Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2006/5 posted by hidden europe on

With all eyes on Turin and the Piedmont Alps this week, hidden europe escaped the glitz of the Winter Olympics and went off in search of some curiosities on the French-Italian border. It is a three hour journey down to the Mediterranean coast on the morning train that departs bang on time from Turin's monumental Porta Nuova station.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

With all eyes on Turin and the Piedmont Alps this week, hidden europe escaped the glitz of the Winter Olympics and went off in search of some curiosities on the French-Italian border. It is a three hour journey down to the Mediterranean coast on the morning train that departs bang on time from Turin's monumental Porta Nuova station. We leave Turin's calm symmetry and that elegance that Flaubert, writing just before Carlo Ceppi's great railway terminus was built, found "precise but boring". The train heads south, stopping briefly at Cuneo, a place that, even more than Turin, is an essay in rigorous urban geometry. And then into hillier country, following the snow covered Vermenagna valley that, as we climb higher and the valley narrows, is ever more shaded from the sun by the great mountains around. Our train dives into a tunnel under the Colle Di Tenda, and five minutes later we emerge into bright French sunshine. For thirty five kilometres of its route through the Alps from Turin to the coastal towns of Ventimiglia and San Remo, this Italian train traverses a portion of French territory. Our train loops down over great spirals into the Roya valley, making half a dozen stops in France before regaining Italian soil.

This upper part of the Roya valley, nowadays as evidently French as the rest of the département of Alpes-Maritimes, is actually a relatively recent acquisition by France. We leave the train at La Brigue station and walk a kilometre or two along the minor road to the village from which the station takes its name. Here, some of the older people in the café remind us that they were born in Italy, for prior to 1947 La Brigue was Italian Briga. Nearby Tenda became French Tende. These two communities were unusual in having remained part of Piemonte when the rest of the Nice region returned to France in 1860. For the La Brigue commune, this reshaping of national allegiance wasn't easy, for the main village became French, but four small hamlets in the east of the commune stayed within Italy.

In hidden europe 6, we carried an article on a substantial change in the line of the Polish-Ukrainian border in the nineteen fifties, and some readers were evidently surprised to learn that Europe's borders have been so fluid even in our lifetimes. La Brigue and Tende are further examples of villages being shifted from one country to another. In 1967, Germany and Switzerland swapped some parcels of land, with the effect that the handful of people who lived in German Verenahof suddenly found they lived in Switzerland (more on this in hidden europe 3). And in the nineteen eighties Germany and Belgium agreed some readjustments of their mutual border in the Eifel region.

hidden europe 7

More on borders, of course, in the next issue of hidden europe magazine, which will be published on 3 March. There we track down a curious common border between the Republic of France and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which will surely have readers scurrying for their atlases. And of course the usual mix of cultures as we make a midwinter journey through a region that the local calls Cesyn - the onetime Habsburg Duchy of Teschen on the modern Czech-Polish border. Diaspora cultures are always interesting, as we have found in our explorations of Albanians in Italy (hidden europe 1) and Estonians in Abkhazia (hidden europe 3). So in this upcoming issue we visit Yezidi and Russian communities in Germany, using our brush with Yezidis in the town of Celle as the launch pad for an exploration of the Yezidi homeland in Armenia.

Armenia! Not Europe, you wonder? But does not the Council of Europe flag fly from many government buildings in the Armenian capital, Yerevan? So we'll consider too that thorny issue of quite where the borders of modern Europe might or should be drawn. All that, plus Spain, Serbia, Greek and Scottish islands and much more besides.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.