Sonlerto (Val Bavona) - 09.06.2017
The Walk starts in Sonlerto, one of the most picturesque villages of the Bavona Valley. We walk first through the narrow main street between the old stone houses, then follow the hiking trail uphill until the church at Gannariente which we visit. Then we walk back on the asphalt road. When we reach the plain of Sonlerto – and grazing cows allowing - we make a detour to a couple of large caves under the rock (splüi) which since ancient times were used as shelters for people and animals. The common luncheon is served at Grotto Bavona in Sonlerto.
This mountain valley begins in San Carlo (950 masl.) and down in Bignasco (440 masl.) unites with the Lavizzara Valley to form the Maggia Valley that stretches until lake Verbano. The Bavona Valley with its wild nature and its 12 small villages (terre) has preserved its original character which makes it one of the popular tourist attractions of Ticino. Here one feels like going back in time at least 100 years.
The whole valley, with the exception of San Carlo, is not connected to the electric network. In the 1950ies and 60ies, when the hydroelectric plant was built in Robiei (1900 masl.), the citizens of Bignasco and Cavergno voted whether to connect the valley to the electricity or not. Bignasco to which San Carlo belonged was in favour, Cavergno and therefor the rest of the valley was against. And so it remained until today. Since 2006 both Cavergno and Bignasco and hence the Bavona Valley are integrated into the municipality of Cevio.
Human settlements in the valley date back to very ancient times. Life in this remote mountain area was very difficult, the climate very harsh and only little land suitable for agricultural activities. In the 16th century people abandoned their houses during winter time and went to live in Cavergno and Bignasco, mainly because of several natural disasters and of a cooling down of the climate. Since then it served as an intermediate station for the half nomadic life of people and their cattle (transhumance) who spent the winter at low altitude, the rest of the year in the valley and summer on the high alpine pastures. Nowadays the well maintained buildings are mainly used as holiday houses in Summer. There are strict regulations that protect the old character of the valley and of its villages. In 1983 the valley was added to the federal list of landscapes and natural monuments of national importance. Since 1990 the Foundation Val Bavona monitors the compliance with the regulations and takes new initiatives to preserve and restore the valley in its old beauty.
Currently Sonlerto is one of the candidates in an ongoing nationwide competition to determine the most beautiful village of Switzerland.
The Church of the Nativity at Gannariente.
It is somehow strange to see such a church in the middle of nowhere, on a wild mountain slope covered with rocks and huge boulders. Such a place, scene of an ancient landslide, is called Ganna and in Ticino there are plenty of toponyms with that word Ganna. Until the 1950ies this was even a more lonely place, because the road was built only then in connection with the construction of the Robiei power plant. Before there was only a mule trail (mulattiera) passing here which is now a touristic hiking path. Originally a small votive chapel was standing just a bit above here. It was destroyed to make space for the new road. Only a simple stone altar still reminds us of that chapel. The original altarpiece is kept in the museum at Cevio.
Apparently this chapel became very popular and more and more people came to prey here. So towards the end of the 16th century they felt a need to build something bigger where one could enter and kneel or sit under a roof. The church was built in several stages, first the presbytery, then the nave, later the sacristy and the tower and finally the porch. Over the entrance we can see a writing indicating the year 1595. This is probably the year when the nave was finalised. The previous year several terrible natural disasters had struck the valley, like the landslides in Fontana, in Ritorto and next to Foroglio. The deeply religious people of that time did not despair, instead completed this church and came to prey here regularly, asking God for a good Summer season and to be spared from more disasters.
The interior of the church gets light through 2 windows on the South side. The walls are now empty, but under the pale painting we notice some traces of frescoes. A St. George with the dragon has partially been recovered during restoration work 5 years ago. If we came here 30 years ago we would see 3 large canvas paintings hanging on the Northern wall, belonging to the Flemish school. They were a generous donation by citizens of Cavergno who had emigrated to Holland. (Cf. Villa Inselmini in Cavergno which we saw 2 years ago, with the Dutch inscription RUST 1907 OORD [= Resting Place] ). But in 1989 somebody broke into the church and stole the most valuable of the three paintings. The other two then were brought to a safe place.
The presbytery is separated from the nave by a large metal railing. It is said that it was brought here over a high mountain pass from Val Formazzza in neighbouring Italy, for the fulfilment of a vote. There have always been close contacts between people of the Alpine valleys on both sides of the border. The walls and the vault of the presbytery are completely decorated by frescoes. They are the work of an unknown painter of the 17th century and they represent scenes from the life of St. Mary to whom the church is dedicated (Chiesa della Natività di Maria). He was certainly not a great sophisticated artist, but the naïve and somehow clumsy scenes have their own charm.
The altar in white marble was installed in 1904. It is obviously disproportionate to the narrow space available. A statue of the Madonna di Gannariente stands in a niche above the altar framed by a large marble ornament which is almost disturbing and covers a small round window. This Madonna was probably a beautiful Sicilian statue from 1582, but unfortunately it was degraded when a unknown hand overpainted it in a bad manner. As if that was not enough, in 1989 again, thieves took away the child Jesus which St. Mary was holding on her arms. Later on it was replaced by a new baby Jesus.
A few 100 m below the church, next to the road, there is a small chapel decorated with frescoes and many small votive paintings which were made as a thanksgiving for miraculous salvation from disease, accidents and disasters. Behind the chapel you find a big cave room (splüi) under a huge boulder.
The Yearly Procesion to Gannariente
The church of Gannariente is also the scene of a 400 years old religious tradition. Every 1st Sunday of May the faithful of the valley and from elsewhere follow the priest in a procession that starts at 6 am at the parish church in Cavergno and after 4 hours, 10 km and 450 m altitude difference arrives at Gannariente. On their way they pray and sing together, in Italian and in Latin. At every little chapel they stop for some lecture from the bible and some explanation by the priest regarding the particular chapel and its saint patron. During a break in Roseto the local people serve coffee and panettone. At every hamlet more people are joining and at the end there are hundreds of them. After arrival here they celebrate a mass, then auction off some good food stuff and bottles and finally meet with friends and family for lunch in the villages more down valley. With these processions the faithful wanted to ask for God's blessing, for a good year for people and animals and to be spared from all kind of natural disasters.
In the 1960ies of last century, in the wake of the 2nd Vatican Council, when the Catholic church made big efforts to modernise itself, the parish of Cavergno was asked by the hierarchy to abandon this old fashioned tradition. But people said, that they will continue anyway, with or without a priest. And so they did. Nowadays the procession is still very popular, maybe not out of a deep religious conviction, but more for cultural and social reasons.
Tony Walker (Anton Marti)