The Dry Stone Walls Of The Langhe, A Heritage To Defend
Muretti a secco in Alta Langa

The Dry Stone Walls Of The Langhe,
A Heritage To Defend

On the Hills of Moscato – particularly along Valle Belbo, which leads to Alta Langa – there is a humble and meek, almost invisible, manmade masterpiece, whose construction and overall grandeur can be likened to the most famous historical monuments.


We are talking about dry stone walls: these masterpieces were built by the people of Langa in an effort to make their hills arable – and therefore habitable. Dry stone walls cannot be seen in the area of Alba and Monferrato, where hills are gentler and less impervious. These constructions begin to appear towards the high hills, where the Belbo and Bormida rivers flow and whose sources reach the Langhe along the border with the Ligurian Apennines.

Read our entry on the Hills of Moscato

In these wild and untouched lands, where lush woods and steep hills (called «rittani») dominate, there can be found small or large settlements perched halfway up, along the imposing edges of the hills or on top of the bricchi (the local term used to refer to the highest ridges). Surrounding these houses and small villages is an intricate maze of country roads, cultivated fields, farmhouses and ciabot («small sheds for tools»): a clear proof that agriculture and livestock raising were the primary economic activities in the area. But the most impressive structures are not located above the ground: they are in direct contact with it. These are the dry stone walls that stretch for hundreds of kilometers, built thanks to the patience and strength of men who, despite living in poverty, were able to create such imposing constructions.

The farmers of Alta Langa (as well as all the people who inhabit the steepest areas of the globe) developed the dry stone walling system in order to build terraces. They aimed to make the steepest ridges of the hills arable with less effort, as those were the areas with the best exposure. Thanks to the dry stone walls, the terraces of the Alta Langa could host hazel groves, vegetable gardens, orchards and, above all, vineyards, which represented one of the most profitable activities, at least before the phylloxera outbreak in the early 1900s, which almost completely wiped all vines out from this territory.

The extensive and exhausting work behind the construction of terraces (this operation involved thousands of square kilometers, completely “flattening” some hills) was “dry”, which meant that lime or cement were not used. A fundamental component of the walls was the Pietra di Langa, which is still abundantly found in the subsoil. This type of stone is largely present throughout the hilly area that from the Apennines reaches Santo Stefano Belbo, but, beyond the Tanaro river, in Roero, there are no traces of it at all. It is important to note that the Alta Langa originated from the lifting of ancient sea beds: the pressure was so high, it compacted the very fine grains of sand and turned them into rock. Roero, on the other hand, was formerly a coastal area, washed by an ancestral sea where the waters from the rivers of the Langhe spilled in: here the soils are loose, light and sandy and the sandstones are very rare, often found as erratic underground boulders.

Read our entry on Roero

Dry stone walls and terraces for the cultivation of vines


A PERFECT TECHNIQUE

The dry stone wall technique was perfect. The Pietra di Langa was “cut” into long overlapping strips whose total weight could contain the soil used for terracing. Dry stone walls also served as buttresses, necessary in the construction of communication routes and were often used as foundations for houses. The most number of stones, called lòse, was obtained when ploughing for new vineyards: when a streak of sandstone was reached, one would use a pick and a sledgehammer to slice the lòse and create a “quera” at the edge of the field, which consisted in a pile of stones. A ditch would then be dug, where the wall would be standing, until one reached the very compact marly tuff. They would then lay the stones in a row, favoring the “square” ones, which are very precious because they fit better together. This operation would be done without using mortar or cement, just soil: it was an art of interlocking, and the weight of the wall would be the one sustaining the construction.

A peculiar trait of a dry stone wall is its ability to let the earth “breathe”. As cement is not used to seal the stones, the cavities between them teem with life, forming a true cradle of biodiversity. Colonies of insects, herbs, lichens and small animals that are very precious for the balance of the ecosystem thrive in between the rocks.

DRY STONE WALLS, A HERITAGE OF HUMAN INGENUITY

After being neglected for more than a century, dry stone walling is slowly being rediscovered. This is a completely sustainable method of construction: local materials are utilized, it has no impact on the landscape and it perfectly combines hydrogeological efficiency with aesthetics. It is not easy to find people who are still capable of building dry stone walls, but there are schools and initiatives that work in Langa to preserve this tradition. We should mention the recently founded Scuola Alta Langa della Pietra a Secco, commissioned by the Unione Montana and presented in Cortemilia in 2019.

UNESCO is also actively contributing to the preservation of dry stone walling. In 2018, all dry stone walls in the world were declared as an Intangible cultural heritage and included in a special list of human techniques and practices that UNESCO defends as an integral part of a cultural background of the entire humanity, the fruit of human ingenuity that has defied the test of time.


Dry stone walls in Alta Langa, ideal habitat for rosemary



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