Sunday, September 4, 2011

Paper? They made paper here?

Valle dei Mulini, Amalfi

Old mill ruins
Where I come from, paper mills are the devil’s spawn. They gobble up old growth forest, emit stinking fumes and pollute the sea. So I was pretty surprised to hear that the narrow, lush valley leading upwards from the Italian town of Amalfi was named the Valle dei Mulini - the Valley of the Mills - and that for many centuries it had been filled with paper mills. In fact, there’s still one going today. But this paper wasn’t made from wood pulp: the raw material was rags - cotton, linen or other fibre waste. The rushing waters coming down the steep valley was ideal for driving the mill machinery (in fact, iron works also set up in the valley too). 

Setting out from the town of Amalfi - vineyards everywhere

Even more surprisingly, all this began in the middle ages - in the 12th century.  Amalfi was in its heyday as the first of the four great Italian Maritime Republics (with Pisa, Genoa & Venice coming later) and the Merchants of Amalfi were sailing far and wide around the mediterranean and to Asia Minor and North Africa, plying their profitable trades. They learnt the paper-making process from the Arabic Moors, and found the lighter paper much more practical than sheepskin parchment. It is said that the King of Naples in the 1200s preferred the more durable sheepskin for official documents, but the merchants liked the new paper for their transactions. By the early 1800s, there were dozens of mills in the valley. Sadly, catastrophic flooding in the 1950s, and economic changes, closed most of them.

Cooling off

Now the Valle dei Mulini leads to a protected forest area, and makes a wonderful, cool, lush walk on a hot Amalfiani day, where you can wander through the eerie ruins of the old mills, and wade in the cold water of the stream. Refresh yourself here for the climb up to the ancient villages of Pontone and Scala, through trees laden with lemons and vines with ripening grapes. 

But don’t forget to inspect the beautiful hand-made paper still on sale in one or two shops in Amalfi. The thick, textured cream paper is luxury itself. Buy it in loose leaves or beautifully hand-bound in leather covers. Mmmm....fatto a mano è bella! (scusa il mio italiano povero).

Looking down on Amalfi from Pontone

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