Coumboscuro: The Italian village that does not speak Italian

Silvia Marchetti, CNN

Nicknamed Italy’s “Little Provence”, Sancto Lucio de Coumboscuro is a remote village in almost every way.

Located near the border between the Piedmont region of Italy and France, visitors must either fly to Turin, take a train and then a bus, or drive south from Provence to get there.

Those making the trip here would be forgiven for wondering if they are in the right country, especially when locals wave them goodbye with the unfamiliar “arveire” rather than “arrivederci”.

The official language of Coumboscuro is Provençal, an ancient medieval neo-Latin dialect of Occitan, the language spoken throughout the Occitanie region of France.

Only about thirty people live in the village and life is far from easy for the inhabitants. Coumboscuro is largely made up of herding families, who often see their flocks attacked by the wolves that roam here.

Electricity is often out for weeks during the winter, while the internet connection here is minimal.

But the village’s peaceful mountain meadows and fields of purple lavender are ideal for visitors seeking an unplugged retreat, as are the breathtaking views from its alpine peaks, which stretch to the Côte of Azure.

Forget the bars, supermarkets and restaurants, any social buzz is limited to the occasional folk events that take place in the village, or when day-trippers go on solitary mushroom hunts at weekends.

Slower paced lifestyle

The locals adopt a simple and slower-paced lifestyle in harmony with nature.

“We don’t have a television. You don’t really miss what you never had in the first place. When there is a power outage for 15 days in a row, there is no reason to panic: we dig up the old oil lamps of our grandparents,” said local shepherdess Agnes Garrone, 25, at CNN Travel.

“I usually get up at dawn to herd the sheep. I work 365 days a year, zero public holidays. I don’t know about Christmas or New Year’s Eve, because even during the festivities, my herds need to eat and be cared for.

“It’s a life of sacrifice but it’s so rewarding when you see the birth of a lamb.”

Garrone runs La Meiro di Choco, an old farmhouse that happens to be the only B&B in Coumboscuro.

Those who book sleep in traditional wooden cabins, sample fresh produce from the orchard, and have the opportunity to purchase premium wool from a native Italian sheep called Sambucana, also known as Demontina.

While many young people from the village fled in search of a better future elsewhere many years ago, Garrone and his brothers decided to stay and work on the lands of their ancestors.

Their mother grows cannabis and other herbs for medicinal purposes and makes syrups from elderberry leaves and dandelions.

cultural revival

“Visitors are welcome to come and stay with us, we need people to experience our world, we don’t want to be forgotten and we have so much heritage to share,” says Garrone.

The 25-year-old considers Provençal, which is often characterized as a mix between French and Italian, as her mother tongue rather than Italian.

She explains that being part of a centuries-old socio-cultural and linguistic community gives her a strong sense of identity and territorial belonging.

The region of the Piedmont region where Coumboscuro is located has passed between Italian and French rule several times in history, which partly explains why locals like Garrone feel neither Italian nor French – simply Provençal.

Surrounded by forests of hazelnut and ash trees, it is divided into 21 tiny hamlets scattered around the pristine Valle Grana, each made up of a handful of stone and timber dwellings.

The neighborhoods are connected by hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails dotted with land art installations.

Its main district, made up of just eight quaint wooden cottages with frescoed walls clustered around a former chapel, was founded in 1018 by French monks who reclaimed the land for rural purposes.

Although Coumboscuro flourished for many years, things began to change in the 1400s when harsh winters saw many families moving to Provence for much of the year and only returning during the winter months. summer.

The population of the village declined for many years, but Coumboscuro experienced something of a revival in the 1950s when Garrone’s grandfather, Sergio Arneodo, took over as the village schoolteacher.

After studying the ancestral local language, he helped rediscover the linguistic roots and folkloric appeal of the Provençal language, giving the community a much-needed boost.

spiritual pilgrimage

Today, whether it is a play featuring actors in traditional costumes, art exhibitions, concerts, festivals, folk dances, dialect competitions, writing or artisan shops, the activities and events that celebrate the traditions of Provence are numerous.

Those interested in learning more can visit the Coumboscuro Ethnographic Museum, while the Center for Provençal Studies offers courses in Provençal language and writing for adult beginners and children.

Every July, thousands of Provençals dressed in traditional clothing embark on the Roumiage, a spiritual pilgrimage departing from Provence in southern France along the Alps to Coumboscuro.

The journey takes them through snow-capped peaks, steep canyons and chestnut forests, the same route taken by their ancestors, as well as medieval traders, outlaws and transalpine smugglers over the years.

Once they arrive at Coumboscuro, pilgrims are greeted with a huge party, with tents and barns set up as temporary accommodation.

Although population decline continues to plague the village, its residents, now more aware of their roots, have developed a primitive attachment to their hometown. Today, many consider Coumboscuro to be the cradle of the Provençal microcosm.

Language in danger

“After the cultural revival, carpentry shops now sell traditional Provençal handicrafts and farms have blossomed again, growing potatoes, apple cider, chestnuts and making herbal drinks,” says Davide Arnoedo, who runs the museum. ethnographic Coumboscuro and the center of Provençal studies.

“Scholars, intellectuals and artists gather here for art exhibitions and lectures to discuss our rich heritage.”

Following local community awareness campaigns, Italy officially recognized the existence of the Occitan minority in 1999, and Provençal is now protected by national law.

However, Provençal remains a language threatened with future extinction, and has entered the Atlas of the World’s Languages ​​at Risk by UNESCO in 2010.

“It’s one of the few valleys in the world where our language survives,” adds Arneodo, who is also Garrone’s uncle, as well as Sergio Arneodo’s son.

“In the past it was a lyrical and literary language spoken by itinerant court minstrels who later fell into oblivion, but here, through the efforts of my father, young people have reclaimed the heritage of their ancestors and many have decided to stay.”

Rich heritage

Witches and shamans play a huge part in the world of Provence, as does good alpine cuisine, and there is definitely a magical vibe to Coumboscuro.

In fact, legend has it that a number of locals were endowed with the power to heal broken bones and twisted ankles.

Some even believe that the woods are inhabited by fairies and fauns called Sarvan, who not only taught the locals how to make butter as well as Toma and Castelmagno cheese, but also pranked the farmers by stealing their fresh milk. and their bags. full of nuts.

Each year, Coumboscuro organizes the Boucoun de Saber, or “pieces of knowledge”, a popular food fair that highlights the main alpine specialties of Provençal origin.

As for the local cuisine, some traditional recipes include La Mato, or “the crazy one”, made with rice, spices and leeks, as well as smoked potatoes bodi en balo, which are heated in the fireplace according to a ritual. old.

Aioli, a Mediterranean sauce made with garlic, is popular as an accompaniment to classic dishes. Dandeirols – a homemade maccheroni served with whipped cream and nuts – is another standout.

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