THE TOWN OF USSEAUX, ITS FIVE ALPINE VILLAGES AND THE UPPER CHISONE VALLEY
The Town of Usseaux is located in the Upper Chisone Valley , as part of Cozie Alps in the far western side of Piedmont Region neighbor to French border and inside the Metropolitan Town area of Turin. A small gem carved in the heart of the mountains and the valleys which hosted Turin Winter Olympic Games in 2006. The Town is situated 80 km away from Turin; 40 km from Pinerolo; 20 km from Sestriere and approx. 50 km from the French town of Briançon.
The town covers an area of 38.32 square kilometers at an altitude ranging from 1210 to 2890 m above sea level. The residents are 192 divided into five villages, all inhabited, which make up the town: Usseaux (the main village), Balboutet, Pourrieres, Fraisse and Laux.
The municipal coat of arms, adopted by Decree of the President of the Italian Republic on 1st of March 2000, has an emblem of two silver swords, coated with gold, saltire, with upturned tips and the word Uxellum written in capital letters in gold.
The name Usseaux has probably Celtic origins ” uxellos = high”. The town was crossed by Julius Caesar in ancient times as he mentions in his “De Bello Gallico” a village named “Occellum”. Human traces on its territory are very ancient as witnessed by rock carvings which were found in Rocca del Colle; these are all signs of a long history, possibly longer than a thousand years , whose presence impacted the entire Upper Valley territory.
The origins of the villages of Usseaux are very old and are related to the people who have lived the Upper Chisone Valley (Val Pragelato ) leaving a strong imprint on the territory through their culture, their language and their traditions ( Liguria inhabitants – Celts – Romans – Barbarians – Byzantines – Provencal – Lombards – Saracens ). The first documents stating the existence of Usseaux, Balboutet, Pourrieres, Fraisse which, together with Mentoulles, Fenestrelle and Villaretto are the oldest villages of all Upper Chisone Valley, are dating back to the year 1064 when countess Adelaide founded Santa Maria Abbey in Pinerolo while donating to the Abbey all territories of Upper Valley. The village of Laux was instead founded in the year 1200 by a group of emigrants of Lion and Provence origins who, being heretics, were haunted by their State and local Church. These first group was later on joined by “poor people from Lion” who were trusting in Pietro Valdo (Waldenses), at the time very critical with the Catholic Roman Church.
From the eleventh century, and in the centuries that followed, the villages of Usseaux lived the experiences and the history of the other communities of the Upper Chisone Valley: the Dauphine’ (1091-1349), the Kingdom of France (1349-1713), the Duchy of the Savoy from 1713 (treaty of Utrecht), the wars between the French and the Savoy (battle of the Assietta of 1747), again the French dominion and then the Napoleonic empire (1798-1815), the wars of independence that led in 1860 to the unity of Italy. Like all the communities of the ancient Pragelato Valley, also the villages of Usseaux were part of the Escartons (1343-1713). The Republic of the Escartons was a unique administrative experience of its kind, governed by a Federation of five independent territories (the “Escartons”): Briançon, Queyras, Casteldelfino, Pragelato and Oulx. Thanks to a sort of constitution signed by over 50 communities, the populations of these alpine valleys straddling Italy and France were in fact freed from feudal servitude and obtained a series of rights: from individual liberty to property and self-management of the territory. Much of the territory of the Escartons saw in the same centuries (from 1200 to 1713) the presence of two communities of different faith, the Catholic and the Waldensian, whose conflicts officially ended with the treaty of Utrecht. The current conformation and organization of the territory, the peculiar characteristics of the villages and many tangible signs of the past are typical of the historical events that followed one another in these centuries.
Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the county of Usseaux belonged, by title and noble right to the family of the Counts Brunetta d’Usseaux. A figure to be remembered is the one of Count Eugenio Giulio Maria Brunetta d’Usseaux who, between the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, was a great friend and collaborator of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Count Eugenio is the only Italian to have been Secretary of the IOC (International Olympic Committee), from the election of 1908 until his death (1919); a leading figure and promoter of modern Olympic spirit, for many he was the true creator and promoter of the winter edition of the Olympics.
In the twentieth century, the events that most marked the territory and its socio-economic dynamics were certainly the First and Second World Wars and the periods that followed. Very difficult periods of recent history (and not only for the Upper Valley), which were followed by important migratory phenomena that led to a significant loss of population. From the population of 1474 inhabitants surveyed on the date of 1861 and 1203 surveyed on the date of 1901, we have moved to the current 192; of the latter just over 50% is actually resident throughout the year in the town of Usseaux. This lack of residents is a typical condition of many Alpine and Apennine valleys whose population was attracted , particularly during the post-WWII economic boom, by the strong appeal of first industrialization and the advanced tertiary sector both taking form in the last decades of XX century in the middle-lower valley and in the neighbor urban poles.
The abandonment of the territory of the majority of the population originally residing at the beginning of the 20th century is certainly today an emergency and a problem that invests and stimulates local politics to adopt strategies and define actions to contrast this phenomenon and create an inversion of tendency. Since the end of the 20th century, the communities of these territories have tried to implement policies in this sense; for the territory of Usseaux and its suburbs it can certainly be affirmed that starting from those years the successive Administrations have implemented policies and actions to recover the culture and local traditions, to enhance the typical alpine architecture and to protect the entire landscape and environmental heritage of the territory, protecting as well the local communities and relevant basic services.
The town of Usseaux and its alpine villages today
Today, the alpine hamlets of Usseaux present themselves as five small well-kept Alpine villages both in the public part and in the private buildings. Since the early 2000 many works of recovery and redevelopment of public spaces and buildings, carried out in compliance with the typical characteristics of Alpine architecture and high valley, have been carried forward, thus encouraging citizens to do the same for private buildings. The works carried out, not only in the recovery of places but also in order to preserve the traditions through initiatives promoted at social, cultural, economic and tourist levels, have allowed the town of Usseaux to obtain a series of certifications and very important awards. From 2009 the town of Usseaux has become part of the exclusive club of “MOST BEAUTIFUL VILLAGES OF ITALY” and, later, has become part of the “Gems of Piedmont”. It obtained the “ORANGE FLAG OF TOURING CLUB”, a tourist-environmental quality certificate, the “GREEN FLAG OF LEGAMBIENTE” for the respect and the safeguard of nature and, from the Piedmont Region, the recognition as a “SUSTAINABLE VILLAGE OF PIEDMONT REGION”, a project aimed at promoting sustainable tourist locations, enhancing and rewarding initiatives in the field of environmental protection and responsible tourism. It should also be noted that the town of Usseaux is part of the cross-border network of the Alpine Municipalities “Alliance in the Alps” and the “Alpine villages” network promoted by Uncem Piemonte. For over ten years, the highest recognition of the four flowers has been obtained in the national competition “Blossomed Municipalities”, a competition in which, for the 2018 edition, the town of Usseaux obtained the recognition of “the most flowery town in Italy”, in the small villages category.
The territory of the town is marked on the valley bottom by the course of the Chisone creek; on the left hydrographic shore are the villages of Usseaux, Balboutet, Pourrieres and Fraisse; on the right bank the village of Laux. As already partly said, all the hamlets are small rural jewels still retaining much of their old structure and the atmosphere of an ancient alpine village, each with its church, the community oven, the washhouse, the patronal feast with each village having its peculiar characteristics.
Usseaux main village – The village of murals and bread
Usseaux main village, the village of “murals and bread”, is positioned parallel to the level curves of the mountain slope that rises on the hydrographic left of the Chisone creek and extends along the axis of the main road that divides it in two. Along the suggestive central street you can find buildings dating back to the 18th century, renovated or undergoing renovation, the oven, some beautiful fountains and many paintings or “murals”; at the end of the village the large washhouse and, a little further on the Usseaux water stream, the old mill of the Canton family, today completely renovated and functioning as an example of the agricultural traditions of the area. In the main village there is also the “Brunetta d’Usseaux – Protagonists and Heroes” Museum Point, dedicated in particular to the figure of Count Eugenio. There is also the Town Hall (altitude 1461 m) and the imposing parish church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul on whose bell tower stands the noble coat of arms of Brunetta d’Usseaux. Patronal Feast is held on June 29th.
Balboutet – The village of sun, swallows and sundials
The village of Balboutet still remains one of the most important agricultural centers in the valley for cattle breeding and for the production of cheese. It is also located on the left bank of the Chisone creek at an altitude of about 1,600 meters above sea level. For its southern exposure it is called the “Village of the sun” which, even on the day of the winter solstice, heats up almost all the village; in fact only the lower part remains in the shadow of the Rock of Laux and the summit of Mount Albergian. It is the village of sundials and swallows; along the central street and in the alleys of the village you can discover, following a tour that ends at Sun Square, several (namely 24) solar dials painted on the facades of buildings and all functioning. Of particular interest is the small village oven (very animated on feast days), the washhouses and the recently restored ancient Church of San Bartolomeo. From spring until late summer the small village welcomes several swallows whose nests are clearly visible on different buildings. Patronal feast is held on August 24th.
Pourrières – The village of the Assietta battle
One of the oldest villages of the Upper Chisone Valley, also located on the orographic left side of the Chisone creek, close to the valley bottom. The village overlooks the regional road SR 23 leading to Sestriere and still preserves intact all the beauty of its original alpine architecture. Also in this village there are some very interesting sundials, very characteristic alleys and squares, the church dedicated to Maria Annunziata with the small cemetery (now in disuse). Immediately upstream of the built part of the village, from where the hiking trails that lead to the Colle dell’Assietta start, are located the village oven and the old washhouse over a small tourist reception area where the construction of the new playground is under completion. Inside the village there is a suggestive route of open-air visit that recalls the historical events of the battle of Assietta which was fought in 1747 between Piedmontese and French armies right on the slopes and the peaks of the mountains that dominate the small village. The Patronal Feast is held on the day of Pentecost.
Fraisse – The village of forests and wood
Just beyond the village of Pourrieres, still at the bottom of the valley and on the left bank of the Chisone creek is the small village of Fraisse, almost on the border with the Town of Pragelato. Fraisse is the village of woods because it is surrounded by large woods and forests of larch and swiss pine (whose part of municipal property is subject to sustainable forest management certified PEFC) being still today a small center of craftsmanship and carpentry. Also noteworthy for this village is the small oven, the washhouse and the small church dedicated to Saints Philip and James (Patronal Feast on May 1). Of great interest is the tour that develops within the village and the small nucleus of houses located on the right side of the Chisone, composed of several panels carved in wood that describe the territory, flora and fauna , the ancient crafts and its customs.
Laux – The village of water – “Catholics and Waldenses”
The village of Laux is the only one located on the right bank of the Chisone creek. It is situated on a small plateau between the Laux stream , the Chisone creek, the steep slopes of the Rock and the valley that leads to Mount Albergian towards the Troncea Valley (in the town of Pragelato) and the upper Germanasca Valley. With its small lake it is an example of alpine village still among the most intact of the whole valley and, perhaps, one of the most beautiful in all Piedmont. The themes that characterize the village are those of water, which is found in various forms and places within the religious conflicts between Catholics and Waldensians taking place for about 500 years in the upper valley and beyond. The small central street leads to the various internal squares, the washhouses and fountains, the small oven and the church dedicated to S. Maria Maddalena (Patronal Feast on July 22nd). Of particular value are the wooden panels and the hand-painted stone tiles that illustrate the history of the Waldensians of the valley.
The territory of Usseaux and the Upper Valley
Five small villages in a unique environmental and landscape context, part of which is included in the Natural Parks of Orseria-Rocciavrè and Gran Bosco of Salbertrand (today managed by the Parco of Cozie Alps Institution); the whole orographic mountain side on the right of the Chisone creek falls within a large area of environmental and biodiversity protection recognized by the European Community as a Site of Community Importance (SIC). This mountain area, which is largely developed on the slopes of Mount Albergian, is covered by forests and woods of larch and swiss pine, managed responsibly with a sustainable forest programme in application of the principles and certification PEFC (“Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification “); the town of Usseaux is engaged since much time in the promotion and enhancement of the local forest-wood supply chain, aimed at the use of an important local resource (the Local Wood), with a view to sustainable development striving to be at the same time respectful of the environment and in favor of socio-economic conditions of the territory, in full respect of the traditions of the places.
The locality of Pian dell’Alpe is of great naturalistic, landscape and tourist attraction; a wide plateau at about 2,000 meters above sea level, located just above the hamlet of Balboutet. From this plateau develops a mountain area, all above 2000 meters, unique in the world, which goes from Colle delle Finestre up to the Colle dell’Assietta. In a wider vision, a territory that extends from the Fenestrelle Fort (the largest alpine fortification in Europe, second in the world for development after the Great Wall of China), up to the whole mountain area of the Upper Susa Valley and the Mountain Union of the Olympic Municipalities of the Via Lattea which includes the municipalities of Pragelato, Sestriere, Sauze di Cesana, Cesana Torinese, Sauze d’Oulx and Claviere. Within this territory, the pasture area of the town of Usseaux is developed for a total area of about 1,600 hectares (16 km2); a district entirely managed and used by several agricultural companies from June to September each year for the grazing of flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. There are three companies of the town of Usseaux that use part of this area for the summer pasture of cattle from which they derive the milk that is used in cheese processing for the production of local cheeses including toma (a kind of soft cheese), some dairy products and the “Plaisentif”, the cheese of violets, an example of excellence of food of the territory. This is a raw milk cheese, subject to a particular discipline, which is produced following a recipe and an ancient tradition dating back to the year 1500.
Of particular interest is the “Assietta Road”, an ancient military road dating from the eighteenth century that develops entirely above 2000 meters on a route of about 40 km that connects the territory of the town of Usseaux with that of Sestriere and of the Upper Susa Valley through uncontaminated places and sceneries of a unique naturalistic and landscape beauty, rich in history and culture. Since 2008, an enhancement, protection and management project has been launched, a project which seeks to combine the naturalistic, hiking and tourist uses of this infrastructure. Today the Assietta Road is a destination for many off-road enthusiasts from all over Europe practicing mountain biking , cycle-hiking, equestrian tourism and trekking. A further management model is currently being defined, to be tested during the summer of 2019, with the establishment of a toll (the revenues of which will be used exclusively for maintenance and promotion of infrastructure and to improve tourist accommodation) and with a closed number of daily motor passages.
Colle delle Finestre is also a major tourist attraction, as well as being a temple of modern cycling thanks to the British cyclist Chris Froome who in 2018 won the 101st edition of Giro d’Italia thanks to an incredible ‘old-times style’ performance which allowed him conquering the top of the Colle to then proceed all alone and win the Bardonecchia-Jaffreau stage. The first passage of Giro d’Italia on the Colle delle Finestre (whose ascent on the territory of the town of Meana di Susa is unique in the world – overall development of 18.7 km for a total of 33 hairpin bends, on a height difference of 1,692 meters with a slope average of 9% and a final unpaved trail of 8 km), dates back to 2005; then it was repeated in 2011, 2015 and 2018. In the last two passages the Colle was also “Cima Coppi” of the Giro, meaning the highest pass of the entire competition.
On the rest of the territory there are numerous paths and hiking trails that offer many opportunities to appreciate the tranquility and natural beauty of the place and to discover important spots in the history of Piedmont, both in summer and winter. There are many opportunities for a ‘sweet’ tourism aimed at the pursuit of wellness and contact with nature discovering, in parallel, the great beauty of the area.
Economic activities and gastronomic products
Traditional agricultural and artisan economic activities are still present on the territory even if, when compared to the past, with different numbers and realities, The presence of dairy farms and dairy processing companies for the production of typical cheeses, agricultural activities (in particular for the cultivation of the mountain potato), and beekeeping are still significant. In the artisan sector there are still some woodworking companies and companies that operate in the construction sector, road works and naturalistic engineering. The other important economic sector for the territory is the one linked to tourist accommodation represented by a good number of catering facilities that offer a simple and quality cuisine linked to the traditions of the territory along with small facilities for hotel accommodation. Among the wine & food excellences of the territory the aforementioned “Plaisentif” or cheese of violets; the high mountain wildflower honey that has received the highest quality awards in Italy in recent years; the mountain potato which, in addition to being a high quality product, is one of the basic elements of traditional cuisine. Among the typical dishes, it is worth mentioning at least Calhetta, Glara made of potatoes, Gofri, Salà potatoes, cabbage and potato pie, potato and beetroot pie and the Pilot. Lastly, we must mention the distillates made with officinal herbs that grow in great variety and spontaneously on the territory; these include Genepy and liqueurs based on Genziana and Timo Serpillo.
Culture and traditions
Traditionally linked with the traditions are the costumes of the ancient times (especially the very colorful female ones), which are still used in moments of celebration or for special events of tourist reception and institutional representation. The local language also maintains a strong link with the past and with the territory. The original inhabitants of the hamlets of Usseaux still speak the “patouà”, also called “the Alpine Occitan”, a variant of the language of Oc spoken in southern France and more generally within the wide geographical border that identifies the Occitan territory ; a territory that extends from Catalonia to the Cozie and Maritime Alps on the Italian alpine slopes in the west of Piedmont covering all the south of France or Midi. Along with the “patouà”, French language was also once spoken fluently.
Policies and projects in favor of the territory
The current Municipal Administration tries to act at its best with the aim of increasingly enhancing the whole territory and its specificities. In addition to the actions of protection and enhancement of Alpine villages and the environmental and landscape context, it is strongly committed to guarantee the essential services for the resident population and to implement works and projects aimed at promoting the territory in the best way, especially with a view to development focused on the key pillars of sustainability, environment, society and economy. The objective is to ensure adequate living and social conditions to resident population, support and develop present economic activities and also create opportunities for the establishment of new residents and new economic activities linked to traditional sectors (in the agricultural and craftsmanship aimed at the enhancement of local resources and proper management of the territory), and related to the tourism-hospitality sector. These are all sectors with great potentials and good opportunities for development and innovation on the territory, having a fair balance and respect for the environment, the landscape and the specific features of the territory.
Over the last few years, an important redevelopment project has been carried out with the implementation of the “6000 Campanili” project; intervention which encompassed the remaking of electric and telephone lines (dig underground), the remaking of all the underground utilities with the doubling of the black and white water collection networks, the improvement of the public lighting and the restoration of stone paving of streets, alleys and squares. In addition to a series of projects and minor interventions aimed at improving urban spaces and services (car parks, playgrounds, etc.), it is planned to implement important redevelopment and infrastructural interventions for the existing mountain pasture buildings at the Pian dell’Alpe and Colle dell’Assietta. All the villages have been equipped with a public network that offers a wi-fi service in the ultra-wide band and the following interventions are near to completion: 1) creation of an e-bike recharge network that is due to be installed within summer 2019 with 7 recharging stations on the entire municipal territory; 2) completion of the video surveillance network of all the villages; 3) the completion of the cardio-protection project of the villages with the installation of emergency devices consisting of portable defibrillators; 4) the installation of an automatic mail -bank machine; 5) the installation of stations for the electric charging of vehicles.
Another important action implemented over the last few years to promote tourism in the area has been the structuring of a rich program of events thanks also to the precious support of Pro Loco 5 Borgate di Usseaux and many volunteers. Just to mention : the event Legninvalle, which takes place on the last weekend of July in the hamlet of Fraisse and focuses on the promotion of the local forest-wood supply chain; events which are part of the “Most Beautiful Villages of Italy” circuit and “TCI Orange Flags” (to remember: “The Romantic night ” during the summer solstice, “Autumn in the Village”, “The Day of the Orange Flags”, and ” Sunday in the village “); all Patronal Feasts; the Balboutet Zootechnical Fair (now in its 58th edition); the Historic Conference “Waldensian Catholics – from conflicts to cohabitation” now in its 15th edition; “InSTALLArte”, the Christmas markets set up inside the old village barns; the literary festival “Scritto Misto alla Piemontese”; the musical festival “Altre Note”; the participation in the “Borgate dal Vivo” festival; the four cycling events of the “Usseaux for Bike” program. For the year 2019 it is expected the addition of the project “Author films in the most beautiful villages of Italy”, 5 events (one for village), in August with the great Italian cinema.
In addition to these events, the town of Usseaux hosts and also supports other important sporting events, of national and international appeal, which involve the whole territory of the upper valley linked to its great “cycling” vocation: the Giro d’Italia passes ; the Assietta Legend (Europe’s highest MTB competition); the Gran Fondo Sestriere-Colle delle Finestre; the Iron Bike and the Gran Fondo “Serre Chevalier-Briançon”.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that, together with the Mountain Union of the Olympic Municipalities of the Via Lattea, the “ComuneClima” certification is being implemented, based on the European “EEA” (European Energy Award) standard, in collaboration with the Agency for Energy Alto Adige – CasaClima of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano; a valid instrument for certification and implementation of actions and strategies at municipal and inter-municipal levels for energy efficiency, the reduction of emissions into the atmosphere, the promotion of correct lifestyles, the proper use of resources and the protection of the climate.
As stated in the introduction, the territory of the town of Usseaux is located in the heart of the Cozie Alps and the Upper Chisone Valley, a territory that has unique characteristics and peculiarities. From the Fort of Fenestrelle – already mentioned – up to the whole territory of the Olympic Municipalities of the Via Lattea , which were hosting the winter edition of Turin 2006 Olympic Games and which, besides being an extraordinary mountain territory, are also one of the largest Alpine ski areas with over 400 km of slopes.
Website : www.comune.usseaux.to.it