The Walser is of Germanic origin from Alto Vallese, who started colonizing numerous areas in Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and France around the start of the year 1000. They were searching for new pastures, crossing over alpine passes during relatively mild weather to settle in the higher zones at the head of the valleys.
These colonies, isolated in the harsh environment of the high mountain, drained and reclaimed vast areas of land for cultivation at the time uninhabited and created self-sufficient villages capable of surviving the long and severe winters. The colonization of the Walser was quite passive. The Valsesians had very little to lose conceding territory not used by them to the foreigners. On the other hand the colonies, in the case of the Valsesian Walsers were also favoured by the politics of the medieval lords and the powerful abbeys on the Vercellese plains. They found the settlements at the head of the valleys more advantageous as it allowed them to take advantage of the uninhabited areas, and control of the higher zones better. This became strategically important for commerce and communication.
The Walser colonies south of Mont Rosa (Alagna, Riva, Rima, Carcoforo, Rimasco and Rimella) were founded between the XII and the XIII centuries. Here the colonies tilled the soil and made it cultivatable, they traced trails and built homes in wood and stone in unmistakeable designs in small, scattered groups. The distinct architecture was the fruit of constant research to adapt the construction to the climate and type of work.
In fact the Walser homes are an example of spontaneous architecture that fitted neatly into the landscape, adherent to customs and way of life, organized to facilitate communication among them. Each of which had a specific work function: special rooms (lobbie) to dry the hay, milk rooms, salt rooms for meat, rooms to keep foodstuff in and the section of the stall that was used as living space for evening activities taking advantage of the heat of the animals. For centuries, these people lived in near complete isolation which was made even more so by the German language in an Italian territory. The latter helped to keep their religious rites, lifestyle, clothing designs, food, economy and physical traits unchanged for a long time.
Then, mainly thanks to seasonal migration of the strong-built, highly specialized men from all the Valsesian Walser communities and subsequent schooling, customs and costumes once almost identical, started to change, giving the six colonies the look that we know today.
The Walser of Alagna and Riva
Alagna was founded with the expansion of the Walser coming from Macugnaga, who crossed the Turlo Pass. They first occupied the shelters of the herdsmen in the Mud zone and the hamlets of Pedemonte and Oubre Rong, and successively the ancient zone called Alpe di Alagna or Olen, today Pedelegno. The settlements of alpe d'Otro were however, colonies coming from Gressoney. With the passing of the years, one by one the other 22 hamlets were created, giving life to the great community at the head of the Sesia Valley. The story of Riva Valdobbia is different. Older and founded diversely, it was the last village of the valley, inhabited until the year 1200. The village expanded to the whole area surrounding the Sesia river basin with the arrival of the colonies from Alagna. With their expansion, they started to ascend Valle Vogna until they encountered the Walser from Gressoney who, in the meantime, started the colonization of colle Valdobbia. The integration of the newcomers with the rest of the valsesian populations was rather slow. They remained in contact with their homeland for a long time, though thanks to a tight network of connections via which they imported salt, metal implements, corn seeds and clothes to the colonies.
In 1410 the Walser of Alagna took on the job of putting the mountain pastures to use and paying an annual land rental fee from the tenants of Rocca and Campertogno, thus settling legally in that territory. After this date and the acquisition of vicinity rights, the umbilical cord that still tied them to their homeland atrophied and salt, equipment and basic food stuffs were bartered at the markets in Varallo Sesia with cattle and cheese.
The presence of the Walser culture in the territory of upper Valsesia
The testimony of the Walser culture is very strong in the territory of Alagna and Riva. Even today one breathes in the secular traditions in the architecture of their homes, in the organization of the hamlets, in the legends, in listening to the people and the German dialect that was the language of these people. Ecomuseum trails snake around the territory of the two communities, leading visitors along some of the more significant itineraries. Furthermore, historical and cultural associations are in charge of the conservation and promotion of the Walser traditions and also make sure that the Alagna and Riva centres actively circulate the history and culture of this population.