Valle Seriana by bike

A few years ago a beautiful cycling path that goes up Valle Seriana was opened. Initially limited to Cene, it was later extended and now arrives as far as Clusone, the most important town of the valley.

The late 1800’s saw the inauguration of a railway that connected Bergamo with Clusone, but the train service was discontinued in the late 1960’s to be replaced by coaches. Gone the railway, people wouldn’t take long to realise what a mistake it had been to do away with a means of transport that was not affected by traffic congestion. So the idea of setting up a light railway was taken into consideration and since 2009 a tram has been shuttling between Bergamo and Albino, a distance of about a third of the original line.

At least, part of the old track has been converted into a pleasant cycling path that starts in Ranica at about 300 m on sea level and 30 km further reaches Clusone at 650 m. On Sunday I set out on this track that winds its way through the populated valley bottom, crosses the river several times on dedicated footbridges and then sets itself free from greater Bergamo to let you catch glimpses of relaxing mountain views.

The urban sprawl has been uninterrupted since the 1960’s. In the last decades more and more people have chosen to settle out of town, willing to take on the burden of commuting in exchange for more space, and maybe a small garden, at lower costs. But during my bike ride I could see that the history of modern settlements in this valley dated back to a century earlier.

In fact, the landmark that struck me most were the ancient brick chimneys that mark the spot of old industrial sites. The Seriana Valley, which could rely on the train connection between Bergamo and Milan since 1857, and later on its own railway from 1884, met the basic requirement for the establishment of a profitable textile industry: good trasport facilities. These were not just by train but also by road, if you think that the second motorway to be built in Italy was from Bergamo to Milan, in 1927. Besides, the availablily of cheap labour and hydromechanic or hydroelectric energy were other determining factors.

When we say globalisation is a phenomenon of the present, we should not forget that the economy has hardly ever known any boundaries. The investors who came to Bergamo in the 18th century were not just from Lombardy, but also from Switzerland. Actually, the first record of Swiss presence in Bergamo is in the 16th century when Protestants felt unwelcome in their Catholic cantons of origin and found a safe haven in the relative tolerance of a city that was then governed by Venice. The climate was more liberal than in Milan, at the time under Spanish rule.

The boom of the textile industry was indeed fostered by a second migratory wave formed by investors who set up cotton mills and were responsible for the industrial development in a land of hard-working people. Silk was also an important cash crop and entire families of peasants eked out their income by breeding the worms and selling the cocoons to the spinning mills. After a period of crisis in the 1850’s due to an epidemic of the silkworm, production recovered and thrived up to the 1930’s. Italian silk contributed with a conspicuous share to world production, competing with Japan, on the rise, and China, on the wane.

All this history is still to be seen in Val Seriana, but the last decades have turned a page on the textile past of the valley. If production moved here 150 year ago, now it has forsaken the valley, indeed the Old Continent. First it was the spinning mills, then the weaving mills and finally even the making of garments that had to shut down in the face of harsh competition. Only high quality production have resisted.

The cycling path skirts historic industrial sheds and passes in sight of the ageing brick chimneys, interesting evidence of a finished era.