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A century with the house of Savoy

Kings and Queens in Valle Gesso

King Umberto I hunting in the mountains (PNAM archive).

It was love at first sight between the House of Savoy and the Maritime Alps. The thunderbolt struck on 29 August 1855, when the princes Vittorio Emanuele and Ferdinando, Duke of Genoa, came to visit. The young Vittorio Emanuele is a keen hunter of chamois (and of shepherdesses, apparently) and is charmed by the abundance of both in this corner of the mountains on the edge of his kingdom. The Maritime Alps offer the future king of Italy game in abundance, enchanting views, a bracing climate and the healthy pastime of the spa at Terme di Valdieri. Once crowned, the king does not ask: having expressed his interest in the Valle Gesso as one of his hunting districts, he obtains the concession of exclusive hunting rights from the Councils of Valdieri and Entracque, and later the fishing rights of the majority of the Upper Gesso Valley. So, in 1857 the <> was born.

In a remote mountain society like that of the Valle Gesso, the arrival of the Royal family was whirlwind of change. Having to relinquish the hunting and fishing rights was a huge sacrifice for the people in the valley, but on the other hand the king was happy to pay handsomely for his privileges: the half-empty coffers of the Councils of Entracque and Valdieri received thousands of lire per year to share among the poor and the enlisted soldiers. Besides this there were rent for the pastures, extra contributions for building roads, mule tracks, paths and huts high in the mountains - infrastructure which was used by the local inhabitants to access the mountain pastures once the royal hunters had deserted.

Many people had a direct advantage from the presence of the Savoy Household, some were hired as gamekeepers in the Reserve, others received alms from the sovereigns and others benefitted in some way from the income created by the Royal visitors and their entourage. Building and taking care of the royal apartments meant enlisting craftsmen and labourers, whilst catering for the personal wishes and needs of the royal family was the task of a host of servants, waiters, gardeners, maids, traders and dogsbodies.

In 1864, completely taken by the charm of Valle Gesso, Vittorio Emanuele II had lodgings built close to Sant’Anna di Valdieri, these were destined to be the royal family's "general headquarters" until the 1930s. In time the houses at San Giacomo di Entracque and the Palazzina di caccia del Valasco - probably the most picturesque ,were added. It was designed in 1868 and was intended to be a residence suited to longer visits. This neomediaeval building stands out at a distance with its crenellated towers, it stands in the middle of the green plain of Valasco, in a picture postcard setting. The king was enthusiastic about building this house and loved it, but over the years the hunting lodge fell into disrepair, it was used as barracks, shelter for shepherds, it was burnt several times and finally restored. Today it is an unusual alpine refuge rifugio Valasco, ideal for an overnight stay or just for a rest within the prestigious walls impregnated with history.

Three kings and a queen
Three reigning generations passed through Valle Gesso. Vittorio Emanuele II "the gentleman king" a hunter, at ease in the mountains and loved by the people; Umberto I, "the good king", less keen on hunting than his father and not such a frequent visitor to the valley; Vittorio Emanuele III, the least interested of the three in hunting. More popular than her husband, was the queen Elena di Montenegro, a generous lady and keen trout fisher.

The kings and queens of the house of Savoy left a deep mark on the Maritime Alps: not only because they left infrastructure, lodges, chalets, shelters, shooting hides, kilometres of paths and tracks which are a joy to modern hikers, but also because they left a mark on the collective memory. Besides this there were two positive "side effects" of the institution of the Reserve, it guaranteed the survival of the chamois and reintroduced the ibex that now populate Parco delle Alpi Marittime!


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