The alpine village of Zonca has been inhabited at least 400 years (some houses may be considerably more ancient). The village is located in the Italian Alps close to the cities of Villadossola and Dommodossola. It lies at the heart of what could plausibly evolve into a larger network of self-sufficient, ecological communities. As agriculture in the area was gradually replaced by industry (particularly mining and steel production) villages higher up in the mountains were gradually abandoned. Today, many Italians maintain their hereditary homes for short visits but prefer to live lower down in the valleys near to main roads. As a consequence, many alpine villages are presently derelict and houses in urgent need of repair.
Zonca is situated just a few kilometers outside the “Parco Naturale dell’Alta Valle Antrona,” a nature reserve encompassing several villages, including Cheggio and Bordo (a Buddhist community providing courses and meditation retreats). For more information on Bordo check out their page at bordo.org
Italian authorities have recently tightened building laws to prevent the destruction of traditional buildings by an influx of outsiders attempting to repair and reconstruct buildings, sometimes using new materials and ignoring traditional styles. Vegetarians and animal lovers will also be happy to note that authorities have introduced a ban on hunting for most of the region.
Zonca is difficult to locate on maps due perhaps to its dilapidated state. It can be found at the end of the footpath that begins right behind the 11th century Church of Seppiana, a village situated right on the main road to Villadossola (see map).
The two main areas of Zonca
Zonca is divided into two distinct parts (upper & lower) by a path of about 50 meters and a stream.
Hiking in the mountains
A network of reasonably well maintained footpaths connects Zonca to its neighboring villages, Cheggio, Montescheno and Bordo.
Many of the current inhabitants of these villages are Swiss and German nationals who have been settling in the region since the 1980’s, attracted by its clean air and water, the beautiful mountains streams and lakes and the possibility of acquiring cheap land and beautiful houses.
Paths & Parking
From Seppiana you can reach Zonca by different routes. The first of these is from the parking place next to the Church. Parking is free but make sure you leave space for other vehicles. The second approach is by road, however make sure you have an agreement to use the road and keep in mind that it is in bad condition. Half way to the end of the road there is a parking place. There is a third approach (not on the map). Turn off for Montescheno and find the beginning of the path beyond the parking lot in Barboniga (where there is a small shop).
(In the interests of privacy real names are abbreviated)
SW owns the largest unified property immediately adjacent to the central “square” (which is really a garden). He also uses or owns rooms on the steps around the square, as well as some other houses, including one used as chicken coop and sheds/haylofts. SW is from Switzerland and was closely involved in founding the community of Bordo. Consequently, he is pretty knowledgeable about a lot of the practical details, including construction and renovation, organising events, legal matters, local customs and procedures for acquiring property. The latter in particular can be tricky because properties are often owned by more than one person or family. SW’s brother, KW, owns several houses around the village including one adjacent to the central “square”. KW comes to Zonca every now and then..
SF from Denmark owns a house at the top of the village and adjacent land, which he is terracing. Right at the back of the village there is a house belonging to T that has been wonderfully restored. It is almost hidden from view. Behind it there are a few level areas suitable for camping.
Lower part: (this is the area closest to the parking lot and road. It can be reached via steps that lead up to the Church of Zonca).
A Swiss family own the house immediately behind and below the church. It has a metal roof and they are cultivating the adjacent lands. J, from Germany rents a house right at the center of this part of the village just next to the terrace where there is a common table for meals.
Apart from this there are several newcomers including E who owns a house above the lower part of the village, and L who owns a house towards the end of the main path through Zonca. P and N live near the central "plaza" and work with goats but they are up in the alps during the summer. And H and her son, P own a house at the top of the lower part of the village. H also cares for goats.
In all, Zonca has about 15-20 regular inhabitants and a number of people who own houses but are only sporadically present, during holidays for example. Apart from that, a number of local Italian home owners still visit the village, though none of them actually live there anymore.
Several properties are either abandoned or well on their way to becoming ruins. Often the foundations are completely overgrown. This dilapidated state is of course a challenge to the community since houses are built very close to each other or even supporting each other and the collapse of any construction may cause wider problems.
The main challenge for the community appears to be that of preventing roofs from caving in or leaking. Leaks cause floors and beams to rot and this causes walls to shift and collapse. Roofs are made of heavy beams of chestnut or oak directly from the mountain above. These need to be bought from the locals and felled, after which they are left to the elements for some years until the outer bark can be scraped off exposing the tough inner core. Then they need to be dragged down to the village using a chain or by helicopter! SW told me that getting the trees down to the village is best be done in winter when the slopes are slippery with snow. Not for the fainthearted!
Another challenge is that of repairing bulging and collapsing walls. In some instances this necessitates completely reconstructing walls or devising ways to stop them from shifting. Traditionally people would just build arches to support walls against neighboring houses. Their works was hampered by the difficulty of procuring square blocks of stone: quarried blocks are available, but they may have been too expensive or too heavy to be carried up the mountain. Also lintels for windows and doors need replacing. Many lintels have cracked and some are made of wood that has rotted through. Replacing them necessitates bracing walls so they don’t collapse.
Another challenge is that of improving the existing cable lifts. The old ones need to be wound so the cable doesn’t get tangled as it rolls onto the winch. The older winches use three phase electricity which is expensive and cannot be provided by solar power. Modern winches run on 220 volts.
That said, materials and tools are available locally and there are plenty of people to help especially during the warm seasons.
Zonca presently has one solar powered boiler that feeds two private houses and a solar shower behind the village in the pasture. The “Casa Ambientale” is one of the bigger houses and has a cellar bathroom with hot water, however the house is privately owned and access to its amenities only available upon agreement with the owner. There is hot water from a solar boiler at the main tap in the upper part of Zonca, however this only works when weather permits and the boiler is drained in the winter.
One home in the upper part of the village has solar electric panels. Electricity from the grid is also available as three phase and two phase 220 volts.
An Internet and telephone connection was recently established by placing a repeater across the valley at the same level as Zonca. There is currently one router shared by three homes. Because the Internet connection is used for work, access to Internet is by prior agreement only. A wifi password is available however there has been talk of restricting wifi access to certain times and for specific activities only (no downloading movies and apps).
Mobile phone reception:
Reception is patchy but there are areas within the village where it is good enough to talk. 3G is extremely patchy and slow.
In Zonca there are various possibilities for accommodation including renting from SW (see contacts page) who has either one big room in the main house or a smaller room with double bed and stove in the neighboring property.
There are several guest rooms available throughout the village. Contact Brigitte for details. In addition it is possible to camp on the pastures behind the village, though even the most suitable campsites have a slight grade.
Zonca can be reached from the Swiss border via a main road that runs from Brig, over the Simplon pass (Sempione in Italian) through Domodossala to Villadossola (look for the signs “Valle de Antrona”). There is a quicker route through the mountains by train (confusingly referred to as a “ferry” on GPS equipment). It is also possible to drive through the Gothard tunnel which is ±17 kilometers long.
For those arriving or leaving by train there is a shuttle from Domodossola (an international train station) to Brig and in Brig there are trains heading north (Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands etc.) From Villadossola there are local busservices (see the Bordo website for details). From Milan airport to Villadossola is about 90 kilometers by car. There is also apparently a bus service that takes a little over 1 hour. In short, for international travelers arriving by air, the nearest airport is Milan.
Zonca is situated at an altitude of ± 750 meters above sea level. The village can be accessed in two ways: from behind the church in Seppiana (which is on the main road leading all the way up the valley) there is a footpath leading up to Zonca. It is a 45 minute climb, relatively steep in places though well paved, but not suitable for anyone who is not in good physical condition. The path is bisected towards the end by a road which must be followed to the parking place where it resumes (on the right) for another 50 meters until you reach the church of Zonca.
In addition, there is a paved road that starts just beyond Seppiana (up the valley). This is by far the better option for people who are not in good health. The road has a barrier on it and is only accessible to locals or to those who have made arrangements (see contact page). This road is not in good condition and is rather steep. Parts are unpaved and potholed. The road ends at a parking place where about 5 cars can park. From there you can find a path leading up to the church of Zonca.
The map below shows only the last stage of your journey, from Villadossola up the valley to Seppiana.
Approach from Villadossola
In Villadossola look for signs to Valle de Antrona and follow the route up through several villages. The route takes you through an open tunnel.
Consider doing shopping at the local market in Villadossola on Tuesdays or at the Coop near the roundabout at the turnoff from the road to Dommodossala.
There is also a Carrefour on the main road to Dommodossola.
Zonca is entirely surrounded by ancient terraces, although many have subsided and are overgrown. The area offers good prospects for permaculture gardening. Although winters can be cold temperatures rarely go down to -15° C. There is often snowfall, but winters are generally short and sunny. Zonca is situated on the sunny side of the Alps. It is possible to cultivate a huge variety of fruit and vegetables. There are also many fruit trees that have been there for a long time. Some of these older fruit trees appear to suffer from some sort of infestation, possibly related to climate change. Gardeners will have to sort out which species are most resistant.
Apparently the weather in Zonca is not warm enough for citrus. On the other hand, the entire village is full of grapes and brambles. Deer from the mountain come into the village and munch their way through pretty much everything if given the opportunity.
I recently saw a list of at least 50 edible plant species naturally occurring on the mountain. The list did not include mushrooms which are probably abundant in Autumn.
Another source of food and possibly income could be chestnuts that grow abundantly and are ripe in September.
Some members of the community keep chickens (which requires constant vigilance against foxes) and goats. This requires extra care to prevent goats getting into gardens. Unfortunately this necessitates some fencing.
Wildlife you may encounter in Zonca includes boars, squirrels, deer, badgers, weasels, rats, mice and snakes (yes, poisonous varieties too). In addition there are lizards, salamanders, scorpions (tiny), toads, owls, bats, hawks, eagles, fish, hedgehogs. Mosquitoes not too bad, bees and a few big wasps that seem to feed predominantly on fruit.
Although it is very silent on the mountain the natural world adds quite a cacophony. At dusk and in the night you can hear the owls out hunting. In the morning campers may awake to a chorus of birdsong.
Winters are relatively mild in the valley’s micro-climate. Fig trees survive due to the abundance of sun on this side of the valley. Temperatures seldom drop below -10° centigrade, and then only briefly. From October on the amount of snow increases significantly on the highest peaks. This snow remains visible even until August. However, the valley of Antrona was formerly known for the three “F’s” — Fome, Freddo e Fumo —, meaning hunger, cold and smoke! During cold spells humidity increases significantly.
As a matter of interest, Viganella, a village just a bit further up the valley is situated in a bend on the river and has almost no sun during winter months. Local authorities have placed a mirror on the mountain to reflect sunlight into the village.
Although winters are relatively mild, houses were traditionally not very warm and required constant heating from hearths. Many homes had stables beneath them and the warmth from goats provided some protection against cold but it is only now, with newcomers and their relative wealth, that homes are being properly insulated and heated with modern rocket stoves that combust wood properly.
To get an idea what the village looks like in the snow, here are some videos made by BW in her first winter in Zonca:
About three cable lifts reach into various parts of the village. The lifts run from the main road down in the valley behind Seppiana. They are privately owned and can only be operated from above. And they can only be used for lifting materials, not people. If you want to lift materials, make arrangements before arriving.
Although Zonca does have the feel of a community at certain times, houses are privately owned and there is presently no structure or organisation representing the community as a whole.
This is important for visitors to be aware of since it means that you must make arrangements for your stay with people who live in the village and are present when you arrive. There is no ‘central office’ or administration.
Please be aware that cable lifts are expensive to operate. Hauling gear up from the main road costs about €6.- euro in electricity!