The Natural Reserve of the Bessa
UNDERSTANDING THE BESSA
A lunar landscape in which huge heaps of stones of various sizes are lined up like dunes in a desert. Stretches of vegetation and often impenetrable bushes separate one heap from the next.
This is the not very attractive impression that one gets when first entering the nature Reserve of the Bessa, which was set up in 1985.
The charm of the Bessa has more to do with its history than its current appearance. One thing is certain: the appearance of the entire zone with an area of almost 10 square kilometres was completely modified by the work of thousands of men. These were the Ictimuli (or Vittimuli) who, more than 2.000 years ago, inhabited a goodpart of the region of Biella.
Exploited by the Romans between the 2nd and first centuries b. C., they transformed the Bessa into one of the largest open-cast gold mines in the world.
The evidence of this immense effort is left in the heaps of stones remaining from those they left behind they during the mining operations. Archaeological findings confirm this historical thesis, but further research is necessary to discover the techniques and phases of the excavation of the gold. The passage of more than 20 centuries has permitted nature to retake possession of a substantial part of the terrirory. In fact, nowadays one can note that the perimeter of the territory is heavily colonized by relatively recent arboreal growth.
Amazingly, this growth has evolved into an unusual range of flora and fauna which have found their ideal habitat in the Bessa. In addition, the uncontrolled digging and removal of gravel and sand, undertaken to exploit the material already selected 2000 years ago, has caused very serious damage to the archaeological and environmental heritage of this unique area.
A new chapter is now opening up for the region - that of knowledge. Other studies will be needed to increase our historical knowledge but, in the meantime, the Bessa will be brought closer to the people by means of the opening of guided paths. In this way it will be possible to understand and safeguard a unique piece of world heritage.
The first historical references date back to the Greek historian Strabone and the Roman Pliny the Elder, who refer to "aurifondinae" i.e. the gold mines which the Romans had previously exploited in the "countryside around Vercelli" inhabited by a people called "ictimolo".
The archaeological remains seem to confirm that the gold mining took place for about a century between the end of the 2nd and the first century b.C. Thousands of men worked contemporaneously in this immense task. The exhaustion of the gold and the opening of new
mines which the Romans had discovered in countries to the north of the Alps caused end of the "golden" period of the Bessa.
The centuries of silence which fell over this barren part of the Biellese region certainly did not help to provide a correct historical interpretation and, despite the remarkable interest shown by historians from the 17th Century onwards, it was necessary to wait till our times to establish first certain facts, mainly because of the lack of any systematic research. The attention shown by the Piedmont Regional Government led to the establishment of the Special Reserve in 1985. With it came the first protective measures. In the same year, a publication edited by Giacomo Calleri cast light on the historical and archaeological aspects. This was followed in 1996 by a geological study by Franco Gianotti. A complete survey of the territory has been undertaken since 1997 with the aim of localising the archaeological resources of the Reserve.
While waiting for more precise research to confirm the hypotheses put forward, we should like with this note to help the visitors to "read" what they can see when they take a walk among the stone heaps. Each heap is a construction made from the rejected stones piled up during the excavation. In some areas they are up to 10 metres high and they vary in width from a few tens to hundreds of metres.
The finest sandy material containing the gold was channelled into deep ditches which, now re-colonised by vegetation, can be seen between one heap and another. In these canals, probably lined originally, with wood along which the water from the Viona stream flowed, gravel and sand were washed and separated from the gold in the form of specs of gold dust. The residue was channelled downhill and dumped into the Elvo and Olobbia rivers.
Many roads can be seen on the top of the heaps and these bear clear signs of the passage of carts and big sledges which probably were used for the construction of the cumuli themselves. Furthermore evidence can be found of some outer walls of small huts or temporary refuges, partially dug into the cumuli. There bear witness to the presence of simple dwellings or temporary refugees now covered in vegetation, which were probably introduced close to working zones.
Inside some of the remains coins as well as pottery fragments, oil-lamps and other material have been found. Some specimens of these findings are conserved in the Municipal Museum in Biella.
Other roads and perimeter walls date from more recent times and were built by farmers who exploited the few arable zones.
THE NATURALISTIC ASPECT
The characteristics of the Bessa make a very particular area from the point of view of geology, flora and fauna. The great balteo glacier which originated in the Aosta Valley transported a vast variety of rocks into the area, including naturally the specks of gold from the Pennine Alps. We can find granites, gneiss, mica-schist, eclogiti and diorite which the heaps of rocks display like a sample display case. The accumulation of fine and organic material at the base of the piles
of gave rise to a progressive colonisation by plants.
First the lichen appeared, then mosses and ferns, followed by heather and other shrubs. The predominant trees are oaks but there are also cherries, birches, ash, false acacia, chestnut and hazelnuts.
In spring, which is perhaps the best time for a visit to the Bessa, the flowering of the cherries is accompanied by the scent of the prunus trees while the hawthorn, cyclamen and dog rose add a suggestive touch of colour. The brightly coloured St. John's lily is a typical flower while the Pulsatilla montana and Stellaria bulbosa are much less common.
Some animals have found their ideal habitat here, in summer the place is teeming with insects, caterpillars and butterflies. Rodents are present in large numbers while foxes and hares are difficult to see. Among the reptiles there are adders, rat-snakes and Aesculapius's coluber. In addition to the usual birds typical of the Biellese woods there are a significant number of tawny and barn owls.
ACCESS AND SURROUNDINGS
The Bessa has a length of about 8 km with an average width of 1 km. It lies between Biella and Ivrea and is situated in the towns of Borriana, Cerrione, Mongrando and Zubiena on the orographic right of the river Elvo. It is part of the Serra Moraine, which is considered the largest in Europe.
From the Santhià exit on the A4 Turin-Milan motorway the trunk road SS 143 takes in a few kilometres will take you to the main access point in the town of Cerrione.
A provincial road winds though the houses of this old village which is dominated by the ruins of a castle and continues along the eastern edge of the Bessa all the way to Mongrando which lies on the Serra road that connects Biella and Ivrea.
The Serra offers many sights worthy of attention: at Magnano one can visit the Medieval Ricetto and the Romanesque church of S. Secondo. At lake Viverone archaeological finds relating to a palafitte bronze-age settlement have been found. There are hotels and sporting facilities on the shores of the lake, an excellent golf club at Magnano, an equestrian centre and facilities for farm holidays at Cerrione as well as camp sites at Viverone, Sala and Torazza. There are high-class restaurants and excellent trattorie in many of the towns close to the Bessa where one can taste the specialities of the local cuisine. At Roppolo in the scenic castle overlooking the lake is the Enoteca Regionale della Serra.
All the above is available to those who while taking advantage of a visit to the Bessa wish to treat themselves to a pleasant stay in the Biellese.
Destination: Provincia di Biella - Viverone, Serra e Bessa - Baraggia e Pianura - Cerrione - Mongrando - Zubiena - Borriana
Art-Culture, Mountain Biking, Trekking, Nature, Natural Park