Walser culture in Aosta’s Valley: History and Tradition


Walser's history is really ancient: we can say that it belongs in a remote Europe, really far from nowadays' one. It started in V century AD, whith one of the numerous migration of Germanic people from its birthplaces in Northern Europe; in this case they were the Alemannians, who originally came from Southern Germany. Big Alemannians tribes moved southwards, colonizing vast territories like nowadays' Oberland and Aare's Valley. Those men lived in what is now known as Switzerland, once called Wallis. During XII century AD the Alemannians moved again, but in a different way: no more big population movings, but little groups who explored unhabitated valleys, often reaching places far from their homeland. Those Alemannians were called Walliser, which means Dalesmen, a name which, with time, get shorter, Walser. However, this migration ended before '400 AD. The ancient Alp's travellers didn't have neither the comfortable roads we have, nor the experience given by centuries of alpinism. Their trips were made on foot, or by mule, on remote paths in unknown forests. The Walser used to move only with daylight, and in summer; what more, their wanderings were charcterised by and extreme slowness, because of they were moving with all their goods. However, there's a substantial difference between Middle Age and now: the way they thought the mountain was. Now it's a border between different countries, but in these days it wasn't so: for example, places like Savoie, Lower Vallese and Aosta were part of Savoie's Dukedom. To reach the beautiful valleys south of Rosa, the Walser used mostly St. Teodulo's Pass, which links Zermatt and Valtournanche, and Mount Moro's Pass, wich links Saas and Anzasca's Valleys.

In Aosta's Valley those population founded many villages; in Ayas they built north of Champoluc; for example, St. Jacques' zone was known as "Canton des Allemands", "Germans' District". In Gressoney's Valley, instead, the Walser founded Gressoney itself, and Issime. Also Niel village, in the Franco - Provencal zone of Gaby, was founded by them. However, it's important to undeline that only in Gressoney people kept remnances of their original language, which is disappeared in Ayas. In Ayas Walser's presence is often ignored: the absolute lack of documents made difficult even the dating of their arrival. Someone think it happened in the first half of 1200 AD, but someone else is convinced that it was 100 years earlier. Anyway, those colonizers settled in the  "Canton des Allemands", the wide rockyarea north of Champoluc. The different languages created a kind of wall between them and the locals, who spoke a French dialect: it's important to note that, even in 1664, a mission of Capuchin monks arrived in St.Jacques could not communicate with the population. Those, 400 years after their arrive, still ignored the French language, or the Provencal. The Walser language, however, didn't live longer. It went unused and disappeared during XVIII century because of their integration with the other dalesmen. In the "Canton", in addition to the bigger villages, there were also numerous groups of houses, called hameaux. In late '700, when the population were already melted, this zone counted about 380 heads, so that's why the experts doubts "Canton" ever had a population bigger than 500. The most important village, even if not the biggest, was St. Jacques. There population met for Sunday's Mass, and for trading. You could also find guides who could  drive you above the mountains.

This village was also known for pera doutsa manufacturing, a kind of rock known in Italian as "pietra ollare", used to do cooking tools, like pots and pans, exported even in Switzerland. They were called olle: from there came the name we know, "ollare". "Canton"'s villages were dwelled all year long, although they were built at altitude between 1900 and 2072 meters. They were, and they still are in some cases (Resy for example), the highest villages of Europe. Through the years, however, those villages knew the decline: during '700 were dwelled only in summer, and a century later they were deserted. An important feature of Walser villages were the canals, called Ru, used to water Ayas' fields. Anyone who spent some days in Ayas will know Ru Corṭt, a water canal which runs for 25 kms and provide water from Cime Bianche Pass to Col de Joux and forwards. Water was essential for agricolture. Formerly, Ayas and Gressoney were characterised by the presence of numerous fields, used by the locals to feed themselves; there were cereals such as oats, barley and rye, while all the families used to have a vegetable garden. Yet, there was a lack of fruit trees, although several Ayassins had vineyards lower, in St.Vincent, Chatillon, Chambave and Nus.    

Alpine population and modernity  

In these days, obviously, mountain have known many changes. Since 1800, the mountain population known slump: their agricolture couldn't be compared with the one done in flatlands, while roads and railways took to the lonely alpine people unknown comforts. While the growing industry asked for many and many hands, in Ayas and bordering valleys the high altitude villages got deserted, while the remnant population decided to live in the valley floor's villages, as Champoluc. Breeding was the earniest activity, and the cereal fields became meadows again, as it's today. During the two World Wars, the mountain dwellers were called to fight, and their communities maybe knew the worse days: lack of youths, sent to farway battlefields, and their death unbalanced the villages. It's enough to look at Ayas' Fallen Monument, built nearby St. Anne's Church, to think what those terrible events represented for those little communities. From '60s on, however, mass tourism discovered the beauties of Ayas. Places as Champoluc raised their importance, while the locals found a new yield which still today supports Ayas and the whole Aosta's Valley. What is left from Walser, however? Still today we can count 40 villages, characterised by Walser architecture, especially the rascards, which can be admired in Champoluc's Old Village, or in Antagnod and St. Jacques, but also in high altitude villages like Mascognaz, Resy, Soussun and Cuneaz. Those age - long buildings, unique in the whole world, are the most important bequest of an important and interesting culture, precious for our Country and proud son of the Alps.    

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