Many fans of Lake Garda consider the south-western shore of the lake to be the most beautiful and lively part of the Lake Garda landscape. That may be a matter of taste because beauty (and intrigue) is in the eye of the beholder, as they say; however, the enthusiasm for the southwest is understandable. It is here that you can find small towns with a rich history, like Salò, interesting wine regions around Moniga del Garda, and the last lemon groves like the Limonaia in Gargnano. You can also find the parklands of Gardone Riviera above the park of Vittoriale degli Italiani, the former estate of the writer and national hero Gabriele D’Annunzio. Historically, the Paper Mill Valley is also a highly interesting destination. Not far from Gardone Riviera, near Toscolano Maderno, a narrow valley pushes between the steep, green mountains of the Alto Garda Bresciano Nature Park, which has a very special past. Previously, up to 40 small factories produced paper in this narrow valley, and the water for the production was supplied by the Toscolano stream, which also gave the town its name. Of the many paper factories, mostly only ruins remain, picturesque artefacts along the way.
Museo della Carta: the journey into a fascinating past
Trilingual information boards and the Museo della Carta – the paper museum a few hundred metres down the valley – tell the unique story of paper production in this valley, which was first documented around 1380 and finally ended in 1962. The landscape here is beautiful, with Monte Pizzocolo rising steeply in the background, which at 1581 metres is the highest mountain in the southwest of Lake Garda. From the centre of Toscolano Maderno, there is a path, which was initially a small road, that leads to the Valle delle Cartiere and is well signposted. After three tunnels cut into the rock, there is a car park where the actual trail begins. A few hundred metres further on, the Paper Museum, set up in an old factory, informs visitors with videos, displays and photos about the once laborious production of paper in this somewhat remote valley. In noise and heat, and certainly also stench, workers produced the high-quality handmade paper from rags, which were cut up and watered in large vats after maceration, a kind of fermentation. With a series of large wooden hammers driven by the stream, the rags were broken up and smashed into a fine pulp – the raw material for the finest papers that were made after the sheets were pressed and dried.
In demand from the Middle Ages: handmade paper from Toscolano
In the past, the machines were driven directly by water wheels and then by motors with the necessary electrical energy also being supplied by the stream. The Toscolano must have been a mighty and torrential mountain stream in former times, until a mountain reservoir tamed it. The hike passes many ruins of buildings that nature is reclaiming, and the path climbs gently in the narrow valley, always following the stream. As you go past the beautiful former Maffizzoli entrepreneurial villa, also gnawed by the ravages of time, you will find the ruins of other factory buildings that used to stand close together. The vaults and round arches of the factory foundations are often made of fieldstone and come in all sizes, and the ruins often look like remains from ancient times. Wild meadows and flowers now grow in the former crumbling factory buildings, creating a very beautiful but often melancholic sight. The path ends at a small green lake formed by the stream. If you want to leave at a leisurely hike, simply take the way back through the valley. There is also a signposted circular trail that leads steeply up to the village of Gaino, a quiet and typical Italian village that is surrounded by many olive trees. The path from there back into the valley offers spectacular views of Lake Garda with Toscolano-Madero on its shore.
End of a great artisanal tradition: The valley of factory ruins
It is hard to imagine that since the 14th century, this narrow valley has been home to artisanal businesses producing renowned handmade and high-quality paper. The sheets of paper were traded as far as the Orient and are still easily recognisable today, thanks to their characteristic watermarks. A severe slump in paper production in the 17th century resulted in a plague epidemic that killed half the inhabitants of Toscolano and Maderno. The industrialisation of paper production then led to the end of paper production in the Valle della Cartiere – the artisanal factories could not keep up with modern manufacturing methods.
The short walk into the valley of the tamed Toscolano is very pretty and offers a typical landscape on the Brescia shore of Lake Garda. With the historical background of the didactically well-designed Museo della Carta, the paper museum provides in a relaxed feature. This walk then becomes even more impressive on the journey back to the beginning of paper production.