The Italian Tourism Department has decided to dedicate 2017 to the promotion of Italian Villages and Borghi: I’m going to actively contribute by sharing info about what I know best, the Prealpine Contradas, small rural villages at the foothills of the Small Dolomites in Veneto and Trentino.
As to continue this small project that focuses on my natal environment, today I will move north and start to write about the suburbs of Vicenza. As I mentioned in the first post about this (sadly overlooked) marvel, Vicenza is a city of contradictions. The umpteenth dichotomy we can find in here is the one between URBAN and RURAL LIFE. If in the city centre we can admire the grandeur of the Renaissance and in the immediate surroundings the activity of the local industry, by moving north, up the hills and towards the Small Dolomites, you will encounter the magical charm of the Prealpine Contradas.
What is a “contrada”?
In Italian the term contrada has different connotations. It can indicate the quarters of a city, like the ones that take part to the famous Palio di Siena, or even streets. In this specific case, though, it indicates a very small rural village, formed by 20-30 houses at most, located on the hills or just below the Venetian Prealps.
History of contradas
Contradas were not born from “proper” Italians. Remember, one of the most common misbelief about Italy, is that we are all descendents of the ancient Romans and, as a consequence, all raven-haired, black-eyed and dark-skinned. Uh, well, no.
During the course of history, Italy has always been the final aim of several populations, thanks to its appealing climate and favourable geographical collocation. As a consequence, different peoples mingled and, as a result, the blood of “modern Italians” is quite mixed.
If you will visit contradas, you might find blondish and fair-skinned inhabitants, as the founders of these rural villages were allegedly from Bavaria and Tyrol (Germany + Austria).
During the domination of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, wood was required for the building of the ships. As a consequence, Venetians welcomed Bavarians in the area under their dominion, as they were said to be the best lumberjacks around. The flux of these Northern peoples, started from the X century and continued, through different waves, until the XIV.
Since their task was to provide Venetians with logs and planks, they settled in the woods, ploughing the territory and building their small residential areas made of humble stone houses: the contradas.
Contradas’ inhabitants and their former language
These people who used to come from Bavaria and Tyrol were later indicated with the name of “Cimbrians”.
Since they had settled their contradas in the woods at the foothills of the mountains, they had no contacts with the “latine populations” who lived in the valleys. The lack of communication between the two ethnic groups allowed the cimbrians to preserve their original language for a very long time and, in certain limited realities, it is still present, even though it’s now quickly dying.
An inscription in both Cimbrian and Italian in the Asiago Plateau
But we’re basically talking about a Medieval language, so it’s quite astonishing it was able to arrive in the 21st century!
Elements of the Prealpine Contradas
- Communal facilities
Since contradas were far from the city centres, inhabitants had to provide for their own subsistence at least, let’s say, until the end of WWII. Units where they could process agricultural products were necessary, so they usually got together and build communal facilities, like a dairy and a wood-burning oven. Nowadays communal dairies are no longer in use, but people still avail themselves of communal ovens.
In an era in which there weren’t functional sinks and washing machines, fountains were fundamental . Not as a decorative element, but for a practical use.
- Roadside Shrines
Every contrada must have a roadside shrine. For the most part they are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but you can also find St. Anthony of Padua, a very popular saint in the Veneto region, and other saints, who are supposed to protect the harvest.
Why choosing a contrada for your vacation
This is the kind of vacation for you if:
- You don’t expect luxury estates and you support sustainable tourism.
If you approach tourism and travel in a sensible way and you want to respect the local environment, spending some time in a contrada might be a fantastic idea. The hospitality in this kind of environment consists of B&Bs and the so-called “scattered hotels”, those kind of hotels converted out of various historic buildings. This is a concept of hospitality, which is typically Italian and that was invented to revive small Italian villages off the beaten path;
- You enjoy biological food produced by local farmers.
The theme of sustainability is adopted also in the food department: you will be able to enjoy local and seasonal products, which are also less processed than the ones we usually eat in the city centres.
- You want to relax and stay in contact with nature.
Life in a contrada is surely something more connected with nature and where one could live a more authentic and slow-paced kind of existence. Being contradas located at the foothills of the Prealps, you can enjoy wonderful excursions in the mountains or in the woods, in the shade of ancient and leefy trees and only guided by the peaceful sound of the streams.
- You are a mountain lover and trekker and enjoy sites connected with WWI.
Mountain trails are not very far from contradas and since these were areas which were on the frontline during WWI, you will be able to visit trenches, ossuaries and small museums.
- You like to learn about mythological stuff.
Being the contradas of cimbric origin, there are a lot of places connected with myths and creatures of the Northern cultures, like naiads (here called anguane) and elves/leprechauns (here called salbanelli).
Notes: don’t expect local people, other than your hotel owner, to speak English and don’t shriek in horror when you won’t find shops nearby your B&B. We’re talking about a rural environment!
This kind of rural realities are to be found mainly in the suburbs of the administrative areas of Verona, Vicenza and Trento in North-Eastern Italy. The aim for the future is to find the contradas which are offering tourist services and to share what I will find in here. Stay tuned if you’re interested!