When we enter the tiny flat, Luigi is preparing dinner, a handful of wilted onion slices sizzle in the saucepan. It is not yet six o’clock in the evening, the iron-grey light of spring mixed with winter is creeping behind the mountains, and Realdo – a handful of old houses thrown on the edge of a cliff at an altitude of one thousand metres, in the Ligurian Argentina Valley – is already in semi-darkness, already calling to night.
«Come, come, come in» –Luigi leads the way, turns off the small cooker, and moves the chairs so we can be seated–. «I’m glad you stopped by. Sometimes I don’t see anyone even for four or five days in a row. I’m used to it, but you know how it is …».
Luigi Lanteri Lianò is one of the last remaining inhabitants of Realdo, a hamlet in the municipality of Triora (IM), but only since 1947 because it was previously part of the municipality of Briga Marittima. He became a Ligurian after the Second World War. The language mainly testifies to this, an Alpine dialect variant associated with the Occitan area and protected as a linguistic minority used only here and in the nearby village of Verdeggia. However, few people speak it: Realdo (Reaud, in Occitan) is home to only seven permanent inhabitants. Luigi is the eldest and carries 86 years of memories on his shoulders, distant echoes of a world that fades inexorably and will probably never return. It was a world of shepherds and farmers, smugglers and wolves. A world of stone, stationary, in danger of collapsing into oblivion.
Luigi’s house looks like something out of a history book. A bare, shadowy room serves as the kitchen, living room and dining room; an old wood-burning cooker coughs in one corner, a few chipped cups stand on a crooked shelf, and a few shepherd’s tools – a worn cowbell and an old, rusty shearing shears – hang on a hook, halfway between remembrance and forgetfulness. No trinkets, no frills. Elsewhere, this room would be called ‘minimal’, but no Anglicisms are needed to tell the dignity, the private geography of a humble life, accustomed to possessing only the essentials and borrowing the rest from the mountains. What will be left of these lives, one wonders, when the last witnesses are gone? What memories will last in these valleys already forgotten by humans, let alone by God?
High altitude remedies
Luigi was a shepherd for more than sixty years: his family owned around eighty Brigasque sheep, which he moved from the sea to the mountain pastures once a year, and vice versa. «I used to be a chamois, you know? Up and down, up and down the mountains with the sheep. We did transhumance with the flocks. We moved them according to the seasons – says Luigi, his gaze delving into the soft meanders of memory –. It was a wretched, complicated life. We lived like poor mountain people, eating what we could grow up here, making brus [the local cheese, ed.]. We used to cure ourselves using the herbs in the mountain pastures. One would learn».
He does not call himself a healer. The remedies he knew, he says, were the ones everyone knew, born out of the practical necessity of living on what was available. Like hypericum that «mixed with alcohol healed hay cuts». Or the gentian that some, Luigi remembers, drank in the form of a decoction every morning, on an empty stomach, to fortify the blood: «but few did, because gentian is very bitter, so bitter that if by chance you cut a root with a knife and then forget to clean it, the bitter taste passes to bread, cheese, everything».
For colds, on the other hand, pine cones were gathered in August, when they were still green, and placed in a jar with a bit of sugar: leaving the mixture in the sun for some time created a sweet, resinous syrup to be taken every time a cough came up. And again, there was wormwood – a digestive – or arnica and high altitude yarrow. They were harvested at over 2,500 metres in the alpine pastures where Luigi spent two or three months of the year with the animals.
Mountain yarrow, he explains, is good for the stomach: don’t I want to try some? he asks. Then he approaches the window shutters, fiddles for a few seconds and returns to the table with a small bunch of yarrow he was drying hanging on the grill, the white capitulins now yellowed and fragile under his fingers, and hands it to me: «so you can try it –he explains– When I used to come down from the mountain pasture, I used to bring down bunches of it to the people in the village. Because it was only up there».
Talk without restraint, Luigi. After the initial mountainous reluctance, he made himself comfortable and started to tell. He wants to show us things: the dried plants, the iron spoon used to scoop goat’s cheese from the bucket, a drawing of a Brigasque sheep, a jar of turpentine, as he calls the larch resin used to cure cold cuts on his hands.
«You have to look for old larches – explains the elderly shepherd, mixing the greenish, aromatic resin with a piece of wood –. Better still, those that have been struck by lightning: release all the resin along the split bark. Show your hands? Here – he sees a small cut, drops a dot of the compound on it –, now put a piece of newspaper on it, go. Otherwise, it sticks everywhere, on your clothes, on your hair. Tomorrow everything is healed». He sighs; there is a kind of nostalgia in his blue eyes: «Now, if you talk about these things, everyone will take you for a fool».
Empty nests in Realdo
The Realdo of Luigi’s stories differs from the deserted one we crossed in the echo of our footsteps to get to him. Lively and flourishing, the village was a critical junction for the wool and slate trade between Italy and France. Shepherds and peasants, the people of Realdo felt more Brigasca than Italian: but after ’47, everything changed. The community was dismembered, the territory partitioned with France and a new identity was imposed on the people of Realdo. Briga (La Brigue) passed to its transalpine neighbours, and in Realdo and Verdeggia, people became Ligurian instead of Piedmontese from one moment to the following.
«They made a big mess –Luigi recalls– with the documents and surnames. Ultimately, they told us to take a double surname because there were too many Lanteri, and they couldn’t tell us apart. So I took the surname Lianò, which is typical of Briga».
Although Luigi lived on the coast during the winter, he always liked to go up to Realdo every year during the transhumance, when he took the sheep from San Lorenzo al Mare to the Pin, above the village, and then further up to the Colle dei Signori. «We would go up at the beginning of June –he explains– and stay in the mountain pasture for the whole summer. Then, we would come down here in September to shear the animals, and in November, we would return to the coast. And then back again».
But today, only an echo remains of the ‘eagle’s nest’, of the ‘Cà da Roca’ that Luigi describes: it is a nest, this one, perched on the cliff, but it is almost empty. The stone and slate-roofed houses are closed. The communal bakery only opens its doors for a few sporadic local initiatives. There are no commercial activities except a refuge with a few beds and a bar-restaurant that opens in the low season at the owner’s discretion and whims of the mountain weather. So not very much. Realdo is also not particularly affected by the reputation of ‘witch village‘ that instead cloaks Triora, only fifteen minutes of hairpin bends further down. «Witches? – Luigi laughs and shakes his head. He is sceptical – Poverty and despair made people believe in witch stories. I don’t believe in them, away. There were more important things to worry about».
When it is time to go, he accompanies us to the door, and it is unclear whether he wants to detain or dismiss us. Finally, he extends his hand and shakes it with a vigour unexpected in such an older man. Outside, the twilight of the evening has already fallen; it is time to return to the fire and hole up in his nest. That’s all Luigi has left because he has no children and does not want to go to the coast with his grandchildren. He doesn’t want to cause trouble, he says. «Besides, it’s good up here. There is good air. But when you come back – he adds –, come by again. I’m glad to talk to someone now and then».
Luigi Lanteri Lianò passed away on 8 August 2023, aged 89.