Carmine Superiore is a tiny village sitting on a high outcrop of rock on the west side of northern Italy's Lago Maggiore. Looking up from the lake, the Romanesque church is visible among the trees, and looking down from the three-metre-square ‘piazza’ you can see to the east Lombardy and to the north Switzerland.
History The village was founded in about 975 as a fortress belonging to a noble family from the nearby settlement of Cannobio. In times of danger, it was used as a place of refuge for the people of the area because of its position high on a rock and because of its secure walls.
The building of the Romanesque church was started in around 1330. At this time the village population swelled in numbers and the whole area formed part of the Duchy of Milan, governed by the Visconti family. About 100 years later the campanile was finished, and the church was enlarged with the addition of the upper part, in order to take account of the growing population.
The church was dedicated by the Duchy of Milan to the cult of the German San Gottardo. San Gottardo was invested with the power to protect against leg problems and gout.
The church is covered in stunning frescoes both inside and out. For the most part they are thought to have been painted in the 15th century by artists from across the water in Lombardy. In the 17th century, the inside of the church was whitewashed with lime and the church was used as a plague hospital. It was not until 1932 that the frescoes were rediscovered.The small piazza next to the church, from which there are such fantastic views of the lake and surrounding area (this, for instance), was used as a burial ground for the people of Carmine.
For hundreds of years, Carmine Superiore was densely populated and was the centre of a region that was intensively cultivated. After the First and Second World Wars, however, it was gradually abandoned. In the last 30 years or so, Carmine Superiore has been ‘rediscovered’ by the descendants of the original inhabitants, by local residents and by a group of German designers and architects fascinated by the ancient architecture and the wild, seeming isolation of the place. Today, almost all the houses have been reconstructed or restored.
There is no vehicle access to Carmine Superiore, unless you happen to have a helicopter handy. The village is reached by the ancient mule track that was once the main highway along the lake. The closest car park is at lake-level at Carmine Inferiore. From here it is a fairly stiff 10- to 15-minute walk up a vertical rise of 100m. Carmine Superiore can also be reached along the Sentiero delle Genti from Cannobio (about 1 hour 50 minutes) or Cannero Riviera (about 1 hour) or Viggiona (about 30 munutes straight down the hillside, more if you take the easy route through the woods).
For more on living beyond the reach of the almighty car, click here.