||Orasso car park|
||Cannobio bus stop|
||20km (12.4 miles)|
||Orasso is served by sporadic VCO buses; you may need a taxi (Tel. 0323 71410, Mob. 348 7821699). Note Spoccia, 1hr along the way, has a morning bus so may be used as an alternative access (check which days it runs on). Cannobio is on the VCO bus line between Verbania and Brissago on the Swiss border. Many ferries call in here. The bus stop is outside the principal church on the main road; the ferry wharf is 5min away.|
This absolutely wonderful full-day walk begins high up in Val Cannobina, 15km from Cannobio and Lago Maggiore. With the exception of a short stretch of tarmac between Gurrone and Cavaglio, it follows clear marked paths and paved lanes, crossing countless mountain torrents on elegant stone bridges and dropping in and out of the villages. The route is known as the Via Borromea for the pastoral visit of San Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan in the 1500s, who travelled along it to visit his subjects.
The charming village of Orasso, set on lower Monte Torriggia, has the only grocery shop encountered today, alongside a café-restaurant. Cavaglio, a good three quarters of the way down, has the only other café. Note Every village on this walk has a tap or fountain with drinking water. There is accommodation at Orasso and Cavaglio (see Lago Maggiore Introduction).
Spoccia and Orasso nestle in the woods in upper Val Cannobina
Val Cannobina is a rugged and densely wooded V-shaped valley, carved out by the eponymous torrent. Soaring above, the mountain fringes touch the 2000m mark. Their upper slopes are dotted with ancient alps, once summer pasture for livestock from traditional scattered villages, photogenic settlements of stone houses sporting tiny wooden balconies. In the face of limited opportunities for employment, and the downturn of the chestnut market due to competition from potatoes and cereals during the 19th and 20th centuries, the local population has dwindled from many thousands to just a handful today; for instance, Orasso shares a mere 120 residents with neighbouring Cursolo. Numbers do increase marginally in summer due to holidaymakers.
Orasso was named from the Latin oratio for ‘prayer’, and is the valley’s oldest settlement, dating from the 1300s. From the car park at the entrance to Orasso (700m) follow the red/white signs for Cannobio through the web of alleys past the ancient yet remarkably intact house Ca’ du Vécc’, with frescoes and a timber overhang. From the pretty church, its bell tower adorned with a sundial, is a superb view south to Monte Riga, dotted with stone shepherds’ huts. Heading NE the path narrows and enters wood on its way down to the first lovely bridge and stream crossing. A gentle climb leads S to a shrine and a road where you go uphill to a path junction, and L again up to Spoccia (798m, 1hr). All but deserted, this picturesque hamlet is brilliantly located. From the war memorial look south towards Falmenta and Monte Riga; from the church gaze up to Monte Zuccaro.
Return the same way to the road and turn L uphill past the ‘H’ helicopter pad to the junction R for Gurrone. It soon passes terraces with a row of stone huts and crosses Rio Ponte Secco. The ensuing lengthy stretch, due S and level, has sections cut into the rock face. A shrine doubles as a brilliant belvedere to Monte Zeda to the southwest, back to Orasso and Spoccia, Monte Zuccaro and the knobbly Gridoni outcrops, as well as Monte Riga and scattered hamlets. The next watercourse boasts a lovely waterfall and especially elegant stone bridge, and soon an orientation table puts names to all the mountains and villages far and wide.
En route to Gurrone
Moving SE after a rocky point you pass two houses, then a water trough and a pasture clearing. Further on is a cemetery and path junction – keep L uphill to join the road into Gurrone (700m, 1hr 15min). It’s worth taking time to explore this village, with its atmospheric covered passageways and wooden loggias.
The tarmac takes you through to the church and a car park, where a handkerchief corner of glittering Lago Maggiore is now visible. Now follow the unappealing steep road downhill ESE to Cavaglio (501m, 20min). Walk through the village, detouring to the bar/café if needed, as far as the church where drinking water is found at the foot of the bell tower. Soon you fork L where the old way resumes, an admirable piece of civil engineering as the mule track plunges in a succession of tight curves in easy descent to a majestic bridge high over Rio di Cavaglio.
The old way continues through shady woodland, soon forking L uphill to a stone column commemorating the fall of the mule bearing San Carlo in 1569. The path levels out en route to the Cappella dell’Erta Calda, fitted out with benches where wayfarers could rest. Val Cannobina has narrowed considerably now, and the descent soon begins in earnest, with plunging views to the riverbed below. At frescoed Cappella la Torre, now derelict, a toll would be exacted for the use of the road. You finally emerge on the road at Traffiume, and branch R to the dramatic ravine, the Orrido di Sant’Anna (250m, 1hr 30min) and its whitewashed church. The bridge here is said to date back to Roman times.
Take the stepped ramp down to the riverbed and pool, then follow the track for walkers and cyclists (pista ciclopedonale) E through the trees along the watercourse. After a road bridge keep on through fields to Ponte Ballarino.
This bridge, whose name means ‘wobbly bridge’, is a suspension bridge with a story to tell. In order to replace a precarious plank across the tumultuous stream (where people had been swept away), in 1933 villagers raised the money themselves to finance a bridge. Flood damage later put paid to that one, and the current version was built in the 1980s.
Once on the opposite bank (café), walk straight ahead along the minor road to an intersection and branch R to pass the concrete wall of the cemetery. At the car park, keep R as per the sign ‘Centro Storico’. An alley leads through to Piazza Casnago then Via A Giovanola where you turn L. Ahead stands the elegant bell tower not far from the main road and bus stop of Cannobio (220m, 1hr).
If you have any energy left, wander on down to the lakefront for a well-deserved drink.