We found ourselves in a strange world – almost empty of people during lunch hours. All the shops were closed. One had forgotten to turn their sign around and Rami tried the door. It opened, but all the lights were off inside. Locks apparently have no meaning here. There were signs tucked in corners that were tucked behind dark stone-walled alleys strung almost underneath the town. Signs in four languages explaining the history we were standing on. Behind the glass of the storefronts, dark golden wheels of cheese were stacked high, most of them in beautiful displays, all of them accompanied with a full-sized (what I can only call) witch decoration. It’s Carnevale season and apparently, the little town of Bagolino is famous for their celebration, though I wasn’t sure if some of the decor was just left over from the Befana. Little did I know how closely related they apparently were anyway. To me, it seemed like Halloween in February. In the mountains of Italy. In a medieval town that hadn’t changed much in about five hundred years.
We had come for the cheese but with the town closed for the next few hours, it looked like we were going to head back down to the farms we passed on the way. Better option normally anyway, so we decided to just stroll around the town for a bit before heading back down to the cow barns.
Wherever we go, we look for interesting food. We’ve been to Alba a few times now for white truffles. We’ve driven out of Florence and up to a dairy farm for cheese (thankfully, they also have a store close to us now, so its a dangerously easy walk to the best gorgonzola you’ve ever tasted). We’ve gone to San Miniato for a food festival (also truffle but a different kind) and routinely head out to Panzano for the best burger in existence. So when I casually searched the area and found out that one of the most famous cheese (cheeses?) comes from (and only from) the little town on the side of the mountain 30 minutes away from our little house, I already knew that it was going to be a highlight.
As we walked the silent streets and climbed up through the labyrinth of arches, cobblestones, windows, and doorways. Spring-fed fountains – troughs and washbasins is a more appropriate description, took up a corner or a center of a little piazza every so often. In one, a woman was scrubbing away at what looked like a tablecloth. The fountain filled with suds. I mentioned it was Carnevale. In Ascoli, Carnevale was brilliant – they hung chandeliers in the main piazza and costumes were on everyone from babies to the mayor. Food festivals, parties, discos, more confetti than the town knew what to do with. In Florence, Carnevale still has confetti, but it’s quieter – the sense of a community around the holiday is severed between all of the tour groups. In Bagolino, it’s Alice in Wonderland different.
As we walked into the main square, we could hear screeching from around the corner. There had been one tractor, two cars, and one motorbike through town while we were there. This sound was not any of those. I thought of horses. But the clopping sound was off, and there were way too many. The jarring sound pitched above the clop was foreign. When we had reached the fountain we saw them – six girls dressed head to toe in what I now know as the traditional Carnevale dress for the town called a Guenel. They looked up at us under black waist-length head shawls, and I realized all of them we wearing rubber masks to look like old women. (Luna didn’t like that part.) They all carried wooden baskets and had heavy, ankle-length skirts in dark gray and navy. The sound was coming from wooden shoes with nails hammered into the bottom – which is apparently the tradition. When they saw us, they skidded to a halt.
The girls didn’t speak but started to shuffle by us slowly, nails grating on the cobblestone, echoing off the walls of the quiet piazza. The only other sound a trickle of water from the fountain behind us. Luna crouched down as they looked at her. I had no idea what to do. Were they expecting something? Was this like trick or treat? I looked at Rami with a slight hope he may no. He looked back more confused than I was. Finally one of their mothers walked around the corner – long blonde hair, a tailored puffy jacket, designer jeans, and fashion sneakers, she led the group of little nonnas down the street with a simple nod in our direction. Later we saw a group of boys in old man masks pushing a wheelbarrow while being chased by a Chiuaua. The father’s stood at the top of the street laughing.
After some research, it seems these characters are hundreds of years old and mirror what Venetian Carnevale was about – causing anonymous trouble. The little girls and boys thankfully knew we weren’t going to understand their jokes, so instead we got the silent treatment – which was honestly just a bit creepy.
We missed the main even of Carnevale which is later in March this year, but you can see it through decades on youtube (yes, it’s that famous) and it’s definitely worth it. Check Carnevale Bagolino 1975 and then watch Carnevale Bagolino 2018. I think Bagolino 2020 is going to be in the cards for us. Especially because we’ll definitely be having Bagoss Cheese withdrawals by then – and I haven’t even written about that delicious aspect of this little town yet!