Your Strada Vecchia 2018 Destination

There is a legend of how Bardi got its name but it's an improbable one. Hannibal, after coming over the Alps with his elephants, proceeded towards Rome by taking yet another mountainous route. Hannibal was from Carthage in North Africa. Elephants, normally inhabiting the warm flat Savanah of Africa, would have not been at home shivering up a snowy alpine pass. Apart from the very flat Po Valley in Northern Italy, the route to Rome after that is pretty much mountainous all the way. Hannibal's last elephant Barrus (aka Bardus or Barrio) obviously had gone one mountain too far and collapsed and died on the site that later became known as Bardi. Bardi later sat on the pilgrim route to Rome known as The Abbot's Way and off-shoot of the Via Francigena. It is more likely that Bardi's name derives from the Lombardi, the Germanic peoples descended from the Winnili tribe from southern Scandinavia, who inhabited Northern Italy and ruled large swathes of the peninsula after the fall of the Roman Empire. The area was at that time known as Silva Arimannorum - "The forest of the Arimanni", who were a warrior class of Lombard free men that used it as their hunting ground.

Bardi is 625m above sea level and the mountains reach a height of over 1800m at the very top of the Val Ceno. The Ceno river springs forth from Monte Penna (1735m) named after the Celtic mountain god worshipped by the local Ligurian-Celts after which many mountains are named, not to mention the Apennines and the Pennine Alps. It flows for about 73km where it meets the Taro at Fornovo which then in turn flows into the Po.

The lower slopes of the mountains, once also used for cultivating vines, are now used almost exclusively for arable farming but the tops of the mountains form an almost uninterrupted forest of mainly oak and beech and some conifers broken only by a few high pastures and rocky peaks. The forested areas have traditionally been regularly farmed for firewood rotating felling every thirty years or so but they still sustain a healthy population of wild boar, several species of deer, foxes, wolves, badgers, porcupines, many birds of prey, several species of snakes including adders and reputedly although rarely seen, wildcats and lynx.

Typically, daytime temperatures in the summer months are a welcome relief to the humid mid-thirties temperature of the Po Valley lowlands but they can climb daily to 28°C and beyond without it really ever becoming clammy. Wet and stormy cooler summers are not uncommon and abundant snowfalls in the winter occur fairly regularly although occasionally cold, clear, sunny, practically snowless winters have been known.

The area today is part of the province of Parma, once a duchy which was ruled between 1814 and 1847 by Marie-Louise of Austria, Napoleon's second wife. Despite its natural beauty, the area is not a great tourist destination although the river Ceno attracts city dwellers in August wishing to escape the city heat and swim in the often bracing pools that form along its route. There is a modest ski resort just beyond the top of the valley at Santo Stefano D'Aveto which is largely frequented by locals. Agriculturally, the area produces pork products, especially Parma Ham and dairy, of course, in the form of Parmigiano-Reggiano (the real 'Parmesan') cheese. The autumn sees the gathering of chestnuts from some of the ancient chestnut woods and the picking of wild mushrooms. The area is also famous for its breed of horse, the Bardigiano, which due to its robust but low-ish stature and sturdy wide back is ideally suited to woodland excursions under low tree branches. There is an annual horse show in Bardi on the first weekend in August where some beautiful ample-maned specimens of this mountain plodder can be seen and appreciated.

Agriculture has been a main source of employment to locals for a long time. The inheritance system in Italy meant that land always gets equally divided between siblings and therefore over time, the ever-shrinking nature of difficult hilly farming terrain forced many locals to seek employment in Parma, Milan and even further afield in England, Wales, France, Switzerland and the USA since the middle of the 19th Century. The connection to the UK served many British soldiers well during WWII when many were given refuge from the retreating German army and local fascists by English-speaking locals who had previously lived in the UK. There is also a chapel in the cemetery dedicated to those Italian POWs interned in the Isle of Man that lost their lives en route to Canada during the crossing of the cruise ship Arandora Star which had been converted to carrying prisoners. It was torpedoed by a German U-Boat and many men originally from Bardi lost their lives alongside many other Italian and German POWs.

Lastly, one cannot fail to miss the stunning fortress that towers above the old town on top of a rocky crag of Diaspro Rosso - a reddish sedimentary rock that is found in various places in this valley. It's the Castello di Bardi, founded at the time of Berengar I of Italy (c.9th century AD). In the 16th century, it was turned into a princely mansion by Federico Landi, including a painting gallery and a library; subsequently it was held by the Farnese and the Bourbon families. Today, it houses the Museum of the Valley Civilization and Museum of Wildlife and Poaching, both dedicated to local folklore and customs after having been as recently as the early part of the 20th century the town hall and the local prison. It has its own ghost too: Moroello, a 15th Century Commander of the Guard who was thought by his beloved Solesine to have been killed in battle. Distraught, she threw herself off the castle walls. On his return Moroello discovers to his horror Solesine's fate and follows suit so that they may be together.