Col de Manse (1268 m.)
Forte Albertino - Forte di Vinadio
Crossing the Alps by a route from Corps on the Route Napoléon to Cuneo in Piemonte and on to Toscana is now a journey without frontiers but it wasn’t always so.
Sources of the River Po at Pian del Re (2020 m.)
River Serchio, Garfagnana
Passo dei Carpinelli (842 m.)
Savoy, our journey across forgotten borders
Crossing the Alps by a route from Corps on the Route Napoléon to Cuneo in Piemonte and on to Toscana is now a journey without frontiers but it wasn’t always so. The proud kingdom of Savoy survived for nearly a thousand years until it was finally signed away by the referendum following the abdication of King Vittorio Emmanuel III as part of the realignments at the end of World War 2.
The House of Savoy had controlled the Alpine passes, charging taxes whilst aiding trade and travellers, since the dark days of tribal Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Our journey today had no travel taxes, no border posts and only very simple signposting of the frontier, thanks to the EU and the Schengen Treaty. You have to look hard to see traces of the most recent frontier, the goon boxes are mostly gone; even harder to see now is the historic three-way frontier between France, Savoie and Italy.
Yet the topography changes at the Col de Manse (1268 m.), the watershed between the Durance and the Drac, both tributaries of the Rhône, and even more dramatically crossing at the Col de Larche / Colle della Maddalena / Col de l’Argentière (1996 m.) which is the watershed between the Rhône and the Po, the great river of Italy that flows from its sources in the slopes of Monviso (3841 m.) across the north of Italy to Venice. Hannibal crossed the Alps with his army and elephants in 218 BC somewhere near the sources of the Po; Napoléon’s camp and site of his victory in 1800 AD over the Austrians at Marengo on the bank of the Po has given its name to the recipe Chicken Marengo, and so on: history is everywhere.
The ghost of Savoy too is everywhere, not least in the multiple and confusing place names as well as the clouded peaks. The traces of Savoy / Savoie are in the mountain forts on both sides of the Alps, and the urban architecture of suave Cuneo and hot, dusty Saluzzo just as much as in Barcelonnette.
Not so obvious until you look for it, is the absence of ancient churches in the mountain valleys, a result of the religious cleansing following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). It was the Savoy Duke Amadeus Vittorio II, in collusion with King Louis XIV of France, who ordered the demolition of the temples and forced the eventual exile of 12-13,000 people to German lands. The address of the hotel we stayed at in Cuneo, is number 2, Via Amadeus Vittorio II; the hotel is also popular with bikers, we shared it with a group over from the Tyrol, Austria.
Onwards and crossing a couple more watersheds to water basins draining to the Ligurian Sea, with the frantic traffic diversions because of the tragic collapse of the autostrada bridge at Genoa, we arrive finally at the hill town of Barga on the river Serchio of the Garfagnana Valley of Tuscany.
A journey of more than 550 km., using less than one tank of petrol and without any border formalities or change of currency. I drove a tourist Clio but plenty of motorbikers and lorries are other road warriors who benefit from this current luxury of travel across the Alps without frontiers. Travel wasn’t possible like this when I was travelling in this region just twenty years ago, I wonder what the situation will be in twenty years from now.