whose very names tell their story: Pietra Bianca, Rondoliere, Argentiera. In some places, as at Argentiera superiore, it’s still possible to see the tunnels (held up with wooden pit props) through which the miners went to dig out the mountain. Elsewhere there are the remains of a blast furnace (1788) that produced pig iron for making farming implements (spades, axes, hoes, etc.). Fragments of stories emerging from the landscape rather a fantasized wilderness to fill the blank spaces on the map. 

Tino Mantarro

There’s a certain grimness at the western end of the Panoramica Zegna. From Bocchetto Sessera the road crosses acres of pastureland at Monticchio (the wild flowers!) and then slowly descends into the Valle del Cervo, with its tiny stone villages, picturesque and solitary. Ahead of us a jagged fang of a mountain, geologically hewn by water and receding glaciers. The vegetation, once held at bay and thinned out around the groups of stone huts to make room for cultivation and pasture, is now as luscious as ever. Ridges are thickly forested: lots of beech, some sweet chestnut, loads of birch. Birch have invaded the abandoned pastures here too, as the mountains lose their human population, factories in the plains being more attractive than the cowshed, the monthly wage more than freedom’s uncertainty. So anthropization retreats and nature inexorably recolonizes what we choose to forget. What does remain is a dense network of mule tracks, steps and cobbled paths, usually up on the sides of the valley, supported by drystone walls built over the centuries by expert hands to link the various settlements in the upper Valle del Cervo. Unforgiving mountains these, hard as syenite, the intrusive rock extracted in great quantities in the quarries at Quittengo, San Paolo Cervo and Rosazza. Stone that withstands wear and weather, so particularly well suited for building and excellent as a decorative material too, especially in the darker shades widely used in cemetery work. Stone that characterizes the landscape in this the upper section of Valle di Andorno, a name that once referred to the whole of the Valle del Cervo (north of Biella).

The men around here have always combined the two trades of stone mason and bricklayer. They could rough-hew and finish squared-off blocks of stone but they were also master bricklayers and in demand all over Europe. From the 18th century on, the more expert ones were called on to work on fortifications in Piemonte and Savoia. And during the Napoleonic era, builders from Rosazza won contracts for new roads over the Mont Cenis and Simplon passes. 

The textile boom was yet to come, so fortunes had to be sought far from the valley. People had to leave the Bürsch, which in the local dialect means home or “little home country”, the permanent center of gravity of people raised in the gritty land of the upper Valle del Cervo, whose eastern flank lies in Oasi Zegna. There are tiny villages on this side, groups of stone huts that were once densely populated. Like sunny Sassaia, perched up in woods at the end of a steep narrow road. They’re grey, dark places, old dwellings that have now been well restored but still seem to huddle together for support, just as the people who used to live here once did. The women in particular, who were left on their own in winter to look after family and the animals, and weave. 

As always in the mountains, the people here really knew what the word community meant, a matter of survival. Even their recreation was communal, as you can see on the stone paving in the alleys of Forgnengo, where the markings of a game have been carved on the large smooth slabs of syenite. It’s the traditional game of “bear” (no longer played in Valle del Cervo), in which three “hunters” have to capture the bear, in 40 moves, before it can escape into the forest. Bears haven’t lived here in these valleys for decades:  they haven’t come back here as they have in other parts of the Alps. 

It’s a wonderful landscape here on the west side of Oasi Zegna, different, more remote, more alpine than Trivero. To really enjoy it, you should stop at Poggio Bruera. There’s an info board, under the trees, explaining the panorama from the top end of Valle del Cervo. Straight ahead, halfway up the mountainside is the massive looking 17th century San Giovanni Hospice. Higher up, like two gashes in the mountain’s skin, the two syenite quarries still working. The history of the people and villages in the valley is written in that rock. It’s only extracted here now and worked elsewhere, far from these mountains. Lower down, a scattering of tiny townships, villages, hamlets with lovely old names: Oretto, Mazzucchetti, Quittengo, Mortigliengo, Bariola, Piaro. Grey houses with grey roofs, a touch of white here and there to liven things up a bit. All huddled together, because in winter the cold isn’t quite so cold if your walls are up against someone else’s. A sort of ribbon unravels along the valley bottom: that’s the road coming up from Biella (Statale 100). At Valmosca it joins the Panoramica Zegna road, marking the boundary with Oasi Zegna. On this road there’s the astonishing Rosazza, under 100 inhabitants, noble 19th century architecture associated with the Biella senator Federico Rosazza and the architect Giuseppe Maffei, who built most of the village. There’s a small ethnography museum here focusing on life in the Bürsch. It’s one of the cells of the Biella Ecomuseum, which shows us what life was like in the area before the advent of the textile industry. 

Next along the road is another little place, Piedicavallo, a couple of hundred inhabitants and a single cobbled street through the middle, via Roma. The valley closes here, end of the road, unless you’re as agile as a chamois and want to go on up and see if things are any better over the other side in Valsesia and Val d’Aosta. 

Tommaso Gambini

Request more information