December 6, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Toxic, like love

By |2018-03-21T18:49:55+01:00June 21st, 2012|Leisure Over the Years|
The author in an ancient multi-purpose lime kiln.

ith only 33 inhabitants, Morterone, a hamlet in the Lecco province in Lombardy, may be Italy’s smallest comune. But its expanse provides miles of old mule trails.

Marino and I are on the DOL (Dorsale Orobica Lariana) trail above Morterone in the shadow of Resegone Mountain’s saw-tooth-shaped peaks. We’re following an easy, circular, four-hour path through wildflower-laden woods and open fields along the mountainside. It might rain today so we want to stay below blustery summits, visit an old lime kiln and stop at Rifugio Tironi Consoli if we need to dry off.

We’ve driven north from Milan on highway SS36 to Lecco where we took the Viale Nuova Valsassina exit and headed for the town of Ballabio. In Ballabio, we took route SP62 and then immediately turned left onto SP63, Via per Morterone. It’s a steep, 15-kilometer drive of hairpin turns. Just before Morterone, at Forcella d’Olina (1,170-meters), we parked near the small tunnel.

Our trail, marked number 17 and DOL on red, white and yellow stripes, starts on the right before the tunnel. Immediately, we climb in woods of alder and beech. White ranunculus flowers line the path. We pause on a slope and breath fresh air, listening to birdsong and a woodpecker’s rapid tapping while trees creak in the breeze. Our computer-tired eyes relax with the various greens of May foliage.

We hike for 20 minutes and then take our well-trodden DOL trail on the right near a makeshift hunters’ blind. After 30 minutes, we arrive at Forbesette (1,350-meters) with its signpost, mountain spring and picnic table. Morterone lies below.

From here, most hikers head up path 17 on Resegone for the spectacular view. Today however, we keep to the lower DOL trail, a route less-traveled but ideal for Nordic walking, cycling and snowshoeing. Ten minutes later we arrive at a lime kiln ruin.

A calchera was a round, pre-industrial kiln of heat-resistant stone which, when heated to 800-1000C, reduced the chunks of limestone inside to lime powder (calcium carbonate). Skilled men fired the kiln from beneath, tending it for six-to-eight days. Then they bagged the powder and loaded it onto mules. Romans, Phoenicians and many early civilizations mixed lime with sand to make mortar. Lime also reduces acidity in soil and water, dissolves wood fiber for paper-making, disinfects, and absorbs contaminants. It is widely used in agricultural, chemical, food and pharmaceutical industries.

Five minutes along the trail from the calchera, we reach a reconstructed carbonaia, a conical structure with clay-covered logs used to make charcoal. Here, skilled laborers slow-burned wood for up to 10 days, producing a lightweight fuel important for metalworking, gunpowder and medicines.

Busy woodcutters provided the wood. The lime kiln conveniently burned bundles of branches that were inadequate for making good charcoal. Mules hauled supplies, wood, limestone, lime, and charcoal along the trail as men bustled to and fro. The air was thick with smoke from fires burning day and night.

Today the trail is quiet. After the carbonaia, we hike while Resegone looms above. The woods open to glimpses of green Val Taleggio. In a clearing, a signpost points to Costa del Palio, a relaxing, 45-minute walk away. Soon, the trees become smaller. We pause to eat in field of buttercups. Nearby, hikers pass on another route to Resegone’s peaks.

We reach the Costa del Palio (1,400-meters), an open, grassy crest where horses roam. The tourist farmhouse and restaurant, Rifugio Tironi Consoli, sits on the road below, facing the foothills in Val Imagna. To the north, ranges of Alps disappear in the mist. We walk the sinuous crest towards the electricity tower and Monte Cucco in a verdant 360° panorama.

Just before the road, a weathered wooden sign points left to Morterone. We descend the path that slopes gently to a gravel road which winds down the valley past colorful fields of flowers and abandoned stone buildings of Piano di Costa (1,243-meters).

As we near Morterone about 20 minutes later, we see a paler landscape. The rains of April and May haven’t deterred the wild narcissi. Thousands of them bob their white heads in the breeze. Their yellow coronas sparkle like tiny crowns. They fill the air with a fragrance reminiscent of jasmine and hyacinth. Narcissus poeticus, associated with the Greek legends of Narcissus and Persephone, is a protected flower and best left in the field.

As we reach Morterone, it starts to rain. We pass a trail marked Sorgente Forbesette but opt for the paved road.

An elderly gentleman stops his car. “Need a lift?” he asks.

“Our car’s at Forcella d’Olina,” Marino says, as we hop in.

“It’s far,” the man says. He talks of trails. “I’m too old to hike but still come here with my dog.”

“I’ve never seen so many narcissi,” I say. “Marvelous.”

“I remember le narcisate, when I was a boy.”

“I heard about them from my grandmother,” Marino says. “They gathered armfuls of narcissi and tossed them to the wind or left the flowers on graves.”

“Their scent is so strong, it gives you a headache,” the gentleman says.

“Toxic,” Marino says. “Like love, can’t be kept in a closed space.”

General Information

For a shorter, three-hour walk, drive to Morterone and park near the helicopter landing. Take the trail marked for “sorgente Forbesette.”

Lodging: Rifugio Tironi Consoli. Cell. 347.464.22.69/338.458.2145.

About the Author:

Andrea Smith's column on hiking in Italy ran from 2008 through 2013.