Triora: witches and stones
A sense of expectation hangs in the air, a mysterious – or maybe mystical – feeling that something is about to happen. Your steps ring dry on the stones and become shorter as you struggle up the cobbled slopes of Triora. The atmosphere is pregnant with a sense of time without place, and it invariably surprises the traveler who innocently heads inland from the Ligurian coast. You couldn’t predict anything that you find here. In this day and age, we think of Liguria as nothing more than a strip of gorgeous shoreline, with a railway running behind it and hotel hedgerows fronting the rich blue sea; but it’s here, away from all that, that you find the myths and legends. The salt deposits, the ferrymen, the smugglers, the borderlands. The witches.
It’s quite bewildering, the web of ravines, passageways and the millennia-old piles of stone. Whether it’s the spiralling twists and turns that lead you to the top, past the bridge of Molini di Triora; whether it’s the names of the area’s extraordinary produce: Taggia olives, Pigna beans, the crookneck pumpkins. And the wine, oh, the wine, the fiery Rossese that is produced at Dolceacqua but which splatters all Liguria with its red. And the border, just a few miles away by road – but what difficult roads, more like footpaths.
Or it might be the idea of the witches that is the most unsettling. Towards the end of the 1500s – when Triora was an important Genoese stronghold – the town was struck by a crippling famine. This famine was ascribed to evil goings-on, and a good twenty women were imprisoned on charges of witchcraft. They were accused – by men, naturally – of working on behalf of the Devil. Under the horrendous tortures that the inquisitors were happy to administer, they confessed as anyone would confess under the same torments. Other women were implicated and imprisoned. The judges sent them to be tried in Genoa, and a number of them were executed. The furor around the whole trial reached the ears of the Doge of Genoa, and thence of the Pope himself. The chronicles of the time tell us that men flocked forward with accusations, but from then on it all shades into a nightmarish blur of hatred, suspicion and suffering. Some say that those who escaped execution managed to make it back to Triora as free women, but we have no way of knowing.
What we do know is that the home of the Megia family, which served as a prison during those disturbing times, is now the so-called Casa delle Streghe (Witches’ House), and it’s more than a mere curiosity. A walk round Triora will leave the visitor with peculiar pictures imprinted on their eyes and brain, however much the sheer beauty of the place belies the stupidity of men, a story reiterated time and again over the centuries. The only thing that can be said for sure about the witches of Triora is that their hometown will not fail to bewitch you.
"...one night, spurred on by the Devil, she tried to flee by taking a strip of clothing and using it to climb down the side of the building. But she fell, and was found outside the window.”
[from the trial documents, 1588]