The lakes that abut the Swiss-Italian border are famous for their authentic villages and the unaltered lifestyles of the residents. In fact, wandering into San Pernatino, on the shore of Lake Pozzanghera, Italy’s smallest lake, feels like being transported 300 years into the past. Camels pull carts along the ancient cobbled roads, the old sit on the streets outside their houses in the traditional ‘in attesa di morire’ poses and the local markets only sell fresh produce.
The Romans were the first to settle San Pernatino seeing it as a strategic border town. Its high elevation and access to fresh water made it an ideal base to launch cross-border attacks against the Oblerones, the tribes of western Switzerland.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the descendants of the original soldiers continued to farm the surrounding countryside and due to the high altitude and nutritious top toil, were able to excel in growing root vegetables, especially the prized turnips. Today San Pernatino turnips are sold all over the world.
When entering the village from the south, don’t be worried by the tumbledown state of the cottages, they are still inhabited.
Italian law has ensured these buildings have a preservation order that doesn’t allow villagers to alter any aspect of the cottages including repairs, thus insuring the authenticity of the village.
Following Via Faccia di Merda you will eventually arrive in the town square. Each Monday, there’s a quaint turnip market where turnips can be purchased for as little as 5 Euro each.
Try to haggle with the locals, you won’t get anywhere but it’s expected and actually encouraged. They derive great enjoyment from watching tourists try to beat the farmers’ prices down.
Crossing the square you will see the baroque style Church of St. Rapa. This impressive church is dedicated to the violent martyrdom of St. Rapa. Through his teachings the village quickly embraced Christianity, however the pagan tribes of surrounding villages objected to this new religion.
Legend has it that a group of six men grabbed St. Rapa while he prayed and forced turnips into his anus until he ruptured and bled to death. The rose-brown -tinted stone of the street outside the church is said to be the last residue of his blood.
April 7 is St. Rapa’s Day, celebrated with the Feast of the Turnips. On this day, the Church of St. Rapa displays its most sacred relics, the femur, several teeth and a rib of the saint. Although these bones bear a remarkable resemblance to those of a donkey, St. Rapa was hideously disfigured suffering from Acrodysostosis, a rare bone disease, and this is the generally accepted explanation for the misshapen relics.
A Bridge Too Far
Our final destination and probably San Pernatino’s most famous landmark is the Ponte Merda. The bridge was commissioned by Pope Durban in 1574 in response to accusations, during the Council of Leicester, that San Pernatino residents were not afforded proper access to the Church of St. Rapa. In 1572, a drainage ditch was dug to stop flooding in the village. This ditch did not have a bridge and church attendance fell sharply.
The bridge itself is of wooden construction. A large, smooth oak panel spans the ditch, noticeably with no railings on either side. Sadly the original bridge was stolen in 1773 and is said to now form part of the roof of the local tavern. A replica of the bridge was added after much discussion in 1803 and remains intact.
There are direct rail links to San Pernatino from Rome. If you are staying on the Swiss side of the lake, take any train to Rome and change onto the Pozzanghera Express. From Pozzanghera station you can take a horse and cart to the village or walk north for about three miles. If you are staying south of the lake, take any train to Zurich, then the Rome Direct and from there again you can catch the Pozzanghera Express.
Finally, there have been rumors of tourists going missing while visiting San Pernatino. We have been assured by the Italian Tourist Ministry this is just coincidence. At the time of writing this article, meat is only available in San Pernantino during the high tourist season.