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Notes from Italy: Getting into the Mountains

Posted By Peter Bridges On January 10, 2008 @ 11:36 am In Italy,Nature,Non-Fiction Reviews | 2 Comments

Monte Velino, Italy [Photo by Mauro Simboli]

Some months after I reached Italy in 1966 I began to learn the Apennines. I got to know those mountains as few Americans had ever done. I had a mentor, whom I first met atop a mountain. Before that, though, my wife and I had walked up Monte Soratte, a relatively small outlier of the Apennines, with our children and the dog.

Say “Soratte” to a classicist and she or he may quote you Horace: Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte. For us, though, Soratte will never be the snow-covered mountain that the poet saw in winters colder than Italy has now. It is the good sliding place with a church on top. It is twenty miles north of Rome, and tourists driving up the autostrada to Florence can admire it as they pass, though not for the mountain’s great height. On its summit one is only 2263 feet above sea level—and so it seemed a good place to start family hiking in Italy.

It was a good place. The guidebook told us it would take an hour to reach the top from the village of San Oreste but we did it in less, and found a spectacular view and a crudely built little church. The guidebook said the church honored Sylvester, who had been Pope when Constantine became emperor in 312. Sylvester supposedly came to this mountaintop fleeing the emperor’s wrath. What seems more certain is that centuries earlier the Sabines had come up here to worship their god Soranus. What is absolutely certain is that in 1944 a brilliant general named Albrecht Kesselring ran, from his headquarters in a tunnel under Soratte, the Wehrmacht’s defense against Allied forces advancing toward Rome from the south, until Rome fell that June and Kesselring moved farther north. From the younger Bridges’ point of view, however, the main importance of Soratte lay in a long, slanting rock slab just outside the village where they could do a thirty-foot slide. The slide was well polished; I suspected Sabine backsides had begun using it two or three millennia earlier.

Soon after this my fellow political officer Goodwin Cooke proposed that the two of us climb a somewhat higher mountain, that Saturday. The mountain was Monte Gennaro, and Goody said he knew the way.

Gennaro rises on the edge of the Roman Campagna, the rolling country, all rough pasture until recent decades, that lies between Rome and the edge of the Apennines. The mountain has an unmistakable pyramidal shape that I had seen from hills in the city. On Saturday morning there was relatively little traffic as we drove out the Via Tiburtina and then, before reaching Tivoli, swung left. In a dozen miles more we came to the village of Marcellina, several hundred feet above the Campagna on the Rome-facing slopes of the local range, the Monti Lucretili, one peak of which is Gennaro. Goody drove to the end of the village, parked the car, and walked over to an old man who confirmed that this was the way to the Scarpellata, the way we wanted. Sure enough, a track began at street’s end, and soon we were walking up a dry stream bed in a ravine: the Scarpellata. It was a very rocky stream bed, and so hard going.

Though we found our way, there was much I did not know. I did not know that Neanderthals once lived hereabouts; that farmers first settled here six thousand years ago; that nearby, down on the Campagna, the Gauls defeated the Romans in 390 B.C. before going on to take Rome itself. I knew dimly that the Allied forces had fought the Wehrmacht in these parts in 1944, but not that the day before the Americans took Marcellina, the Germans rounded up all the village men they could find and shot them in reprisal for the killing of two German grenadiers. Nor did I take much note of some stonework across the stream bed; but Tenney Frank, great American classicist, had walked up the Scarpellata half a century earlier and noted how ancient farmers had built “elaborate dams of finely trimmed polygonal masonry,” sure proof of intense cultivation in this area in ancient times.

The two of us labored up our rocky way in the sun for over an hour, came up from the top of the stream bed onto a ridge, and then for twenty minutes more walked up a faint steep track to the mountaintop—and we could see all Italy, or so it seemed. We were four thousand feet above sea level. Rome lay twenty miles southwest and we could see the sea beyond it, dim in smog that would be worse in later years. Our view inland, from north to southeast, was all mountains. We could see no town among the mountains and only a curving road or two; there was no other sign of humans. It was the end of October and snow already lay on the highest peaks. The highest, Goody said, was the Gran Sasso, almost ten thousand feet. Lower slopes of many mountains were colored rusty brown, the leaves in great groves of beeches.

We were not alone up here. Three men were sitting on rocks a hundred yards away and we walked over to greet them. One, an American, Goody knew slightly. Another was Italian but I missed his name. The third was a wiry man with a mustache, probably in his late fifties, who introduced himself as Loewenthal. I knew who that was.

Goody Cooke and I turned back down the Scarpellata. We saw now what we had missed before, a path that followed the stream bed, a little above it and so lacking all the rocks we had had to navigate on our ascent. We got back to Rome that afternoon with both sore feet and a feeling of accomplishment. On Sunday I took my wife and children picnicking at the ruins of Ostia Antica to make up for abandoning them on Saturday. (No matter, said my wife; we had a fine time at the Villa Borghese.)

On Monday, I wrote a note to H.E. Dr. Max von Loewenthal-Chlumecky, Ambassador of Austria to the Italian Republic. Dear Mr. Ambassador, I said, I was honored to have the chance to meet you last Saturday on Monte Gennaro. I am only a second secretary in the American embassy; I am however also a man who loves mountains. I have heard that no one in Rome knows the Apennines better than you do. If you will permit me someday to come with you on an excursion, I will be happy to carry all the food and water.

Max Loewenthal phoned me and said by all means, come along next Sunday, and you don’t need to carry sandwiches; my driver, Rummler, takes care of all that. So it was that on a number of Sundays, his usual hiking day, I cruelly left my family and boarded the Austrian ambassadorial Chrysler for a day in the Apennines. We would roar out of town on the autostrada at a hundred miles an hour, and in an hour Rummler would leave us below some mountain, which we would traverse, to find on the other side Rummler in a meadow, with a picnic all laid out for us.

Loewenthal was an accomplished and a sad man. A career officer like all Austrian ambassadors, he had been sent as ambassador to Washington in the 1950s, during preparations for the 1955 Austrian State Treaty. To the surprise of many, in this treaty the Soviets agreed with the other allied powers that had occupied Austria since 1945—Britain, France, and the USA—to remove their armies and leave Austria neutral and free. (In Germany, in contrast, although the Berlin wall came down in late 1989 the last Soviet forces did not leave until 1994.)

Loewenthal did something—I never knew what—that was not to the liking of his government. He was removed from Washington and given Rome as a sop; not a bad sop, I thought. During his first three years in Rome, he told me, he spent weekends studying Italian art and architecture. Three years was enough art, and he began devoting weekends to the mountains. This had been going on for a long time when I met him; he had been in Rome a dozen years. He hiked without his family. His wife was ailing and died two years after I met him, of a cancer her Italian doctor had failed to find. His only daughter had married an Italian Maoist whom Max suspected of terrorist leanings, and he never saw her or her husband.

Some of his sadness, or bitterness, came from his acrimonious dealings with the Italians, whom Austria accused of not living up to the 1946 De Gasperi-Gruber agreement between the two countries’ foreign ministers. Italy had been a victor and Austria a loser in the First World War, and in 1918 Italy took South Tyrol from Austria and moved the Italian border up to the Brenner Pass. That left Italy with a largely German-speaking and restive province. After World War II, Austria regained its independence from the German Reich, and wanted South Tyrol (which the Italians called the Province of Bolzano) back again. No way, said Italy, but agreed that the province might have a degree of autonomy, notably use of the German language in schools, government administration, and courts of law.

Then Italy put on the brakes, fearing autonomy could be a prelude to new demands to return the province to Austria. A Tyrolese organization turned to terror and blew up a number of power lines. Italy responded by joining the province to the largely Italian-speaking Province of Trento that adjoined it to the south. And every week Max von Loewenthal marched into the foreign ministry in Rome to protest Italian delays and bad faith. (As for me, I heard the ministry’s side as well as Max’s, and sent Washington occasional reports on a situation which, having to do with stability in Europe, was not unimportant.)

In his first couple of Apennine years Max had hiked with a group of Italian friends, some of whom later became fellow hikers with my family and me. The group’s de facto leader was a successful, eccentric Rome lawyer named Tumedei. At least every other Sunday, Loewenthal told me, Tumedei got them lost, and finally he decided to quit the group and find his own way up mountains.

I would have liked to know the Avvocato Tumedei, but never met him. He had first been identified as eccentric when he began riding a bicycle to and from his office, a practice anathema to any proper Roman. His final eccentricities became known when he died. Romans in general are not distinguished for charitable works; Tumedei, a widower whose only child had spent years in a hospital, left all his money to Rome hospitals. He had always admired the British for providing their prime ministers with a residence, No. 10 Downing Street, and so he left his elegant large house near the ancient Milvian bridge to the Council of Ministers, to be a residence for Italian prime ministers. The last I heard, it was sitting empty, with one policeman at the door to guard it as it decayed.

If I had a guide and mentor in Max von Loewenthal, I had an inspiring fellow climber in John McArthur. He was the number-two (of just six officers, including the ambassador) in the New Zealand embassy in Rome. He liked mountains as much as I did, and he knew how to use ropes and carabiners, which I did not. One evening, after we rose from the table at some dull diplomatic dinner, the two of us began to compare notes. We found that we each admired, but had never climbed, Pizzo Cafornia. This is one of twin peaks in the Abruzzi region that together are known as Monte Velino. They rise like two great rocky breasts from the plain below, to over eight thousand feet above sea level.

Many writers have described Velino, including Edward Lear, best known for limericks. He traveled through the Abruzzi region in 1842-43 and sometime later wrote that

There was an old man of th’Abruzzi
So blind that he couldn’t his foot see;
When they said, ‘That’s your toe,’
He replied, ‘Is it so?’
That doubtful old man of th’Abruzzi.

Lear wrote more things than limericks. Long after he had driven through these mountains, he recalled how he had seen the snowy peaks of Velino, and their menacing clouds.

John McArthur and I climbed Pizzo Cafornia on an October Sunday with our two sons, John and David, each twelve years old. It was a major undertaking but at least we were assured of good weather. Velino proper and its twin Cafornia are often covered with clouds that can be not just menacing but dangerous, when they lower the temperature and hide the way.

It was seven a.m. and sunny when we parked above the village of Massa d’Albe, put on our packs, and began to walk. It was going to be a long walk, or rather climb. To reach the top meant ascending 1530 meters, five thousand vertical feet. It was probably more than I had ever done in a day, and certainly more than David had—although when he was five, he and I had (with a number of stops for chocolate and water) done a thousand meters’ climb in Bavaria. That day we had been able to ride down the mountain in a cable car. Today there would be no ride; we would come down the same way we went up.

The way was easy to see. Our first target was a spring, the Fonte Canale, where there were several trees, the last ones we would pass, and a herd of sheep grazing on steep grass. Soon it became hard slogging. I did not feel better when I watched young John McArthur, armed with a net, go running off for butterflies, doing three feet for every one of mine. Eventually we got to the long, rocky ridge that leads leftward up to the top. It took us over four hours from our car to the peak, but we got there. Velino’s twin peak was just a couple of hundred yards away and there was a saddle between the two peaks that would be easy to walk; but we had done enough. We sat satisfied on smooth limestone, eating our sandwiches and looking down at the beech-covered, rust-colored country a mile below us. To our left was the flat Fucino basin that had been a lake until our sometime Rome neighbors the Torlonias drained it in the 1870s, enriching them but not the local peasants. Beyond the basin was Pescina, the hometown of Ignazio Silone who described in his first novel, Fontamara, the desperate plight of the peasants.

David and I got home that evening very tired, happy, thirsty, and hungry. Together with Mary Jane and our daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, we went to dinner in our favorite trattoria, da Luigi, in the Piazza Sforza Cesarini. David concluded dinner (as did I) with a large helping of Monte Bianco, the dessert that was the trattoria’s pride. In form it perhaps resembled Mont Blanc, but the vanilla meringue and chocolate were rather sweeter than that mountain’s schists and gneiss. I have gone back to Luigi’s several times in recent years, most notably for my 75th birthday. The food is fine and the prices reasonable but they no longer offer Monte Bianco, which I do not need at my age; but, Lord, it was delicious.

The next week we found ourselves at dinner again with the McArthurs. You know, he said, we still have the other Velino peak to do. I know, I said; maybe next June, if the snow is gone by then? Why not now? he said. I’ve got two colleagues coming from Paris this next weekend, and I’ve climbed with them in the Southern Alps; they’re good.

So it was that the following Sunday morning I found myself again at Massa d’Albe, with three trim New Zealanders, John McArthur and friends Tom and Alan. There is a way up Monte Velino from its back side, that I found years later started from a higher point and was not difficult. Today we were going up the front side and our way, known as the Canalone or big ravine, would be difficult, and not just because we had to do, as on Cafornia, a vertical mile. One of my new comrades, Tom, had brought a rope. You never know, old cock, he said.

The way went left from the Fonte Canale to the bottom of the steep ravine. In an hour and a half we got to the first of three especially steep pitches. On one of them we used the rope. Tom roped up himself and me and he went ahead, with no one above to stay him. I followed him, a difficult two hundred feet or more, up cracks and between boulders, to a point a little less steep. I unroped and threw the rope’s end down to McArthur and Alan and one by one they came up. Not so bad—until I looked down. After four hours or so we reached the summit. Time for lunch. It was cold and windy, and as we broke out the provisions in our packs I began to shiver. It was the early stages of hypothermia, though I had never heard the word. Besides the shivering I could not talk straight. I was rational—or so it seemed—but my jaw muscles were just not functioning as they should. One fellow climber had brought a little stove, and in five minutes I was gulping hot soup and that helped. We finished soup and sandwiches (with water and a little cognac) and started across the saddle to Pizzo Cafornia, and I felt fine.

Nor did I ever have hypothermia again—until, thirty years later, my wife and I tried Velino again, for what would be my fourth time, up still another steep way. It was August, and in August I sweat. We stopped at a little hut a thousand vertical feet below the peak. The hut was locked, but its wall sheltered us from the wind. I had foolishly worn a cotton undershirt instead of one that wicked moisture outward. In the lee of the hut I stripped off my undershirt, which was sopping—and I began to shiver. I knew what that meant. No Velino, I said as best I could. We had to go down, and I led my wife down a slope of loose scree that was so steep I would never have attempted it, any other day. We made it down, and continued for two miles to our car along a slowly descending and spectacular gola, a narrow “throat” with walls that rose a thousand feet or more on either side. Thank heaven, we did not have to climb them.

Shivers or not, those are good memories. I never forgot young McArthur and his butterfly net. He is now Deputy Secretary in New Zealand’s foreign ministry and, he tells me, he still has specimens he caught on Pizzo Cafornia, with his net that he has carried more recently to the Amazon and the Himalayas.


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