There is a broad mountain in northeastern Italy, south of the Alps and north of the Venetian plain, that is famous for cycling and war.
The name itself, Monte Grappa, actually brings to mind a drink. Grappa is a type of aquavite, or water of life, which was originally supposed to have medicinal properties. It’s not very clear what those are now, exactly, other than killing the effects of the overly strong stimulant in your cup of coffee if you decide to wash it down with a shot of one of the many alcoholic beverages that Italians call ammazzacaffè (literally, kill coffee).
Grape, Grappa. They must have a common root. They do, or at least the fruit and the drink do, as they appear to derive from the Germanic Krappa (hook or bunch of fruit that looks like a hook – the Italian grappolo comes from the same word and refers to a bunch of grapes). But there are no vineyards on this massive massif in the Veneto.
In the upper meadows of Grappa, elevation 1,745 metres (5725 feet), you find: sheep, cows, a few chamois, some birds, and a lot of rocks. So the geographical name might actually come from the pre-Latin (i.e. primitive) Krapp, which has to do with those rocks. Now the blunt primeval word could work if you are English speaking and frustrated. Mount Krap might be what you say when you are scaling it in the rain or fog and haven’t trained enough. Translated, however, it loses flavor. Mount Rocky is just subpar. So we’ll stick with the word that rolls off our tongues more easily.
Cycling and war. Well, war comes first. Monte Grappa has a grim side, there is simply no escaping it. To begin with, what the name says to many Italians, actually, is ‘World War I’, or ‘defending your country’. The military song ‘Monte Grappa, you are my homeland…’ pops up in my head every now and then all by itself. The Italian Alpini (the Mountain Corps of the Army) still sing it in their famous choirs. They are also, by the way, stalwart drinkers. Well, the Alpini must have consumed a fair amount of fiery tonic when they were trying to hold the ice-glazed ridges of the mountain against the Austrians during the last year of the Great War. What I am saying is that it is quite possible that a lot of grappa was drunk around treacherous Monte Grappa in 1918, with good reason.
WWI, yes. Well, back then Italy had territorial ambitions as well as historic conflicts with its Austro-Hungarian neighbor to the north and the east. The young country had only managed to wrangle the Italian-speaking regions of Lombardy and Veneto away from the Hapsburg empire in the second half of the 19th century. So in 1915, the kingdom of Italy entered the conflagration that was already underway in hopes of getting more lands, Italian-speaking or not, to add to its size and prestige. It attacked Austria-Hungary (and later declared war on Austria’s allies), thereby opening a front that some historians call the ‘White War’. What was white about it was the snow that soldiers found in the eastern Italian Alps, chiefly the Dolomites, and all the lesser peaks of the foothills where they lived and fought.
Well, the Italians made a little headway into what is now western Slovenia in the first year. But then things stalled until the Austrians and Germans launched a surprise attack, a Blitzkrieg, on their enemy at the village of Caporetto (Kobarid in Slovenian) in 1917. The massive, chaotic retreat of traumatized Italian troops and civilians, as described by Hemingway in his novel, A Farewell to Arms, didn’t stop until west of the Piave River. Just to give you an idea of how far that could be in some spots, the distance between the Piave below Monte Grappa and Caporetto is a whopping 190 km.
The Piave, now officially denominated the ‘sacred’ river of the homeland, comes down from the Dolomites, plowing valleys out of the limestone as it wends its way to the sea. One of those valleys forms the eastern edge of the Grappa massif. Thus the entire mountain, inevitably, whether it wanted to or not, was bound to become a fortress on the new front. From November 1917 to November 1918, soldiers turned a natural rampart of rocks and trees into a fortified one of tunnels and guns.
The mighty polyglot Austro-Hungarian juggernaut eventually surrendered and collapsed. Italy prevailed. But the dead were already dead and it is fitting that the remains of over 20,000 troops from both sides, victors and the vanquished, all soldiers obeying orders, lie in the huge ossuary on the summit of Monte Grappa.
The ossuary is omething you must visit if you happen upon Monte Grappa, even though its monumental aspect is reminiscent of Fascist architecture you see in other parts of the country. It was, in fact, built in the 1930s, during the Fascist ventennio (twenty-year period), and its purpose was not only to commemorate the fallen but also to glorify the homeland. It’s good to remember that Fascism as a movement started in Italy during WWI itself, and manipulated patriotism as well as other postwar issues to create a dictatorship in the 1920s.
But it’s possible to separate the political rhetoric from the pathos you feel when you are up against the testimony of so many lives cut short. I, for example, am always reminded of the fact that my husband’s grandfathers were both conscripted from their villages in southern Italy to go to war in the north when they were barely 18. They had probably never left their respective valleys in Molise, let alone the south, in their entire lives before being shipped off to the northeastern border. They would only have known their local dialect, and must certainly have felt the contrast between the rhythms of an agrarian life spent with family and neighbors in the fields or tending to livestock, and the harsh discipline of the army.
One grandfather only made it out alive by the skin of his teeth, as a matter of fact. Accused of insubordination, he was tied to a fence where enemy snipers could have used him as target practice if they had felt like it. They took pity on him, for some reason, he survived the trial by fire, and went home to start a family when it was all over. He was lucky not to have been one of those brought down by the enemy, disease, or the elements, whether it was to enlarge or defend their country, whose deaths are honored by the monument.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the sombre side of the mountain. There was more violence on Monte Grappa at the end of WWII. In the fall of 1944, the Germans still controlled northern Italy along with the collaborationist Fascist regime of the Repubblica di Salo’ (a town on the western edge of Lake Garda). The Allies were making their way up the peninsula to dislodge the Nazis. The new government in Rome by then had made peace with the Anglo-American forces, but Italians who lived in areas occupied by the Germans risked being conscripted by the Fascists or having to flee. The number of anti-fascist partisans was thus on the rise and the Germans and their Italian cohorts decided to crack down on those hiding out in the folds of Monte Grappa.
Some partisans were killed right then and there, whereas others were taken to nearby Bassano (called Bassano del Grappa after WWI, in homage to the mountain), executed and hanged in public along the main street. It’s hard to imagine such a horror taking place in this pretty town, the gateway to the far north, with its famous geranium-bedecked Palladian bridge stretching over the river Brenta, where tourists taste grappa and buy Alpini souvenirs. But that’s WWII for you.
Monte Grappa is a visible symbol of Italian resistance during wartime. But like all enthralling places, it is also multi-faceted. Nowadays, the truth be told, many people visit the area above all to do some hiking, fill themselves on inexpensive mountain food, throw themselves off a hillside in a hang-glider, or huff and puff their way up one of its ten road ascents on a bicycle.
The secret to Grappa’s popularity among cyclists is probably that incredible number of ascents. The massif is so spread out, has so many ridges and so many routes crisscrossing it that you can go at it from the four cardinal points. Montony is not an issue. Grappa is one of the most versatile mountains I have ever had the chance to become acquainted with. So when last May my husband and I decided that we needed to get into shape as quickly as possible after a winter of hibernating, we knew there was no better way than to go up and down our closest not-so-very-mountain as many times as we could.
The classic route is up the ‘strada Cadorna’ starting in the village of Romano d’Ezzelino, in the valley to the south. Cadorna was a WWI general who built this military access road before the Caporetto disaster, after which he lost his job. The surface is good, it is wide and well engineered, with about 28 switchbacks, and the grade never goes beyond 11%. You find the steepness at the beginning, which is a little discouraging, and some at the end, when you are getting tuckered out. Campo Solagna at 13 k is the last place to buy drinks so make sure you bring water with you. It is, in fact, a longish slog.
Another possibility is the route from Semonzo, a bit to the east of Romano. This road is narrower, but has less traffic and is a breeze for the first 12 k. After Campo Croce, however, the slope changes. It was around then that I started thinking about having babies. I mean, the pain of a actually giving birth to a baby. I know that’s a real stretch, comparing the process of bringing a new life into the world with a grueling, frivolous activity that serves no purpose whatsoever But that is, in fact, what my mind did. I started considering the route from Semonzo, only 19 k to the top (max gradient 14%), and the one from Romano (27 k) and thinking that the shorter ascent was akin to going through labor on a hormone drip as opposed to doing without. Yes, that drip that increases the frequency of the contractions, making the whole experience faster but more excruciating. Romano-Cadorna, instead, was more like totally natural childbirth – long and slow and ultimately, more exhausting. Having completed Semonzo a few times now, I can vote for it. It is direct, has some beautiful forested stretches, a few tunnels, and gets you to where you are going fairly quickly. If your heart can put up with it, you will feel refreshed when it’s all over and still want to go to a mountain diary, a malga, and eat fried cheese and drink wine. There, I’m for the drip.
As far as the Caupo option is concerned, all I can say is that it is long yet delightful (28 k, max. gradient 12%). Shadier and narrower than the Romano road, with a view of truly tall mountains to the north, it only has short steep sections, interspersed with some downhill stretches. We did it right ahead of the Giro d’Italia in 2017 and so had a crowd of spectators lining the route, offering us beer and encouragement and comments about who was faster, my husband or me. People seem to be intensely interested in whether a woman can overtake a man around here. There is a whole story there, for another time. Anyway, that was a wonderful experience, especially when I was cheered like a champion because I happened to cross the finish line of the climb by myself, just before the professionals arrived. My husband had got ahead of me right about then and I was all alone and somehow, in my tipsy, disheveled state, a star.
Seren del Grappa, (25 K, max. gradient 20%) however, which also starts from the north, is a different kettle of fish. The advantage is that there is very little traffic indeed, it having barely more than one lane in some spots. It has too few switchbacks, and some awful ramps that go straight up and are too narrow to allow you to ‘paperboy’ them from one side to the other. The scree on the road made my bicycle slide and I was worried about getting a puncture in my tire or my leg. A man I crossed paths with who looked as if he’d participated in Ironman multiple times told me when we met again on top at the capacious Rifugio Bassano (good food and basic lodging, part of the Alpine hut network) that Seren was the second-most difficult route of them all. Hmm, I said. Well, it’s the last time I’m ever doing that. Until next year, right? was his answer. I guess that’s the spirit. I’ve only completed four out of the ten climbs so far, but what’s to stop me from trying the others? Nothing. It can’t be any worse than childbirth, after all.
So I think I can hum ‘Monte Grappa, sei la mia patria’ to myself as I crawl up one of its byways and give my own meaning to its words. I’m just hooked on the place, as you can see.
Romano d’Ezzelino is 88 k from the city of Venice and 88 k from Trento.
Rifugio Bassano: Via Madonna Del Covolo, 161, 31017 Crespano del Grappa (located just below the summit of Monte Grappa)
Brevetto del Grappa: You can buy this informative ‘license’ attesting to your endurance and prowess at bars and restaurants located at the start of each climb. You get a stamp at the bottom and one at the top and are expected to complete all ten in one year…